It is 40 days since the historian, archivist and activist on behalf of Afghans, Nancy Hatch Dupree, died, aged 89. She had spent decades of her life in Afghanistan or, like many Afghans, in exile in neighbouring Pakistan. She was the author of guidebooks on Afghanistan and a publisher of books. Then, first with her husband, Louis, and, after he died in 1989, by herself, Nancy amassed the most extensive archive of documents of the last forty years. Those 100,000 documents are now housed in a special building, known as the Afghanistan Collection at Kabul University (ACKU). Last night, in London, friends and colleagues met to celebrate Nancy’s life and mark her passing. Here, we publish some of the tributes that were made that evening.
Our first despatch to mark Nancy’s ‘fortieth day’, a republishing of an interview she gave in 2007, can be read here. See also AAN’s obituary for her and our report about the opening of the AFKU here.
Shoaib Sharifi, journalist
My first exposure to the name ‘Nancy Dupree’ goes back 18 years to 1998 when I joined Voice of Sharia, the official name of Radio Afghanistan under the Taliban. At a time when the world thought of Afghanistan as in one of its darkest eras and against all odds, as a newly recruited intern, I was assigned to introduce Afghanistan, its art and culture to the world via Radio Voice of Sharia’s English Programme.
The editor of foreign languages at Voice of Sharia, an educated and dedicated Taleban official, handed me an overly used book and gave me my job description in two sentences: “This is a historical guide to Afghanistan written by a foreigner. It talks about the golden days of Afghanistan. Read this!” Nothing more, nothing less.
Nancy’s legendary guide to Afghanistan: published in 1970 and still the go-to guide.
And with Nancy Dupree’s book An Historical Guide to Afghanistan, not only did I get a year-long approved written script to start my career in media with, but I also re-discovered the golden days of my country. I found in it the tales that my grandma had told me as bed-time stories, but this time they were told and endorsed by a foreigner.
Nancy’s historical guide to Afghanistan was the first non-text book I had ever read, the first book that introduced my own country to me, a teenager brought up in war, who had experienced nothing but gloom and conflict. Nancy’s half a century work on Afghanistan history and culture captured the image of the golden days of Afghanistan, preserved it and then presented it to new generation, a generation that had seen nothing but misery. Her work strengthened the younger Afghan generation’s sense of pride in our golden past, and gave a reason to be optimistic for a glorious future for us in/for Afghanistan.
A mural of her appeared on a Kabul T-wall 48 hours after her death with the message, “My hero,” on top. This was something that Kabul and Kabulis hadn’t seen for quite some time, the picture of a real hero, uncontested and non-controversial.
Nancy’s life and death proved wrong the Afghan proverb which says, “We don’t have living heroes or dead villains.” She also proved wrong the accepted definition of what it means to be a present-day Afghan hero. We now have a proven case that has broken through all the usual limitations: to be a hero, you do no need to be from a certain faction, or represent a particular faith group, quite oddly and surprisingly, you do not even need to be a man. You simply need to be Nancy Dupree with a sustaining love for the country and its people.
Nassim Jawad, former director, Austrian Relief Committee for Afghanistan in Pakistan
I knew Nancy and her late husband Louis Dupree for many years, especially from the time when Afghan refugees were pouring into Pakistan in their thousands and both Nancy and Louis were heavily engaged in helping refugees, while maintaining neutrality and integrity in a place that was packed with foreign spies from countries around the world.
Nancy and Louis helped preserve our literature and thereby our culture, reminding Afghans that cultural integrity will eventually help us become a free society again.
Their home in North Carolina, which I had the privilege to visit in the 1980s, was filled with their notebooks from their journeys beginning in the 1950s and 1960s and textbooks, journals, internationally published literature and books on Afghanistan from all over the world.
When Louis passed away in the 1990s, Nancy sold her house, transferred all the literature to a regional library with the condition that as soon the situation permitted, it should be transferred to an Afghan library. She promised to spend the rest of her life in Afghanistan and with Afghans, serving our dear country. And she did so, as aside from short trips to the US, attending medical check ups etc, she spent her last years permanently in Afghanistan.
Nancy has been a true Afghan and I always wished we had a few dedicated Afghans like Nancy – we would have been much better off. She has left a huge vacuum behind. However, she worked hard in the last 10 to 15 years to train, build capacities and empower Afghans to take on the challenges and take responsibility for their own affairs. During my last visit in Kabul, I met some of the great young Afghans, Nancy’s students, who I believe will continue in her path.
As the Afghan proverb goes: “Nancy has been framed in the mirror of our hearts…” and will remain there forever and Afghans will not forget her. She has passed away, but her spirit will guide many bright young Afghans to follow the path and make Afghanistan once again a great country.
Andrew Wilder, Vice-President United States Institute for Peace, Asia Programmes
My first memory of meeting Nancy was in Peshawar around 1990 at the first Louis Dupree memorial lecture that she organized to honour her husband. I had the good fortune to know and interact with Nancy off on since then, although I must admit that many of these interactions involved Nancy scolding me. For example, during the 1990s she was constantly scolding many of us NGO workers for not consistently submitting our NGO reports for her collection of grey literature at the ACBAR Resource and Information Center (ARIC).
