In this Dec. 2014 photo, American historian Nancy Hatch Dupree talks about a photo taken by National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry during an interview with The Associated Press at the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University. (AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini)

American woman spent decades preserving Afghan history

By Pamela Constable / The Washington Post

When she first arrived in Afghanistan in 1962, Nancy Hatch was a young American diplomatic wife with an unorthodox résumé — including a childhood in rural India and a master’s degree in Chinese art — that suggested she might not relish spending her time at embassy teas.

She soon escaped from that cloister, defying scandal to separate from her husband and marry Louis Dupree, an adventuresome Harvard-trained ethnographer and archaeologist who divorced his own spouse to be with her.

For the next 50 years, she navigated and chronicled every Afghan crag and calamity — through communist rule, civil war, the death of her husband and the Taliban regime — with wit, grit and passion.

When Nancy Dupree, 89, died Sept. 10 at a hospital in Kabul, she was still putting the final touches on her dream project: a massive archive of documents from recent Afghan history, housed in a majestic new building on the campus of Kabul University.

A spokesman for the Afghanistan Center, which Dupree founded in 2006, said she died of chronic heart, lung and kidney ailments.

Dupree was widely known as the “grandmother of Afghanistan,” the rare American who became part of the life and lore of a harsh, tumultuous land that had exhausted so many foreign ambitions. Hers was a rescue mission to preserve shards of Afghan experience and culture — even as her own life was tossed by successive waves of conflict, exile and repression.

For a while, though, it was mostly a lark. The Duprees were married by a Muslim cleric who set her bride-price at 10,000 sheep. They basked in Kabul’s brief fling with Western modernization, hosting cocktail parties known as “five o’clock follies” and traveling widely across Afghanistan; she wrote entertaining guide books while he excavated ancient sites.

Something bubbling underneath

In 1970s Kabul, “there were bowling alleys, and skiing in the winter and jazz concerts,” Dupree told Britain’s Guardian newspaper in 2001. “There were numerous parties, with drugs under every bench. It was wonderful fun. When you are having a good time, it is easy to overlook that there is something bubbling underneath.”

A communist coup in 1978 was swiftly followed by a Soviet invasion, and Louis Dupree was briefly imprisoned by the Soviet-backed Kabul government as a suspected spy. The couple repaired to a more sedate academic life in North Carolina, where he taught at Duke University.

But in time, the lure of Afghanistan drew them to Peshawar, Pakistan, a wartime magnet for Afghan refugees, intellectuals and rebels. Dupree set up an information and resource center, collecting Afghan documents that would eventually form the basis of the Kabul University center. Her husband, a former paratrooper, sneaked into Afghanistan to witness rebel attacks.

Bin Laden was ‘polite and shy’

At one point, Dupree met Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader, who was recruiting supporters in Peshawar and looking to buy some bulldozers.”He was very polite,” she told Newsweek in 2013, “and very shy.”

In 1989, as the Soviets were pulling out of Afghanistan and the country careened toward civil war, Louis died of cancer. “We were passionately in love right up until the very end,” Dupree told the Guardian, recalling that she vowed to continue working for Afghanistan and its people on her own.

While living in Pakistan, she set up a program to bring books to Afghan youngsters displaced by conflict. She was also instrumental in founding the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage, which in recent years helped to recover looted artifacts and repair a set of seventh-century Buddha statues that the Taliban had partly destroyed in the cliffs of Bamiyan province.

But it was not until 2005, four years after the fall of the Taliban regime, that Dupree returned to Kabul, carrying her trove of documents in produce sacks. She soon established the Afghanistan Center, which now harbors some 60,000 documents, with the aim of providing a comprehensive record of the country’s jumbled and contentious years of war, exile and political upheaval.

“I want people to understand that there is potential in this country,” she told the trade publication American Libraries in 2010. “Afghans are very courageous and have been through a long period of war, but they have a very strong culture of their own. We need to help them survive, but we need to do it without imposing another culture on them.”

Many young Afghans, she said, want to “raise their voices, but we need to give them the information they need so that they can speak with intelligence.”

Nancy Hatch was born in Cooperstown, New York, on Oct. 3, 1927, and raised in Travancore, a kingdom in southern India. Her mother was a former Broadway actress, and her father was an American who had served with the British army during World War I. He led rural construction projects in India and later moved the family to Costa Rica and Mexico, where he worked with UNESCO.

Hatch graduated from Barnard College and was studying for her master’s at Columbia University when she met Alan Wolfe, a foreign service officer. They married and lived in several Asian countries before settling in Afghanistan, where — according to a 2015 National Magazine Award-winning account by journalist James Verini — Wolfe’s diplomatic position was a cover; he served as CIA station chief in Kabul.

Hatch married Dupree in 1966.

A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

In recent years, Dupree — effusive, opinionated and full of stories — was a popular presence in Kabul once more. Even in her mid-80s, the petite woman with sharp blue eyes was described by veteran travel writer William Dalrymple in Newsweek as “terrific company, and completely fearless.”

Over dinner there one night, Dalrymple said she expressed disdain for Western “contractors and crooks,” who cowered in secure compounds and rarely mingled with Afghans. When gunfire suddenly rang out in the street, he wrote, other diners dove for cover while Dupree calmly remained in her seat.

“I think I’ll just finish my chips,” she said.

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