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An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan Paperback – November 17, 2001

4.4 out of 5 stars 72 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

An account of a trip through war-torn and poverty-stricken Afghanistan, this remarkable book could have been titled "An Unexpected Beauty." Elliot, who first traveled to the country as a 19-year-old enthusiast of the mujahedin, has no illusions about the inherent shortcomings of travel writing ("a semi-fictional collection of descriptions that affirm the prejudices of the day"). He also dismisses the journalistic method, which relies on a single bombed-out street in Kabul to monolithically represent an entire nation. So it is not without some self-deprecation that he offers his own strange and improbable adventures in the country's lawless stretches and perilous mountain passes. "I had in mind a quietly epic sort of journey," he explains. "I had given up on earlier and more ambitious schemes and was prepared to make an ally of uncertainty, with which luck so often finds a partnership." Humorous, honest and wry, a devotee of Afghanistan's culture, Elliot strives to debunk the myth of "the inscrutability of the East" and paint, in careful detail, a portrait of a deeply spiritual people. For a first-time author, his literary talents are exceptional. His sonorous prose moves forward with the purposeful grace of a river; it reads like a text unearthed from an ancient land. (Feb.) Forecast: Already lauded in England, this book announces the arrival of a major travel writer. It should capture the hearts of armchair travelers who long for the grace, wit and irreverence of an era long gone.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

This extraordinary debut is an account of Elliot's two visits to Afghanistan. The first occurred when he joined the mujaheddin circa 1979 and was smuggled into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan; the second happened nearly ten years later, when he returned to the still war-torn land. The skirmishes that Elliot painstakingly describes here took place between the Taliban and the government of Gen. Ahmad Shah Massoud in Kabul. Today, the Taliban are in power, but Elliot's sympathies clearly lie with Massoud. Although he thought long and hard before abandoning his plan to travel to Hazara territory, where "not a chicken could cross that pass without being fired on," Elliot traveled widely in the hinterland, visiting Faizabad in the north and Herat in the west. The result is some of the finest travel writing in recent years. With its luminous descriptions of the people, the landscape (even when pockmarked by landmines), and Sufism, this book has all the hallmarks of a classic, and it puts Elliot in the same league as Robert Byron and Bruce Chatwin. Enthusiastically recommended for all travel collections.DRavi Shenoy, Naperville P.L., IL
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 473 pages
  • Publisher: Picador USA (October 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312288468
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312288464
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (72 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,172,968 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Daniel J. Rose on October 2, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Of the currently posted reviews, it is interesting that they either rate this book at the top or at the bottom of the rating scale. This is a sign that the book elicits much more comment on the reviewer's state of mind than on the book itself. My review will be no different.
While I second those who extoll the book's poetry and its vivid portrayal of the Afghan land and culture, to me the real value of the book lies in its deepest appeal to the conscience (or lack of conscience) in the reader. Mr. Elliot's report is unique in that it covers two or three visits that he undertook that span the time during and after the Soviet war, just prior to Taleban occupation of Kabul and the roughly 90% of Afghanistan that it occupies today.
During this time, under extremely difficult circumstances, Mr. Elliot had access to people and places that would shortly be cut off and, in many cases, destroyed during the ensuing Taleban onslaught. The result, both of the circumstances and Mr. Elliot's reporting on them, is a tale filled with longing--a longing for some of what is, much of what was and has been lost, and what may never be recovered, an innocence and deeply human sympathy ravaged by the cynicism of the world.
Afghanistan was never an easy place to live, but it was long a place where humanity reigned supreme in the daily lives of common people. Some have called it the height of civilization, low-tech though it was. It had long been the seat of a kind of basic (and advanced) hospitality that has been all but lost, though much imitated, in much of the rest of the world. Elliot's deep love and intimate knowledge of these people and the remaining remnants of their culture informs every page of his vivid account.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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 humor that has made the country a favorite of travelers 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 traveler, 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 Elliott's 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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Format: Hardcover
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.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
Mr. Elliot, obviously, is well connected in contemporary Afghan circles, both outside and inside Afghanistan. This fact enabled and encouraged him to travel in a most unusual and remote country during a most difficult and turbulent era. The author did not travel on a preplanned itinerary but from the start surrendered, instead, to encounters and events. This underlying current gives the account much of its unique quality and realism. The book is richly strewn with delightful coinages, penetrating insights sensitive observations, humor, historical and other intriguing information and descriptions. The, included, short introduction to Sufism is quite good. Puts Afghanistan and its people on the map. Erudite. A gripping and moving account of people and places entangled in the web of war-time meshed with the author personal inner-journey. A tribute to the human spirit.
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