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Nancy Hatch Dupree, 1927-2017: the preserver of Afghan culture

12 September 2017

6:40 PM

12 September 2017

6:40 PM

Nancy Hatch Dupree died in Kabul on Sunday, 10 September. 

Nancy Hatch Dupree is sitting in the Gandamak Lodge, the Foreign Correspondents hang-out in Kabul. Most of the other diners, and almost all those propping up the bar, are shaven-headed, gym-going young men in their twenties and thirties: a scrum of adrenalin-surfing hacks and cameramen who grew up watching movies like Salvador and The Year of Living Dangerously and who now fill the bar room with their tales of derring-do in Helmand and close-shaves in Lashkar Gah.

None of them, however, have half as good a seem of stories as this tiny, bird-like 86 year old woman, picking at her burger at the corner table. Over the course of dinner, Nancy tells a series of tales that would shame the storyline of most Hollywood movies: of her passionate affair in 1960’s Kabul with a handsome, Harvard-educated ex-paratrooper and archaeologist, whose life made that of Indiana Jones seem positively suburban; of her expulsion from Afghanistan at the Communist takeover and her husband’s arrest and interrogation as a CIA spy; of her meetings with Bin Laden, and her trips as a solo American woman into Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. She talks also of her current  life commuting between her homes in Kabul and Peshawar, sometimes driving herself down the Khyber Pass in her little Renault 5, sometimes by Red Cross flights: ‘I am their only frequent flyer,’ she tells me. Although she is heading for ninety, Nancy is terrific company, and completely fearless.

She speaks with scorn of the risk-averse life lived by most of the foreigners in Afghanistan as they sit locked up in their heavily-fortified houses and who will only venture out in armoured vehicles, with security guards and with elaborate ECM [Electronic Counter Measures] protection: ‘They hardly leave their compound and never make friends with Afghans – can you imagine?’ she asks with incredulity. ‘It’s such a mess. No one is here for the Afghans. Seventy per cent of all US aid to this country goes back to where it came from in salaries. We’re awash with contractors and crooks making a killing here. It’s all flowing back to US bank accounts.’

To look at, Nancy is small and fragile, with features as gentle as the Grandmother from Little Red Riding Hood, all grey curls and innocent blue eyes; yet she is active, alert and passionate in her anger: ‘The worst of it is that it’s all deliberate policy,’ she continues, nibbling at her salad. ‘Rumsfeld claimed he had privatised war. So much of the occupation was given over to private companies, and done for profit. The NGOs here these days are little better. It’s like a zoo, except all the animals are out and clawing each other, competing for the same resources.’

At this point, bursts of automatic gunfire echo from the street outside. Immediately, all the hardened correspondents dive for cover, myself among them. Only Nancy continues unfazed, announcing from her seat, ‘I think I’ll just finish my chips.’

* * *

Nancy Hatch was born 1927. Her parents lived in Travancore – part of the modern state of Kerala in hot, wet, tropical South-West India. Her father was an American who had served with the British Army on the North West Frontier and who was wounded at the Siege of Kut (in the Mesopatamian provinces of the Ottoman Empire, now Iraq) during the First World War. He convalesced in India and fell in love with the country, staying on after his recovery as an early pioneer of rural development programmes, at a time when such projects were almost unknown.

On a vacation in New York he met and wooed Nancy’s mother, a Broadway actress who specialised in tragedies, and persuaded her to join him in India. On arrival Mrs Hatch, clearly as adaptable and enterprising a woman as her daughter, began writing and performing plays to educate the villagers on rural development and choosing better crop varieties; she also embarked on a PhD on Kathakali, one of the most spectacular mythological dance tradition of Kerala: ‘She spent a lot of nights up until dawn in very remote villages watching the universe being destroyed and recreated on-stage.’

Nancy remembers a blissful childhood. The Maharajah of Trivandrum gave her a horse and she would often ride out alone to explore the Indian countryside, before following her parents as a teenager first to Costa Rica then Mexico, where her father helped open Unesco. While doing a Masters at Columbia – the first time she had lived in an modern American city for any length of time – she met her first husband, Alan, who graduated straight into the Foreign Service. It was he who brought her back to South Asia with postings first in Colombo, then Karachi and Lahore.

It was in 1962 that she encountered for the first time the two great loves of her life: Afghanistan, and Louis Dupree. When Alan was posted to Kabul, Nancy immediately found herself captivated by the culture and history of Central Asia. Following a visit to the monumental Buddhas at Bamiyan, where she had been unable to find any information on what she was seeing, she began work on a guide book. In the course of her research she asked the leading archaeological authority on Afghanistan, Louis Dupree, for assistance. The two got off to a bad start: she left her manuscript with him, and when she returned to pick it up, found he had annotated it: ‘Adequate, but nothing original.’

‘Dr Dupree,’ Nancy said.‘I am writing a guidebook and I’m happy you’ve found what I’ve written adequate. This is not a doctoral dissertation, and there is no need for it to be original.’ So saying, she spun around and headed for the door.


