Ever since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1978, this mysterious, romantic country has been shrouded in obscurity. As the Soviets forbade western reporters to enter the war zone and the Afghan fighters, the mujaheddin, found themselves inaccurately portrayed as savage, religious zealots, Afghanistan quietly slipped off the front page and into media obscurity. This veiled the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who lost their lives and the third of the population that fled into exile. However, in the schoolboy imagination of Jason Elliot back in the late 1970s, Afghanistan took a profound hold: "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 succeeding) to shoot down the latest in helicopter gunships". Still in his teens, Elliot set off for Kabul and the result, nearly 20 years later, is An Unexpected Light
, the remarkable account of Elliot's travels in this extraordinary country, first in the midst of Soviet occupation and then in the face of the rise of the Taliban to power in the 1990s.
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
A remarkable journey to the heart of a remarkable country