Weaving different Afghan times and visits with revealing insights on matters ranging from antipersonnel mines to Sufism, Elliot has created a narrative mosaic of startling prose that captures perfectly the powerful allure of a seldom-glimpsed world.
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 stories of sitting around mountain caves, watching rebel fighters clean their Kalishnikovs. This book is highly recommended both as a travel adventure story, and as an introduction to the people of this devastated country.
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 richness to his writing. He has a new book out, and I'm looking forward to reading his next adventure!
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, surrounded by countries equally as violent, constantly fighting some war or another; controversial and seemingly brutal. Mr. Elliot has allowed me to glimpse the true Afghanistan with what I consider an epic journey through a country with no less than 20 different ethnicities, numerous spoken languages and different cultures and customs.
The writer has been able to present Afghanistan in a light rarely seen in modern media, all in graceful prose, peppered with humour and honesty. What surprised me most was the seeming poetry of the Afghans. They are generous people, witty and humorous. And yet, they convey their pride to be Afghan with such beautiful simplicity that I found myself smiling at times when I come across conversations between the writer and a local. They are a fascinating mix of fierce and peaceful peoples, with ancient memories and a traditional outlook, and I applaud Mr. Elliot for meeting the Afghans none of us see in the news; a simple people with unpretentious hopes.
In the first part of the book, Mr. Elliot is involved with a band of Mujahideen fighters, enduring mortar shells, dodging bullets, treading minefields, and enjoying cups of tea and bread with them. It’s a particularly fascinating look at the lives of the fighters in their struggle to repel the Soviets across their rugged and beautiful land. Laughing in the face of danger, weeping at the loss of one of their own, yet willing to take up arms again and again should the need arise for them to do so, the story of the Mujahideen is one that needed to be told by people who experienced that war with them.
10 years later, he returns to Afghanistan, at the time the Russians had been booted out and the Taleban was rising. He makes long journeys with such wonderfully vivid Afghan characters, stopping in remote villages and spends time in the cities with other foreigners. Mr. Elliot managed to make me feel as if I was there by his side, standing his ground as bombs exploded not a few hundred meters from where he stood, sharing tea and food with fellow travelers, crowding around a fire, reveling in the generosity of strangers who invite him to stay in their homes as an honoured guest, being turned away from fellow foreigners; meeting the many faces of Afghanistan. The type of Islam practiced by regular Afghans was just like it was practiced in most places in the world; moderate. I admire how Mr. Elliot managed to convey the difference between what was political and oppressive as opposed to Islam as it is practiced, reflected in the true nature of the Afghans.
I feel privileged to have been allowed a glimpse of their resilience and love of life. If you read only one book on Afghanistan, make this the one. It is everything a travel book should be, a truly marvelous experience for the reader.
This book was, by turns, fascinating and maddening.
THE FASCINATING In this book the author records a visit to Kabul in the mid 90s shortly before the first Taleban government. One chapter also records a trip made fifteen years or so earlier, in the early 80s when he was 19, to live among the mujaheddin fighting Soviet occupiers. In following his adventures around the country and listening to its people, I got more of an idea than ever before of the awe-inspiring geography, the depth of history, and the absolute tragedy of this unique country, which was so brutally ravaged by the Russians and thanks to additional Western meddling has never been able to rebuild its society or stability since. Reading this book after nearly a year of Russia's war on Ukraine was a weird feeling, as though past and present were getting all muddled up together: the daily headlines I've been reading all year could almost have been written twenty years ago about Afghanistan.
Elliott says several times throughout the book that he wants his readers to look past stereotypical ideas they may have about Afghanistan as a country bristling with gun-toting extremists: he depicts ordinary Afghan men (he has neither the opportunity nor the curiosity to depict Afghan women) with love as warmly hospitable, shrewd and hardy people who surely deserve much better. As a snapshot of a people and a country at a particular moment in time, the book could have been fantastic.
A snapshot, yes. But one of a peculiar genre. This book isn't a photojournalistic portrait.
It's a selfie.
THE MADDENING I kept wishing that Jason Elliott would just get out of the way of this book. At first it's because the book starts in a flurry of the sort of faux-literary lyricism that pretends to be profound but is only tedious and incoherent. This made the first few chapters a real slog. Things pick up a little after that but the author is still prone to prolonged bouts of navel-gazing throughout. I picked up this book to read about Afghanistan, not about a mediocre Englishman with a fat head. There's a point in this book where the muhajeddin leader the 19yo Elliott is presently lobbing upon succumbs to the teenager's pleas to go on a mission, and duly sends him off with a squad of babysitters to pick apples in an orchard. There's another where some other intolerably privileged aid worker invites the author on mountain climbing trip because, he says proudly, Afghanistan is the only place left on earth where you can risk your neck on a mountain without having to go through any bureaucratic red tape first. It's hard not to wonder to what extent such privileged westerners see Afghanistan as being a nation trying desperately to build peace and prosperity, when so often they treat it like a theme park where they can indulge themselves in a little adventure at no cost except to the hospitality of the obliging inhabitants, and be back in time for tea.
