An Unexpected Light

by Nathan Hamm on 7/15/2004 · 2 comments

An Unexpected Light is, if nothing else, a strong argument against most other travel books in print (the ones I’ve read anyway). Intensely personal, and following author Jason Elliot’s journey around Afghanistan in the ’90s, the book stands out because one never get the sense that Elliot is using the trip to try to discover any deep truths.

Constantly asked about his purposes in Afghanistan by locals and Europeans, Elliot always answered he was writing a book, but he wasn’t sure exactly what it would be about yet. Afghans usually didn’t care (even when they assumed he was a spy), they just were happy that someone would read about their country in Inglistan. However, in response to a Dutch aid worker who felt Elliot’s whole endeavor was ridiculously stupid, Elliot addresses the failings of most travel books.

What, after all, is a travel book? That young Italian had started it all in the thirteenth century, and had given the telling of tall tales from foreign parts its subsequent respectability. On the whole it had not changed much since Polo’s time: a man or a woman sets off for foreign parts ignorant of both the language and geography of the place, with an out-of-date map and borrowed phrase book, preys shamelessly for as long as the family trust fund will allow on the hospitality of the native people, and returns home to hastily record his or her first impressions in a semi-fictional collection of descriptions that affirm the prejudices of the day. Then reminded of the mediocrity of the experiences described and to ease the risk of any intellectual burden on the microscopic attention span of the reader, he or she retrospectively invents a fashionable ‘quest’ around which the narrative can be twisted in every direction except towards the truth, fits in tidily with invented dialogues, speculative history, sweeping inaccuracies, mistranslations, verbose accounts of having braved hazards endured daily by ordinary local people without complaint, portrays as revelation long lists of trivial facts known to every local schoolchild, and bludgeons the original spirit of the endeavor in an attempt to appear erudite with the academic verbiage of out-of-print encyclopedias, disguising all the while the discomfort of being at sea in an alien culture by resorting to the quirky, condescending humour that its couch-bound audience will think of as funny. The result? Only a confirmation of what everybody already knows: better to stay home.

And, despite some maddening quirks in his narrative–the use of too many untranslated Persian words the chief among them–Elliot makes one want to leave home for Afghanistan.

I have to commend Elliot for the way he travels through Afghanistan–almost always in the company of Afghans. He speaks enough Persian to travel on his own and went up the Panjshir on horse and foot with a villager for a guide. He travelled to Mazar-i-Sharif on the top of a truck. Many trips were made crammed into jeeps at at least twice their capacity. In many ways, this is emblematic of much of the book. Though Elliot was a traveller, he travelled and lived like an Afghan.

Because he spent so much time talking and travelling with Afghans, Elliot experiences the culture much more deeply than do so many travel writers (remember my translator pet peeve?). His descriptions of both the culture and religious practice are thankfully non-patronizing, and at times tinged with a genuine admiration and affection for Afghanistan and its people.

As did at least one reviewer on An Unexpected Light‘s Amazon page, the book’s criticism of the West leaves it open to accusations of fawning adoration for the simple life of the Afghans. And, given Elliot’s past relationship with the mujahedin (he at the very least visited them during the fight against the Soviets), it could also be easy to classify him as a starry-eyed revolutionary taken with the struggle of the Afghans. However, even I agree with his criticism of life in the West and some of the relative advantages of life in Central Asia. There are things to be said for the culture of Central Asian Muslims (the glorious fluidity of time…), and it is, at the very least, refreshing to hear this in travel writing.

I’ve gotta say that if you’re interested in modern Afghanistan–especially a picture of life in the time leading up to the capture of Kabul by the Taliban–check this book out. As I’m writing this, there are 171 paperbacks used on Amazon starting at $0.53. I picked up a hardcover for under $4. You’ll definitely get at least that much enjoyment out of the book.

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


upyernoz July 16, 2004 at 9:12 am

your “continue reading” link needs to be fixed–it sent me to the amazon page. i only got to see the rest of the post by hitting the “comment” button

i liked “an unexpected light” but was not as taken by it as you were. you’re right that elliot got more into the native culture in this book than in most travel narratives, but in my mind that doesn’t make it better, just a different kind of book. the best travel books in my opinion are the ones who don’t take themselves too seriously. whenever you’re in a foreign culture, you inevitably stumble into a lot of cultural misunderstandings and cultural gaffs. that’s why, for example “a fez of the heart” (about a brit who travels turkey looking for a fez (attaturk outlawed the fez in 1919)) is probably my favorite travel book.

Nathan July 16, 2004 at 9:27 am

Good points all. I forgot about the kind of travel book you bring up.

I think that the common thread through all the travel literature I like is that it doesn’t try to pierce the veil and make some big point about philosophy, life, politics, etc. In other words, like you say, they don’t take themselves too seriously. Some of my favorites have been 19th and early 20th c. British travel books.

Previous post:

Next post: