After more than half a century of helping Afghans preserve their history and culture and improve their lives, Nancy Hatch Dupree’s extraordinary run in Afghanistan might be ending.
Dupree came to Afghanistan in 1962 with her first husband, a U.S. diplomat. She’ll leave, if she can finally make herself do it, as a revered figure who’s been called the grandmother of this country, a title used even by President Hamid Karzai.
During her decades here, she’s been ejected by the Russians, turned down a request for help from Osama bin Laden, guided countless relief efforts, aided refugees, advised journalists, politicians and the United Nations, and written five travel guides and hundreds of articles on topics including Afghan history, archaeology, women issues and libraries.
She also inspired a Tony Kushner play, had a scandalous, adulterous affair with a North Carolina native who was considered the greatest Afghan scholar of his time – whom she eventually married – and poked into almost every corner of a place that remains the very definition of hard traveling.
Even during the period when the Taliban ruled, she commuted in periodically from Pakistan.
Now, though, at age 85, with signs that her health is starting to weaken, the small, gray-haired icon is pondering whether it’s finally time to leave her beloved Afghanistan.
The capstone to her endless aid efforts and amazing adventures came last month, with the dedication of the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University. It’s the first place in this country where Afghan history and culture can be studied, home to an irreplaceable collection of 80,000 documents that hold the story of the nation’s modern history.
Dupree and her second husband, the archaeologist and anthropologist Louis Dupree, helped Afghan refugees in Pakistan start the archive, an eclectic collection of U.N. reports, newspaper stories, fliers printed up by warlords, Soviet-era jihadis and the Taliban, and more recently statements from Afghan government ministries.
For years, at Louis Dupree’s instigation, Afghans in exile in Pakistan kept the documents. When Louis Dupree died in 1989, Nancy Dupree took the job of caretaker for the collection, in part to fill the void left by the love of her life.
The Duprees were married to other people when they met. At first sight, there were sparks, certainly of attitude, if not romance.
She’d been advised to take the manuscript of her first travel book, on Bamiyan province, then the home of Afghanistan’s giant Buddha statues, to Louis Dupree for his thoughts.
He, a wisecracking North Carolinian with a salty turn of phrase and three Harvard degrees, was the foremost scholar on Afghan archaeology and anthropology.
Without bothering to graduate from high school, he’d joined the Merchant Marine to see a world he hoped would be broader-minded. He served as an officer in the Army from 1944 to 1947, doing reconnaissance behind Japanese lines in the Philippines. Later he earned a Ph.D. in anthropology.
He first visited Afghanistan in 1948 and studied the people and the place for decades before writing "Afghanistan," a hefty volume that’s still a touchstone of scholarship on the country.
His future wife, meanwhile, was hardly a dewy-eyed innocent abroad for the first time.
Her mother was a Broadway actress and her father an American who’d served in World War I with the British Army and did rural reconstruction in southern India, where his daughter spent her childhood. She attended high school in Mexico and lived with her family in Costa Rica before attending college. She majored in Chinese studies at Barnard, the women’s college affiliated with Columbia University in New York. She then earned a master’s degree in Chinese at Columbia.
By the time she reached Kabul as the wife of a young American diplomat, she’d already worked as a U.N. consultant in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), as a rural welfare expert in Pakistan and as an education adviser to the government of Punjab province in Pakistan.
After reading her manuscript, Louis summoned her and handed it back with a scrawled assessment: “Adequate, but nothing original.”
“I turned on my heel and started to go,” she said. “Then I heard this voice and he said, ‘Come back here.’ ”
She went back.
That story and much of the rest has been told repeatedly in newspapers and magazines over the years. How she and Louis Dupree fell in love and carried on an affair. How her diplomat husband proposed an engagement party for her lover and her, to turn the local gossip mill away from their infidelity. How their former spouses quickly remarried – to each other. How Louis Dupree had to pledge to give 10,000 Persian sheep to her family if he ever deserted her. How they were wed in 1966 at a 19th-century palace in Kabul.
So started their golden era. Kabul’s own was already under way: It was a rare break between wars for Afghanistan, and the city had come to be called the Paris of the East. It was a cosmopolitan place of jazz clubs, men in suits and women in short skirts, and it was awash – as it is now – in development money.
In winter, when it was too cold for field work, they held nightly salons they called the 5 o’clock follies. Louis Dupree described them in a 1980 essay as boozy evenings frequented by friends of every nationality and filled with discussions and arguments “covering all disciplines.”
The party came to an end in 1978, when the Soviet-backed Communist government arrested Louis Dupree, accusing him of being a spy. He was briefly imprisoned, then the Duprees were expelled. They settled in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, a center of anti-Soviet intrigue, before they returned to the U.S., where he taught at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill until he died of cancer in 1989, the same year the Soviet Union ended its occupation of Afghanistan.
Shortly after, Nancy Dupree was asked to come to Pakistan to oversee the collection of documents that would become the archive.
For years, she fretted that the seemingly endless turmoil in the region would claim the archive’s vulnerable papers before stability came to Afghanistan and they could be returned to Kabul.
"One mullah with a match or one U.S. daisy-cutter bomb, and it would have been gone," she often says.
It wasn’t until 2006 that she thought it was safe to bring the documents back from Pakistan, which she did in trucks, hidden in plastic sacks.
The collection first went to the library at Kabul University.
Now it has its own home, perhaps the best example of modern architecture to be built in recent years in Kabul. Dupree insisted on a design that echoes Afghan tradition but looks to the future.
It’s unlikely that anyone but Nancy Hatch Dupree could have gotten it built.
Twice, she had to get help from Karzai, a longtime friend. He endorsed her request for $2 million to build the center, and later even intervened to get the striking cedar beams used inside. That took a presidential decree, as there’s currently a ban on cutting down the trees because of timber smuggling. Dupree said that in this case the wood already had been cut: No trees were harmed in the building of this center.
Various foreign donors paid to furnish and equip the building, and Dupree and the rest of the staff already are forming ambitious plans for seminars, lectures and exhibitions, and students and researchers are using the center, where the staff is teaching research techniques.
Almost every day, an official from the center rushes around to various relief agencies and government ministries, asking for their latest reports and other documents to add to the collection.
Technicians are working furiously as well to make sure the documents will be beyond the reach of another war, scanning them to make digital images, copies of which will be stored around the world, part of a joint project with the University of Arizona. Already, nearly a third of the collection is digitized and available online to scholars around the world.
With the center open and documents finally secure, Dupree thinks it may be nearly time for her to step off the stage.
"My father told me, ‘You know, no matter what you accomplish, if you hold on too long, you’re a failure,’ and that you need to pass your vision and expertise to someone else and bow out," she said. "And I’m trying to do that now.”
But what to do next plagues her. She has a house in Durham, N.C., where she and Louis lived while he taught there. But the house is too big and she doesn’t identify with Americans, she said. She has relatives in Canada who want her, but it’s cold there. She wavers.
"I need to do something," she said. "But I guess like Scarlett O’Hara, I’ll think about that tomorrow."