‘Hey wait a minute,’ shouted Dupree at the retreating figure. ‘Get back here.’

The two began an affair which scandalised Kabul. Both Louis and Nancy were already married; and it didn’t make the affair any more palatable to a deeply conservative society when the first Mrs Dupree paired up with Alan: ‘We were the first to have an affair,’ she maintains. ‘They were the first to get married.’

When she tried to explain this wife-swapping scandal to the American ambassador, he suggested the best course would be to for him to hold a party to celebrate their engagement and so pre-empt all the gossip. The reception was held at Bagh-i-Bala, the 19th Century pleasure palace of Amir Abdul Rahman Khan. It was followed in 1966 by a marriage in a Sufi shrine outside the city. As snow fell outside, the maulana conducting the marriage ceremony fixed Nancy’s Bride Price at 10,000 sheep and Louis Dupree presented Nancy with an enamelled gold belt, once the property of the Amir of Bukhara, which offset Nancy’s blue velvet wedding dress.

So began an unusually successful and close marriage: ‘Louis was funny, clever and loved the Afghans,’ remembers Nancy. ‘We were passionately in love right up to the end.’ The two worked side by side, and Nancy accompanied her husband all around Afghanistan, writing a series of witty and iconic guidebooks – one became the inspiration for Tony Kushner’s play Homebody/Kabul. Louis meanwhile conducted a series of groundbreaking digs into Afghanistan’s prehistory, uncovering ancient settlements with astonishing quantities of stone tools: ‘they were gorgeous things,’ Nancy remembers, and so sophisticated that rival scholars dubbed their makers the ‘Michelangelos of the Paleolithic.’ Louis also found the oldest known artwork in the region: a priceless Paleolithic stone head in limestone dated to 20,000 BC, that he took on a lecture tour around the US in a matchbox. Each winter, Nancy and Louis would return to Kabul from their summer excursions and excavations. There they would write up their finds and hold a salon each evening – ‘the five o’clock follies’ where the Kabul intelligentsia would meet and chat.

Nancy’s guidebooks now preserve an Afghanistan that feels as far vanished as her husband’s Paleolithic cavemen: a time when Kabul was known as the Paris of the East, a world of miniskirts, jazz clubs, bowling alleys, ice cream parlours and ski lodges, crossing occasionally with a rural year that revolved around the wine harvest and the annual arrival of nomad caravans from the Wakhan Corridor. The captions of the guidebooks conjure up a very different Afghanistan to that we read about today: ‘Delicious Afghan fruits are a treat for travellers,’ remarks Nancy at one point. Facing an image of a mound of melons is one of ‘a tourist and his hunting party in the Pamir mountains with a Marco Polo sheep.’ Most poignant of all are her encomiums to the priceless treasures of the Kabul Museum, many of which were discovered by Louis and 70% of whose finds are now missing, following serial looting during the mujahedin take-over of Kabul in the 1990s and the smashing up of what remained by the Taliban in 2001.

Nancy’s glory days—and indeed this entire world – came to a sudden halt during the communist coup of 1978. The Duprees were expelled by the Soviet-backed government, which refused to renew their visa and briefly imprisoned Louis and interrogated him. After ten days Louis was formally accused of being a CIA spy and was driven to the Pakistani border. Despite years of service to the Afghans, digging up and preserving their history, he never got another visa.

There followed an unhappy period in Pakistan, interspersed with lectureships at American universities. At one point the couple settled in Peshawar where Louis gathered an archive on Afghan history while Nancy worked with in the refugee camps. Here she was approached by the young Osama bin Laden, who wanted her help to get his hands on heavy engineering equipment: ‘He was very polite,’ she remembers, ‘and very shy.’

To add to the pains of exile, Louis contracted cancer in 1988 and died in a US hospital the following year, ‘though he never smoked a cigarette in his life.’

Nancy was devastated.

* * *

As chance would have it, the last project Nancy and Louis embarked upon was the same as that which I have just spent the last five years working on: a history of the First Anglo-Afghan War.

It is easy to see why the story has attracted so many historians. In the spring of 1839, the British invaded Afghanistan for the first time. Led by lancers in scarlet cloaks and plumed shakos, nearly 20,000 British and East India Company troops poured through the high mountain passes and re-established on the throne Shah Shuja ul-Mulk. On the way in, the British faced little resistance. But after two years of occupation, the Afghan people rose in answer to the call for jihad and the country exploded into violent rebellion. The First Anglo-Afghan War ended in Britain’s greatest military humiliation of the nineteenth century: of the 18,000 British troops and camp followers that left Kabul on the 6th January 1842, only one man, Dr Brydon, made it through to Jalalabad a week later. The rest of the army of the then most powerful nation in the world was ambushed in retreat and massacred or enslaved by poorly equipped tribesmen.

As part of their research for their book, Nancy and Louis had walked the entire route of the retreat, passing the same territory as the retreating Brits, on the very same day in January. When I first contacted her, Nancy was only too willing to share her unused and unpublished research with me, and in 2009 and 2010 we spent many happy days together, walking over the places in Kabul associated with the disasters of 1839 and discussing the many parallels between then and now: not only was President Karzai from the same tiny sub-tribe, the Popalzai as Shah Shuja, she told me, but the site of the British cantonment is now occupied partly by the ISAF barracks and partly by the US Embassy.

