Context & Culture

Inspiration in Kabul: Nancy Dupree and the Opening of the Afghanistan Centre


The Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University (ACKU) has been officially opened. A beautiful, airy building with a central green courtyard, it has space for both researchers and the Centre’s collection of 80,000 (and increasing) documents collected over the last three decades. The driving force behind the project is Nancy Hatch Dupree who said that ‘for a nation to prosper, it must have an involved citizenry and they must have access to knowledge.’ As AAN senior analyst Kate Clark, who went to the opening, reports, the first thing that should be said about the Centre is that it is very exciting indeed.

Just over a year ago, I wanted to see if the mujahedeen had written anything similar to the Taleban’sLayha (code of conduct) during the jihad of the 1980s. One of the librarians at ACKU picked out a couple of pamphlets from Hezb-e Islami and Ittihad-e Islami. Following the librarian through the stacks of publications was like entering a sweet shop for the mind – tempting Taleban newspapers, Jamiat-e Islami and Khalqi pamphlets from the 1980s, NGO and UN surveys through three decades, DVDs and radio programmes, publications going back into the nineteenth century and enough books on Afghanistan to keep you busy for months. If you are into linguistics, history, archaeology, public health, education, anthropology, poetry, religion, any number of subjects, there are enticing treats here as well – just try entering some words or authors into the online catalogue. The material is all being digitised, so that it will be preserved and gradually become available online (see here and here).

The Centre itself is beautiful and, despite the excitement of the contents, quite calming. ‘We wanted a modern design,’ said Dupree at the opening, ‘but something within the cultural and architectural traditions of Afghanistan.’ The walls are stout like those of a qala, she told The Guardian, the beams are made of Afghan cedar and poplars mark the boundaries of the land as in an Afghan village. Dupree is hoping for intellectual interactions in the courtyard between scholars, students and professors.

The slogan of ACKU is ‘Information Sharing for Nation Building’, which is a more profound statement than first meets the eye. As Dupree said in a 2005 lecture (read a transcript here):

There is no paucity of information [in Afghanistan]. The problem is the bewildering mixtures of incompatible data that lie scattered here and there. Indeed, the chaotic state of data from Afghanistan was so unreliable that for several years running Afghanistan was completely omitted from UNDP’s annual global human development reports.

Even basic statistics in Afghanistan are contradictory, she said, quoting her late husband, Louis: ‘wild guesses based on inadequate data.’ But the problem said Dupree goes far beyond just numbers:

…statistics, as useful as they may be when they are not being manipulated or skewed, are not the be all and end all of information. To revive a nation as culturally rich as Afghanistan, the complexities of its social, economic, geographic and political environment have to be studied on many levels, including research into the past. Unfortunately too many charged with strategic planning today are in such a frightful hurry. They rush ahead ‘to get things done’ without caring about what has gone before – or even taking an in-depth look at the present. As a result there is a lot of strategizing done by people who know little about those for whom they strategize.

At AAN, we can only applaud Dupree’s articulation of what has also been one of our main motivations to set up this organisation: to try to bring detail, nuance and history into the way Afghanistan is viewed.

At the Centre’s grand opening, Dupree was the inspiration and the star, recognised not just for this project but for her long career in and about Afghanistan. She has spent decades, not only collecting and collating documents, but also researching and writing (guide books, papers on women, on information) (1) and, because Afghans who become literate need access to something worth reading, also publishing books and organising mobile box libraries (read about this programme here).

The former finance minister and chancellor of Kabul University, Ashraf Ghani, in a moving and affectionate speech, called Dupree his mentor (he first met her and Louis in 1969 when he came back to Kabul after studying in Beirut): ‘I learned there were two ways of dealing with Nancy, ‘ he said, ‘Say yes quickly or after a long time.’ ‘She is relentless in the face of adversity,’ he said, ‘an example to us all that with will and discipline, we realise what’s in our hearts.’

Return to Dupree herself and her work (again from her 2005 lecture) to see what perseverance means here:

To access most sources… one must know who has what, where it is and be willing to deal with arcane bureaucratic procedures. This is usually frustrating and discouraging. Consider, for instance, an office where some of the staff has worked for 30 years. Pleasant and eager to please, they inform you there is a warehouse full of multiple copies of everything they ever produced – but they have no list. Offering to purchase sight unseen a full set of what is in the warehouse, one is then asked to submit a written request. Obtaining signature upon signature up and down the line, starting from department heads up to ministers, normally takes months of constant reminders. Few persevere, if for no reason other than the frantic pace at which planning now proceeds.

At ACKU, the legwork has been done, the 36,000 documents brought in sacks from Peshawer in 2005, along with the tens of thousands added since, have been sifted, collated and digitised. Dupree managed to get land from the university, money from the Afghan government and from the Swiss, Norwegians, Asia Foundation and others, help from architects and the goodwill and hard work of Afghans and foreigners alike, working her networks and contacts, inspiring and demanding help. The 30 staff, generous with their expertise, are led by the former New York Times reporter, Waheed Wafa, described by Dupree as, ‘the very young, (2) impatient director who wants to get on with things.’ He said he wants to see more readers coming to the Centre, each day. Wafa, is right, surely, to see this as a crucial sign of success because as Graham-Harrison wrote in The Guardian:

[ACLU’s] mission… is revolutionary, promoting serious research into Afghan history and society in a country where these can be such charged topics that the education minister last year decided to issue history textbooks that end in the 1970s. ‘One of our focus is to promote the whole concept and methodology of doing decent research,’ Dupree said, laying out plans for exhibitions, seminars, lectures and other events in a university which is short on visiting scholars or opportunities for students to travel. ‘The majority of students here think doing research is Googling, cutting and pasting. The whole concept that you can get great insights by doing research is not here, so we want to develop that, it’s a sideline of sharing information.’

Ghani also spoke about the ACKU in the context of nation building and of the life work of both Nancy and of Louis (who first had the idea of the Centre and, along with Nancy started collecting documents in the 1980s – he died in 1989). The Duprees, said Ghani, opened up Afghanistan’s past to itself. Louis, an archaeologist and anthropologist, brought Afghans 3000 years of their own history, as well as documenting the daily existence of Afghans. (3) Nancy, he said, had the sharper eye, writing about Balkh, Bamyian, literature and women. They were a unique team, he said and their work one reason why Afghanistan, a nation which is 99.9 % Muslim, could be proud of its Buddhist and Greek history. ‘We are confident,’ he said, ‘and therefore, we can own our past. Only the ignorant disown their own history.’

This reference surely was to the Taleban and their breaking of the Buddhist statues at Bamyian, but Ghani also spoke more broadly about the need to recognise the many painful years of war, this part of a past which Afghans need to possess and overcome, learning to love and live together, with the past also becoming a guide to the future.

(1) They include: The road to Balkh (1967), An historical guide to Afghanistan (Afghan Tourist Organization publication) (1977), Nancy Dupree: Selected writings by Nancy Dupree (1989) ‘Afghan Women under the Taliban’, in William Maley, Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban, Hurst and Company (2001).

(2) He is ‘very young’ only from the perspective of someone in their eighties.

(3) Read his book Afghanistan, Princeton University Press (1973).

Tagged with: , , ,
Thematic Category: Context & Culture