Every leaf of the tree becomes a page of the Book
Once the heart is opened and it has learnt to read
— Saadi of Shiraz
In September of 2008, a woman with piercing green eyes named Nasreen Baig embarked on an arduous journey from her home in the tiny Pakistani village of Zuudkhan south along the Indus River and down the precipitous Karakoram Highway to the bustling city of Rawalpindi. The three-day trip—first on foot, then on horseback, and later by jeep and bus—took Nasreen, her husband, and their three small children from the sparsely populated Charpurson Valley, in the extreme northern part of Pakistan, directly into the heart of the Punjab, home to more than eighty-five million people. With the exception of a few farming tools, most of their worldly possessions, including a Koran, were crammed into a black suitcase that was cinched together with baling twine. They also carried a bulging burlap sack whose contents—every stitch of spare clothing they weren't wearing on their backs—were as jumbled and mixed up as the pieces of Nasreen's own story.
In 1984, at the age of five, Nasreen started attending one of the first coeducational schools to open up in the north of Pakistan, a region where women were traditionally denied the opportunity to learn reading and writing. Excelling at her classes, she distinguished herself as one of the smartest students in the school until 1992, when her mother unexpectedly died of pneumonia and Nasreen was forced to abandon her studies in order to care for her blind father, Sultan Mehmood, and her four siblings. Eventually her father remarried, and Nasreen's new stepmother, a woman who believed that girls had no business pursuing education, would taunt Nasreen late at night when she tried to continue her studies by the light of a kerosene lantern. "Women should work instead of reading books," her stepmother would rail. "Books will poison your mind and you will become a worthless wife and mother!"
Nasreen didn't see it that way. During her school years, she had acquired a rather bold dream for someone with resources as limited as hers: She had resolved that one day she would become a maternal health-care provider—a profession she had first been exposed to when roving government health-care teams would make their annual rounds through the local villages. She vividly remembers the joy with which she anticipated immunization shots, just so she could interact with the workers in their white cloaks. "My favorite smell was the antiseptic they would use," she says. "Also, I envied how they would write down all the babies' names, heights and weights, and immunization details in tidy rows in a spiral notebook."
Fueled by her dream, Nasreen studied relentlessly, despite her stepmother's harassment. "After tending to my brothers and sisters and doing all the household work," she recalls, "I would wait till everyone was asleep, and then late at night I would read." She persisted in this manner until 1995 when, at the age of fifteen, she received her metric diploma—the equivalent of a high school degree—becoming one of the first of a handful of women from northern Pakistan's Hunza region ever to do so. As the brightest student and one of the first female graduates for miles around, she was now poised to make good on her ambition.
In 1999, Nasreen was offered an annual scholarship of $1,200 by our nonprofit Central Asia Institute, a stipend that would pay her tuition, room, and board for a two-year course of study and enable her to obtain her rural medical assistant degree. With these qualifications, Nasreen could then carry her skills north over a treacherous 16,335-foot pass into the Wakhan Corridor—a remote portion of Afghanistan just a few miles north of Zuudkhan where Nasreen's ancestors originally came from and where more women die each year during childbirth than anywhere else on earth.
By this point, however, Nasreen had been betrothed to a handsome but lazy young man from a nearby village, and her mother-in-law, Bibi Nissa, feared that Nasreen's scholarship would rob her household of the new daughter-in-law's labor. Even though there were no other qualified girls in the Charpurson Valley to replace Nasreen as a scholarship candidate, Zuudkhan's tanzeem—the council of elders who decide all matters of local importance—upheld Bibi Nissa's objections and forbade Nasreen from accepting her stipend, thereby consigning her to a life of near slavery that remains the destiny of so many promising young women in the remote villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
During the ten years that followed this decision, Nasreen toiled twelve-to sixteen-hour days tending goats and sheep in the mountains, tilling her family's potato fields, hauling water in metal jerricans, and gathering up eighty-pound bags of firewood and moist patties of yak dung—Zuudkhan's two primary sources of heating fuel during the six-month-long winters. During this time she also gave birth to three babies and suffered two miscarriages, all without the attendance of a maternal health-care worker.
