It is 40 days since the historian, archivist and activist on behalf of Afghans, Nancy Hatch Dupree, died, aged 89. As a tribute to this remarkable woman, we are publishing two pieces. The first is an interview which Nancy gave in 2007 to Markus Hakansson for a book authored by Nancy and published by the Afghanistan Swedish Committee, which features 58 chronicles about Afghanistan. In this interview, Nancy tells how she came to Afghanistan and fell in love with the country and with her husband Louis. She describes the fifteen wonderful years they had, excavating archaeological sites and with her writing guide books. She tells of the 1978 coup, Louis’ imprisonment and there eventual exile to Pakistan where they set up a project to collect and collate information. The extract ends with her eventual return to Kabul. AAN will publish a second dispatch which will be a collection of tributes from people who knew Nancy.Nancy and Louis dance together in pre-war Kabul. The couple worked till 5 pm each day and then opened their doors to all, as Nancy described: "The 5 o'clock follies were born and became an institution that lasted for many years.”
Nancy Hatch Dupree moved back to the Afghan capital a few years after this interview took place. In 2013, she inaugurated the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University in 2013 (six years after she secured initial funding for it of two million dollars). A description of the centre, which houses the now 100,000 document archive and provides research facilities to all, can be found here). AAN’s obituary for Nancy can be read here.
The following is an extract from Markus Hakansson’s “A Chat with Afghanistan’s Grandmother”, taken from Afghanistan Over a Cup of Tea; 1995 – 2010, 58 chronicles by Nancy Hatch Dupree, translated by Norman Burns, Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, 2010 (2nd edition).
“It’s important to remember that it is often simply chance that lies behind decisive things that happen in your life. That’s been the case in my life anyway. That I ended up in Afghanistan was nothing more than pure coincidence,” says Nancy Hatch Dupree, an American living in Peshawar in Pakistan, close to the border to Afghanistan. When she is not working, and that’s not very often, this cultural worker who lived in Kabul between 1962 and 1978 likes to relax and lean back with a good detective story, preferably one by Ian Rankin.
Holland House is the name of the building where the Country Director of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan lives and it is here on the veranda that Nancy Dupree and I are sitting on the first day of our interview. It’s a nice, warm day. Not too hot. The cars honk as they drive by the closed gate, lacking up a little cloud of dust. But in our enclosed garden we can hear the pleasant chirping of birds. A thought comes to me that I mustn’t forget to ask about a special bird that means something special to Nancy. But I’ll wait for a while with that. Right now, I’ll/be content with underlining one of the points I have written down for this conversation: the hoopoe.
We are sitting right in the heart of Kabul, a city dominated by contrasts. It’s a beautiful city in all of its raggedness, genuine in spite of foreign military columns, hospitable but still strange. I have been here once before, in 2004. But since then, they have erected more buildings, and taller ones. Buildings with green or blue facades, just like in Dubai. But the neighbours of these glass giants are still small simple mud houses where people buy and sell, talk and make noise, live their lives. This is a city full of life but also a city where security has become much worse in the last few years, as it has in the country as a whole. Suicide bombers in the summer of 2007 are still a relatively new phenomenon. For me as a westerner, restrictions are many and I can only imagine how the true Afghanistan really is and try to take in the impressions I experience in my immediate surroundings. Instead, it will have to be through Nancy’s stories that I will manage to see and feel the real Afghanistan. It is through her shrewd eyes that the brown dust is dissipated and the Afghanistan that once was makes its appearance.
“Why Afghanistan?” I ask when I finally get my technical gear in order – an mp3 player with dictaphone function. ‘“Why did you end up here and why is it that you have chosen to spend your entire adult life here?”
At first sight, Nancy looks like any sweet old grandmother. She is small and slender and speaks with a frail but self-confident voice. She could easily be taken for a person whose daily routine is filled with baking cookies and drinking coffee. But instead, here we have an eighty-year-old woman who is cherished and surrounded with such respect, such esteem that she has almost become a legend. And wearing a patterned tunic with matching wide trousers and scarf, she seems to hover over the streets of Kabul. Here, everyone knows who she is and when I tell people why I am here in Kabul this time, I am met with jealous glances and comments.
One day, and this was a long time ago, Nancy was standing with her [first] husband, an American diplomat in the Pakistan city of Lahore, at the Khyber Pass on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. “We ought to make a trip to Afghanistan next time we get some time off,” she said. He was not thinking of safety in those days. He liked the fashionable hot spots with zazzy nightlife.
However, back in Washington, it didn’t take more than a year or so before he came home from work one day and said: “Well, your wish has been fulfilled. I have been stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan,” Nancy jumped for joy. He looked disgusted. That was in 1962.
As a young student at Barnard College, the women’s branch of Columbia University, Nancy had her sights aimed at a career in music. She played the harp and from what I understand, there were times when it really sounded quite good. Her parents had spent a lot of money on an expensive harp and soon she was a part of the professional world of music. Her music teacher obviously felt that Nancy had talent as she often took her along on her musical tours. They played duets and were especially sought after around Christmas and Easter when churches for some reason are particularly interested in harp music. Nancy and her teacher toured all over the United States, in and out of cars, trains and buses and always dragging those cumbersome instruments behind them.
“That was a very special period in my life but… it didn’t take me long to realize that this wasn’t what I wanted to do. This was not the way I wanted to live my life.”
Nancy wanted to travel overseas and told her parents of her plans of putting her harp playing aside for a while. Her musical career was exchanged for studies in Chinese language, history, art history and economy.
It was during her student years at Columbia University that she met her [first] husband-to-be and they were soon to be stationed in Lahore. Her days were taken up simply enough by being a housewife. But she had actually had a job during an earlier stationing in Iraq as an editor for a small news bulletin with a limited circle of readers consisting of embassy staff.
