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An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan

4.05  ·  Rating Details ·  1,385 Ratings  ·  93 Reviews
Part historical evocation, part travelogue, and part personal quest, An Unexpected Light is the account of Elliot's journey through Afghanistan, a country considered off-limits to travelers for twenty years. Aware of the risks involved, but determined to explore what he could of the Afghan people and culture, Elliot leaves the relative security of Kabul. He travels by foot ...more
Paperback, 496 pages
Published November 17th 2001 by Picador (first published 1999)
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Apr 18, 2009 Maureen rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: everyone
Shelves: afghanistan
This is a beautifully written, detailed account of the time Jason Elliot spent in Afghanistan. Between the first and second trips, the Mujaheddin won the battle against the Soviets, and thngs went from bad to worse. Only someone with his talents and connections could have safely made this trip. With his mother's facility for languages and his father's connections to the Afghan Muslim community, he had a head start. I met Jason shortly after his first trip to Afghanistan, and he was full of stori ...more
Apr 01, 2007 Lorraine rated it it was amazing
Shelves: list-2002
This book is what started my fascination with the middle east, especially Afghanistan. It is a panoramic view, well-written and searching,. As a male, Elliot had the freedom to travel freely, which women in that culture would be denied, so we see from a different perspective. He finds himself in real danger at time, has more reflective moments, tells and receives stories, finds comrades along the way. His travels are as much personal quest as historical research and this adds extra depth and ric ...more
I never felt that Jason Elliot's An Unexpected Light lived up to its glowing reviews by authors whom I love (e.g. William Dalrymple). For one thing, for a book that's a hybrid memoir-travelogue, Elliot never really explained why he was so fascinated by Afghanistan in the first place that he went to fight in the war against in the Russians. He was nineteen years old the first time he visited Afghanistan, but ... fighting in someone else's war (and nearly dying) certainly requires some sort of exp ...more
Jan 04, 2015 Radiah rated it it was amazing
Shelves: travel, favorites
It was almost with a heavy heart that I finished the last chapter in Jason Elliot’s “An Unexpected Light”. This is one of few books I’ve read where I truly felt like the author’s travelling companion. Mr. Elliot is certainly gifted. He weaves together the sights and sounds of Afghanistan together with history, both ancient and recent, and encounters with the fiercely independent people.

Afghanistan has long been a fascination for me having always been portrayed in the news as a violent locale, su
Apr 07, 2012 Ron rated it it was amazing
This book is a gem. The author's prose style is elegantly suited to his subject matter, capturing the wonderful complexities and nuances of Afghanistan's breathtaking physical terrain and its people, whether in urban Kabul, its remote regional centers, or its far-flung mountain villages, and all in the aftermath of the disastrous Russian occupation. Meanwhile, it is the 1990s, and civil warfare continues as the Kabul government resists the increasing military pressure from Taliban forces.

The jou
Joseph Gendron
Nov 01, 2014 Joseph Gendron rated it it was amazing
Wow. What a surprise this book was. Jason Elliot is quite a writer and this book is full of wonder, adventure and humanity. It has much to share on the history and culture of an area of the world that is America's current quagmire. Jason traveled alone and his remarkable adventures were a balm for this currently office and duty bound traveler. The title of the book speaks directly to the spirit of the people of Afganistan he experienced. He writes "Alone again and writing up the days events by c ...more
Jul 25, 2015 Chloe rated it really liked it
A fascinating look at a war-torn country during one of the few years of peace that Afghanistan has had in the past 30+ years. Elliot shows the true soul of Afghanistan, not the repressive fundamentalist boogieman of most American's nightmares, but a loving and caring people with a fierce determination to survive against the worst odds. One of my favorite works of travel literature.
Jun 04, 2007 Helen rated it it was amazing
astounding. After reading Rory Stewart's book about walking across Afghanistan I read this one and preferred it. Beautiful sketches of the mujahideen, Sufism, traveling, the aid community, the war, etc.
Sphinx Feathers
Oct 10, 2014 Sphinx Feathers rated it it was amazing
Shelves: travel, geography, culture
This is one of my favorite travel books because not only is it well-written and filled with a quiet beauty, but it's filled with facts. I love a writer who can express himself and present himself in an intelligent manor. This is another book which I end up giving away often.
Oct 10, 2012 Paul rated it it was amazing
A lyrical and poetic travel book. It is beautifully written and you understand how he immersed himself in the country
Oct 26, 2008 Naeem rated it it was amazing
On page 471, Elliot reveals his personal challenge: how to be still in the face of experience so that the task of keen observation is funneled neither towards a previously used emotion, nor directed towards an abstracted intellectual exercise. His goal is to "fashion some intermediary vessel in which to bear the raw impressions of life..."so that he can experience "a sort of stretching, a deepening of one's ability to stand up to life and absorb it as it happens."