Despite the drudgery and the frustration, Nasreen patiently waited out her decade of servitude. What's more, during her brief moments of respite, she kept her health-care dream alive by seeking out and caring for the sick, the elderly, and the dying within her community. "The lamp in my life refused to be snuffed out," she says. "God never let the kerosene of hope run dry."
Then, in the summer of 2007, the leadership of Zuudkhan's tanzeem changed and the elders decided to set aside their opposition. Nasreen spent a year in the town of Gilgit attending a preparatory school to build back her academic skills after the long hiatus. Finally, in the summer of 2008, with her scholarship in hand, Nasreen was free to travel to Rawalpindi to resume her studies.
Today, Nasreen is a year away from completing her medical training program, but she has decided to continue with her schooling in order to complete a full OB-GYN nursing degree. Sometime in 2012, she hopes to move her family to the Wakhan and begin providing the kind of medical care that this region, one of the most isolated and forbidding places on earth, so desperately needs. As for her "lost years," Nasreen harbors no bitterness whatsoever, mainly because she is convinced that her experiences imparted some essential insights.
"Allah taught me the lesson of patience while also giving me the tools to truly understand what it means to live in poverty," she says. "I do not regret the wait."
During the exact same time that Nasreen and her family were making their way down the Karakoram Highway toward Rawalpindi, I was paying a visit of my own to a small town in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. This was no different from any of the other 120-odd trips I make each year to cities across the United States and abroad in order to promote educational opportunities for women like Nasreen throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan. By the rather warped standards of my own schedule, September 18, 2008, was a fairly ordinary day. During the preceding week, I had given seventeen speeches at schools, churches, and libraries in nine other cities; and at three o'clock the following morning, I was slated to board a private plane that would take me from Durango to my next appearance, a children's peace rally in Rockford, Illinois. This would be followed by another eighteen lectures in eight more cities before returning to Pakistan on October 6. Somewhere in the middle of this, I was also hoping desperately for a one-day reprieve with my family. In many other respects, however, September 18 was anything but ordinary. The previous weekend the federal government had permitted the investment firm Lehman Brothers to go bankrupt before attempting an $85 billion-dollar rescue of the insurance giant AIG. By the time the stock market had closed that afternoon, the Dow Jones was in free fall and the entire U.S. financial system seemed to be hovering on the brink of collapse.
In short, I could not possibly have selected a worse time to stand in front of a group of Americans and ask them to pull out their checkbooks. Fortunately, perhaps, my schedule allowed no time to contemplate the absurdity of this. It was a few minutes before 7:00 p.m. when, having already completed six back-to-back lectures, I dashed across the campus of Fort Lewis College to the gym, where more than four thousand people—almost a third of the town—had formed an impossibly long line. The fire marshal would eventually be forced to bar the door and prevent the final three hundred of these folks from entering the building. (Someone later told me that Durango hadn't seen a crowd this size since Willie Nelson last came to town.) Although the talks I give in these kinds of settings tend to vary according to the composition of my audience, I always begin with the same words: As-Salaam Alaaikum—the Islamic invocation that means "May peace be upon you." And regardless of where I wind up steering the discussion, the heart of my presentation always includes the story of a promise.
This story begins in Pakistan in 1993, the year I attempted to climb K2, the world's second-highest mountain, only to be forced to turn back two thousand feet shy of the summit. After making my way back to K2 base camp, I then got lost while trekking down the thirty-nine-mile Baltoro Glacier and wound up staggering into a little village called Korphe (pronounced "KOR-fay"), a place so destitute that one in every three children perished before the age of one. It was in Korphe that I was provided with shelter, food, tea, and a bed. And it was in Korphe one afternoon during my recupe...