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An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan

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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 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.

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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 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.

30 review for An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan

  1. 4 out of 5

    Maureen

    This is a beautifully written, detailed account of the time Jason Elliot spent in Afghanistan. Between the first and second trips, the Mujaheddin won the battle against the Soviets, and thngs went from bad to worse. Only someone with his talents and connections could have safely made this trip. With his mother's facility for languages and his father's connections to the Afghan Muslim community, he had a head start. I met Jason shortly after his first trip to Afghanistan, and he was full of stori 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.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Lorraine

    This book is what started my fascination with the middle east, especially Afghanistan. It is a panoramic view, well-written and searching,. As a male, Elliot had the freedom to travel freely, which women in that culture would be denied, so we see from a different perspective. He finds himself in real danger at time, has more reflective moments, tells and receives stories, finds comrades along the way. His travels are as much personal quest as historical research and this adds extra depth and ric 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!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Radiah

    It was almost with a heavy heart that I finished the last chapter in Jason Elliot’s “An Unexpected Light”. This is one of few books I’ve read where I truly felt like the author’s travelling companion. Mr. Elliot is certainly gifted. He weaves together the sights and sounds of Afghanistan together with history, both ancient and recent, and encounters with the fiercely independent people. Afghanistan has long been a fascination for me having always been portrayed in the news as a violent locale, su 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.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Bibliophile

    I never felt that Jason Elliot's An Unexpected Light lived up to its glowing reviews by authors whom I love (e.g. William Dalrymple). For one thing, for a book that's a hybrid memoir-travelogue, Elliot never really explained why he was so fascinated by Afghanistan in the first place that he went to fight in the war against in the Russians. He was nineteen years old the first time he visited Afghanistan, but ... fighting in someone else's war (and nearly dying) certainly requires some sort of exp 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!

  5. 5 out of 5

    Connie

    Loved traveling in Afghanistan and loved the opportunity to revisit it with Jason Elliot.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Naeem

    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 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.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Ron

    This book is a gem. The author's prose style is elegantly suited to his subject matter, capturing the wonderful complexities and nuances of Afghanistan's breathtaking physical terrain and its people, whether in urban Kabul, its remote regional centers, or its far-flung mountain villages, and all in the aftermath of the disastrous Russian occupation. Meanwhile, it is the 1990s, and civil warfare continues as the Kabul government resists the increasing military pressure from Taliban forces. The jou 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.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Joseph Gendron

    Wow. What a surprise this book was. Jason Elliot is quite a writer and this book is full of wonder, adventure and humanity. It has much to share on the history and culture of an area of the world that is America's current quagmire. Jason traveled alone and his remarkable adventures were a balm for this currently office and duty bound traveler. The title of the book speaks directly to the spirit of the people of Afganistan he experienced. He writes "Alone again and writing up the days events by c 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!)

  9. 5 out of 5

    Chloe

    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.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Helen

    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.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Sphinx Feathers

    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.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    A lyrical and poetic travel book. It is beautifully written and you understand how he immersed himself in the country

  13. 5 out of 5

    Harry Hunter

    Although it took a while to adjust to the slow pace Elliot’s narrative is gripping and vividly brings the people and places he meets and visits to life. His description of the heart pounding truck journey in the north-east was particularly gripping, with the imagery of the precarious route far above the white torrents in the valley below staying with me long after I’d put the book down. However I have skipped through several of Elliot’s essay like asides (the section on the roots of Dervish beli 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.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Socraticgadfly

    An enchanting book overall. 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 An enchanting book overall. 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.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Jim