Then came that day in 1962 when the big move was made to Afghanistan. After only a short period of time, Nancy’s husband was called upon to make his first field trip. A whole staff of people were to go along with him and they were all up in the air about the trip which was planned for Bamiyan. Nancy was designated to be the guide for the trip. Upon their return to Kabul, a great dinner party was thrown to celebrate the ambassador’s safe return.
That evening, Nancy found herself in conversation with two gentlemen. Mr Abdul Wahab Tarzi was the head of the newly established Department of Tourism. The other gentleman was a French archaeologist. Tarzi asked what she thought of Bamiyan. As the good wife of a diplomat, she was expected to respond with a fitting answer, something along the lines of how fantastic it was, the landscape, the culture and the people, everything was just extraordinary. That would have been a suitable response. But Nancy is a person who doesn’t make a secret of what she thinks, whether it is fitting for the situation or not. “Mr Tarzi, it’s a scandal,” she said. “Bamiyan is one of the most beautiful places in the world. And you don’t even have a guide. I know I must have missed half of what there is to see there!”
Mr Tarzi responded in his kind Afghani manner: “You’re absolutely right. You ought to do something about that!” The Frenchman, who had up to now only stood in the background, steps into the discussion. He asks Nancy if she likes to have tea and gossip with the other diplomat wives. “Not at all,” she said. “A waste of time.” “Do you like to play bridge?” he continued. “That’s even worse.”
Mr Tarzi listened with interest and finally said: “Then I think you ought to take it upon yourself to write a travel guide on Bamiyan.”
Nancy could hardly conceal her excitement – a mixture of both pleasure and nervousness. “Okay, Mr Tarzi,” she said. “But I won’t write about anything I haven’t seen with my own eyes. You have to send me back there!”
And that’s the way she started writing her guide books. She soon had a manuscript finished, except for a few prehistoric details that she couldn’t get straight. She started asking around without any results until someone said “Ask Louis Dupree. He knows a lot about that sort of thing.” “Louis who?” was her only response.
I take a few pictures of Nancy as we are sitting there on the Holland House veranda and every time I click off a shot (or at least the first 30 to 40 pictures) she gives an audible sigh. She doesn’t seem to be very fond of being photographed. Suddenly I understand why she doesn’t have a single picture from her early years in Afghanistan. She has quite simply disliked the idea of being caught in the camera’s eye. After searching numerous photo archives, on the internet and in people’s computers, I have only found four or five usable pictures from Afghanistan of the 60s and 70s with Nancy in them.
Nancy and Louis examine an archeological find. Louis was determined that Nancy should work alongside him. “He kept pushing me to write,” she said, “to lecture and do research.” They had fifteen years of working and travelling all around Afghanistan before the 1978 coup forced them into ‘exile’.
After a number of persistent attempts, Nancy finally made contact with the great Louis Dupree. The American archaeologist, who visited Afghanistan for the first time in 1948, had three degrees from Harvard and a Bronze Star for his efforts as a paratrooper in World War II. She left her manuscript with a few page references and two questions. Silence. Then one day, he finally got in touch with her and let her know that he had read through what she had written. Nancy was summoned up to his office, got the manuscript in her hand and saw immediately his notes up in the right hand corner of the first page: Adequate but nothing original. “I was furious but tried to keep calm,” she told me.
I have stopped reflecting over the surroundings, spellbound by Nancy’s tales just as anyone is when listening to someone who really knows how to tell a story. I kind of get the feeling that what she is saying is important and I listen intensively to every word. Besides, her descriptions are certainly not lacking in humour, far from that. Her choice of words, intonation and timing – everything just right. I glance at the dictaphone and see that it is ticking away — that’s good, I don’t want to miss anything.
“Dr Dupree,” Nancy said. “I am writing a guidebook and I’m extremely happy that you find what I have written adequate. This is not a doctoral dissertation and there is no need for it to be original.” She immediately turned around and made for the door.
But before she managed to leave the room, she heard a shout from behind the desk. “Hey, wait a minute! Get back here!” Nancy stopped, turned around and went back to the professor sitting there behind his big desk. And she never left…
I recall that I am supposed to ask about some kind of bird, a hoopoe, that played an important role in Nancy’s life.
After finishing her work with “The Valley of Bamiyan” in 1963, Nancy was commissioned to produce another guide book. Published in 1965, “An Historical Guide to Kabul” was to become a classic and it didn’t take long before a third book, “Herat – A Pictorial Guide” (1966) was on the way. During the next few years, Nancy wrote three more guide books well worth reading: “The Road to Balkh” (1967), “An Historical Guide to Afghanistan” (1970) and “The National Museum of Afghanistan” (1974).
In order to obtain some peace and quiet, Nancy used to ride by horse to Paghman, a small mountain village outside of Kabul. Mr Tarzi was a bit puzzled by this un-Afghan behavior and thought that maybe something was wrong. Maybe she was suffering from depression or something. He just couldn’t understand that she simply needed peace and quiet to be able to do her work, her writing. He often came by and checked up on her and one day when he was there, he saw a bird, a hoopoe, building its nest on the lawn where Nancy was sitting.
“Oh, look! A hoopoe,” said Mr Tarzi. “You know, in Afghanistan we say that if a hoopoe visits you and builds its nest nearby, you’ll have good news before sunset.”
“That doesn’t have anything to do with me,” Nancy tried to fend him off. “That bird is one of my horse’s friends. Whenever I take my horse out for a ride she always comes along.” But she still couldn’t forget what Mr Tarzi had said about something pleasant awaiting her. “Of course there isn’t anything in that story!”
But the same evening… Louis had left his diggings up in the north to come and pay a visit to Nancy. As always, it was a fond reunion and the same evening, Louis proposed to her. “I was head over heels, in love with that man and I almost fell over with happiness. And I never really could get rid of the thought of that special bird. I become quite fascinated by it and the myth surrounding it. I collected information and wrote an article called “An Interpretation of the Role of the Hoopoe in Afghan Folklore and Magic.” In this article, you can read about the Hoopoe’s importance for Afghanistan’s different ethnic groups, how it brought King Soloman and the Queen of Sheba together and how, not surprisingly, it got its name for its distinct call: hup-hup-hup.
Nancy and Louis were married in February of 1966 in Bagh-e Bala, a beautiful palace on the outskirts of Kabul, built in the 19th century. “It was a big, big wedding,” Nancy tells me. She wore a royal blue velvet dress and Kabul was clad in winter white. Snow on your wedding day brings happiness and prosperity to your marriage if you are to believe the Afghan tradition.
Unlike her previous marriage, Louis was determined that Nancy should work alongside him, and that’s the way it turned out. “He kept pushing me to write, to lecture and do research. If it hadn’t been for Louis, no one would ever have heard of me.” This may be true, but the statement gives a true picture of Nancy. So much experience, so much knowledge, so well appreciated and praised and still this unobtrusive profile when speaking of her own achievements.
The sound of Kabul traffic accompanies our conversation. Cars with mufflers in need of repair, screeching noises from trucks. People talking from every direction. Sometimes the noise level gets so high that we have to take a break in our little talk and then get back going when things calm down a bit. It wasn’t like this in the 60s.
“I guess we thought we knew about everything there was to know in those days, but really we didn’t know much at all. The 60s were really crazy. Parties, always parties! We were often in the company of the elite of Afghanistan but there were foreigners there too, mostly diplomats and researchers and so on and so forth. We thought we were in the swing but we didn’t know enough to understand that we were only a part of a facade. We drank and ate and figured we were terribly sophisticated. Several of us had horses and we rode a lot together.”
On the weekends they took pleasure trips to Paghman and in the winter they went skiing. Along the road to Ghazni there was a little ski cabin. Not many of them were much good at skiing but this was just one more way for them to get together. Afghans themselves were better skiers than most of the westerners.
“No, I can’t ski. I spent my time socializing up there in the cabin. Funny that we didn’t get tired of each other!”
Nancy and Louis made a lot of trips together all around Afghanistan to either Louis’s excavations or surveying to find new sites for his excavations. “It’s dangerous up there for you,” said many Afghans when we told them we would be going to Badakhshan for a few months of digging. “You can’t trust the people up there. Things are bad and there’s not much water or food. You’ll get sick.”
At the start, Nancy shared the prevailing view that Afghan women were repressed. She had all the stereotypes clear in her mind and thought she knew. She’d read books about this. Louis wasn’t any “Indiana Jones” – type and always wanted to live among the people. So Mr and Mrs Dupree usually rented a house in some small town way out in the country and in this way became a part of the village for a short time. It didn’t take long for Nancy to realize that all of these prejudices about Afghan women were 100 percent false. She learned to see the strength of the rural woman. She witnessed mutual respect between men and women. She heard women say to their husbands who wanted to have a meal put on the table: “I’m busy with something else, make your own lunch.”
Nancy tells about fantastic harvest times when everyone in the village – men, women and children – worked together out in the fields picking melons or peas. She began to understand that women in the countryside were considerably freer and more independent than women in the city. “I had to do a lot of re-thinking.”
Back in Kabul she told people about her new insights. “I probably shouldn’t have done that because now I became a so-called expert in the area of women in Afghanistan and women’s role and position in the family and society and so on and so forth. And then there were a lot of lectures, articles and reports. I am not saying that everything was perfect and beautiful out in the countryside. Far from that. Most people lacked access to basic things like health care and education. But when it comes to women’s independence and their view of themselves, they were much better off than their sisters in Kabul.”
At this time, women in Kabul wore burqas but had begun to leave the home and were seen more and more often out in the city. At the same time, western media proclaimed the view of the repressed woman and how women were forced to wear clothing that covered them entirely with only a net in front of their face to see through. “Things were going in the right direction but westerners lacked insight and knowledge of the past and insisted on presenting a picture of the ‘repressed’ woman.”
And things did keep going in the right direction – many were the women who began leaving their burqa at home. Headscarves, jackets and skirts that reached down over the knees, dark, stretch tights and gloves were all the new thing – that was in the middle of the 60s. The next step was short skirts and hot pants, with stretch tights under of course, and high-legged boots. Towards the end of the 60s however, conservative elements started getting upset and talked about sexual allusions. The new style got to be too much for them and soon these ‘scantily clad’ ladies in lipstick were being the subjects of harassment.
When Nancy first came to Afghanistan, tourists were just beginning to discover the country. First came the hippies. But they were mainly only on their way through, in search of some guru in India or Nepal and only stopped long enough to get hold of some Afghan Black – hashish that was considered the very best brand. However, more affluent tourists soon began to be attracted to Afghanistan. It was people who had done some traveling in Outer Mongolia, Iran and China and were now looking for something else, something new and exotic. Package tours started to go to Afghanistan, a growing business.
“The first groups were quite demanding. They had come over here to Afghanistan to get a different experience but still demanded spacious single occupancy rooms, running water, electricity, hotel bars and the like. They wanted to rough it but still with every comfort you can imagine. In many countries around here, there is a lot to see everywhere. Afghanistan is not like that. It takes eight hours from Kabul to Bamiyan – eight hours of what? – nothing! And I didn’t want them to go home unsatisfied with their visit. That’s why in my guide books I try to keep my readers busy with sights every second or third mile – a building of a special style, folklore, popular traditions, agriculture etc – just to keep these rich tourists, who don’t have any patience, entertained. I think that’s the reason my guide books are still used. Roads have changed but the scenery is intact –people, traditions, clothing and homes still look very much the way they always have.”
Nancy and Louis had their own offices at home in the Shahr-e Nau area in Kabul. Nancy’s office was in the main house and Louis sat in one of the buildings in the courtyard. Many people came to visit, and they stayed so long, that in the end neither Louis nor Nancy got anything done during the daytime. They were forced to make a few simple rules: if you hadn’t booked a meeting, you weren’t admitted in by the guards.
“A lot of people probably thought that we were audacious but what were we to do? We decided to open the doors at five each afternoon – and then everybody was welcome. The 5 o’clock follies were born and became an institution that lasted for many years.”
In Kabul at this time you could go to jazz clubs, eat ice-cream in an ice-cream parlor or go bowling. As to “the Follies’, ‘Louis Dupree wrote the following in one of his chronicles from the 80s: “Nancy and I spent about 50 percent of our time away from home. But when we were at home in Kabul, we didn’t want to be disturbed. Both of us spent a lot of time writing, but at 5 o’clock every day we opened the bar. And most of the time lots of people came to our little parties. It became a tradition and even Russians came. But also Pakistanis, Indians, Koreans, Germans, Frenchmen, Swiss, Canadians and British.”
When the coup took place in 1978, the Duprees were in China. Under the surface, mobilization had been going on for a long time, something they would hardly have noticed if it hadn’t have been for Louis’ contacts with Kabul’s intelligentsia – university people and dissidents. When they returned to the country and applied for a renewal of their research permits, something which was absolutely necessary in order to receive a residence permit, they were refused. Afghanistan had a new regime, communists were at the helm and the Duprees were forced to leave the country. Banished.
“That was in August. We wound up in Pakistan for a few months but went back to our house once to fetch our winter clothes. That was when they picked up Louis and took him away. He was put in prison. They figured he was hooked up with the CIA and the situation was really serious. Louis saw several of his old friends from the Follies beaten up so badly that he could hardly recognize them. The interrogators kept shouting at him ‘Dupree – CIA, Dupree – CIA…’ They just couldn’t get it through their heads how anybody could stay in Afghanistan for 25 years without some ulterior motive – he must be a spy. As it turned out, the new regime had such specific information concerning our meetings and parties that it suddenly became quite evident that they had wormed their way into the Follies.
However, Louis was soon set free and they could return to Pakistan where they applied for a residence permit directly from the Minister of Interior, who was a close friend of theirs. But Afghan authorities had got there first and informed the Pakistani government that if they granted the Dupree’s a residence permit it would be regarded as an act of hostility towards Afghanistan.
“We were told to ‘go somewhere’ and keep quiet. Things would cool down we were told. And obviously they did because we soon had a permit to stay in Pakistan. Not in Peshawar, however, since that was so near the Afghan border and would have been regarded as too provocative. We settled down in Lahore but continued to drive to Peshawar. In the decision it didn’t say anything about visits being forbidden. We became regular guests at the old Dean’s Hotel in Peshawar. And they always let us stay in the same old room, number 22. Soon there was a plaque on the door, “The Dupree’s Suite’.” During this period of exile, Nancy and Louis also spent some time in the U.S. where they taught at University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill and Duke University.
Louis would never again see Kabul even though he was in Afghanistan with the Mujahideen several times. Nancy has never moved back but is a frequent visitor from her home in Peshawar. [Nancy moved back to Kabul in 2007/08.]
“A few months ago, I met an elegant elderly gentleman who had something to tell me. His tone of voice gave him away immediately. This was important, at least for him. He said: ‘I just want to say I’m sorry. I have wanted to apologize for many years now. It was I who signed the document which meant that you would have to leave the country almost 30 years ago. I didn’t want to but I had to. Orders came down and there wasn’t anything else to do than just sign.’”
A similar thing had happened in Peshawar several years previously when Nancy met the man who had been responsible for Louis’ imprisonment. “I was the one who informed on Louis,” said the old man. “I have lived all these years with a terrible pain in my heart.”
“People are forced to do strange things in strange situations,” Nancy says. “And this was truly a peculiar time. Revolution or military coup or whatever you want to call it. They were just instruments. None of them had any personal reason for throwing us out and there is no reason for me to become upset after all these years. I don’t think people should carry around feelings of revenge with them. Life is too short for that sort of thing.”
In the beginning of the 80s, things were boiling under the surface in Peshawar – with the military coup that had just been carried out in Afghanistan, with Mujahideen soldiers and undercover activities. Dean’s Hotel became a sort of base for these activities. Founded in the 1920s by an Englishman, Mr Dean who was a good friend of Nancy’s father, the hotel had been built in classical colonial style. But time had taken its toll on the old hotel that was now only a shadow of what it once had been. Louis was working for international support for the Mujahideen movement in its struggle against the Soviet troops. Nancy’s efforts were focused on Afghan refugees whose numbers were increasing daily in the camps which just kept growing and growing during the entire ten-year Soviet occupation.
“In Peshawar I also got to know Carl Schonmeyr who was busy laying the first building stones for what would soon become the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan.”
An elderly man with a teapot comes out and fills our cups. It’s almost time for lunch. A police siren is heard coming closer and passes by just outside the gate. An electrical generator growls as it starts out on the yard and a couple of men in shalvar kamiz and pakhol begin to unload bricks from a truck for some building project in the area. They help each other and gesticulate and argue about where they should tip the bricks.
