Monday, 2 September 2002

An unexpected light

Listening to:

Verdi, Otello. A recent purchase and part of my ongoing attempt to find opera as good as Mozart's. It's not so bad, and I'm sure I'll come to like it.

Just read:

Jason Elliot, An unexpected light: travels in Afghanistan.

This is a very good travel book about the author's travels in Afghanistan. Most of the book covers what was Elliot's third trip to Afghanistan, at a time in the late 90s when the Taleban were slowly taking over the country. Elliot journeys to Taleban controlled Herat, but otherwise avoids their bits of the country. He was based in Kabul at a time when the city was again not far from the front line, and he talks of frequent rocket and artillery attacks.

Elliot's first trip to Afghanistan was during the war against the Soviets, and he has a chapter devoted to the experience of hiding in the countryside with a band of mujahideen. Most of the time seems to have been spent trying to avoid being killed by the Russians, but with occasional forays when his group went onto the offensive. During those expeditions that Elliot went on, he says he was handed a gun that he had no intention of using.

Evidence of the Russian presence was plentiful during the later trip, and Elliot is eloquent in describing the shells of Russian vehicles that still litter the country-side he's passing through. He's not a political polemicist, but he's forthright in pointing out the easy stereotyping that went into Western perceptions of the Afghani resistance. They weren't fanatical religious warriors, they were people resisting an enemy invasion. Attempting to put a religious slant on it makes as much sense as describing the French Resistance during WW2 as Christian. While not a Moslem himself, Elliot is a clearly sympathetic and understanding observer. One of the funniest and most cringe-inducing parts of the book is his description of staying with at a fairly hard-core Christian mission, where the American staff ask him if they can pray for him.

It's hard to avoid some discussion of politics when talking about Afghanistan, but Elliot spends most of the book describing the stunning geography of the country he's travelling through, the hair-raising journeys on clapped out trucks and buses that he used to get places, the history of the places he visits (Silk Road sites with ruins from the time of Alexander the Great's campaigns through the area), and most memorably the people he meets there. Elliot's book provides a vivid picture of a country, and can't help but make the reader hope that things improve in Afghanistan, allowing the people who live there to lead normal lives after two decades of war.

Now reading:

Sylvia Nasar, A beautiful mind. I see from Amazon's page for this that Faber and Faber are now publishing this with a still from the film on the cover. Blech. Are you following? John Nash ... is ... not ... Russell Crowe.