An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan


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 and on horseback, and hitches rides on trucks that eventually lead him into the snowbound mountains of the North toward Uzbekistan, the former...

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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 and on horseback, and hitches rides on trucks that eventually lead him into the snowbound mountains of the North toward Uzbekistan, the former battlefields of the Soviet army's "hidden war." Here the Afghan landscape kindles a recollection of the author's life ten years earlier, when he fought with the anti-Soviet mujaheddin resistance during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

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.

Winner of the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s, the small nation has languished in an aura of mystery as thick as the dust that chokes its craggy landscape. As a result, writers who have attempted to penetrate this mystery, from Doris Lessing to William T. Vollmann, inevitably flounder in the process. In his sumptuous, elegantly written first book, An Unexpected Light, Jason Elliot deftly avoids this pitfall, plunging headfirst into the hurly-burly world of Afghanistan's culture, politics, and history. Unearthing the beginnings of a people descended from half a dozen cultures and now wracked by a costly civil war, he reveals a country of great depth and humanity, one that survives by the grace of a stubborn and alluring dignity.

Like the best travel books, An Unexpected Light enters its territory through the imagination and memory of its author. Afghanistan first took a hold in Elliot's mind when, as a youngster growing up in the late '70s, he sympathized with the plight of its beleaguered people. As a 19-year-old college student, he arranged to be smuggled inside its borders during a summer vacation. Elliot's risky visit, aided and abetted by the mujaheddin, freedom fighters holding off Soviet troops, quickly dispelled his romantic notions of war. Shells, bullets, and the shock waves of exploding artillery provided numerous close calls, which recounted here, raise the hairs of armchair travelers. Yet these experiences did not slake Elliot's thirst to learn more about Afghanistan.

Ten years later he reentered the country during the Taliban's rise to power. This visit becomes the driving force of his book's narrative, which zigzags between history, the present, and Elliot's personal memories of his hasty and dangerous first visit. Although his forays into Afghanistan's history and the ideas of Sufism are fascinating and well researched, An Unexpected Light truly soars when recounting Elliot's many improbable adventures. Elliot is a natural storyteller, and he sketches with ironic and touching detail the cagey expat community in Kabul, the war-wracked capital city. When he heads north, led by self-effacing guides toward the beautiful mountainous regions near the Uzbekistan border, Elliot's prose sings with rich and sensitively recorded particulars of the Afghan culture and landscape.

In the end, like the best in travel literature, An Unexpected Light is as meditatively philosophical as it is poetically exact. Hopping into a jeep with ten strangers on his way to a region peppered with constant shelling, Elliot writes: "There it was again, that feeling that the journey was becoming more than the sum of its parts, more like a clandestine sculpting work within me, which in the visible world I was merely acting out." It is a testament to the power of this book, that without setting foot on Afghan soil, the reader feels the tingling of this secret process beginning inside him as well.

John Freeman is a freelance writer who lives in New York.

From the Publisher

"The most sustained firsthand description of life in Afghanistan to be produced by a foreign observer in recent years . . . exciting."—Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

"A work of substance and style, witty and moving by turns, never less than wholly passionate . . . What raises the book to the level of a classic is its intensely personal meditation on the magic of unplanned adventure, of the pain and pleasure of pushing into the unknown."—The Times (London)

"The surprise of the year: a lyrical, unrestrained and enthralling account of a journey into Afghanistan . . . I loved this book."—Daily Telegraph

"This extraordinary debut is an account of Elliot's two visits to Afghanistan. The first occurred when he joined the mujaheddin circa 1979 and was smuggled into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan; the second happened nearly ten years later, when he returned to the still war-torn land. The skirmishes that Elliot painstakingly describes here took place between the Taliban and the government of Gen. Ahmad Shah Massoud in Kabul. Today, the Taliban are in power, but Elliot's sympathies clearly lie with Massoud. Although he thought long and hard before abandoning his plan to travel to Hazara territory, where 'not a chicken could cross that pass without being fired on,' Elliot traveled widely in the hinterland, visiting Faizabad in the north and Herat in the west. The result is some of the finest travel writing in recent years. With its luminous descriptions of the people, the landscape (even when pockmarked by landmines), and Sufism, this book has all the hallmarks of a classic, and it puts Elliot in the same league as Robert Byron and Bruce Chatwin."—Library Journal

"An Unexpected Light is often unexpectedly funny and constantly perceptive, but it is also profound."—Jason Goodwin, The New York Times Book Review

"Elliot is an enthralling writer with a great gift for evoking places, people and atmosphere, from the pastoral calm of a fertile valley to the terrifying sights and sounds of war."—Merle Rubin, The Los Angeles Times

"Lyrical . . . alluring . . . a poignant remembrance, hued in the mixed reds of war and sunset, that comes close to a place that has already changed beyond imagination."—Paula Newberg, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review

"Humorous, honest and wry . . . [Elliot's] literary talents are exceptional. His sonorous prose moves forward with the purposeful grace of a river."—Publishers Weekly (starred)

"An Unexpected Light is an unexpected gift . . . Elliot's account is vivid and should broaden the reader's comprehension of an often misunderstood country."—Jonathan Shipley, Columbus Dispatch

"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."—Kirkus Reviews

"An Unexpected Light thoughtfully lays out new and overlooked information that policy-makers in the U.S. and the West as a whole need when trying to decide what may work."—Robert A. Lincoln, Richmond-Times Dispatch