Louis died of lung cancer in 1989. After 23 years of shared happiness based on great mutual love and respect as well as all the work they had done together, suddenly he wasn’t there any longer.
“I took over his classes at Duke and Chapel Hill and it wasn’t until after the classes ended I realized fully what I had lost. I lapsed into a period of deep depression. Louis and I had worked so close to each other and the feeling of emptiness that I experienced got the better of me. I missed him so terribly and just couldn’t see a future without him. What shall I do? What will become of me? It felt like life was over for me. It was as if there wasn’t any sense in going on. But somehow I managed to get through this time even if deep feelings of loss and grief still come over me now and again.”
ACBAR, Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, was founded in 1988, the year before Louis’ death. It was the result of the fact that there were so many volunteer organizations in Peshawar at the end of the 80s and they needed help with coordination. One organization had no idea of what the other was doing. “It was a complete mess,” Nancy recalls.
Nancy and Louis became involved in ACBAR and Louis was given the business of investigating the possibility of starting a center where it would be possible to obtain everything that had been written about Afghanistan – everything! Louis was sent home with the task of starting to make lists. When he presented his conclusions, a few days later, he said:
“Ladies and gentlemen. In the first place, so much has been written about Afghanistan that it would be impossible to get it all together in a single library. The second thing is that it would cost too much. And even if we could find all the literature and the money to buy it for, we wouldn’t be able to afford to store the collections safely. And most important of everything: if we did manage to get around the first three problems, only about one percent of these books would ever be used or opened. In short – this is the wrong way of doing things.”
Louis proposed instead that they should work on an investigative basis, collecting and listing new reports. Both internal reports and reports from the UN and other organizations. Only the most important of the old works should be included as reference literature.
Nancy did not return to Afghanistan before April 1992 when the Mujahideen took over power [after which inter-factional fighting led to the destruction of a third of the city and damage to most other parts]. When she arrived, she thought that it could possibly be an emotional experience to drive around the city and see the old areas where she and Louis had lived and worked together. But to her great surprise, she didn’t feel anything. Everywhere ruins and dust – and all those sandbags.
“When I sat in the taxi that drove me around the city, I felt absolutely nothing – this wasn’t the Kabul I had left. It wasn’t my Kabul any longer.” The taxi driver asked Nancy if she wanted to see her old house. The thought had of course crossed her mind but she had pushed it away. “I didn’t want to destroy the inner picture I had of our former home. But that stubborn taxi driver insisted and soon we were there and I was knocking with the same old funny iron ring that still hung on the front door of Louis’ and my house in Shahr-e Naw.”
The door opened and they were met by two young women. The taxi driver told them who he had along with him and the young women smiled warmly and asked Nancy to enter. “I was relieved to see that our old house had escaped being damaged by all the rockets and grenades. The garden looked a little unkempt but I still recognized it.”
It was here the 5 o’clock Follies used to meet and discuss matters. That was a long time ago. “I looked especially for the geranium that I had planted a long time before next to the place I had buried my lovely old cat. I smiled when I saw that it stood there in full bloom.”
But she still didn’t feel anything. ”Was I emotionally dead? There must be something wrong with me.” Nancy drove on and visited an old friend. She entered a dazzling garden in fantastic, colors, well-cared-for and enchantingly beautiful.
“That was when I broke down completely and couldn’t get up from the bench I was sitting on. I just sat there and cried and cried. Everything came all at once. Memories, Louis, my Kabul, all the fun times of the past. It all just flowed over me. Then I realized without a doubt that I had some feelings left in my body.” That was Kabul as Nancy remembered it.
It was during the difficult time just after Louis’ death that ACBAR called and told her that they had accepted his idea on building a resource center with Afghan documents and literature. They had started with the project but needed help getting things rolling. “Today we have 38,000 volumes in our collection. No, wait a minute, 40,000.” Nancy tells me proudly.
The collections were stored for a long time in Peshawar. It was only after the presidential election in Afghanistan in 2004 that she dared to take the risk of moving them over to Kabul, where they rightly belong. But where would everything be housed? One thing she was sure of: these collections must be in a place where Afghans themselves can study their own history. The obvious place was of course the university and soon a shipment left Peshawar with the destination of Kabul University. “It all went exactly as planned. We didn’t lose a single document in transit. 299 sacks, all transported over a period of several months with private Afghan trucks.”
The flow of new reports, documents and literature into the collections increases every day. The library has been full for a long time and now new premises are needed, and quick! Blueprints for the new building on the campus are finished. Land has been earmarked for the project and Nancy has a document with the signatures of all the important people, including President Karzai’s, which establishes the fact that the project will be a part of next year’s budget. But still, not much has happened. It has been outmaneuvered in the corridors of the bureaucracy. “I need two million dollars and I need them now,” Nancy almost shouts out these words as she brings her fist down on the table.
We eat lunch together. We go for a drive. We sit and talk together. Nancy constantly points at different buildings and tells me how they once looked and I try to take it all in. Traffic is frightful in Kabul nowadays with yellow taxis – Toyota Corollas – honking and crowding together in great flocks at every intersection. They mingle with white development aid jeeps with gigantic antennas on the front of the vehicle and here and there a Russian Lada or Volga. And right in the middle of all this, trudge old men and donkeys pulling their squeaky fruit carts apparently untroubled by all the racket. We are on our way to the university for a visit to The Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University, ACKU, which earlier, when it was in Peshawar, was called the Afghanistan Research and Information Centre, ARIC and fell under ACBAR.
