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Sunday, June 23, 2002

Following in the footsteps of Alexander and Marco Polo

AN UNEXPECTED LIGHT: Travels in Afghanistan, by Jason Elliot. Picador, 2001, 473 pp, 3,420 yen (paper)

Jason Elliot's "An Unexpected Light" has been pigeon-holed in that genre of literature known as travelogue, but it is a great deal more. An account of the author's two visits to Afghanistan -- the first as a 19-year-old British schoolboy in the early 1980s, the second a decade later when the Taliban was poised to grab power -- it captures his harsh, life-changing experiences with a poignancy that is often startling.

The 10-year gap between his two trips allows Elliot to describe Afghanistan through multiple windows. During his first visit, he camped with anti-Soviet mujahedin in mountain caves, but by the time of his return a decade later the country was racked by civil war. This depth and variety of experience gives the book the kaleidoscopic effect of a novel, or memoir, and, like these genres, it is deeply introspective at times, a spiritual journey inward through the turbulences of the author's consciousness as much as a journey across landscape and time.

Elliott writes in a richly lyrical prose, shorn of vanity. Here is the day that he is initiated into a mujahedin camp with the gift of a pattu (body shawl) of a recently fallen guerrilla:

"I walked to the head of the stream and lowered the bundle into the water. Thinking I would wash out a few stains, I had not noticed that its hidden folds were drenched with the dead man's blood. As I pushed it beneath the surface the fugitive color was suddenly released, and swirled over my hands and wrists curling crimson spirals until their whiteness was obscured. The world seemed to fall away like a leaf severed from a tree, and for a moment I was paralyzed by the sight. Only the darkened water, which seemed suddenly to contain the essence of all grief, existed. I heard a cry go up inside me, not for the dead man alone, but for all those who had died in wars."

To observe Afghanistan in the midst of two wars, Elliot took what a rational person would consider to be nearly insane risks, but seems to have found the danger exhilarating. A man with the appetite for adventure of a Marco Polo and the sensibilities of a Michelangelo, two lines of poetry by the 14th-century Persian poet Hafez sustain him over the freezing passes of the Hindu Kush:

Though the way is full of perils, and the goal far out of sight There is no road to which is there is no end: do not despair His travels also take him into the cities: Kabul; Faizabad; Taloqan, described by Marco Polo; Mazar-e Sharif, the command center of the brutal Uzbek warlord, Rashid Dostum; and Herat, a town with a history stretching back to biblical times that had just been taken over by the Taliban at the time of Elliot's arrival. We know many of these names now, but when Elliott was visiting them, they were as unfamiliar to us as the craters on Mars.

Elliot is well versed in the history, archaeology, language (Persian), literature and religion of Afghanistan, and the stories of those who preceded him -- Alexander, Timurlane, Marco Polo, Babur and others of lesser renown -- are recounted when the author stumbles upon their traces among the detritus of war. The rich but greatly plundered archaeology of Afghanistan -- the buried cities of Alexander's conquest, through the Gandharan Greco-Buddhist period, to the Timurid Renaissance and on -- is one of his deeper passions, and the search for the vestiges of past cultures provides the impetus for many of his journeys.

These ruins of the past and the destruction wrought by the more recent conflict inspire many moments of soul-searching: there are epiphanies when Elliot encounters Sufi mysticism and Islamic visual aesthetics; expressions of awe for the resilience of the Afghan people; and sudden moments of hope and recurrent bouts of despair, often triggered by encounters with the biases of outsiders like himself in Afghanistan.

Full of humor and generosity, the real heroes of this book are the Afghan people, who remain remarkably courageous and cheerful in spite of nearly two decades of destruction. There is also a fascinating caste of outlanders: sanguine war correspondents, passionate aid workers, quadrilingual refugees from Iran, hellfire Christian missionaries, and Kabul diplomats in their gilded Siberia.

Elliot relies on these foreigners for cultural sustenance, but eschews the relative comfort of their worlds, and in pattu and beard is drawn repeatedly back to the wilderness of the Kush and the danger of towns and cities beyond Kabul. There he encounters the Old Testament face of the country, the dramatic power of Muslim architecture and aesthetics, the muezzin and the mesmerizing music of daily prayers. The author's powerful, and not entirely academic, attraction to Islam adds counterpoint. On one occasion, he mockingly describes himself, through the eyes of a Norwegian military adviser with the anti-Soviet mujahedin, as a Christian "apostate."

The author may be an apostate of the Christian church, but not of the human heart. This book will open the reader's eyes to a common humanity.

Andrew Ranard has contributed frequently to the International Herald Tribune and other newspapers and journals in Asia.

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