"I am sure this book will soon be among the classics of travel."—Doris Lessing

"An astonishing debut: one of the most remarkable travel books this decade."—Willam Dalrymple

Jason Goodwin
Elliot's wide-ranging exploration of Afghanistan . . . could not have appeared at a better time . . . often unexpectedly funny and constantly perceptive, but it is also profound.
New York Times Book Review
Sunday Telegraph
[An Unexpected Light] evokes the romantic allure so potently that you think you are actually traveling there yourself. Written with affection and respect, it avoids sentimentality. It is a long time since I have read a new travel book with such unalloyed pleasure.
Daily Telegraph
[A] lyrical, unrestrained, and enthralling account of a journey into Afghanistan.... I loved this book.
A work of substance and style, witty and moving by turns, never less than wholly passionate... What raises the book to the level of a classic is its intensely personal meditation on the magic of unplanned adventure, of the pain and pleasure of pushing into the unknown.
Jason Elliot is an entertaining companion in a heartbreaking land, and his stylish prose is laced with intelligent analysis of a culture startlingly remote from our own.
[An Unexpected Light] will make frequent travelers to the country aware of how jaded they have become and give those who have never been there a wonderful sense of what it is like. And that, after all, is what a travel book is meant to do.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
An account of a trip through war-torn and poverty-stricken Afghanistan, this remarkable book could have been titled "An Unexpected Beauty." Elliot, who first traveled to the country as a 19-year-old enthusiast of the mujahedin, has no illusions about the inherent shortcomings of travel writing ("a semi-fictional collection of descriptions that affirm the prejudices of the day"). He also dismisses the journalistic method, which relies on a single bombed-out street in Kabul to monolithically represent an entire nation. So it is not without some self-deprecation that he offers his own strange and improbable adventures in the country's lawless stretches and perilous mountain passes. "I had in mind a quietly epic sort of journey," he explains. "I had given up on earlier and more ambitious schemes and was prepared to make an ally of uncertainty, with which luck so often finds a partnership." Humorous, honest and wry, a devotee of Afghanistan's culture, Elliot strives to debunk the myth of "the inscrutability of the East" and paint, in careful detail, a portrait of a deeply spiritual people. For a first-time author, his literary talents are exceptional. His sonorous prose moves forward with the purposeful grace of a river; it reads like a text unearthed from an ancient land. (Feb.) Forecast: Already lauded in England, this book announces the arrival of a major travel writer. It should capture the hearts of armchair travelers who long for the grace, wit and irreverence of an era long gone. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This extraordinary debut is an account of Elliot's two visits to Afghanistan. The first occurred when he joined the mujaheddin circa 1979 and was smuggled into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan; the second happened nearly ten years later, when he returned to the still war-torn land. The skirmishes that Elliot painstakingly describes here took place between the Taliban and the government of Gen. Ahmad Shah Massoud in Kabul. Today, the Taliban are in power, but Elliot's sympathies clearly lie with Massoud. Although he thought long and hard before abandoning his plan to travel to Hazara territory, where "not a chicken could cross that pass without being fired on," Elliot traveled widely in the hinterland, visiting Faizabad in the north and Herat in the west. The result is some of the finest travel writing in recent years. With its luminous descriptions of the people, the landscape (even when pockmarked by landmines), and Sufism, this book has all the hallmarks of a classic, and it puts Elliot in the same league as Robert Byron and Bruce Chatwin. Enthusiastically recommended for all travel collections.--Ravi Shenoy, Naperville P.L., IL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
The author first traveled in Afghanistan during the Mujahedeen's war against the Soviet invasion. In this work he recounts his travels back in the country some ten years later at the time when the country was racked by civil war and was witnessing the first military successes of the Taliban. The material mainly sticks to personal recollection, but occasionally he discusses historical and cultural material related to his experiences. Distributed by Palgrave. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312288464
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 11/17/2001
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 5.98 (w) x 8.36 (h) x 1.33 (d)

Meet the Author

Jason Elliot lives in London. This is his first book.

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Read an Excerpt


Wiltshire, England

Dear Ropate,

So much has happened in that part of the world where our paths first crossed that it's hard not to think of our time there, and of the time in which it was contained, as an island, now submerged. Perhaps the same is true of any journey you begin to look back on. But if comfort and distance have given this recollection of events the flavour of a tideborne dream, the essential trouble remains. Once snared, as you so well know, one never fully leaves; a portion of one's heart is forever woven into the fabric of that place.

Here as promised is the account of the journey on which we met: an incomplete attempt to be true to that time. I have not been able to find any other way, given the nature of that journey, than to make it very personal. If what follows is now hampered by the clumsy thud of description, the recollection behind it is both fleet and fond. I need hardly say how much I cherish the memory, among many others, of our midnight strolls through the moonsilvered streets of the capital, or those light-filled days spent dreaming of the unclimbed summits of the Wakhan. Not only because to repeat such luxuries is for the moment so unthinkable, but because it was then, and with such satisfaction, that I discovered I was not the only outsider to have felt so at home among strangers, or so at peace amid the curious exigencies of war.

You ask me how the whole thing began. I am not sure if it is right - or even possible - to begin at the beginning. There are two reasons. One is that I'm reluctant to slow down the process with the weight of reminiscence. I'm as curious as you about what originally set things in motion, but now that this albatross is finally ready to be flung overboard, it seems hardly to matter. The other is this: a seed, once it begins to grow, breaks from the shell that enclosed it and is lost - it's hard to find lasting traces. I've come to the conclusion that journeys are sparked from small and unlikely things rather than grand convictions; small things that strike a note which resonates beyond earshot of the rational. They wait quietly for the season of their birth until some correspondence in the visible world falls eventually into place, and after that, neither love nor money has much to do with it.

Did you ever read Thesiger, who, when the desert summers of Iraq got too hot, would tramp through the Hindu Kush and the Afghan Hazarajat for the pleasure of it? He put his wanderlust down to the thrill of seeing, at the age of three, his father shoot an Abyssinian oryx.

What would ye, ladies? It was ever thus. Men are unwise and curiously planned.

This from one of your favourites, Recker.

I've never seen an oryx, and admit I hadn't even discovered Kipling at the time of my first visit. In fact I'd read next to nothing about Afghanistan, which makes the impulse for that first journey seem so obscure. But there's one book I had read - which brings me to the oxen.

Perhaps I never told you.

If I must look for a beginning, I have to go back to when I was twelve years old, my mind spinning from a turn-of-the-century account I'd just read of an explorer's travels through what was then Turkestan, to which the northern portion of what is now Afghanistan belonged. The names meant very little to me then, but I felt the living image of them nonetheless, and longed to know if the descriptions I had read were real. In this spirit I had asked my father if he would be able to find such places.

`Perhaps,' he had mused. Then added, enigmatically: `I know which way the oxen go.'

My imagination vaulted at this improbable intimation: the oxen! And a man, watching and waiting . . .

From then on I didn't have to try too hard to see, somewhere in a high and tangled tributary of the Paropamisus range, a man lying in wait beneath the incandescent lapis dome of a central Asian noon, watching from his hiding place a shimmering trail in the valley far below. I had followed him there in my mind's eye, in disguise, from the desert shores of the Amu Darya to the forests of Kafiristan, along a route of great hardship, danger and, I fancied, unutterable solitude. It led over windhaunted passes where there was no sound but the fluttering of votive pennants tied to withered sticks, through echoing gorges on a raft buoyed by inflated skins, and across slatted bridges no wider than a man, which swung, horribly high, over furious mountain torrents.

He had no map or compass but was waiting for a rumble of hooves to lead him to his destination: he was listening for the oxen. At the sight of them he would follow the course of their annual migration towards a hidden breeding-ground and thence to a mountain-shrouded temple, where his trials would be rewarded with the gift of secrets known to few other living sots...

Well, for several years that was that, until I took up the trail more diligently myself, and realized I'd misheard my father. There are, as you know, no oxen in central Asia. There are yaks and camels and fattailed sheep and ibex and snow leopards, bears, caracals, corsacs, rhesus monkeys, markhors, wild pigs, long-eared desert hedgehogs and three-toed dwarf jerboas, but no oxen. My father had said Oxms, the old name for the Amu Darya river, which runs all the way from the Pamirs to the ailing Aral Sea and for a thousand miles or so forms the northern border of Afghanistan. Conceivably, the direction of its flow might help a lonely traveller find his way about, but not much more than the knowledge, say, that it gets hotter as you approach the equator; a map and compass would have been more useful after all. If my imaginary explorer had set off for his temple knowing only which way the Oxus flowed, he would have had a rough go of it.

But that is not really the point: the seed was already sown. To give you the gist of what happened next: it was the Russians' fault. They invaded Afghanistan a few years later and I remember hearing about it while I was still in school. The Afghans seemed to belong to a different world, for which I was developing an inarticulate hunger; a people of prototypical human dignity with Old Testament faces, who with guns almost as ancient as themselves were trying (and with some success to shoot down the latest in helicopter gunships. From reports at the time it was difficult to know whether, at the one extreme, the Afghans were indeed born fighters inured to bloodshed and somehow managing to hold whole armoured divisions at bay, or, at the other, whether the Soviets were pretty much slaughtering anyone who put up a fight.

The exile of nearly a third of the country's population pointed grimly to the latter. But the whole idea of a modern army invading that poor and dusty country disagreed with me deeply (I had older brothers, and a certain sympathy for the oppressed. I knew I had to see the place for myself.

I was nineteen. When you told me about your own efforts at the same age to track down Che Guevara, I knew you'd tasted that same blinkered confidence, which, looking back at it, is fairly baffling. In my case it led, as soon as the orbit of my summer holidays was finally unrestrained, to Peshawar, not far from the Afghan border. I filled out my university application forms on the night train from Lahore.

Life had never changed quite so swiftly, and I remember feeling even then that it would never really be quite the same. A few months earlier my worst fear in life was being made to stack chairs after class; now I was trying to get myself smuggled into what had become one of the most inaccessible countries in the world. Within a week or so I had met, and explained myself to a bemused but kindly Massoud Khalili, whose difficult job it was at the time to sort through the foreigners hoping for 'picnics' with the mujaheddin, and steer the more deranged supplicants towards more fitting pursuits. I have no words to describe the thrill at hearing him approve my first trip 'inside'. He was a great charmer. "Who knows?" he said. "Maybe one day you'll write a book about Afghanistan."

I killed time learning backgammon with an Afghan carpet dealer called Jamal, and gambled away half my possessions in the process; there came a sinking moment when I returned to his shop with an armful of my things, and laid them out in front of him. It was only then I learned how much the Afghans like to play.

He chuckled and said he didn't want my things but my friendship - and shook the dice for another game. When I told him I was going to Afghanistan, he said I'd need some Afghan clothes, and took off his shirt - a silk-embroidered shahvar that had taken his wife three months to make - and tried to give it to me. I thought: if this is how Afghans are, I will get to like the place.

Afghanistan was barely forty miles away. Rumours from the war buzzed through the streets like shrapnel, and the lure of the place was irresistible. I got to know my first Afghans in the smokewreathed alleys of the old city: mujaheddin who had come to Pakistan to wait for shipments of arms or to visit their relatives among the three and a half million Afghans who had been given refuge there. They looked a stern but beautiful people - almost unapproachable at first - but after I'd discovered how astonishingly companionable they were, I felt quickly as though I was among friends. They would uncover their wounds with all the glee of schoolboys showing off grazed knees. I can never forget the Pushtun fighter, nearly seven feet tall, who showed me three oliveshaped scars from Russian bullets: one from a bullet that had passed neatly between the bones of his wrist, one in the fleshy part of his thigh, and another, barely healed, from a bullet that had gone cleanly through the very edge of his waist. He put his thumb and finger like a pair of calipers over the entry and exit wounds and, when I asked if he was afraid to go back to the fighting, roared with laughter.

Apart from the occasional bomb blast, the drug dealers, the spies and the food at the hotel, there was another hazard I couldn't have foreseen - prompted, I was told, by my pale skin and the freshness of my features. A one-eyed kebab seller whose shop I passed regularly let his intentions be known with a single repulsive gesture. Another hoped to lure me to his home with illicit supplies of whisky. Nothing in the world could have been less enticing. A very fat man from the tribal territories with a bulbous neck and lizard eyes who lurked in the lobby of the hotel, trailed by obsequious underlings, pressed me daily to accept a 'local speciality' in his bedroom. I dubbed him the 'lizard king', moved about with extra vigilance, and stopped shaving. Alas, my fugitive behaviour attracted added attention and my beard grew in wispy patches that heightened the ardour of my would-be suitors.

By day it was too hot to wander about, and at night I wallowed in sweat. The air above the city was suffocating, immovable, and reeked of diesel fumes and human waste. I never saw clouds but the sky was never blue; it was obscured by an almost tangible yellow malaise. In the restaurant I found a cockroach embalmed in my breakfast omelette; in the evenings the live ones would scuttle in vigorous circles around the edge of the plate. I caught dysentery, developed a raging fever, and my insides came to resemble a hollow watery tube. For several days I lay in bed nibbling Kendal mint cake and staring at the fan which swung by its bare wires overhead, knowing that if it dropped I lacked the strength to move.

It was a desperate time. The whole of life seemed to be sweating away to the dreadful thud of the fan, and with it all ambition and capacity for action seeping drop by drop, hour after hour, into the dank sheets. I couldn't wait to get across the border, whatever the risks.

On the eve of my departure I staggered into the lobby to answer a phone call. Over the crackle of the line I heard a voice I recognized.

"DON'T GO," it said.

It was a well-meaning friend calling from England. He had just heard the news that a French television reporter venturing across the border had been captured by paratroopers and sentenced to fifteen years in a dreadful Kabul prison. Questioned about the event in Pakistan, the Soviet ambassador had warned that `bandits and so-called journalists' trying to penetrate Afghanistan with the mujaheddin would be killed by Soviet forces. But my mind was made up.

"I'M GOING," I said, little guessing at the troublesome persistence with which that first foolhardy act of trespass would reverberate down the years.

It wasn't the moment to hesitate. They came the next morning. Two stern-faced, booted and bearded guerrillas appeared at my door, handed me a note, and left without a word. Through sleepladen eyes I read: "These are the brothers of Commander A-. They will return at five o'clock. Be ready."

The decision to return twice more in the intervening years grew directly out of that first trip. During those later visits I felt I saw the innocence go out of the conflict and, in some parallel way, out of myself.

This last time was the hardest - comfort and distance again and I agonized for ages. I was tied down in all the usual ways, the flirtation with danger had run its natural course, and with the war over I wondered if the country might somehow not measure up to my hopes for writing about it. I was afraid too, now it was no longer a forbidden place which one had to risk one's life to reach, that my feelings towards it would be correspondingly dulled.

There's an ignominy to modern air travel that I'd come to dread. There's no arousing sense of passage towards your destination: no slowly changing landscape reaches back along the line of your motion, adding usefully to an awareness of where you will end up. The quantitative measure of the distance you are travelling loses all relevance; miles mean nothing as you leap, in a single, stratospheric bound, across the barriers that have guided, ever since humankind stood vertical enough to get over them, the very passage of civilizations.

But I leaped, eventually; and ten years on, I was back again in Peshawar. The lizard king no longer prowled the lobby of Green's hotel, there was a surfeit of Land Cruisers in the streets, satellite TV in my room, and everyone had mobile phones. There were very few Afghans about, and I wandered along the dusty teeming streets of the old city half-hoping to meet up again with friends among the mujaheddin. They were all gone, of course, and I couldn't escape a sense of longing for the electric atmosphere of the days of the war.

