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