KABUL, Afghanistan -- 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.