A few things hadn't changed. The air was still chokingly thick with diesel fumes, and the taxi drivers still offered you heroin with the same cheerful smiles. And there was still that improbable range of foreign visitors, all hoping vaguely to get across the border. At the hotel I met a beautiful Japanese girl called Keiko who wanted to photograph desert flowers inside Afghanistan (I suffered a momentary impulse to throw up earlier plans and help smuggle her into the country, a pair of Polish film-makers following the trail of a young compatriot who had disappeared in Nuristan during the war, an ex-SAS parachutist with a limp who was hoping to jump with what was left of the Afghan Air Force, and a Dutch journalist who taught me Japanese swordplay on the roof at dawn.

Soon things were gathering delicious momentum. Two of my biggest worries - how to get inside the country, and where to stay - were quickly solved. With the kind permission of Peter Stocker,* I was allowed to join a relief flight across the border. And on it I was lucky enough to meet an American photographer on assignment to the capital, who offered to put me up at his agency's headquarters in Kabul.

I left Peshawar in high spirits and flew to Bagram airport just north of Kabul - where it's about time I threw you into the story = a few days later, on a brilliant November morning. It was the strangest thing, but as soon as we'd stepped out of the little plane onto Afghan soil, I felt as though some inner clock of mine, which had stopped since I had last been there, began to tick again: it was like going into a room which has stayed locked while the rest of the house has been lived in. I realized then, with a familiar mixture of longing and relief, I had a lot of catching up to do.

With love,

J. *Director, at the time, of the delegation in Afghanistan of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

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First Chapter

Chapter One

FROM THE BEGINNING we became the captives of an unexpected light. Even as we stepped into its unaccustomed brightness that first morning, it seemed probable we had entered a world in some way enchanted, for which we lacked the proper measure.

It was calm that first morning. I felt utterly removed from the haste and clamour of home. There was a trickle of bicycles and, moving barely faster, a few veteran taxis. Some elderly turbaned men, striding at an untroubled pace with hands clasped behind their backs, passed us in the opposite direction and broke into courteous smiles at the unlikely sight of two overburdened foreigners asking for directions. We heard the cries of merchants hawking fruit from their roadside barrows, and from behind the high walls on either side the sound of families: women scolding children and their children's laughter. Swooping through a lapis-coloured sky were dozens of tiny homemade kites, their strings worked passionately from the walls and rooftops by agile masters. Occasionally an incongruous grumble would roll like thunder from the enclosing mountains and we would stop, under the guise of shifting our loads, to catch our breath and gauge each other's reaction to the unnatural sound.

A week earlier I had been to see the ambassador in London, to ask his advice on getting into the country. For a man whose homeland was in ruins and whose government clung to power in a capital besieged by rival claimants, he was refreshingly cheerful. We drank tea together beneath twenty-foot-high ceilings and spoke of the faraway beauty of the valley which was his home. Beyond the windows the traffic roared into Hyde Park.

There was a large framed map of Afghanistan on the wall. We walked over to it and together traced names and roads like a pair of generals. Beneath our fingertips places I had hardly dared hope to reach flickered momentarily into life.

I saw the famous circular route by which an earlier generation of visitors had come to know the country in happier times, linking Kabul, the capital, with Mazar-i Sharif in the north, Herat in the west and Qandahar in the south. It hardly mattered that in many places the road no longer existed.

My eye was drawn to a dotted red line creeping northeast from the capital into Badakhshan: this was Alexander's route on his brilliant outflanking of Bessus, the Achaemenid satrap. It thinned as it trickled north, towards Faizabad and Keshm: Marco Polo's route to China. I would need a horse there, and a guide.

"That is no problem," the ambassador said, matter-of-factly.

Another red line wound westwards towards the megalithic Buddhas of Bamiyan, the turquoise lakes of Band-1 Amir, the lonely minaret of Jam and the springs and shrines of Chesht-i Sharif; a manageable route by jeep, if the roads were not blocked by snow.

"You can find one easily," he said.

A great dark mountainous wedge stretched from one side of the map to the other, and I thought of the winter that had just begun.

"It will not be too cold."

I would remember this comment. Over the north and west he had swept his hand in a broad benevolent arc.

"Here is fine," he said, smiling broadly. "You can go anywhere! Here is fine too. Here..." he hesitated, waving with dismissive affection over the southern tier of the country, "...just some small problems," he said, "some opposition."

This was Afghan for civil war.

I had in mind a quietly epic sort of journey, the kind you no longer hear of much; no tailored expedition, but a route guided by events themselves. Things could change quickly and plans made in advance become impossible to follow; faced with the caprices of winter and the war it seemed the only sensible approach. I had given up on earlier and more ambitious schemes and was prepared to make an ally of uncertainty, with which luck so often finds a partnership. I was hoping also to keep faith with a kind of vision set in motion a decade before by my first visit to the place, the experience of which had long ago acquired a troublesome momentum beyond my control. To translate the longing that stemmed from it seemed to require no less than a long and solitary journey with every attendant danger, a journey to make quite sure my vision of the place was not some private hallucination that the time had come to outgrow. But already things had begun to unfold with unexpected facility, confirming a personal notion that the moment you commit to a journey it takes on a unique life of its own, which no amount of agonizing in advance can foresee.

The ambassador had talked over the least life-threatening route into the country with his secretary, Shirin. She was from Iran: her name meant 'sweetness' and her voice had the charming lilt of the Khorassanian plateau. She did her best to discourage me from going, pointing out that there was a civil war in Tajikistan to the north, that the western frontier with Iran was said to be closed to foreigners, and that the eastern border with China was a frozen wasteland at fifteen thousand feet. I asked about the overland route from Pakistan, to the south.

