As a nineteen-year-old driven by wanderlust and intense curiosity about life in Afghanistan during that nation’s determined resistance to Soviet invasion in the 1980’s, Jason Elliot managed not only to visit that beleaguered nation but briefly to accompany Afghan soldiers in skirmishes against the invaders. A decade later he returned in the midst of the internal conflict that subsequently brought the puritanically autocratic Taliban to power.
The Silk Road, that famous avenue of commerce across Asia whose origins go back two millennia, passed through what is now Afghanistan. A crossroads for centuries, this territory is replete with a great variety of ethnicities and religious strains of Islamic belief, as well as a history of former Buddhist culture. On his second visit Elliot came armed with a genuine interest in Afghanistan’s history and culture and sufficient Persian to converse with people unacquainted with international languages like French or English. Not only because Afghans are a hospitable people but because he was perceived as a visitor with this authentic interest, he was often able to earn a significant measure of trust and openness despite his status as a foreigner and “unbeliever.” As a result he is able to paint convincing portraits not only of the educated urban Afghans but of the denizens of remote mountain villages.
An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan presents a stirring and highly edifying picture of a people who have lived stoically through decades of almost incessant warfare and who now, under largely despised leaders with a propensity for harboring terrorists, again find themselves under siege.