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4.5 out of 5 stars
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on 25 June 2003
Reading this book was akin to falling in love!...the only way this reader, at least, can describe the emotions generated by Jason Elliot's erudite, passionate account of his intense journey through Afghanistan. His journey is lyrically revealed and the reader drawn to share it with a vividness and understanding only a writer of such descriptive genius could engender. In tandem with his physical journey, Jason also reflects spiritually on his experiences which somehow lifts this personal journey into a universal context and pulls the reader even closer into feeling empathy and human brotherhood with not only the author, but the Afghanis themselves and their country.
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!
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on 10 December 2001
This book is a fascinating read... The author doesn't just give you a travelogue of Afghanistan, he ingratiates you into its culture, the people and the sheer hardship they endure whilst maintaining a friendly and generous attitude. Elliot struck me as a very brave chap, either that or he went native. Approaching the odd warlord, black turbaned Taliban soldier with a gun, or walking through mountain passes that had been mined from the Russian invasion was all part of his remit in writing this intensely interesting book. I must admit Afgan culture was not top of my reading list until I saw that this book had won the Thomas Cook/ Daily Telegraph travel book award (a feat in itself). Winning this award has been good recommendation in the past for other travel books i've read, and this is the case again.
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on 31 May 2002
Thoroughly recommended to anyone with a sense of curiosity about a people shrouded in mystery. Jason Elliott has succeeded in revealing in an 'unexpected light' the multi-faceted character of Afghanistan and the Afghans. As a sympathetic, sensitive and often transparent traveller, he has been allowed access to even the most sacrosanct of Afghan rituals, and has even lived as a 'mujaheddin'. What is most affecting, however, is the sense of the Afghan spirit and humanity that Elliott conveys. In a country that continues to be shattered by the most inhumane of wars, I urge everyone with a sense of morality to read it and understand that Afghanistan is not simply an obscure Central Asian province that breeds so-called Holy Martyrs, but a beautiful, complex and characterful country which must surely have a happier future ahead of it.
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on 8 January 2001
I have read many many travel books but this must be in the top 10, alongside authors like Peter Fleming's central Asian journey to Tartary. Jason has written a captivating account of very entrepid travels in much of Afghanistan. His descriptions of the people and their life are vivid and enchanting, and his attempts to test himself with unplanned journeys into the most dificult areas leave one full of admiration. When he fails to reach the wild central regions of Bamiyan in winter one shares his disappointment and relief. The early effect of the Taleban on Afghanistan are also discovered in Herat. I was left wondering what he will write next. One half hopes he will go back and visit areas that he was unable to reach last time, perhaps venturing into Nuristan.Whatever, a true classic, and readers might be interested to buy the 2 wonderful books of photographs by Roland & Sabrina Michaud of Afghanistan and Tartary from Thames & Hudson. They lived in Afghanistan for 14 years before the '79 Soviet invasion and made a unique photographic accompaniment to Jason Elliott's more literary effort. Both a discovery to be treasured and returned to.
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on 31 October 2001
A keen traveller, I love to broaden my knowledge and read about other cultures and countries, regardless of whether I have yet visited them. I spotted Jason Elliot's book some months ago, and added it to my "wish list" for Christmas. But then the tragic events of September 11 came to pass and, knowing only a little about Afghanistan, I decided to read the book now rather than wait. It goes without saying that all travel writing is subjective; after all, it's about someone else's journey into other lands and cultures, and you get to learn about it through their eyes and words. That aside, I found Jason Elliot's book wonderfully insightful, into the people of Afghanistan, aspects of their life and religion, the landscape of their country, the country's history, and the way that it's been torn apart by invasion and war. And there were some very enlightening details - for example, it was the first time that I became aware of the oil-gas pipeline project that is now so obviously a key factor in political events at a high level. All in all, I would recommend this book to anyone who wishes to have a better understanding of Afghanistan and its people.