"It would be better to fly directly to Kabul," said the ambassador. "Sometimes the route by road can be -" he winced slightly - "difficult." The road from the south, I already knew, passed through the lawless territory of the opposition, and travellers' tales from the region were less than encouraging. At the very least one could expect to be robbed at gunpoint.

"If they find you they will..." began Shirin, but was swiftly checked by an admonitory glance from the ambassador.

"We feel responsible," said the ambassador, with a kindly smile.

"We want you back," said Shirm.

"That's nice," I said.

"Why don't you go somewhere safer, like Bosnia?" said Shirm, with a strange but tender logic. "Or you could wait until spring." She rose from her desk as I turned to leave.

"Whatever you do, don't go into the mountains!"

But at this point the ambassador interposed himself between us, putting a stop to this very un-Afghan show of sentimentality. He was, besides, from the mountains himself. Smiling broadly, he escorted me to the door. I thanked him and we shook hands.

"Safar-a khosh," he said. It meant "happy travels".

From the beginning we felt the touch of the war, which came to form the backdrop to our feelings and broke into life in unexpected ways. It threw everything into sharper focus and brought such immediacy to the present that the world of home took on at times a dreamlike quality. It pushed our feelings into uncharted orbits and challenged our ordinary logic in ways that would have been easier to ignore. Like vines that prosper on the slopes of a volcano we thrived nonetheless under its influence until we felt the whole of life more keenly, both in its joys and in its griefs. We found luxury in small things and in friendships discovered bonds we felt might last for life. There was bitterness too: not at what we found there but, in the end, at having to leave it.

We had walked in a mile-wide circle and realized we were in the same place as we had started: my new friend Craig had no sense of direction. Each time we turned down a new street, he would say: "I have a feeling we're quite close now." We trudged along for hours, knocking finally at a gate in a street where six-foot walls on both sides enclosed modern villas. Opposite, a guard was basking in the sun with an automatic rifle across his lap.

The gate swung open. A lean and fair-haired man wearing round gold-framed glasses appeared from behind it and led us across a yellowing patch of lawn to a verandah. We shed our packs and collapsed into low wicker chairs.

"Jan," he called into the house, "can we have some cbai?"

He introduced himself with a nonchalant handshake. His name was Tim Johnston, and he was one of only three reporters living in the capital. A wheat-coloured beard covered his weary-looking face, and his exhaustion expressed itself in a laconic and offhand manner. I recognized the look. He caught up on news with Craig, who was a fellow reporter, as we sat in the afternoon sunshine, then turned to me and mentioned there was a spare room in the house if I wanted it, but that he'd have to charge me. I had a tiny budget and asked how much.

"Ten thousand Afghanis a day."

It sounded a huge amount, and my heart sank. I was afraid I had met a lonely exile stranded grudgingly in an alien culture, scornful of outsiders who took a personal interest in it. I was very wrong.

"That's about fifty pence," he added. "For food."

There were no hotels, he explained, and no tourists for that matter, no casual visitors beyond a trickle of other correspondents or photographers on brief assignments to the city. The exception, he told us, had been an obese American lady the year before. Armed with some photocopied pages of an out-of-print travel guide she had arrived in Kabul unaware that the country was in its seventeenth year of war. Hysterical at the revelation and furious at having been duped, she was wrestled out of the country by baffled officials, never to be heard of again. There was talk, too, of a pair of Englishmen who had entered the country recently from China on horseback. Rumour had it they had been arrested in the north, and thrown into prison by soldiers who took a dim view of the foreigners in native dress who carried a portable satellite navigation unit with them.

We swapped news and stories, mostly of close shaves, the calling cards of war correspondents in every troubled capital. The windows of the house were cracked by blast, and a bullet half an inch thick was lodged in the wall behind Tim's chair. It was fairly quiet at the moment, he said.

His staff of three obviously adored him and had become close friends. They sat outside with us in the sunshine and listened attentively to Tim's every word. jan was a stocky, handsome Panjshiri of irrepressible cheerfulness, a guerrilla turned housekeeper. Rashid, a lean and sulltn, broken-toothed Tajik with a permanent cynical smile, was a former soldier in the Afghan army and now Tim's driver and translator. And there was Aman the cook, a roundfaced Hazara with the distinctively high cheekbones and narrow eyes of his people; six foot tall and as gentle as a kitten. They were all in their thirties and looked ten years older.

I began to warm to their solitary employer. The Afghans were a difficult people to know and he spoke of them with a jocular and irreverent familiarity. It was obvious he admired them. As a journalist he enjoyed the respect and close co-operation of government officials; as a friend he knew many of them on first name terms. His manner disguised enormous diligence under conditions the majority of correspondents abhorred. He loved Afghanistan but by his own admission was exhausted; he had been in Kabul for eighteen months with hardly a day of genuine rest. The visits to the front lines were the hardest, he explained, and the serious wounding of a colleague a few weeks earlier had left him shaken. He wore white trousers for the frontline days, which he hoped in the confusion of battle might increase his chances of being recognized as a non-combatant.

front lines were locked in uneasy standoffs with rival claimants to the city. But all eyes in the capital faced south, to the battlefields where the government was fighting daily with the latest contenders for power.

The year before, the southern provinces had been swept by an enigmatic militia force which had brought peace and a relative stability to areas formerly plagued by banditry and lawlessness. Its soldiers had begun by executing rogue commanders or paying for their peace with large sums of money. Roads had been cleared of mines by the crusading black-turbaned troops, and hijacked vehicles returned to foreign relief agencies. Order had been restored in the cities, which had been disarmed and brought under control. It was said that the general population, weary from years of anarchy, had welcomed them.