I am quiet as I walk through the Kabul university library. An ingrained behavior. Some students sit with their heads buried deep in books opened on the table in front of them. Some of them look up, some of them make no notice of us. Grayish-brown Kabul dust has formed a light veil on every square inch of every shelf. There are a lot of books here but there are still some big holes on the shelves. There’s room for more literature, that’s good. We go through the library and in one corner we approach a glass door. We open it and step in, right into the collection of reports, documents, books newspapers and magazines. Right into the historical identity of Afghanistan. This is her lifetime achievement. Hers and Louis’.
It’s really cramped inside the ACKU and it didn’t take more than a fleeting glance for me to see that they are already outgrowing their allotted space. The new building that Nancy intends to build out on the campus area must be built as soon as possible, right now, in fact. A few employees are busy sorting through and scanning material in order to make it available via electronic media. I exchange a few words with some young IT-fellows who, from what I can see, seem to know what they are doing. Nancy shows me around. It’s so tight that I have to walk sideways in order not to pull down the books and document holders around me. She shows me a display case of a library box. These boxes held about 200 books and were sent out into the countryside so that those who had learned to read at one time wouldn’t forget what they had learned. The books were mostly technical literature that could be used in daily life. But they could also include books of a lighter nature such as storybooks and books on toy-making. Library boxes proved to be a lengthy success when they were introduced in the middle of the 90s.
Nancy needs to do a few things and asks me to wait outside the library. I sit down in the shade. It’s beginning to get a little warmer now. The real heat of summer was long in coming this year and even if it is June it’s not over 25-26 degrees (about 80°F) in the middle of the day. But warmer weather is on its way they say and I wonder if it’s starting now. Some students hurry by. Girls in jeans, tunic and headscarf and boys in jeans and shirt. Decent and yet comfortable. The campus is attractive with extensive green areas that have run a bit wild. The trees growing here have managed to survive the struggles that have taken place in the area during the past few decades. Trees are worth a lot in Afghanistan – there aren’t so many of them.
On a couple of occasions during our conversation, mainly when we speak of Louis and his excavations, Nancy mentions a specific object with an odd name.” What exactly is ‘Daddy’s head’?” I finally ask her.
“About this big,” says Nancy and measures up about 3 inches between her thumb and index finger. “In limestone. It depicts a head and is from the stone age. It’s the oldest artefact that has been dug up in this part of the world.”
When Louis found the little stone – the head – at one of his diggings, he took his time before telling the world about his unique discovery. It was first when five or six experts had taken a look at his find and confirmed its authenticity, first then did he go out with the news. That was in “1971. He asked the government for permission to take it with him to the U.S. in order to get the media attention it deserved. “Sure,” came the answer. “But if you lose it you’ll owe us half a million dollars.”
Louis put the head in the pocket of his jacket and nonchalantly threw it up on the shelf when he later got on the plane. Nancy was worried to death and kept her eye on Louis’ jacket the whole trip. She even asked their children to keep a sharp eye on it. In the States, the find was shown on television and received a large spread in several newspapers, including Time Magazine
“So we arrived in New York, the stone still in Louis’ jacket pocket. In an elevator full of people who looked like robots, all identical with dark suits, white shirts and briefcases, Sally says suddenly: ‘Daddy, do you still have your head in your pocket?’ The robots turned to life and the stone had got its name.”
On the way back to Afghanistan, in Teheran. Louis had put “Daddy’s head” in a matchbox, something which Nancy had some decided views about. “Louis,” she said. “Now you have let the world know about this fantastic little stone. Do you feel comfortable about returning so priceless an article to the state of Afghanistan in a matchbox?”
No sooner said than done. They visited a local jeweler who showed them around in his shop. But all Nancy was looking for was a little velvet box. She finally found one, a red one, and “Daddy’s head” could be returned in what Nancy considered a worthy package. “Daddy’s head” in its new velvet box was locked in and a replica was used for exhibits.
“When we recently, only a couple of years ago, opened the vault where valuable museum pieces have been kept under years of war, everything was still there. Fantastic old artefacts of indescribable value, everything was there. We started by making an inventory of the gold.” The fact of the matter is that only a few people knew what actually was in the vault that had been locked for so many years. The “Bactrian gold” as it is called, includes 20,600 objects and not a single one was missing when the vault was opened.
“The museum staff are the real heroes. This treasure is intact today thanks to the fact that staff members didn’t say a word about what was hidden in the six vaults. The rest of the world was sure that the gold had been stolen when the museum was plundered during the war, but museum personnel knew better and have been able to keep their secret for all these years.” said Nancy in an interview with the New York Times journalist Carlotta Gall in June 2004, just after the opening of the vault.
But outside the vault there were still big sacks full of additional museum pieces. “I received an email recently from an old friend who told me she had been there when the first sack was opened. And there, right on top, she found a remarkable little bundle wrapped in brown paper. She tore off the paper only to come to another layer of paper, newspaper. She continued peeling the bundle and under the newspaper she found toilet paper and then tissue paper. And there, at the heart of this shapeless little bundle lay ‘Daddy’s head’. I had supposed that the little stone head had disappeared because even with a knowledge of archaeology, ‘Daddy’s head’ could easily have been taken for any other uninteresting, insignificant stone. But some wise person obviously knew what he or she was doing when ‘Daddy’s head’ was wound into these many layers of paper.”
It’s a new day and we are sitting on the veranda of a house in southern Kabul. This house belongs to the New York Times, and it is here that Nancy most often stays when she visits Kabul. There is a fantastic garden around the house with a fine green lawn. I notice that the blades of grass are of a thicker quality than what we are used to in Sweden. Climbing grapevines and flowers in bright colors surround us. Nancy loves gardens and she says that Afghans do too. “Nowhere else do you find people so in love with their gardens as you do in Afghanistan.”
