SHE cut a curious figure in the bazaars of Peshawar, in Pakistan, in the 1990s: a tiny figure in salwar kameez with fluffy white hair, a sweet doll’s face and, when needed, the mouth of a stevedore. Nancy Dupree was looking for papers. Any papers. Magazines, UN reports, newspapers produced by rival factions of the mujahideen, posters, comics, photographs. It didn’t matter if they had been used to light a fire, or wrap meat; if they were legible, she wanted them. Any goddamn thing, as long as it had to do with Afghanistan.
Her task was one she would never have started on, had she not fallen crazily in love with that poor, war-ravaged, beautiful land. She was reconstructing, document by document, the recent history of Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion in 1979. Those were times to pass over in silence, as far as Afghanistan’s textbooks were concerned: the years of Soviet occupation, the rise of the warlords, the American invasion and the Taliban takeover, a period of such chaos that even she, who had lived there for decades, had left for Peshawar and America. But she had not forgotten.
The destination of those thousands of papers, after they had been put in sacks and sent on horseback through the Khyber Pass, was a new building on the campus of Kabul University, her own Afghanistan Centre. Amid the blast-walls and quick-fix buildings of the new city, her centre was built of Afghan cedar and white Herat marble in the style of a qala, or fort, around a courtyard bounded with poplars. In this calm, traditional setting, Afghans could now discover their own history.
Of course, it took so much bloody time. But she kept on pushing, hustling any minister with Why? or Why not? Fortunately, after enough years, they seemed to forget that she was either a foreigner or a woman. In her own mind she was just “General Busybody” or “Nuisance”, but her networking prowess was so notorious that she was once approached, to see if she could help with permits to dig tunnels in Kabul, by the young Osama bin Laden.
By sheer persistence she got enough money for her centre, from Estonia and Norway among others. Even Hamid Karzai, at one time president of Afghanistan, helped to raise $2.5m for it. If a people did not know their history, she kept saying, if they did not revere their culture or care for the monuments around them, their nation could not stay alive.
She had embarked on this work—soon after arriving in Kabul in 1962, as the bored but giddy wife of an American diplomat—by writing the first-ever guide to the magnificent Bamiyan Buddhas. How could there be no guide? she cried to the tourism minister. It was a scandal. Not half as big a scandal, at least in Kabul, as her wild cocktail-partying affair with Louis Dupree, a married archaeologist. But she rode that out, and married him. Louis’s other love was Afghanistan’s prehistory; he had unearthed the oldest tools and art ever found in the country. She added to that by describing, in five books and many articles, Afghanistan’s rich Greek and Buddhist pasts as well as its Islamic one, and the treasures that remained from each of them.
But this mixed history only enraged the Islamist fanatics who emerged victorious after the Soviet years. In 2001 they blew up her beloved Bamiyan Buddhas, leaving just a stump. The National Museum was hit by rocket fire, reducing many artefacts to dust and opening the rest to looters. She wrote a report on the destruction, reckoning that 70% of the collection had gone. But given the history of this place, anything could fall victim at any time either to a mullah with matches or an American bomb; and once something was thoroughly broken in Afghanistan, it seemed pretty Humpty-Dumptyish to try to mend it.
The best solution she knew was to make Afghans care about their past: not just the elite in Kabul, but also the country people whom the elite ignored. True, some could not read or write, but they were bright, open-minded and thirsting to learn. So her centre sent out boxes filled with pamphlets and books on health, nutrition and farming, as well as history, as lending libraries for villages. Yes, the government jibbed at it, and yes, she knew from tedious visits with bearded elders that sometimes the boxes were just locked away, but every book that got through was progress.
Tea and sympathy
It was also an act of love—as her whole career was. Louis had taunted her, in his profane, charming, cavalier way, into doing more guidebooks, and his red Land Rover had taken her all over her adopted country. He had taught her the prehistory, but he had also started the great collection of papers from the war years. After his death in 1989 she went on with it, as well as the libraries for the country people, because of what he wanted. Beside him, without him, she was just a piffling little shadow. Good God, was she even still alive?
“Grandmother of Afghanistan” (as many fondly called her) was not a bad title, though. She could be that. She recalled how once some village women had brought her their gummy-eyed children and asked for penicillin for them. Instead, like some wise woman of the hills, she suggested applying strong, fresh-brewed tea. It worked. And she thought, looking at the babies then, that there was nothing so lovely as opened Afghan eyes.