Even more offputting is the way Elliott writes about women. Probably the worst moment comes when he sympathetically records a friend's plaintive complaint ("some people take themselves too seriously") after having been slapped by a Dutch journalist for drunkenly grabbing at the front of her dress. Nothing else in the book is much better. Rare interactions with Afghan servant women are pitched as seductions, and at one point the author records his comical outrage upon discovering that the pair of Indonesian girls he attempts to impress with talks of his own courageous exploits at an embassy party are not clinging, cooing oriental lotus flowers but outspoken American-educated women who are immediately bored by him and make enthusiastic sounds only long enough to beat a hurried retreat.
The author saves his most scathing contempt for the Christian missionaries who two or three times take him in and care for him when nobody else will, and even have the temerity to try to pray for him or read the Bible with him. He wishes to sleep with their Afghan housekeeper. There is no particular indication that the Afghan housekeeper returns this sentiment; yet it is only the likely disapproval of his hosts that dampens Elliott's ardour. He then whines for several pages about how religion ruins everything and compares his slightly cringey hosts, who run medical clinics, with the Taleban who at the time were ejecting women from schools and demanding they not leave their homes. I wish I was kidding.
The bits of this book that aren't the author being a fathead are genuinely valuable, but as you can see, their utility was compromised for me by my overwhelming desire to kick the author in the shins.
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 explanation, in my opinion, and the lack of it soured me on the narrator from the very beginning.
Moreover, I felt that Elliot romanticized the simple and tradition-bound life that he observes is led by most Afghans. Interestingly, of course, those very traditions ensured that he was only able to talk to men; I'd like to know whether Afghan women at the time (the book is set in 1993-1994 just before the Taliban took over power) were as enamored of tradition as the men who controlled their every move were. It's also telling to me that Elliot never seems to see the irony between his celebration of Afghans as being in love with their freedom and the conspicuous lack of freedom that the female proportion of the population (at least in rural and small-town Afghanistan) is forced to endure. Maybe the ladies were all happy to wear their burqahs and live under the control of their male relatives, but of course, we (and the author) would never know, because it was totally impossible for him to talk with them freely!
I also found Elliot's constant negative comparisons between "effete" Westerners and the long-suffering Afghans a little annoying - I get it! Americans are soft and whiny; Afghans are hard and noble and awesome. (Oh, the French are slimy and treacherous and the Swiss are cold and bureaucratic - the only foreigners who come off as remotely OK, even though they can't, of course, compare to the noble Afghans either, are Elliot's fellow Brits.)
However, I did enjoy Elliot's description of the landscape of Afghanistan (he makes it sound astonishingly beautiful) and discussions of history. I sort of wish he'd stuck to those a bit more. I can't help but compare this book to Rory Stewart's more recent (ca. 2002) The Places in Between, which I enjoyed far, far more and which never made me think the author was a royal pain!
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.
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 the measure by which to assess his book. For me, as much as I marveled at his attention to detail, his willingness to describe landscape, the shapes of peoples faces, the things and human wares that make up a life, and as much as I so often felt his prose to convey an exact impression, nevertheless, I also felt that I needed him to be still, or rather, more still. By calling attention to them, his words too often get in the way of my reading experience and perhaps of his own desires.
But Elliot's inability to reach his goal did not detract me from admiring the depth of his ambition. And there are many, many passages whose elegant beauty seems as simply perfect as Afghanistan's topography, culture, and people. There is no question that his knowledge and love of Afghanistan is great even as he regrets the limits of his understanding.
For my needs this book answers a few questions that have long been my companions. First, for those trained in the hubris of modernity: what kind of attitude, risk, and posture is necessary in order to find something of value in Afghanistan? Every page of this book is a tribute to a people and a place whose relative value -- to those who calculate life's worth in terms of utility instead of grace -- is usually considered zero. For his re-evaluation of Afghanistan alone Elliot deserves a hug strong enough to lift him off his feet.
Second, as I read the countless times and ways in which Elliot risks his life, I wondered. I wondered about his sanity but also about whether he might have uncovered a way of being a warrior. Warriors, I have read, for example, in the soviet accounts of their experience in Afghanistan (see Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War) as well as in works inspired by the philosopher Hegel, are attracted to the spectacle of war. Their deepest motivations are grounded in the need to risk their lives for a perceived ethical cause. Star Trek's Klingons capture this spirit exactly. As long as there is honor in risking one's life for such causes, there will be warriors. And war. So argues Hegel.