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on 15 November 1999
An extraordinary book that transcends the bounds of travelogue and gives us deep and personal insight into one of the most the world's most inaccessible regions. Elliot's Afghan friends and travel companions convey, in the midst of the grief and difficulty of war, an enviable warmth and humour that has made the country a favourite of travellers for decades before the Soviet invasion. There are many hair raising trips in overloaded trucks over vertiginous mountain passes, lavish descriptions of ruins seldom seen by westerners, and intriguing historical facts from this crossroads of peoples for the traveller, adventurer and historian. Elliot writes from the heart and out of love for the Afghan people and land and this shines through on every page more than any such book I've read since Thesiger's Arabian Sands (and upon inspection, even Thesiger's motives begin to seem cloudy compared with Elliots affection and respect for his subjects). You will put this book down with a profound respect for the Afghan people and immense desire to visit this land... I cannot recommend this book highly enough - if you read it you will soon find yourself searching through old travel guides and looking for a way to travel the roads of Afghanistan first hand.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 16 August 2001
Afghanistan's current inaccessibility to Westerners presents a paradox of sorts: on the one hand, travelogues have a long tradition of providing armchair portraits of countries and people not easy visited, and on the other hand, in extreme cases such as contemporary Afghanistan, the difficulties in moving into and around such a country make such travelogues all the rarer. We should be therefore be grateful for this book, in which Jason Elliot recounts his travels and impressions from a trip made in 1979 as a teenager, and a trip 20 years later when he had learned Persian. It's a very traditional and endearing piece of travel literature, full of evocative descriptions of the sights and sounds, and most importantly, the people. While the book has plenty of the other usual travelogue elements-detailed descriptions of perilous trips in overstuffed decrepit vehicles, beautiful descriptions of obscure but astonishing ancient ruins, digestible tidbits of history, and asides of longing for unattainable women-the book's greatest value comes from Elliot's sensitive treatment of the Afghans he meets and befriends. Far from being the religious totalitarianists commonly associated with the country, virtually everyone he meets-almost every one of whom is male-is unstintingly curious, tough, enduring, and most of all, warmly hospitable. When he does encounter the Taliban, he notes how other Afghans warily regard them as powerful outsiders, with no constituency save themselves. Indeed, Elliot, writing in 1999, seems to scoff at the notion of them ever controlling the entire country, as their brand of Islam is so at odds with the forms widely practiced in Afghanistan over history. Elliot spends a fair amount of time and effort in trying to get to various Sufi shrines, and he does a good job of trying to explain the mystical nature of Sufism. The book does suffer a little bit from Elliot's going back and forth between his two visits, and occasionally one loses track as to which visit an anecdote dates from, but the perspective he gains from having traveled in the country twenty years apart more than makes up for it. Elliot vividly conveys the troubles the Soviet forces had in the war, as well as the classic guerilla tactics used by the Afghans. He takes great pains to point out that the Afghan resistance was not a religiously based one, despite the connotation the word "mujaheddin" has taken in the West, but another struggle in a long succession of resisting incursions by more powerful states. What also emerges from almost every Afghan mouth is a sentiment of having been "abandoned" by America following the Soviet withdrawal. He makes no direct judgment on the matter himself, but like any good reporter, lets the people speak for themselves. In the end, one is left lamenting the destruction of Afghanistan during its tenure as proxy Cold War battleground, and the resultant forces that have allowed the Taliban to impose their will-a least for the moment. If only one thing is totally clear from their history, it is that the Afghan people will only live so long under the yoke of oppressors.
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on 17 March 2000
'An Unexpected Light' is thought-provoking, moving, shocking, sensitive, humorous and unflinchingly honest throughout. Jason Elliot writes passionately about the culture, history and present torment of the Afghan people. He risks his life every day (usually with admirable calm) in this beautiful but highly dangerous country, whether on unsurfaced mountain roads or on the streets of a mined city which is bombed daily. His love and respect for the humanity and spirit of the Afghan people blazes through every elegant, precise sentence. He is a keen observer; enjoy a wealth of wise travelling truths and unforgettable, often poignant anecdotes as he eases beneath the chaos of war and spends time with the people of Afghanistan, not to mention the encounters with Westerners living and working in a faraway, war-torn land. A wonderful book.
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on 12 April 2013
i started reading this book ten years ago and was gripped by his wonderful evocations of the landscape, the people and his reactions. i stopped half-way through. in a spate of reading about this region i picked it up again and realised why i had not perservered ten years ago. starting about half way through,he spends too much time on the fine details of history and religious doctrine for my liking - it feels a bit as if he is showing off his knowledge. some of this is useful but i find i am skim reading waiting to get to the travelogue. that said it is a good book that really sets you thinking and paints a fascinating picture of Afghanistan's struggles before full force of the Taleban was felt and America/UK entered the scene

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on 16 November 2001
I spent ten years working in Afghanistan and left a few months before the author arrived there in the mid 1990s. So I knew most of the people he met and saw most of the places he visited. His descriptions are perfection. Moreover his understanding is as innate as it is deep and indeed moving. He is an accomplished stylist and a quick study of foreign lands.
This will tell you more about Afghanistan than a dozen of the current, quick-and-dirty journalism books knocked out by hacks over a weekend. This is a book you will refuse to lend, or buy in multiple copies so that one never leaves home.
It is, without a doubt, the best book on Afghans since Robert Byron's Road to Oxiana in the mid-1930s (which it rivals).
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