If we could, we would make it out of those swirling ice needles and winds into a forest of snow-draped mountain peaks, carved into leaping ridges and valleys of heart-stopping immensity by glaciers of the mountain ranges that collide here, the Pamir and the Hindu Kush.
In that vein, first-time author Jason Elliot describes the physical terrain of Afghanistan; its ancient borders, geological specificities, and natural wonders.
Recovering from his reverie but not his numbness, the author decides to counter tedium and fear with games of memory. What follows is a pithy compendium of modern Afghani history, unfolding from an alphabetical sequence of important figures. At Z, Elliot returns to the beginning to reel off another list of ancient place-names associated with the country. It's a successful device; the author passes six hours in considerable mental exercise, and the reader understands that An Unexpected Light is an unexpectedly different brand of travel writing.
Elliot's first encounter with Afghanistan came in the mid eighties, when he smuggled himself into the country to live with the mujahadeen as they fought the Soviets. He was just 19 years old and unable to speak Dari (the Afghani dialect of Farsi), "but amply supplied with the enthusiasm of one who has breached the threshold of a dream and found it real." Ten years later, Elliot returns to probe the realities of his dream, this time equipped with fluency in language, customs and contacts.
Eliot does not explicitly date his second trip; he arrives during the uninterrupted course of war, with Kabul under a steady barrage from gun placements in the mountains just outside the city. The besiegers are identified merely as "rival claimants to the city." To the south, government troops are engaged in more serious warfare with the upstart Taliban forces. With high-leveled credentials, Eliot finds himself free to travel through most of the country. If An Unexpected Light fails to predict the eventual victory of the Taliban and their Islamic state, it is because Eliot has no pretensions to such analysis. Disdaining the propensity of the West to focus only on the desolation of a war-torn nation, he vows to transcend the war and concentrate on the ability of the Afghani people to do the same.
Of course it is not an easy task. Whether crossing minefields en route to ancient ruins or avoiding sentry posts after curfew in Kabul, mobility in Afghanistan is stunted by war. The curious thing about this account is that it sees the war from the perspective of the author's Afghan debut, when an underdog nation forced a giant to its knees. While the Taliban forces gather strength unseen across an impassable mountain range, Elliot focuses on the carcasses of Soviet tanks studding the valleys and armories of Kalashnikovs slung across the shoulders of soldiers and shepards alike. A decade after the last Soviet troops limped back across the Friendship Bridge, Elliot has Afghanistan still fighting ghosts.
Even during a brief stay in the Taleb stronghold Herat, Elliot is more impressed with the cultural aspects of the tribal zikr than with their religious militancy. These are not the new warlords of Afghanistan -- they are modern versions of the uncouth Uzbek soldiers who intruded upon the "eclipse of the Timurid rule" only to be incorporated into Afghan history. For Elliot, armed struggle is as much of a backdrop as the lapis colored mountains at dawn.
Despite their near-cameo appearance in his travels, Elliot's understanding of the Taliban is nuanced. To a degree, he affords them the benefit of the mujahadeen legacy: during the Soviet occupation, the tendency for Western press was to couch the opposition in religious terms.
The average Afghan who defended his home from foreign invasion became a "Moslem guerilla" or "Islamic rebel." It's a characterization as meaningless as calling the French resistance of WWII a "Christian insurrection" or the Vietcong "Buddhists rebels."
This analytical framework still hinders understanding of Afghanistan today, where the Taliban are still cloaked in the Islamic mantle which the West now identifies as the cloak of terrorists. At the same time, Elliot derides the Taliban's self-proclaimed piety, wondering when men who claim to be dedicated mullahs and koranic scholars found time to learn to drive tanks and jets.
An Unexpected Light is beautifully written, succeeding in replicating an impossibly dated lyrical prose. The reader would be forgiven for assuming after reading the prologue, a letter to an expat acquaintance, that this is a fictional period piece. That the author can slip a line such as "I was prepared to make an ally of uncertainty, with which luck so often finds a partnership," without contrivance is a feat. In fact, Elliot expresses wariness about his inclinations; travel writers are those who "bludgeon the original spirit of the endeavor in an attempt to appear erudite with the academic verbiage of an out-of-print encyclopedia."
The true test for this adventurous travel writer comes in the impregnable wild and dangerous highlands of Hazara, home to a people distinctly different from their Pashtu and Tajik neighbors in appearance and religion, and whom some legends characterize as cannibalistic descendents of Genghis Khan. Elliot gets as far as Ghorband, halfway to his destination Bamiyan, over the Shibar Pass. There he confers with a government commander about the lawless stretch beyond, who tells him "not a chicken could cross that path without being fired on
Elizabeth Kiem is a freelance writer
based in Washington, D.C.