Elliot thereby himself gives us
Harry Hunter
Jun 19, 2011 Harry Hunter rated it really liked it
Although it took a while to adjust to the slow pace Elliot’s narrative is gripping and vividly brings the people and places he meets and visits to life. His description of the heart pounding truck journey in the north-east was particularly gripping, with the imagery of the precarious route far above the white torrents in the valley below staying with me long after I’d put the book down. However I have skipped through several of Elliot’s essay like asides (the section on the roots of Dervish beli ...more
Aug 26, 2015 Jim rated it it was amazing
This is a remarkable travel book. It was written in 1999, as the Taliban was attempting to extend its control over Afghanistan, still not in control of Kabul, but in power in the south of the country and battling for control of the territory around Herat. One has to marvel at the courage and audacity of the author, who travels to Kabul, throughout the north of the country and to Herat, most of the time on his own. He relies on the goodwill of the Afghans, with whom he is, obviously, particularly ...more
Oct 30, 2010 Patty rated it it was ok
Well-written travel book set in war-torn Afghanistan about two decades ago. I found myself distracted by my awareness of what would come next, or for us, what is happening there now. Yet in some ways, it's too recent to be called a "historical" travel book. One of those books I will have to read again someday to appreciate further, I guess. Though it is amazing the pieces of earth that have been fought over for centuries with little resolution, and the fortitude of those who try to make a life i ...more
Andrea Homier
May 17, 2009 Andrea Homier rated it really liked it
This is a long book and the pace is by foot -- not jet, so it's a slow read. If you adjust to the pace (I read it recovering from surgery), it's a great read with good writing, adventure, history, and personal growth and philosophy. Much more than I expected and a treasure.
Dec 19, 2016 Grete rated it liked it
As a wielder of prose, Elliot is a pleasant surprise--not because I expected less, but because I expected nothing at all having never heard of him before. His descriptions are something to aspire to, and as an example of creative nonfiction this book is top notch.

Content wise, I was constantly aware that this book was written from an almost inherently colonialist perspective. Elliot does not seem disrespectful--quite the opposite--but there's no escaping that the book is more about a white Europ
Jerry Jessee
Jan 01, 2017 Jerry Jessee rated it it was amazing
This is a really deep and meditative look at Afghanistan during the civil war (just prior to 9-11). It's not so much a travelogue as a reflection on the author's experiences and attempts to understand the diversity and culture of Afghanistan. I found Elliot's writing to be superb, clear-eyed, and thoughtful. There are a couple sluggish moments in the narrative, but overall this was a great read that offers an insightful view of the landscape, history, and culture of Afghanistan.
Dec 22, 2016 Shanshan rated it liked it
It's getting more interesting near the end, and it'd been nicer to read in one go.
This is what I wrote when I was about a quarter into it:
An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliot. It was published in 1999 when the Taliban was first coming into power. It is interesting, although it is sort of the hunky-dory version of his trip across Afghanistan by foot, horse, truck. He has a guide for some of it but mostly he is an Englishman with rudimentary Persian (at least in the beginning) traveling on his own and getting by on his wits and his trust in fate. It is in
Emilie Greenhalgh
Nov 18, 2013 Emilie Greenhalgh rated it really liked it

This book had some outstanding moments that I eagerly read and sections that I practically skipped. That being said, it has something for everyone as it combines well-researched historical explanations with personal, reflective anecdotes, musings on religion and culture, and vivid descriptions of the Afghan countryside. The latter I often felt bordered on too much (I tend to prefer a starker Hemingway description...get to the point!) and I sometimes wondered how many metaphors could be on one p
Jun 24, 2012 Nancy rated it really liked it
Shelves: afghanistan
I loved this book because I spent time in Afghanistan in 1973. Jason Elliot was born in 1975 and spent time in Afghanistan in 1994 when he was 19 and 2004 when he was 29. I was 18 when I was in Afghanistan. I was there the year before the King was deposed and the political climate totally changed.

