Thursday, 11 March 2021

Elliot, Jason "An Unexpected Light"

Elliot, Jason "An Unexpected Light. Travels in Afghanistan" - 1999

I have read several books about Afghanistan, mostly about the war, some about ordinary people living in the country and/or especially the women. So far, my favourite one has been "The Sewing Circles of Herat: A Personal Voyage Through Afghanistan" by Christina Lamb but this one definitely comes close to pushing it of its podium.

This book was recommended to me by a friend who was taking a world trip with her husband at the same time as the author was in Afghanistan. They spent a while in Peshawar (Pakistan), very close to the Afghan border, and she mentioned that the first part of the book is just how they remember it from that time. Hardly any Westerners got into Afghanistan in those days, so it's a lovely virtual journey to take.

Jason Elliot is extraordinary. Not only did he go to Afghanistan for the first time when he was eighteen and then already explored the troubled country, no, he returned later and travelled everywhere, he even accompanied the Mujaheddin on one of their campaigns, he went into areas where even Afghans wouldn't want to go because it was too dangerous and told him it was worse for foreigners. Quite spectacular.

He has a mind for languages and is as enterprising as any hero in an adventure story. At the same time, he must be a very sympathetic character as he seems to fall in with any kind of person. His interest in other people and their troubles is enchanting and certainly brings many people to tell him about their problems and sorrows. In a war-ridden country, he manages to engage with all sides and report about them. Spectacular.

But even behind the scenes of fights and poverty, he can tell us about the beauty of this country and the kindness of its inhabitants.

A fascinating book. If you're only remotely interested in Afghanistan and its history, this is the book for you.

From the back cover:

"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.


  1. I'll make a note of this one. I too have read books set in Afghanistan. Very unique country. Good review.

    1. Thank you, Judy. I'm sure you'll love it.

      There is so much history in this country and not just since 1978. What I like about this book is, it's not a novel (same as the one by Christina Lamb) but a detailed journalistic account about the people and their country.

  2. I'll have to look for this one in the future. I have read very little about the modern Middle East; my interest has always been in the ancient Middle East. Perhaps I will have to change that!

    1. You are right about that, of course, Sarah. The ancient history is a lot more interesting there. But this is also important for today, so that's why I like reading it, I like to know what's going on here and now.

      I never think about Afghanistan or any of the "Stans" as the "Middle East" but you are right, of course, they belong to the "Greater Middle East". LOL. The concept is all a little confusing.

    2. It's true that it gets blurry where the Middle East ends and Eastern Europe starts. This also may be because of the perspective from the US and lumping it with Iraq and Iran, particularly the last twenty years and our constant presence in the region in that time period. I would consider Afghanistan to be the edge of the Middle East, whereas most of the other "Stans" become Western Asia or Eastern Europe. At least that makes sense to me, I could be completely wrong!

    3. Very blurry indeed. The original Middle East is the Arab peninsula reaching up until Iran and Turkey and including Egypt. Apparently, the term "Greater Middle East" was started during the Bush era and that includes the whole Arab world, including North Africa, parts which I would never call Middle East since they are not East of Europe. LOL.

      And Europe has no Stans. It ends at the Urals in Russia. I know it's always very confusing because politically, some countries have sort of been added to or taken off the continent. Turkey, for instance, has only a very small part that belongs to Europe and many Turkish people don't like it being mentioned in any European lists, at all.

      Nevertheless, no matter where they belong to, I am always interested in what's going on in those countries.