When I was at the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, AREU (2002-2005) in Kabul, she was extremely persistent in her requests that we provide a regular supply of readable publications in Dari and Pashto for her innovative and invaluable project to provide box libraries to communities all over Afghanistan.
I feel very fortunate that during a visit to Kabul in early September, and thanks to an email from Jolyon Leslie about Nancy’s condition, I had the opportunity to have a final visit with her in the hospital just one and a half days before she died. Although she was very frail, her passion for preserving and educating a new generation of Afghans about their history and culture was alive and well. It was fitting that our conversation ended with her scolding me for not recently visiting her pride and joy, not to mention her lasting legacy — the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University. While on my way to Kabul airport a few days after Nancy died, I was very pleased to see a beautiful image of her transforming one of the ugly cement blast walls at Massud Circle into a work of art.
Nancy in the stacks at the ACKU Credit: Joel van Houdt
Sippi Azarbaijani-Moghaddam, development worker
In 2000 I had already been working extensively for a few years with women inside Afghanistan. I was about to start managing a programme providing independent gender advice to the aid community as a whole. I decided to check in with Nancy who used to run ARIC from an office in a leafy suburb of Peshawar. We met in her office where my eye was drawn left and right and up and down by books, small artefacts, postcards and posters – all fascinating. For a tiny lady I had heard she could be very intimidating but we hit it off straight away, found our ideas were exactly on the same page and became friends. In those days the aid community was small, so we all had time to have long discussions on issues of concern or our plans and dreams.
She also loved cats. I will never forget, at the height of Taliban oppression of women, she and I were involved in a research project together. I walked over to her home with my dog. We sat calmly discussing a Taliban edict banning women from work as at least ten of Nancy’s cats sat around us and stared at my well-behaved dog.
Once the Taliban fell, Afghanistan was deluged by expatriates and Nancy became the shrine everyone wanted to visit. We kept in touch once in a while and her incredible mind kept track of who we all were. I was always amazed that she remembered every single one of us. I will miss her sharp mind and all her incredible anecdotes about travelling in the lost world of pre-war Afghanistan.
This is my tribute to her:
If anyone is alive right now and resonating with passion, it’s Nancy. Inside a tiny frail body was an enormous soul, like the genie inside Aladdin’s lamp. Nancy was an interpreter of how Afghanistan has expressed its soul for thousands of years – through the mud face of a Buddha here, a rock carving there, a scrap of writing by a young refugee in a muddy camp, the research paper written in a wood-panelled library somewhere in the world. She collected and curated all of these expressions of Afghanistan’s soul into an extraordinary and unique legacy.
Afghanistan lives and breathes and tosses and turns, and there is Nancy with notebook and pen telling us what Afghanistan is saying. Some of us are fortunate enough to find a passion in life. Nancy found two: Louis and Afghanistan. And she single-mindedly focused on those two passions. We all wove in and out of her life, but her passions remained strong and constant, and they drew people to her.
Nancy with young people at ACKU. Credit: Joel van Houdt
Nancy could help everyone see where Afghans had been, and she was excited by where Afghans wanted to go and where they could go. Nancy introduced different generations of Afghans to that past, skilfully narrating the turbulent and exciting journey for new generations. She showed every single young Afghans crossing her threshold the solid foundations of their homeland, built on thousands of years of civilization, and with that the possibility to build incredible structures in the future. Through her work, Nancy held up a mirror reflecting a glorious version of Afghanistan back to itself, an extraordinary heritage and one to be proud of.
Nancy’s Afghanistan was a vibrant place and she lived in the thick of it, never separated from her Afghanistan. Countless young of all nationalities were inspired or exhorted to get up, to leave their computers and desks; and to get out into the heat and the dust, and the snow and the mud, and above all to explore her Afghanistan.
Nancy understood better than anyone that knowledge born of passion and love, penetrates the mind, soul and spirit. That knowledge flows through us and changes our inner landscape, it nourishes us and makes us verdant when once there was desert. She has joined the community of men and women who for thousands of years shone like beacons in beleaguered places and preserved knowledge in that part of the world. She understood that the most powerful change comes from the child whose head is full of ideas, not bombs and bullets. Nancy is a Sufi master, calling everyone to her house of knowledge borne of passion and love, introducing everyone to her Beloved, Afghanistan.
She was infected by a passion for an Afghanistan made of light, and she infected every single person she touched. If the thread of your fate took you into Nancy’s office you became pulled into the weft of her unique Afghan carpet. She did not care about anything except helping everyone see Afghanistan as a treasure. Nizami Ganjavi, the poet, writes that everything is a game except the game of love and Nancy understood that and lived her life with exceptional passion.