    This is a remarkable travel book. It was written in 1999, as the Taliban was attempting to extend its control over Afghanistan, still not in control of Kabul, but in power in the south of the country and battling for control of the territory around Herat. One has to marvel at the courage and audacity of the author, who travels to Kabul, throughout the north of the country and to Herat, most of the time on his own. He relies on the goodwill of the Afghans, with whom he is, obviously, particularly This is a remarkable travel book. It was written in 1999, as the Taliban was attempting to extend its control over Afghanistan, still not in control of Kabul, but in power in the south of the country and battling for control of the territory around Herat. One has to marvel at the courage and audacity of the author, who travels to Kabul, throughout the north of the country and to Herat, most of the time on his own. He relies on the goodwill of the Afghans, with whom he is, obviously, particularly enamored as well as the hospitality of the few foreigners (correspondents, aid personnel and missionaries) for places to stay. Even with the Taliban routed from most of the country today, it is hard to imagine traveling about Afghanistan as the author did. The book is a combination account of the author's travels, his interactions with Afghans and foreigners living in Afghanistan and a very healthy and enlightening dose of political and cultural history of the country, starting as far back as the invasion by Alexander the Great. The writing is excellent, and exhilaration of traveling vicariously through the eyes and the writing of the author is terrific. A great book.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Sue

    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 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.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Marla

    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. 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.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Patty

    Well-written travel book set in war-torn Afghanistan about two decades ago. I found myself distracted by my awareness of what would come next, or for us, what is happening there now. Yet in some ways, it's too recent to be called a "historical" travel book. One of those books I will have to read again someday to appreciate further, I guess. Though it is amazing the pieces of earth that have been fought over for centuries with little resolution, and the fortitude of those who try to make a life i 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.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Andrea Homier

    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.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Trisha Burke

    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.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Annie

    I really did enjoy this book thoroughly, as it illuminated a country that I had not previously thought much about except in an abstract way, a thoroughly American absent-minded, conceited way (Afghanistan? Isn't that in the middle east somewhere, where they shipped troops to fight terrorism?). The author clearly feels a strong kinship toward the country and its people, and I think he earnestly tries to do them credit. I appreciated his perspective, his honesty, and his adventurous spirit. That be I really did enjoy this book thoroughly, as it illuminated a country that I had not previously thought much about except in an abstract way, a thoroughly American absent-minded, conceited way (Afghanistan? Isn't that in the middle east somewhere, where they shipped troops to fight terrorism?). The author clearly feels a strong kinship toward the country and its people, and I think he earnestly tries to do them credit. I appreciated his perspective, his honesty, and his adventurous spirit. That being said, I could not escape the fact that this was a book written by a man, surrounded by men, with a male perspective of the country and its citizens. The author will mention his wife and child in one sentence, then reflect on how he is attracted to more or less every woman he comes across in Afghanistan, whether they be Afghan or expat. Women have no role in this story, except to be objects of curiosity or desire; this is, as the author acknowledges, in part due to the extreme segregation of society there. Part of the fun of reading a book about traveling is to imagine that you are traveling in this country as well. I could not imagine this, as I felt that all the doors which stood open for Mr. Elliot would have closed in my face. I still managed to see the beauty in his travels, but the feeling of looking into a world which someone like could not take part in made me quite sad.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Sally Edsall