In Elliot's account the warrior's motivations are transposed, internally one might say, so that risking one's life ennobles and enables the lives of others. He risks his life to find the value of others, not to de-humanize and then deprive them.
Elliot might be surprised by how his writing triggered my thoughts on warriors. I hope he might be intrigued and satisfied by my extension. He might think that the willingness to be still and observe the beauty and significance of particular moments in life is exactly what allows his readers to find their own resonance in his account. Through him, I find "a sort of stretching, a deepening" of my ability. For that, I offer him another hug and a cup of hot sweet chai.
Finally, I must say what a sadness it was for me to approach the book's last few pages. I feel a loss for his company and guidance.
We must live in interesting times if a book by an Afghan is crashing failure (The Kite Runner), whereas one written by the product of a former occupying empire, seems so redemptive.
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 journey taken by the author across this war-torn landscape is also a kind of pilgrimage, taking him to places he has long yearned to see with his own eyes, after years of reading about them in books. Thus informed, his accounts of his travels are filled with more than two millenia of history, dating back to Alexander and beyond. While the West may be familiar with the destruction of the giant Buddhas of Banyam, one is unprepared for the extent of the devastation wreaked by decades of warfare, and while the book is testimony to the dauntless and tenacious spirit of the Afghans, like the author on the final page, one weeps for what has been lost.
All of which is not to say that as a personal travelogue it's not also immensely entertaining. The author's fearlessness is often balanced against white-knuckled terror, and traveling in winter, at high elevations, he is often freezing cold. There are moments of delighted relief and also humor, particularly as he encounters fellow westerners, whose reason for being in Afghanistan is often at odds with his own. This is a deeply enjoyable and informative book. While it is vividly visual, you can also read it while googling for images of the places it describes for an even fuller effect. Easily some of the most articulate and intensely felt travel writing I've ever read. Highly recommended.
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 candlelight, I was visited by the stream of smiling faces I had encountered during the day - of begging children and shopkeepers and even the miserable looking soldiers I had thought so sinister at first - and felt ashamed of the comforts by which my experience of the place was softened. It was not simply the degree and extent of the suffering of ordinary people that roused such feeling, but the strange symmetry with which they were equipped to bear it, without lapsing, despite their intimacy with despair, into cynicism. They still smiled." 'Khoda mehreban ast!' (God's good to us!)
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.
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.
If one wants to get back before 9/11, and dispel myths that many Americans had even then, let alone after Sept. 11, about many Afghans, this is a very good starting place. Elliot notes that most of them despised the Taliban but also lived in fear as they expanded their territory.
Elliot also does a good job of describing the mishmash of ethnicities and ancient empire remnants that complicate Afghanistan's history to this day. In fact, reading between the lines, one can tell that all of Afghanistan, before the past century, has never really been united except as part of a larger political entity. At all other times, it's been divided as parts of several entities.
Not making that more explicit is one reason this book doesn't have a fifth star. A paucity of maps is a second. Per a reviewer, the sometimes overwrought style, plus a story lacuna — we never hear how Elliot gets from Mazar back to Kabul — leaves it short.
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 beliefs in particular comes to mind) which I found to jar the flow of the narrative rather than add to it (other sections such as the discussion of Herat’s cultural significance were fascinating).
I would recommend anyone who has a passing interested in Afghanistan read this along with a more modern take on the country in Rory Stewart’s ‘The places in between’ which includes several of the same themes and characters.
I was really hoping for a great travelogue with some history of Afghanistan. This was not that book. The author was at many times pompous; thinking every woman who looked at him wanted more or getting upset with anyone who didn't accommodate his every whim. He also was insulting and ungrateful to those that offered him a place to stay in Herat when no one else would. He got upset with those that found him suspicious: single foreigner wanting to head to the front lines of Afghanistan with no aid organization affiliation or official reason for being there; would logically be suspicious at that time. He also waxed on and on with his own fantasies that seemed to be there just to show how knowledgeable he was about the geography of the area. He also romanticized the oppression that women face in Afghanistan. A much better travelogue for a look into the people and places of Afghanistan is Rory Stewart's book The Places In Between.
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. Very visual and poetic. I fell in love with the Afghanistan people. I grieved to turn the last page.
One of my favorite reads of all time. Richly edifying, beautifully told account of years of occupation, war, and tribal unrest in the harsh but soulful place that is Afghanistan. I literally cried at the end of the journey.
Brilliantly written. Elliot weaves a tale using the complexities of war and the simplicity of humanity. This literary journey fascinated me and left me curious about a country I had so ignorantly misjudged.
