A remarkable journey to the heart of a remarkable country
An Unexpected Light takes its title from Elliot's enduring wonder at his first encounter with Kabul, where "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 is this inability to completely capture a country and a people with which Elliot falls in love that characterises this ambitious, sprawling book. Elliot's travels are truly extraordinary, from his teenage experiences with the mujaheddin in their campaigns against the Soviets to his truly hair-raising travels to the north of the country and often very funny evocation of the expatriate community of war-torn Kabul. However, in describing his travels Elliot also meditates among other things on the significance of travel, the tortured multicultural history of Afghanistan, "the results of successive clashings together of an impressive list of civilisations" and the worldly mysticism of Sufism. At times Elliot takes on too much, the prose becomes too lush and poetically congested and the book could have done with sharp editorial pruning, as it feels at least 50 pages too long at its close. Nevertheless, it is this diffuse nature that makes An Unexpected Light such a vivid and original piece of travel writing, based on a series of dramatic adventures. What emerges throughout is the remarkable generosity and placidity of a people who have been more accidentally enmeshed in violent conflict than congenitally predisposed towards embracing warfare.
Elliot recalls that prior to his first departure in the late 1970s, an amused Afghan diplomat suggested that "maybe one day you'll write a book about Afghanistan". In An Unexpected Light Afghanistan has finally received the loving, sympathetic and poetic book that it deserves. --Jerry Brotton
I'd pick up this book every time with unfailing excitement, joy and curiosity as to where it would take me next, and what I would discover. The sense of warmth with which the author distills his story is overpowering and infectious. He clearly loves the country, its people, its culture and its language dearly, and much of this affection cannot but be rubbed off onto the reader. Alternatingly thoughtful, comical, scholarly and intimate, the spectrum of emotion and experience traversed is so wide, as to produce a true feeling of bonding between reader, author and subject-matter.
The book generated in me a two-pronged opening of the heart - one, to this amazingly beautiful and hospitable country, and two, to the author - whose erudition in the background of the country, its history, its language (even to the extent of reading and writing Persian) and culture left me with uncalculable respect for him. (Quite apart from being such a nice bloke and interesting companion, that it's a real pleasure to spend hours in his company!) The reader is imbued throughout with the sense of security that here, at last, is a travel book written from the point of view of someone who truly understands his subject and in my opinion, is as close to it as any foreigner could ever be. Only someone with this much familiarity with, and passion for, Afghanistan in its entirety, could have been able to travel so extensively under such conditions. Which is why another emotion insidiously joined the others as I read on - envy!
Most importantly, from my original position of ignorance due to a common shameless twinge of Western prejudice, I now feel I can understand and respect the richness of Islam and will never again judge this religion, or those who practise it, by the benchmark of the few extremists we Westerners are given a daily diet of on TV, which in itself I would say gives the book great social value.
Altogether an amazing read - or rather experience. I had a true feeling of wistful parting when I found to my dismay that the book was almost finished!