That’s the way it has been and still is in many respects, but on the way here I noticed a lot of newly constructed buildings used as show pieces where they seem to have completely forgotten about gardens. The buildings themselves take up almost the entire lot. Nancy doesn’t like that. But what is worse, a lot worse, is that many of these buildings are symbols for the widespread corruption that is found everywhere today.
“There was corruption before too, of course, but not in the same way as today. It’s become an epidemic. It’s terrible to see people completely unrestrained constructing such buildings when it is so obvious that they are being built with dirty money. Besides, they are ugly and for me it’s so un-Afghan to erect a building without a garden.”
In Durham in North Carolina in the US, Nancy has a beautiful garden – if you can call a lot of five acres for a garden. “It’s so peaceful there in spite of the fact that it lies in a built-up area, but it’s too big a house for me. Much too big. Our plans were that Louis and I would settle down and grow old together and finish up all of the projects we had started. I go over there now and again but not so often as before. Now I’ve got to get hold of those 2 million dollars for the new ACKU center so I can get things cleaned up here and get back to work on all the unfinished projects in that house in Durham!” When I just recently asked Nancy to have a look at this text she wrote back: “We have the 2 million now and the drawings are complete so we can look forward to some action at the site before the end of the year.”
Nancy has three children. Actually they are Louis’ children from a previous marriage, but Nancy sees them as her own and treats them as if she were their real mother and the children treats her as a real mother. The oldest daughter is married with a Canadian, the youngest, the one who coined “Daddy’s head” grooms, dogs, and… you see … I am so old that my grandchildren are in college,” she says with a laugh followed by a minor attack of coughing. Nancy’ also has a sister, Sheri Mathias, eleven years’ younger. She lives in Mexico and is strangely enough a musician. Yes, that’s right a harpist. She started where Nancy left off.
Nancy’s mother, Emily Gilchrist, was a Broadway actress and lived with her husband, a developmental aid worker Duane Spenser Hatch, in India when she discovered that she was pregnant. That was in 1927. “My mother said to my father in a very definite way, ‘Duane. this child is going to be born in the U.S. Maybe it’ll be a boy and he may want to become president someday. I’m not going to let my child start out on the minus side.’ They took a train to Calcutta and then a ship to the U.S. To Cooperstown. My birthplace. I turned out to be a girl and besides a girl who couldn’t imagine anything worse than being the president of the United States. When my mother became pregnant again eleven years later, she wasn’t so particular and my sister was born in southern India.”
Nancy has often been asked the question why she chooses to stay on in Afghanistan in spite of all the problems she and others have to live with every day. I think it has something to do with the people here, the Afghans. She always speaks with esteem of Afghans, in a natural and respectful manner, as if she were talking about something that resembles the soul of a people or a national character.
“They are tolerant and full of respect as a people. They have a feeling for what is important in interaction with other people. Here they can look you in the eye and figure out whether or not you are genuine. If they detect that you are trying to ingratiate yourself with them, they are polite in return. If they discover that you are honest and sincere, you have a friend for life. This is a distinguishing feature that I like and I see it around me all the time.”
Nancy is sometimes associated with a special epithet. It got its start in Peshawar. “The Diplomat was the name of a new magazine that had just come out. And on the cover of the first issue there was a picture of me. Under the picture I could read the text: Afghanistan’s Grandmother. I was furious. ‘Look what they’ve done,’ I said to the people at the office, I got no reaction at all. Finally, one of them said: ‘What’s the matter? You are like a grandmother to us. When we have problems we always go to you, no matter if they are personal or job related. We can always discuss things with you, just like we can with our own grandmothers’. It dawned on me that that the whole thing was just a cultural clash.”
Confounded by the epithet, Nancy only saw a decrepit old lady in the grandmother image. But her colleagues saw a person with experience of life with whom they could willingly consult and discuss things. “Suddenly I felt extremely honored by such an epithet. And it stuck. ‘Hi grandma,’ is what I hear when one of Karzai’s top advisors calls.”
Nancy with three crazy Afghans in a car at Khyber Pass on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Their car is stopped at the roadblock and a guard takes a look in the car. The driver, a doctor says: “We’re all Afghans.”
The guard looks at Nancy and then back at the doctor again “Not her. She’s not Afghan.” The doctor demands to see the guard’s superior officer. Nancy pleads with him to take it easy and starts waving her permit in the air. Anything to prevent a dispute.
The doctor is called from the car and into a sentry box. He is soon back and when the car gets rolling again, she asks him what happened in there, what he had said. “Ah, take it easy,” the doctor answered. “I just told them that you’re my grandmother!”
When Nancy first heard of the Taliban she just dismissed them from her mind. She hardly figured they were worthy of any notice. They took Kabul before anybody really understood what was happening. Nobody seemed to believe they had the capacity to do such a thing. They occupied all governmental departments and if you wanted something, you had to go through them. “I had a good deal of contact with the Taliban since I was the acting director of ACBAR for a short while. It soon became evident that those who had taken over the minister posts had bitten off more than they could chew. They didn’t have a clue but they knew that they were the ones making the decisions.” When Nancy called on the Planning Minister on one occasion, he called in question the work she was doing. He was dubious about developmental aid organizations as a whole and claimed that this was his area. He was the one who made the decisions here.
“I explained to him that aid organizations work along with the government in a complimentary manner, providing what they were unable to provide and that we had no intentions of taking over and exercising power and so on and so forth. He listened carefully – you could see he wanted to understand. I had several meetings with him and in the end we became good friends. He was genuinely interested in understanding and finding the best solutions for us so that we could work together. And I wasn’t alone when it came to realizing that it actually was possible to cooperate with the Taliban,” Nancy says.
