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Book Review

A Western Wanderer's Ambivalent Bond With a Haunting Land

AN UNEXPECTED LIGHT: Travels in Afghanistan; by Jason Elliot; Picador USA $30, 496 pages


More people travel than ever before. Flying off to London, Paris, Sydney or Tokyo has become routine, while expeditions to offbeat destinations like the Galapagos Islands or Antarctica come packaged as tours for the more venturesome. But it could also be said that ours is an age from which travel, in the classic sense, has all but disappeared. How many jet-setters experience the thrill--and danger--of venturing alone into unknown territory, the shock of finding oneself in a place that is radically different?

"An Unexpected Light" is a young Englishman's account of his travels in the war-torn yet starkly beautiful country of Afghanistan. Apart from mentioning that as a teenager he admired the moujahedeen freedom fighters, Jason Elliot does not--or perhaps cannot--quite explain why he first set out, at age 19, to visit a faraway country in the throes of a fierce war against the Soviet Union. But his love for the land and its people grew deeper as he came to know them better.

Learning about a foreign country, however, is only part of the traveler's story. Travel is also an attempt at self-transformation: "There is nothing," writes Elliot, "like an Asian journey--beginning with a catalogue of physical challenges and inconveniences, and all the assaults on conventions regarding time, distance and straight answers from people--to threaten . . . [one's habitual] definitions and the sense of self that builds on them." But although Elliot goes to Afghanistan to escape (or at least take a vacation from) the Western mind-set, he also recognizes, ironically, that nothing could be more "Western" than this kind of travel for its own sake. As he wanders through rugged mountains and remote villages, the poor yet generously hospitable people he meets can scarcely believe a man of modest means would spend his own money to travel to a distant land for no ostensible reason: "Again I was reminded of what a very Western pursuit is the business of travel--what a strange and improbable liberty it really is to be able to wander about a country halfway across the world from one's own."

Situated along the fabled silk routes, Afghanistan is a palimpsest of vanished civilizations, "a patchwork quilt of ethnic groups and tribal kingdoms enmeshed in history . . . " Elliot offers us a glimpse of its long and tumultuous past and explains its present afflictions. On his first trip, he witnesses and somewhat participates in the courageous struggle of the moujahedeen (not religious fanatics, he assures us, but ordinary citizens from every walk of life) against the Soviets: "A wizened old villager once put it to me simply: to lose one's home, he said, was nothing; to lose one's health was something; but to lose one's freedom--ah, that was quite a different matter . . ."

Returning 10 years later, Elliot is saddened to find a different kind of warfare going on among factions. The "moral clarity" has blurred, and people are growing weary of the endless destruction. It is no longer safe for members of one ethnic group to travel in another's territory. The forces of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban are besieging the capital city of Kabul and have already taken over Herat. Yet the Afghans bravely struggle to replant their fields, rebuild their cities and remove the countless land mines.


Elliot is an enthralling writer with a great gift for evoking places, people and atmosphere, from the pastoral calm of a fertile valley to the terrifying sights and sounds of war. A knowledgeable guide to Afghanistan's historic shrines and monuments (too many in ruins), he is just as adept at delineating his own intense, often ambivalent emotions. Recurrent fears for his own safety warred with a strong desire to entrust himself to the spirit of the journey, which entailed treacherous roads, armed men of various factions and mountain "inns" the size of a closet in which a dozen or more travelers packed themselves into a pile of sleeping bodies to ward off the cold.

Also fascinating are his accounts of the Sufis and of Islam in general. He rightly points out that most Westerners' mental picture of Islam is a crude caricature but has nothing to say about those Islamic leaders who view the West as the great Satan. There is tantalizingly little about the plight of Afghan women or the workings of the Taliban. But Elliot succeeds splendidly in conveying the gallant spirit of the Afghans and the haunting beauty of their country.

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