For those of us not from Afghanistan, Nancy showed us the Afghanistan that we all fell in love with. It is the Afghanistan which has inspired us to get on a flight and go over there once, twice, a hundred times. She reminded us why we had Afghan fever, and her vision of that Afghanistan remained constant, even when the rest of us lost sight of it. Nancy’s Afghanistan went beyond the fighters, the power struggles, the corruption and the abuse, which became compulsive viewing for some.
Her gift has given Afghans access to knowledge, the possibility and the vision for a future based on who they already have been a decade ago, a century ago, a thousand years ago. Nancy’s Afghanistan – she had such an eloquent, skilful and convincing way of showing that Afghanistan to so many different audiences that she left us mesmerized and that’s how Nancy created her tribe. Maybe it is time we start calling ourselves the Nancy-zai.
Hermione Youngs, development worker in Afghanistan or with Afghans 1991-2016
Nancy and I first met in 1992, and soon realised we had one thing in common, our husbands died on the same day in 1989, this certainly cemented our friendship from then on.
When she decided to return to Jalalabad we travelled from Peshawar over the Khyber Pass together. What stories she told me of her and Louis adventures, and what an insight I was given into their love.
A 25 year friendship filled with laughter and fun, never to be forgotten – thank you Nancy.
Nancy and Louis before the war.
William Reeve, BBC Kabul correspondent, 1990s
I much enjoyed being on the board of her wonderful project, as she moved all the thousands of documents up from Peshawar to Kabul. I will also never forget her old Land Rover, which she sold to me for $1,000 at Christmas in 1993. She had it with Louis for about 15 years in Afghanistan, and then in Pakistan for a further 15 years.
It was somewhat of a historical document in itself. Michael Wood used the Land Rover for filming the journey of Alexander the Great through Afghanistan. It finally broke down half way up the Panjshir Valley, and they had to carry on their trip on donkeys!
Hanneke Kouwenberg, health worker in Afghanistan in the 1980s
A newspaper report about the opening of the ACKU in 2013, entitled “‘Grandmother of Afghanistan’ Nancy Hatch Dupree says it may be time to move on,” began with the sentence:
With the center open and documents finally secure, Dupree thinks it may be nearly time for her to step off the stage.
It ended with:
“I need to do something,” she said. “But I guess like Scarlett O’Hara, I’ll think about that tomorrow.”
By times, Nancy was talking about moving back to the States to retire at her and Louis’ house there, while at the same time saying, “Well, I am thinking why I should make the effort, I would want to come back to Afghanistan anyway. I am not finished here yet.”
Many of us have heard this on many occasions, for many years. It had started already in Peshawar, and we all use to say: I believe it when I see it. Well, we all know now: She is staying!
Nancy often expressed especially her trust in the younger generation of Afghanistan. She loved surrounding herself with young people. “They are the future and they have the right to learn about their history in their own country.”
Her dedication to the country and the people she loved so much will continue in the legacy she and Louis left behind for many generations to come. Their many books, research and writings, the Kabul Museum, the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University.
And not the least, Nancy’s spirit which touched upon everybody who had the honour to meet her. When Nancy believed in something, she went for it with great determination and charm. Luckily enough, otherwise there might not have been a Kabul Museum nor ACKLU in Afghanistan.
There is a lot left to be done for all of us who are touched by “the Afghan Virus” – mind you, it doesn’t go away – because as Nancy once said: “Political agendas rate higher than the well-being of the Afghan people.”
She had many names: Grandmother of Afghanistan, Crazy old Lady, That busy old Lady, Mrs Dupree, Nancy Jan, Ancient monument of Afghanistan…….but for me and many others she will be missed as just: “NANCY.”
Anders Fange, former director Swedish Committee for Afghanistan
Nancy Dupree will be remembered as a clear and sober voice among the multitude of foreigners who too often see their engagement in Afghanistan in terms of their own or their own countries’ interests.
She will be remembered for her firm belief that the Afghans, in the end, will prevail against the decades of war and misery.
She will be remembered for her unyielding confidence that the most important potential in Afghanistan is its men and women, and that they will be able to create a future of peace and prosperity for which they all are longing.
She will be remembered for her persistent commitment and steadfast work for Afghanistan and its people, for never giving up her quest, for stubbornly fighting until the unavoidable end.
Yes, Nancy Jan, you will certainly be remembered. May you rest in peace.
Nancy among the roses at the National Museum in Kabul. In 1974, she published a guide: “The National Museum of Afghanistan.” She was one of the few who knew where the museum’s most prized treasures were hidden during the mujahedin and Taleban eras, when much of what was left in the museum was looted or destroyed. Credit: Joel van Houdt
Picture credits: Many thanks to David Gill and Joel van Houdt for permission to use their photographs and to the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan: the black and white picture of Nancy and Louis is taken from “Afghanistan Over a Cup of Tea; 1995 – 2010, 58 Chronicles by Nancy Hatch Dupree”, published by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, translated by Norman Burns, 2010 (2nd edition).
Edited by Kate Clark
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020