What I loved about this book is the fact that by reading Jason Elliot's take so many years later, I realize and appreciate the fact that I really got Afghanistan as an 18 year old. So much of what he se
Feb 18, 2013 Sarah rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: N.
I remember from a delirium of fatigue collapsing against a rocky mound that turned out to be a camel, and an old man bringing me tea and pressing fragments of bread from his hand into mine with a muttered blessing.

Personally, I can't even figure out how to get to the Pacific Northwest. Maybe not even to nearest state. And with no real interest in world travel, I have no idea why I picked this up. Sure, it has that distasteful stink of an Englishman in the East and some truly awful metaphors, but
Theresa Leone Davidson
This started out great because I was very interested in reading about Afghanistan, especially the Afghanistan that existed before the war we are currently fighting there. The people and how Elliot describes them is the best part - he has a genuine affection and admiration for the Afghan people and backs it up with stories of their kindness. Ultimately, however, the book is bogged down by the author's less than riveting account of every single thing he did while he was there, and it becomes tedio ...more
May 06, 2012 Christopher rated it liked it
I came to this book via "The Places in Between" by Rory Stewart and "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush" by Eric Newby.

Both of the above earned a five star rating, as they were excellent in every way.

Whilst Mr Elliot's writing is very good, it is too self indulgent to be considered as the best example in the field.

Nevertheless, the story is a fascinating one - from fighting against the Russians with the mujahaddin to meeting the Taleban as they were taking Afghanistan.

His travels are certainly worth
Coyner Kelley
Mar 07, 2012 Coyner Kelley rated it it was amazing
Shelves: travel-books
I first read this in 2001. Politics and Prose compiled a list of reading on Iraq and Afghanistan and I dug in. I needed to catch up on reading about the Middle East and had no grounding at all in the history, geography, or politics .... of Afghanistan. I read it at a time when I was acutely aware of the light in an unfamiliar. I had moved South of the Equator and was struck but spring light in November and autumnal light in March. I reread this again in 2011 after reading a couple of memoirs of ...more
Julie P
Jul 30, 2015 Julie P rated it liked it
While the prose was very readable and he was clearly well versed in the history of Afghanistan, I couldn't escape my loathing for the author's sheer sense of entitlement. It clouded my ability to appreciate the book. What well-heeled foreigner goes to a country expecting people suffering from the impacts of endless war to feed and house him? With no plan whatsoever, relying on strangers without a thought to how serious their daily struggle is and what an inconvenience and security risk he is? Ma ...more
May 15, 2013 Amanda rated it really liked it
There's a lot here, and it's kind of a haul to get through: he jumps back and forth between his experiences at the time, his past experiences, history, stories...his knowledge of Afghanistan's history and culture is tremendous, and this book gives you a taste of that.

There's also something really deeply sad about reading this book - published in 1999 - with the knowledge of what has happened to, and in, Afghanistan since then. He ends the novel on this sort-of hopeful note - things have been bad
Mar 05, 2013 Marla rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Stunning. I loved every word. To say that this is a travelogue of a man who made several trips to Afghanistan from the 70's to just prior to the Taliban occupation of Kabul, would be a mistake. It's a story about the Afghanistan people; about their incredible hospitality and resilient spirit. I saw every line on every old man's face, heard the call to prayer, smelled every kebab he ate and froze my butt off in the mountains. It's as close to Afghanistan as any of us is going to get anytime soon. ...more
Sharm Alagaratnam
Dec 20, 2008 Sharm Alagaratnam rated it really liked it
Despite the runaway success of Khaled Hosseini's books, Afghanistan seems to be a difficult country to get to know. Jason Elliot gave me a rare glimpse into the country last year with his book, 'An Unexpected Light'. He travelled there twice, recently and once in the early 80's (to fight with the mujahidin!). His description of Afghans he got to know and met are loving testimony to a people who have seen so much in a very short time (and continue to). His prose describing the landscapes were a l ...more
Jul 23, 2009 Elena rated it it was amazing
Shelves: travel, favorites
Another of my favorite travel books. Elliot has an incredible gift with bringing the reader into the journey. I sometimes felt I was eating from the same shared bowl at a roadside food stand in the middle of some of the remotest parts of Afghanistan. Elliot's love and appreciation for the people and culture of Afghanistan also makes this book stand out. He introduced me to the people of Afghanistan in the most genuine and unexpected way.
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