Review

Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan

by Greg Mortenson

Anyone who looks carefully at a map of Afghanistan must wonder
about that long narrow sliver of land that sticks out like a
pointing finger from the country’s eastern edge. What purpose
can such a strange, seemingly absurd boundary serve? This is the
Wakhan Corridor, home to a varied assortment of wandering nomadic
peoples, farmers and villagers who are hemmed in on all sides by
some of the world’s most forbidding mountain ranges: the
Pamir, the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram. There is no industry there
or any roads in its eastern third.

The corridor was originally created as a geopolitical artifice
so that Russia and China would not have a common border in that
part of the world. Yet this primitive wilderness is a main theater
of operations for Greg Mortenson and his brainchild, the Central
Asia Institute, whose mission is to bring education to this area by
building schoolhouses. All residents are welcome, but the main
thrust is the education of women, which Mortenson sees as the best
means of rescuing the area from destitution and eventually
defeating the Taliban, to whom the idea of educating women is, of
course, anathema.

The Wakhan is central to Mortenson’s story because it took
him a full decade to fulfill a promise he made to a delegation from
a small village at the extreme end of the corridor. They sought him
out in Pakistan and asked him to build them a school. He agreed,
knowing full well that nothing in war-torn, politically unstable
and largely primitive Afghanistan is simple. The book ends with the
construction of that school in the village of Bozai Gumbaz, and you
can almost hear the cheers and trumpet fanfares sounding from
inside the book’s final pages.

Mortenson’s story, however, ranges well beyond the Wakhan,
embracing many other towns and provinces in both Afghanistan and
Pakistan. He outmaneuvers insensitive government bureaucrats in
Kabul, uncooperative family members who actually do not want their
daughters educated, murderous Taliban goon squads, a horrendous
earthquake, snows that render whole regions isolated for months,
shipping delays, financial constraints, his own bouts of
exhaustion, and all sorts of other impediments. But the schools get
built --- 131 of them --- and all without a dime of U.S. government
funding.

This region where Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China and
Tajikistan collide in a sort of geographical, ethnic and religious
stew will be as unfamiliar to most American readers as the
landscape of Uranus. Fortunately, the book includes excellent maps
and a kind of cast listing up front, plus a useful glossary at the
back to help one keep nations, languages, religions and peoples
sorted out. Mortenson gives due credit to his on-scene staffers and
brings them engagingly to life --- notably his chief lieutenant,
Sarfraz Khan, a Pakistani who seems to be everywhere at once,
performing miracles of organization and logistics. Mortenson admits
that he himself had to spend long periods back in the U.S. making
book-tour appearances, raising money and shuffling papers. You get
the impression that those grueling lecture tours were more of a
trial for him than anything he did in the Asian mountains.

In THREE CUPS OF TEA, Mortenson had dismissed the U.S. military
as unsympathetic and obstructive, but in this book he completely
reverses himself, lavishing praise on uniformed officers, many of
whom had made his earlier title required reading for their troops.
He taught them his main lesson: listen to the local people, get to
know them, find out what they want, and build up trust with them;
do not simply march in and start issuing orders that do not take
their lives into account. It is a lesson that military minds very
often ignore, but to their credit they seem to have listened to
this quiet and unassuming fellow from Montana.

STONES INTO SCHOOLS is an unashamed promotional tract for the
Central Asia Institute. It comes fully equipped with talking
points, suggestions for promoting the book, website listings,
e-mail addresses, and even telephone numbers and postal mail
addresses. Ordinarily, this kind of baggage might seem tacky, but
Mortenson’s cause is so obviously right and his pursuit of it
so well organized that those objections seen churlish. This man has
accomplished something splendid and desperately important.

Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 23, 2011

Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan
by Greg Mortenson

  • Publication Date: December 1, 2009
  • Genres: Current Events, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0670021156
  • ISBN-13: 9780670021154