    Very readable, and a good accompaniment / antidote to the stauration (and stereotypical) media coverage of events in Afghanistan in recent times. The parts that interest me most are the cultural observations - the "humanising" of a people who are otherwise seen as exotic, unfathomable 'others'. I was fascinated by the observations and experiences Elliot has with the very severe and serious looking Afghans in front of the camera, and the warmth and hospitality and cheerfulness he encounters. It was Very readable, and a good accompaniment / antidote to the stauration (and stereotypical) media coverage of events in Afghanistan in recent times. The parts that interest me most are the cultural observations - the "humanising" of a people who are otherwise seen as exotic, unfathomable 'others'. I was fascinated by the observations and experiences Elliot has with the very severe and serious looking Afghans in front of the camera, and the warmth and hospitality and cheerfulness he encounters. It was quite chilling when he was trying to get to Bamiyan, a feat he never achieved...and thinking about the loss of those statues under the Taliban. Also the description of the glories of the mosque/medresse at Herat, counterpoised with the reality when he gets there. I just cannot imagine what Afghanistan looked like - would love to see some pictures of it in its glorious past. We see so many images now of rubble and destruction, I can't imagine the avenues of trees and beautiful gardens that once were, but Elliot's word pictures help. However, Elliot's sory is, by necessity, half the story only. Elliot, as a man, can only interact with men during his journeys. This is not, of course, Elliot's fault. I got the feeling in quite a few places that Elliot was startlingly comfortable with all the male company, and hardly missed the company of women. When he was in women's company he was only ever able to objectify them. His reaction to the attractive Afghan woman he encountered (Herat?) was but one example. At the expat gatherings it was the same, and the foreign journalists he usually had something, if not disparaging, then at least arch, to say about them. I do think at times he might be prone to romanticising those with whom he seems to have most sympathy - the mujahadeen of the north. Plenty is known about the atrocities they have been involved with over the years, and organisations like RAWA certainly have no more time for them than the Taleban. He certainly lionises the Northern Alliance, the mujahadeen - it is obvious his sympathies lie with them, which is understandable, seeing as he was with them and also the Soviet occupation was untenable and vile. Nevertheless, we know that the alliance were no saints at all, and we get no sense of that. While I found all his journeys interesting, I loved the section in the latter part of the book about Herat the best. It was the only place where he met resistance and suspicion from the ex-pats (the Swiss and French aid workers), and where he met the most "interesting" non-Afghans, especially the Christian missionaries. Then there was the English couple and their children in the village north of Heart. I would love to have known a bit more about them and their motivations. But best of all was when he visited the shrine and stayed the night with the sufis and the descriptions of the Talebs who came along making their noises of - ecstacy? reverie? This was also the scene of the only time where I felt that he felt any real fear. The tension when he was having to dash back to the missionaries after he had been thrown out of the aid place was real. The footnote on p 254 is really interesting and has made me conscious of the phenomenon he describes every time an item comes on TV about countries where Muslims are the majority: the image of Moslems at prayer. He's right! It does accompany nearly every single news item - those bums raised in the air! And imagine if every time there was an item about, say Northern Ireland, it was accompanied by an image of Caholics genuflecting! Absurd, we would think. As he says it: "I have sometimes wondered what the Moslem interpretation might be of news reports of the West if they always began the footage of glum faces filing into churches in their Sunday best in order to drink the blood of a human God."

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jenn Williamson

    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.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Chana

    This is what I wrote when I was about a quarter into it: An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliot. It was published in 1999 when the Taliban was first coming into power. It is interesting, although it is sort of the hunky-dory version of his trip across Afghanistan by foot, horse, truck. He has a guide for some of it but mostly he is an Englishman with rudimentary Persian (at least in the beginning) traveling on his own and getting by on his wits and his trust in fate. It is in This is what I wrote when I was about a quarter into it: An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliot. It was published in 1999 when the Taliban was first coming into power. It is interesting, although it is sort of the hunky-dory version of his trip across Afghanistan by foot, horse, truck. He has a guide for some of it but mostly he is an Englishman with rudimentary Persian (at least in the beginning) traveling on his own and getting by on his wits and his trust in fate. It is interesting for sure. Then after I finished the book I wrote the rest of this review: What I mean by hunky-dory, is it seems he makes an effort to tell us the good things and put all of his experiences into some kind of positive light. The more unpleasant things are briefly mentioned, usually with a self-deprecating sense of humor, so one kind of dismiss them. I think that this is because there is so much negative opinion about Afghanistan already that he is trying not to add to it. I found the book became more intense as it continued, and sad. I found myself repeating what one of the residents of Afghanistan says, "Why Afghanistan?" One can't help but feel heartbroken at the destruction of Afghanistan. He published this in 1999. People were hoping that war would end and that the Taliban would just disappear or something. No such thing, right? Why did we declare war on Afghanistan after 9/11? What a betrayal of a country that thought we were allies! The Taliban were giving refuge to Osama bin Laden, but to declare war on the country? The US evidently had a significant role in arming and supporting the formation of the Taliban. The people who perpetrated 9/11 were Saudi. Did we declare war on Saudi Arabia? No we did not. Maybe that would have endangered the flow of oil. Oh, I am plenty confused. But I am heartbroken for the people of Afghanistan. The Russians, the British, the U.S., the various groups vying for power within the country, the Taliban. Will Afghanistan ever see peace? So this book is written by a unaffiliated British traveler to Afghanistan. Some of his writing is brilliant, very funny. Some of the political and religious opinions he expresses are slightly confused as he tries to avoid taking sides or expressing strong opinions. I bookmarked a lot to share but in the end I just can't, I'm not even sure it matters. The book takes an emotional bite out of the reader and like the author at the end, I "began to weep".