Despite her age, Nancy outpaced me as we wandered past the slalom of checkpoints, razor wire and blast walls surrounding the ISAF installations, all the while pointing out the different places that the previous set of colonisers had come to grief: ‘Alexander Burnes was hacked to death just over there,’ she would say, pointing jauntily past a mosque, ‘while his boss, Sir William Macnaghten, had his head impaled on a pole and paraded down that street.’

As we walked, Nancy would snort with disgust at the latest security measures: ‘Every time you come here they block off else off. And when they’re not doing that they’re knocking down beautiful Kabul landmarks.’ Occasionally, she would reminisce about the old days: ‘When we first started our affair, Louis and his wife, and Alan and I all met at that village – Bibi Mahru – and replayed on horseback the November 1841 battle between the British and the Afghans. We were the British, and Louis and his wife were the Afghan rebels.’ At other times she would wonder at the way the Afghans had managed to bring themselves back from the brink. ‘When I first came back here in 1993 this entire town was just a heap of rubble,’ she said. ‘Now it may not be so pretty as the old days, but it’s business as usual. The dynamism of these people!’

Nancy told me how she had first returned during the days of the civil war between the different Mujahedin groups. She had expected to be upset, but at first the city had been so unrecognisable she felt only numb: ‘I was worried I was becoming emotionally dead.’ Only when she returned to the home she had shared with Louis did she break down and weep. But from that point on, she knew what her mission had to be: to help save what was left of Afghanistan’s history, a project she felt sure Louis was blessing from on high. She returned to Peshawar and in her seventies began commuting back and forth to Kabul, even during the height of Taliban rule. She befriended several senior Taliban mullahs and attempted to interest them in rural development and conservation: ‘Many of them were quite receptive,’ she says. ‘I think they all felt rather out of their depth. It was only when al-Qa’eda began to take over towards the end that we saw the museum collection and the Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed.’

It was in the years that followed that she helped found the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage (SPACH to its friends) and in 2005 began planning to relocate the Dupree archive to Kabul and to build a purpose-built facility for it in Kabul university. By this stage the archive had grown to no less than 60,000 documents on Afghanistan, and she began moving them slowly up through the Khyber Pass in nearly 300 plastic sacks, originally used for wheat or fertiliser. Worried that the Pakistanis might object to her removing so important a resource, she smuggled the papers across the Pakistan border, nestled among commercial shipments. Not a single sheet of paper was lost or mislaid.

Earlier this month, I returned to Kabul to launch my book on the First Afghan War, Return of a King, and was able to repay Nancy for some of her kindness by giving the inaugural lecture at the amazing new centre she has built for her collection. Remarkably, the Afghan Centre at Kabul University (ACKU) is the first place in the country dedicated to the study of Afghanistan’s own history and society: previously Afghans scholars would have to go abroad to study their own history. At the lecture, the crowd was almost entirely Afghan, with only a scattering of diplomats and foreign scholars. The questions were as sophisticated as any university, anywhere in the world.

That night, to celebrate, I took Nancy out to dinner at the Gandamak Lodge, the place where we had first met. The euphoria she had expressed at seeing her centre about to open gave way, over the course of a bottle of wine, to a deep melancholy. The centre was now finished and everything she had worked for was completed. She told me how she had finally left Peshawar after the Red Cross cancelled their flights to Kabul last year, and now she didn’t know whether to stay in Kabul or return to the US: ‘I have a problem,’ she said. ‘Half of me thinks I should retire gracefully and let the Afghans get on and run their own centre. But when you get to this age – 86 – you don’t know if you can start again. What could I do after I leave here?’

Nancy paused and took a sip from her wine. We were now the last diners left in the restaurant: ‘I have family in Canada – one of Louis’s daughters is there, and she says I should move there. But its such a cold, wet place. Then I have this beautiful house in North Carolina, but it’s too big – and I feel more of a foreigner every time I go back. And the people! These intelligent academics sit there telling me how wonderful all the drone strikes are: they say, “We have to do it. These are bad people they are killing.” When I say I strongly disapprove of drones – eliminating people just because they think differently from us – they look on me as if I had six heads and just landed from Mars. They say “we’re so sorry about civilian casualties,” but of course by then it’s too late.’

‘Do I want to stay here? Do I want to die here? I have such mixed feelings. I never had any health problems, but now I’ve got a bad back. Plus my memory is finally going – I think something happened yesterday and it happened six months ago. I try not to think about it to be honest. I have plenty to do here: work with the museum, with conservation, and the preservation of Afghan culture. I really don’t know. There are a lot of women like me in the world, with no one to tell them if they have egg on their chin, or to help them zip up the back of their dress. I am getting used to it.’

She sighed: ‘I do miss Louis,’ she said after a pause. ‘I really do. Every day. He was so much fun to be with.’

*****

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