History Detective

The woman who set up Afghanistan’s biggest cultural archive

01 December 2017
Nancy had a long association with Afghanistan, where she was instrumental in setting up a cultural archive with over 100,000 documents relating to modern Afghan history and art.
massoud hossaini / ap

When the cultural historian and archivist Nancy Dupree came to Kabul in 1962, she did not know that it would spark a lifelong association with Afghanistan. She died in Kabul in September this year, three weeks short of her ninetieth birthday. Between the mid 1980s and 2006, she and her husband Louis Dupree set up the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University, or ACKU. It houses more than 100,000 documents relating to modern Afghan history and culture, as well as the largest existing photographic archive on Afghanistan.

Two years ago, Nancy gave me a tour of the ACKU library’s stack room, which was lined with racks of catalogued books, reports and documents in different languages. She recounted how she had collected some of these in Peshawar, in Pakistan, during the 1980s, while Afghanistan was ravaged by war. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, documents relating to Afghan art, culture and history and several government departmental reports—which were kept in various libraries, archives and other institutions—were ransacked and scattered all over South and Central Asia. Nancy took it upon herself to recover as many of these as possible, and brought back tens of thousands of documents and books to Kabul from Peshawar in 2004, when Hamid Karzai, then Afghanistan’s president, offered to help her build the ACKU.

Nancy arrived in Afghanistan as the wife of an American diplomat, but she soon found that she loathed spending time with the wives of other diplomats, recalling in an interview with a Swedish author in 2008 that drinking tea and gossiping with them was “a waste of time,” and that playing bridge was even worse. Although Nancy was captivated by Afghanistan’s rich history and landscape, she could not find any guidebooks to assist her in her attempts to explore the country. When she complained about the lack of such books, the head of the newly formed Afghan Tourist Organisation suggested that she write her own—an idea she took to instantly. In 1963, she authored her first guidebook, The Valley of Bamiyan.

Nancy went on to write several other guidebooks—An Historical Guide to Kabul (1965), Herat: A Pictorial Guide (1966), The Road to Balkh (1967) and An Historical Guide to Afghanistan (1974)—all of which were commissioned by the Afghan Tourist Organisation. These books contain practical tips for travellers, but are also extensive introductions to Afghanistan’s history, terrain and people. The depth of the books’ content indicates that, despite being an outsider, Nancy was thoroughly immersed in the country’s culture. Afghanistan Over a Cup of Tea (2008) is a collection of 46 chronicles, written between 1995 and 2007, about her time in Afghanistan and the country’s political upheavals and cultural phenomena. In one of the book’s essays, titled, “I’ve met Osama bin Ladin,” Nancy recalled her meetings with the founder of Al Qaeda. “Osama bin Ladin used to come to my office in Peshawar in the late 80s to ask me if I could help him import bulldozers to build roads in Afghanistan,” she wrote. “There was nothing very remarkable about him then. He was very polite and unassuming. I suppose the casings of people can hide a lot.” In the same piece, Nancy wrote openly about the war waged by the United States:

Meanwhile this military offensive is deepening hatred of the US and the West in general to the point where it is embracing even those Afghans who were beginning to oppose the Taliban policies. It was happened regularly throughout Afghanistan’s history: they may fight one another, but they bond together at the first sign of outside interference. The experts in Washington must have told the leaders this would happen. They don’t seem to have listened. … Above all, whatever is put in place must not bear the fingerprint of any outsiders. Afghanistan’s history shows that the people will not accept that. To install any groups seen as puppets of any outside interests would be a monumental mistake. It would take us right back to where this tragedy began.

She met Louis Dupree, a renowned archaeologist and anthropologist—and her future life partner—while writing her first guidebook. He was conducting archaeological explorations of Afghanistan at the time. After finishing her first few chapters, she took them to Louis’s office in Kabul for him to read and offer comments. A few days later, when she went to get it back, she read a comment from him on her manuscript: “Adequate but not original.” She was furious, and retorted, “I’m happy that it is adequate. There’s no need for it to be original as I’m not writing a doctoral thesis.” Soon after, they fell in love, divorced their respective spouses, married in 1966 and settled down in Kabul. Dupree began accompanying him on archaeological expeditions for months at a time, disregarding the advice of well-wishers who said that it would not be safe for her to travel to remote areas. They would frequently rent houses in Afghan villages, and together, they authored The National Museum of Afghanistan: An Illustrated Guide (1974)—a book about the importance of artefacts and historical items housed in the museum in Kabul.

Nancy was born in New York in 1927, and lived in Thiruvananthapuram until she left for Columbia University, in New York City, to study Chinese and history. Over a few lunches and dinners in Kabul, between 2011 and 2015, she told me that she shared her quirky penchant for adventure with her father, Duane Spencer Hatch, who was part of the United States’ army in the First World War in India and Mesopotamia. He settled in India in the early 1920s and started an NGO for rural development in the former princely state of Travancore. It was still operating in the 1960s, when Nancy and her husband drove there from Kabul in their Land Rover, travelling through Pakistan to Kerala. During that trip, she told me in 2011, Louis decided to take some soil for radiocarbon dating at a Hyderabad laboratory. “When we were crossing into Pakistan from Afghanistan, the Afghan border guards demanded to know why he was carrying so many sacks of soil,” she said. “Louis tried his best to explain what they were for, but such scientific explanations were a little too difficult for the guards to understand. In exasperation, Louis told them, ‘I love Afghanistan deeply. I’m carrying this soil so that I can feel at home by sleeping on these sacks while I’m travelling.’ The guards were very impressed and they let us pass.”

Just after the Saur Revolution—the Communist uprising and assumption of power by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan in 1978—Louis was briefly arrested under suspicion of being a CIA agent. He was released soon after, but the couple left the country. Over the next two decades, while Afghanistan was torn apart by war, the Duprees shuttled between the United States—where they taught at the University of North Carolina and Duke University—and Peshawar, where they were involved in humanitarian works with Afghan refugees. They also helped to set up the Society for the Preservation of Afghan Cultural Heritage, an NGO promoting the safekeeping of Afghan art and cultural objects. Louis died of cancer in 1989, but Nancy carried on the work they had started together.

Many of Dupree’s close friends had predicted that she was never going to leave Afghanistan. After the Taliban was ousted in 2001, she continued to visit Kabul, moving back permanently—along with her archive—in 2004. Dupree had lived in a few houses around Kabul, but spent her last few years in the Karta-i-Char neighbourhood. Over lunch two years ago, she told me she had toyed with the idea of going to a retirement home in the United States for the last few years of her life, but decided against it. “Life will be so much more boring there!” she said.

Nazes Afroz is former executive editor for BBC World Service, South and Central Asia. He has been visiting Afghanistan regularly since 2002 and has co-authored a cultural guidebook on Afghanistan.

Keywords: culture art archive Afghanistan