  25. 4 out of 5

    Emilie Greenhalgh

    This book had some outstanding moments that I eagerly read and sections that I practically skipped. That being said, it has something for everyone as it combines well-researched historical explanations with personal, reflective anecdotes, musings on religion and culture, and vivid descriptions of the Afghan countryside. The latter I often felt bordered on too much (I tend to prefer a starker Hemingway description...get to the point!) and I sometimes wondered how many metaphors could be on one p This book had some outstanding moments that I eagerly read and sections that I practically skipped. That being said, it has something for everyone as it combines well-researched historical explanations with personal, reflective anecdotes, musings on religion and culture, and vivid descriptions of the Afghan countryside. The latter I often felt bordered on too much (I tend to prefer a starker Hemingway description...get to the point!) and I sometimes wondered how many metaphors could be on one page. It was also rather amusing to read a description of the roofs of houses in Karokh village being the same shape as a young woman's breast. Embarrassing description when considering the context! Having lived in Afghanistan (in Herat), I very much enjoyed many if his stories but also warn of his tendency to romanticize the country. Highlights include his earlier experiences staying with the mujahadeen and his fascinatingly morbid description of all of the different types of mines found in the country. All in all, a generally lovely read.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Nancy

    I loved this book because I spent time in Afghanistan in 1973. Jason Elliot was born in 1975 and spent time in Afghanistan in 1994 when he was 19 and 2004 when he was 29. I was 18 when I was in Afghanistan. I was there the year before the King was deposed and the political climate totally changed. What I loved about this book is the fact that by reading Jason Elliot's take so many years later, I realize and appreciate the fact that I really got Afghanistan as an 18 year old. So much of what he se I loved this book because I spent time in Afghanistan in 1973. Jason Elliot was born in 1975 and spent time in Afghanistan in 1994 when he was 19 and 2004 when he was 29. I was 18 when I was in Afghanistan. I was there the year before the King was deposed and the political climate totally changed. What I loved about this book is the fact that by reading Jason Elliot's take so many years later, I realize and appreciate the fact that I really got Afghanistan as an 18 year old. So much of what he sees and loves is what I saw and loved too. I read the book on Kobo and never knew how far into the book I was, how much was left ahead, etc. and that took something away from reading it for me. I couldn't see the photos on Kobo, but could on my ipad. But really wish I had read the paper version of this book. I learned tons about the history. A wonderful read - but I qualify to say that had I not travelled to Afghanistan and loved the country and the people so much, I likely wouldn't have made it through this book.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Grete