Astonishing as these victories were, they were disturbing. With peace, the new rulers brought with them an Islamicist fervour previously unknown in Afghanistan, traditionally a place of religious moderation. In the regions under their control, men had been ordered to shave their heads and grow beards in accordance with a fierce interpretation of Islamic law; thieves suffered amputations and women were banned from working and forbidden to show their faces in public places. A religious police force called the Department for Promoting Virtue and Prohibiting Vice was enforcing a growing catalogue of decrees as alien to Afghans as the rhetoric of the communists before them. Televisions were hanged from lampposts, kite-flying banned, sport and music prohibited.

They called themselves the Taleban,# which meant students of religion, and their leader was said to be a one-eyed mulld, inspired by divine prompting to take up arms. No mention was made of how between Qur'an-reading lessons the young men claiming to be students had learned to drive tanks and fly jets, or how they had come by the satellite telephones installed in their new headquarters.

A few months earlier the whirlwind militia had seized the major western city of Herat with hardly a shot fired; its defenders had melted away without trace. Bolstered by the unexpected victory, the Taleban charged to the outskirts of the capital, where they were violently repulsed by the government's seasoned fighters. The commander of the government forces, the charismatic guerrilla veteran Ahmed Shah Massoud, had no intention of allowing Kabul, at peace for the first time in years, to fall into the zealots' hands.

Few in Kabul believed that. an ill-trained force of mostly young and idealistic men could seize the well-defended capital. Many undoubtedly no longer cared. Yet this latest turn in the conflict had imposed new strains on the fabric of the region. The embers of ethnic rivalry had been fanned anew; and relations with neighbouring Pakistan had turned more bitter than ever. The government claimed their neighbours were supporting the Taleban as a means to an old dream: installing a malleable client in Kabul, and securing in the process the vital overland routes to the central Asian republics to the north.

Pakistani military advisers, along with fighters they had trained, had been captured in recent skirmishes; the world seemed oblivious to this obvious violation. Accusations flew from either side. In the local newspaper that morning a cartoon depicted Pakistan's prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, stooping over a young Tadeb fighter and handing him a rifle above the caption: "Now, dear Taleb, go and fulfil your duty for Pakistan."

Recently the fighting had reached the eastern suburbs and the daily echo of artillery duels could be heard in the hills. The Taleban held the roads to the southern border, which like an artery to the country's heart they could squeeze or sever at their will. Food prices had already risen fivefold and fuel used for heating was even scarcer, its cost growing steadily beyond the reach of ordinary homes. It was a time of desperate negotiation between the government and the commanders of formerly rival parties, now tentatively united by a wariness of their new and enigmatic opponent.

I had not visited the south, the heartland of the Taleban, and wondered if perhaps the reports of their extremism were exaggerated. It was easy to demonize a phenomenon outside its cultural context. Were they really as backward, I asked Tim, as stories seemed to indicate?

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Interviews & Essays

An Interview with Jason Elliot

Barnes & While your parents obviously planted the seed for your interest in the country, what was their reaction to your first trip to Afghanistan?

Jason Elliot: My parents, thankfully, were blissfully ignorant of what was involved in my first trip. But as the youngest of a family of six children, there was probably little I could do to surprise them. They knew that my trip was something not to be interfered with, and today, as a parent, I can only marvel at their understanding. I did not talk much about the experience afterwards; it had in a sense gone too deeply into me.

B& What prompted your decision to write a book about your travels? Why not just travel and take pictures?

JE: The origins of a decision to write a book are many and, in the end, mysterious. I don't pretend to understand them! It has to do with one's experience as well as one's disposition: these provide the soil in which the book takes root. If it does, it may eventually become bigger than you: then you begin to wrestle with it. In my own case, I felt the experience I was granted in Afghanistan could only be addressed in a book; whoever said that the reason you write a book is because you have to had a point.

B& Were there any books which you looked to as a model for yours, about Afghanistan or travel in general?

JE: Not really. The moment you have a model you face a kind of danger -- whether to imitate or to go against a certain trend -- and this diverts you from the integrity of your own story, which you have to discover for yourself. Certainly I looked to see how others had tackled the challenge of writing about a journey, and drew strength from their successes. In the case of writing about a journey in Afghanistan, I was lucky enough to have little by way of recent precedents. But the model came out of the journey itself; to be true to this was the difficult thing. In the end this is what you struggle with. For the technical business of writing, you look to all writing of a certain caliber, not just writing which describes travel.

B& Looking back on your adventures with the mujaheddin, why do you think they were so predisposed to taking care of you, to sharing their supplies and keeping you out of danger?

JE: It has to do with hospitality, which runs so very deeply in Afghan culture. You have to encounter Afghan hospitality to really know how impoverished one's own definition of hospitality really is! They take it very seriously.

B& Obviously, in many ways, a travel writer must depend on the generosity of the subject he writes about. Yet do you think in third world countries, there is an extra edge to this dynamic? Meaning, in return for their generosity to you, do you feel responsible to portray the plight of the mujaheddin?

JE: You cannot help but feel indebted to people who have taken such trouble on your behalf. I have written about what I experienced. I'm not sure if this makes me feel responsible or not. If I had been treated badly by Afghans, I would have described it; but this was not the case at all.

