Certainly, winning a prestigious travel book award can do wonders for the sales of any such volume. But it's the raging war in Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11th attacks that will surely draw many a critical and complementary eye to Jason Elliot's passionate and entertaining book, AN UNEXPECTED LIGHT: Travels in Afghanistan. With help from the International Committee of the Red Cross, Elliott was able to visit the homeland of his forefathers and find, in those subsequent trips, a homeland of his own in his heart, in his mind and in his soul. Although much of his time there is spent during the years of the Russian invasion, somehow he finds, amidst all the pain and politics, an "unexpected light" of culture and experience that regales him with its ever-changing power and ethnic magic.
The rugged and often unsparing landscape of Afghanistan is purely and magically conjured up with Elliott's attention to detail. "The landscape was cruelly beautiful. It would be wrong to call it countryside; there was no softness for the eye to caress along the route, no fields stubbed with grazing livestock on shady coppices of tended farmland. Instead, stretched in every direction towards an unreachable horizon were vaulting ridges of purple rock fractured by infinite corrugations, their bases piled with boulders." The life in that landscape proves to be at once both difficult and satisfying, and those impermeable mountains in the distance seem to beckon him on to greater adventures at every turn of the page. Elliott is just like any of us --- a civilian who finds new things interesting but is put off a little by the fears and disconsolations of wartime. With raw honesty, AN UNEXPECTED LIGHT often takes us into a rich and complexly woven tapestry.
Whether it's an Afghan soldier racing an aging vehicle over sandy stretches in pursuit of the next fight, or the seemingly endless stream of good-natured citizens who take Elliot in for tea and supper, the cast of characters in AN UNEXPECTED LIGHT is not what we would expect. They are kinder at some points and much harsher at others than we might think. Our present images of the staunch yet sad soldiers of the Northern Alliance and the threatening, dark-souled expressions of hate pronounced from the passive faces of the Taliban are often the types of Afghanis that Elliott doesn't come in contact with during his travels. Instead, families welcome him to private feasts, and young boys volunteer themselves as guides through rough terrain. Ali Khan, Elliott's guide for a difficult excursion into Russian bombing territory in the most northern part of the country, becomes --- for writer as well as reader --- a walking history lesson, explaining the inspirations and religious implications of the "mujaheddin" that we hear so much about today. These "Holy Warriors of Islam" seem almost pussycat-kind in Khan's perceptive banter, much different from what we have come to know in our experience with them.
It is not just that Elliott has managed to find an interesting balance between Afghanistan as war-torn territory and ancient, hallowed land --- it is the fact that he himself is a player in this adventure that makes this book worth reading. Could there be a better time to get to know this terrain better? I have heard and read little about this book, as other volumes concentrating on the Taliban and Islam make the bestseller lists. For the human experience within the greater political one, AN UNEXPLAINED LIGHT: Travels in Afghanistan will conjure up more realistic ideas about what and who we are working with and against in the New War on Terrorism.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on October 1, 2001