    As a wielder of prose, Elliot is a pleasant surprise--not because I expected less, but because I expected nothing at all having never heard of him before. His descriptions are something to aspire to, and as an example of creative nonfiction this book is top notch. Content wise, I was constantly aware that this book was written from an almost inherently colonialist perspective. Elliot does not seem disrespectful--quite the opposite--but there's no escaping that the book is more about a white Europ As a wielder of prose, Elliot is a pleasant surprise--not because I expected less, but because I expected nothing at all having never heard of him before. His descriptions are something to aspire to, and as an example of creative nonfiction this book is top notch. Content wise, I was constantly aware that this book was written from an almost inherently colonialist perspective. Elliot does not seem disrespectful--quite the opposite--but there's no escaping that the book is more about a white European man's experience in Afghanistan than it is about Afghanistan itself. Most of the writings about Afghanistan that he alludes to come from Western-named authors, too, which was disappointing but I suppose not surprising. That said, Elliot still has drastically more knowledge about the place than I do, so I did learn a lot. I'd say the text has the potential to be edifying, but needs to be understood in context.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Austin

    I admire travelers like Jason Elliot who seem to able to experience a place and its peoples more deeply than 99% of the rest of us. I especially enjoyed the parts where he questioned why he was there, or whether he should continue. You could call it wandering with purpose, and its enhanced by some knowledge and a lot of curiosity. Great first book. The parts I didn't like include the flight on a giant bird over parts of Afghanistan (to get the lay of the land), and many parts where it seems like I admire travelers like Jason Elliot who seem to able to experience a place and its peoples more deeply than 99% of the rest of us. I especially enjoyed the parts where he questioned why he was there, or whether he should continue. You could call it wandering with purpose, and its enhanced by some knowledge and a lot of curiosity. Great first book. The parts I didn't like include the flight on a giant bird over parts of Afghanistan (to get the lay of the land), and many parts where it seems like the author may be flaunting his knowledge. In those parts I didn't feel like I was learning anything, just that this guy did a lot of research and studying. It would be hard not to mention huge parts of history or important peoples, but including them sometimes dilutes the story being told. This happens just a few times, and most of the time Jason does a great job of telling an engaging story in the present and connecting its significance to the past.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    I remember from a delirium of fatigue collapsing against a rocky mound that turned out to be a camel, and an old man bringing me tea and pressing fragments of bread from his hand into mine with a muttered blessing. Personally, I can't even figure out how to get to the Pacific Northwest. Maybe not even to nearest state. And with no real interest in world travel, I have no idea why I picked this up. Sure, it has that distasteful stink of an Englishman in the East and some truly awful metaphors, but I remember from a delirium of fatigue collapsing against a rocky mound that turned out to be a camel, and an old man bringing me tea and pressing fragments of bread from his hand into mine with a muttered blessing. Personally, I can't even figure out how to get to the Pacific Northwest. Maybe not even to nearest state. And with no real interest in world travel, I have no idea why I picked this up. Sure, it has that distasteful stink of an Englishman in the East and some truly awful metaphors, but it's filled with sincerity and other warm things that I tend to avoid in literature and other places. I realize that I like it books when the author chides us for our unfriendliness and frailty. One thing which brings the book down is that Elliot falls into the historical pit of describing "their women." Half the time with longing and half the time with annoyance, but always with glaring errors.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Theresa Leone Davidson

    This started out great because I was very interested in reading about Afghanistan, especially the Afghanistan that existed before the war we are currently fighting there. The people and how Elliot describes them is the best part - he has a genuine affection and admiration for the Afghan people and backs it up with stories of their kindness. Ultimately, however, the book is bogged down by the author's less than riveting account of every single thing he did while he was there, and it becomes tedio This started out great because I was very interested in reading about Afghanistan, especially the Afghanistan that existed before the war we are currently fighting there. The people and how Elliot describes them is the best part - he has a genuine affection and admiration for the Afghan people and backs it up with stories of their kindness. Ultimately, however, the book is bogged down by the author's less than riveting account of every single thing he did while he was there, and it becomes tedious. Easily 150 pages could have been edited without hurting the book. Also, and this is no small thing: reading about how good and kind the Afghans are only makes it that much more depressing. The war that we are fighting there is one I believe is justified and necessary but when I think about just how many civilians have been killed, it is even more disturbing.

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