B& You wrote a little bit about the spirit of discovery, and how we have this notion that there is nothing left on the world to be uncovered. What parts of your journey really made you feel like you had completely left the known world behind and were on uncharted territory?

JE: It depends what you mean by the "known world." In the physical sense, Afghanistan is still one of those places where you can very readily experience all the awe of remoteness, a feeling of having escaped from time itself. Such places do exist, and much of Afghanistan is uncharted in this sense, at least by outsiders. But there is a qualitative aspect too; a sense of remoteness from the ideas and values that make up your habitual inner landscape, and this is where the journey gets really interesting. Outside the country's cities, I felt this many times.

B& What gave you the courage to leave behind your various European cohorts, from Tim to Guillaume?

JE: In Kabul, in particular, I had the luxury of meeting friends and knowing certain comforts, albeit of a relative sort. But I would have learned little about Afghanistan if I had stayed in familiar surroundings, and these were pleasures that had to be traded in. This exchange is implicit in a journey. It is just an equation that you have to relinquish something in order to receive something else, and a journey amplifies this equation. I am not sure if it can be called courage to recognize it.

B& You seemed to get by with a remarkable ease on smatterings of Persian and English. What were some of the hardest barriers -- cultural and otherwise -- during your travels in the country?

JE: Language is one thing; you can learn a language, more or less. You can grasp customs, traditions, and manners with a little practice. A far greater obstacle to the traveler is time, for which there is no substitute. Only with time can you be granted a deeper understanding of things, especially in a culture that reveals itself gradually.

B& Besides the mistranslation of so many aspects of Afghan culture, why do you think the West has so much trouble understanding Afghanistan and its various peoples?

JE: Plenty of Western people have understood Afghanistan, so I would hesitate to generalize. But it doesn't seem too much to suggest that one of the peculiar ideologies of the West -- if we admit to it -- is that other countries and cultures that appear not to conform to our own ideas are in some manner inferior. It does not help much that most reporting from the country tends to be negative in its emphasis, because we are so much at the mercy of journalism for our opinions, and liable thereby to build up a skewed impression of places. If policy makers were obliged to spend some time living among the peoples whose lives they influence from afar, it would be a fine thing.

B& Seeing how they have become both the demon and scourge of the West, and now control 80 percent of Afghanistan, why did you spend so little time writing about the Taliban?

JE: Much more has been learned about the Taliban since the period I have described in An Unexpected Light. At the time of my visit, they had not yet entered Kabul and no one could have predicted the extent of their territorial gains ('control' is a problematic term). I simply did not spend time traveling in Taliban-held areas, and did not feel qualified to write about the movement. Had I undertaken to write about the Taliban as well, it would have made the book much longer than it already is, and made my editor's life even more difficult.

B& Since you had the benefit of being there during both Soviet occupation and the rise of the Taliban, how do you feel these two influences have shaped the future of Afghanistan? Do you believe one influence will eventually triumph over the other?

JE: Many complex influences are at work in Afghanistan, and the most pernicious of these originate outside the country itself: the present conflict in Afghanistan is more international than is generally realized. It is difficult to isolate the influences, because they affect each other. To some extent, the excesses of the Taliban can be better understood in terms of the excesses committed by the Soviets, during a conflict that left over a million Afghans dead. But there are many other factors. The West -- America in particular -- could play a vital and positive role in Afghanistan's future, but its present isolationism towards Afghanistan can serve no purpose but to increase the country's difficulties.

There is something worth mentioning in this connection. One of the poorest, neediest, and now demonized countries in the world has been subjected to sanctions by the world's most prosperous country. Yet foreign visitors, Americans included, are in general received and treated with the same magnanimity as always. If anything could be said to be a triumph, it is probably this.

B& Do you believe the Afghan people have truly been accidentally enmeshed in violence? Do you think in a country as multicultural as Afghanistan, that peace is ever possible?

JE: Peace is possible in Afghanistan as much or as little as it is possible anywhere.

B& Obviously it's very difficult to move freely and safely throughout the country, but would you recommend it to anyone who reads your book and becomes, as you once were, enchanted with the country?

JE: Where there is enchantment, danger and difficulty are never far away. To anyone who is aware of the connection between them -- of course I would recommend it. There is nowhere else like Afghanistan.

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 4, 2003

    Heart touching

    I feel in love with this book right after reading the first chapter. I could not stop reading once I started. I felt I was actually there with him and going to all those dangerous places, and laughing with him when he was having a light moment. Being an Afghan brought up abroad, Elliot made me fall in love with my native country all over again. At the same time made me sad that such a country with such hospitable people be in shambles like it is right now. Very very well written !! Thumbs Up Elliot!! You make me proud to be an Afghan :)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 31, 2002

    An Unexpected DeLight

    Unexpectedly enthralling. Unexpectedly beautiful. Unexpectedly heart-felt. This evocative account of the author's love affair with the country and people of Afganistan is enormously timely. More than ever we need to reach beyond the debris of media rubble the years of conflict have given us and see the true face and humanity of this noble people. I loved this book and cannot recommend it highly enough.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2000

    A haunting, beautiful tale

    This is an exceptional first time effort from a hugely gifted writer.Elliot's prose is magical - he succeeds in transporting the reader into the chaotic world of post Soviet Afghanistan.His wonderful descriptions of this, one of the last truly isolated outposts on the planet, render this a tale of aching beauty.I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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