But soon, the Taliban became more radical and stricter in their views about things in general, more suspicious. Osama bin Laden’s influence increased and his men flowed into the city. The ministers whom Nancy had gotten along so well with were dismissed and exchanged by real hardliners. Al-Qaida took over more and more and she realized that the Taliban leader Mullah Omar had lost control of things when the Buddha statues in Bamiyan were blown up. “I was in Paris when it happened – a horrible event for the entire world. A part of our universal heritage just completely vanished.” But Nancy dismisses the idea of reconstructing the statues.
“They weren’t just statues or monuments. They represented something higher, something greater. If they are to be rebuilt without the religious conviction behind them, they will be just another tourist attraction. I’m simply against it. Build a museum there instead and show the world how it looked at one time. The residents of Hazarajat will lose income from the lack of tourists, but what is left, the empty niches and the fantastic landscape, are still inspiring. Already we see that interest for the place is still alive even if the Buddhas aren’t standing there any longer.”
On our third and last day together, it is time to make a visit to the Kabul museum. We drive toward Darulaman, where the bomb-shattered palace with the same name lies up on a hill right next to the newly restored museum. We drive through an area that was hard hit by battles around Kabul during the civil war.
Visiting the National Museum of Afghanistan with Nancy Hatch Dupree as a guide is a privilege granted to only a precious few – a better guide can’t be found anywhere. Her imprints on the museum are plain to see. Besides the fact that Louis has dug up a large number of the museum artefacts directly from Afghan soil, Nancy has been so intensely connected to the museum that she knows it as well as she knows her own living room. She knows everybody and tells me about which rooms that have been restored and about parts of the museum building that no longer exist, that have been blown to pieces. We step right into the room of the head of the museum. He receives Nancy with open arms and immediately sends for tea. A bowl with candy is already on the table. The tea comes after just a few minutes. I taste a strange, fluorescent and shapeless lump, almost without any form at all, from the candy bowl, it has a peculiar taste. Nancy and the head of the museum, a lean gentleman with kind eyes, talk about everything from old times to today’s exhibition. I mostly listen. They mention that an Italian team of archaeologists is in town working with the restoration of objects which have been broken during the wars.
A bit later, one flight up, we visit the room where the Italians are rummaging about. Wooden cases everywhere, metal basins, plastic buckets containing what I would describe as gravel. On some of the tables, they have poured out the “gravel” – here they are trying to lay their three dimensional puzzles. And from what I can tell, they are making progress. Here and there stand complete and half-complete sculptures, statuettes and other objects. Just like they looked some time in the past. We meet some Italians who seem to be suffering from stress. They aren’t especially interested in our presence and greet us a little indifferently – mostly wanting to get back to their work. I realize that they don’t know who I have along with me and Nancy is introduced. Suddenly they drop everything they are doing and just stand there gaping. ”Is it really Nancy Dupree?” someone asks.
The Italian team, four or five persons, begins to swarm around her and shower words of praise over her and ask about old times. A new Italian joins the group. “This is Nancy Dupree,” says one of them to the new arrival.
“Is that true? Nancy Dupree! Is it possible?” I realize that I am walking around the room looking rather proud of myself. Take it easy now, Nancy is actually with me. “Come on Nancy, let’s go!” She guides me through the museum. We look at prehistoric stone tools, wooden sculptures from Nuristan and an ugly Buddha replica in flesh colored plastic. Some large photos, a square yard in size, are hanging on the walls. Nancy stops and points to one of the photos, a little village with buildings of mud with funny roofs. “Louis used to call those ‘tittie houses’,” she says.
We laugh at the joke and I must admit that it is a pretty accurate name. The roofs of the houses really do have the form of a woman’s breast. I can’t help wondering about the prevailing view towards women on the one hand and these rooftops that openly depict a naked female breast in full sight on the other. I keep my thoughts to myself and let Nancy take me further into the museum.
Outside, quite near the museum, is an unusual collection of vehicles. A somewhat rusty steam locomotive from the 20s imported from Germany, that was to transport the king from Darulaman to Kabul stands next to a row of British luxury cars that have seen better days but which certainly at one time carried political leaders and other bigwigs around Kabul.
On the other side of the road lies the bomb-shattered former parliament building. Like a wounded giant, it lies there and looks down upon us with tired eyes. What once were copper domes are today just rusty iron skeletons. Life has taken its toll on this neoclassical colossus, built in the 1920s for King Amanullah Khan. The palace is a terrible but sadly telling reminder of Afghanistan’s history. But in spite of all the bullet-holes and rockets that have shattered great parts of the once so magnificent building, it is still standing. In the same way, Afghanistan and the Afghans are still standing up – in defiance of decades of nightmarish hardships.
“Over the years, Afghanistan has seen many setbacks and I have several times thought that now the Afghans have hit bottom. Now they’re going to have a hard time getting back on their feet. But then you wake up one morning and look around and in some miraculous way, the problems have solved themselves. Let’s just hope that it will turn out that way this time too,” says Nancy in the dry and hot wind that is blowing over the plain a few miles outside of Kabul.
The afternoon is getting late and it’s time for us to drive back to the city. It will be the last trip with Nancy for now. I give her a hug when I climb out of the car at an intersection. I walk the last stretch of the way, it’s only a few blocks. A few blocks in a throbbing and rapidly growing city of several millions. And in a fascinating country which by now ought to have earned the right to stability, security and peace.
Nancy Hatch Dupree now 81 years old, will probably continue working with the stubbornness of a child. I can’t really imagine her being content with slowing down. Nancy says she ended up here just by chance but it is no coincidence that she is still here. This is her life. I can’t help wondering what Nancy’s life would have looked like if a certain little bird hadn’t built its nest on the lawn where she was sitting and writing that day over 40 years ago. A bird that says hup-hup-hup and so on and so forth…
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020