Jason Elliot had an interest in visiting Afghanistan and found a way to enter the country. Several years later he desired to go back and spent a number of months traveling the country alone. This second trip was taken with the idea of writing a book about the country and the people. The book jacket calls this “part travelogue, part historical evocation, part personal quest and part reflection on the joys and perils of passage.” The actual travel sections were interesting as well as the people he met, but I got bogged down in the long historical sections to the point that I forgot the setting when the tale resumed. I also wish that the map inside the cover referenced places along his route. I could find none of them other than the landmark of Kabul.
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 in the middle of it all.
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.
Elliot traveled in Afghanistan on two separate occasions. As a 19 year old young man he traveled with the mujahidin during the war with the USSR and then returned 10 years later. The nation was at war in both instances, because even in his later trip he was dodging Taliban rockets in Kabul. It is clear that the author has a great admiration for the people of this war torn land, and he is awed by the beauty of its mountainous landscape. Most of the narrative deals with his travels, which are certainly exacting. Conditions even in big cities are primitive and in the country side ….. well …. it sounds like hell to me no matter how kind the locals are. In addition, he narrates about the exotic history of the country, which has seen the impact of Alexander the great and his Greeks, and later Mongols, Turks, Tamerlane, Moghuls, Brits and Russians to name some of the big ones. It has a variety of ethnicities and languages and has been influenced by Hindus, Buddhists, and for sure by Moslems. On both his trips, he travels in the winter which is harsh in such a high land. Crossing the Hindu Kush in winter is insane. I wondered if he wanted to add to his own misery be trekking around in the snow; perhaps it was some kind of personal test. The book has won several literary awards; it is well written, with some elegant prose and I guess I understand Afghanistan a bit better for this arm chair adventure, but I still would not care to go there in person. It is just too dangerous and you can’t buy a beer.
Gets overly descriptive at times -- especially around the middle when the writer waxes on and on about the physical landscape, which I thought was too tedious and excessive.
Other than that, I enjoyed Elliot's writing and his depiction of Afghan life, his interactions with the Afghans and the travellers he met along the way. I even highlighted many of his sentences, as the way he wrote them was so beautiful, lyrical and worth revisiting. As a reader, what struck me most from Elliot's book was the generosity and hospitality that the Afghans consistently showed him.
The review below -- which was published in the final pages of the book -- sums up the essence of Elliot's "An Unexpected Light" the best:
"The author’s impressive knowledge of Afghanistan’s history, his seemingly boundless affection for its people, his understanding and respect for their culture and religion, and his flair for the language make this more than a casual travelogue. It is a plaintive love song whose discordant notes are provided by daily encounters with violence, hardship, and poverty.”
The Russians have gone, and the fundamentalists have not yet taken over; it is through that brief window in time, in the early 1990s, that the author slips to revisit Afghanistan.
Since then, two Taleban governments and the 20-year U.S.-led war that separated them have chewed up the place, perhaps beyond recognition, and have drained our well of sympathy and attention for its people. This sympathetic and poetic portrait is a powerful reminder of both the otherness of Afghanistan and the humanity of the Afghans.
Judged a classic among travelogues by some, this book is too self-indulgent, ‘colonialist’ and at least 100 pages too long for others. I land somewhere in between. ‘The Road to Oxiana’ it ain’t, but that’s a very high bar.
While the book has its narrative quirks, those are a small price for the insight it provides into a country that – for better and for worse – seems intent to remain among the world’s least touched by modernity.
Lectura recomendable. El libro se basa principalmente en el viaje de 6 meses que realizó el autor en plena guerra civil, justo antes de que el país cayera bajo el control de los talibanes, aunque también recoge experiencias anteriores, especialmente su primer viaje a Afganistán en 1979, con 19 años de edad, inmediatamente antes de la ocupación soviética. El autor viaja a distintas partes del país, no sin dificultades, relacionándose con sus gentes gracias al conocimiento del idioma y de la historia y cultura local. Para nosotros, un país tan lejano y desconocido, y aunque el viaje se realiza antes de la toma del poder por los talibanes y la posterior ocupación occidental, nos resulta una experiencia curiosa, nos sorprende la amabilidad y hospitalidad de los diferentes pueblos afganas, y nos muestra un diferente punto de vista de este emblemático país de Asia.
I first read this when it was initially published so it was interesting to read it 20 years later. This is a modern travel classic, the author traveling to take a look at Afghanistan during the Soviet Invasion and Taleban eras, simply out of curiosity. As such this is a book of real heart as the everyday life of the country tried to overcome the geopolitics. A worthy successor to much of the earlier travel literature classics of the region.
I bought this book my first semester in college in 2002 at the school bookstore in the clearance bin. Nearly 20 years later I finally read it. Due to my schedule and other hobbies it took me months to finish, but I really enjoyed it. I really liked the author's writing and his stories had me on the edge of my chair a few times as if I was really there. I even LOL'd a few times which I rarely do when reading.