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‘I Think I’ll Just Finish My Chips’

by William Dalrymple
Nancy Dupree

Minhaj Ahmed Rafi for Newsweek

As bullets fly, men duck, and America flees, one woman is quietly saving Afghanistan’s history.

[dropcap]N[/dropcap]ancy Hatch Dupree is sitting in the Gandamak Lodge, the foreign correspondents’ hangout in Kabul. Most of the other diners, and almost all those propping up the bar, are gym-buffed young men with shaved heads in their 20s and 30s: 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 barroom with their tales of derring-do in Helmand and close calls in Lashkar Gah.

None of them, however, have half as good a seam of stories as this tiny, birdlike 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 rival a Hollywood movie: of her passionate affair in 1960s Kabul with a handsome, Harvard-educated, ex-paratrooper and archeologist who made 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 Osama 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 90, 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 will only venture out in armored vehicles, with security guards and with elaborate Electronic Counter Measures protection: “They hardly leave their compound and never make friends with Afghans—can you imagine?” Nancy asks with incredulity. “It’s such a mess. No one is here for the Afghans. Seventy percent of all U.S. 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 U.S. bank accounts.”

To look at, Nancy is small and fragile, with features as gentle as the grandmother from Little Red Riding Hood, all gray 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. “[Then U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld claimed he had privatized 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 in 1927. Her parents lived in Travancore, part of the modern state of Kerala in hot, wet, tropical southwest 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 Mesopotamian 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 programs, 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 specialized in tragedies, and persuaded her to join him in India. On arrival Mrs. Hatch, clearly as adaptable and enterprising as her daughter, began writing and performing plays to educate the villagers on rural development and choosing better crop varieties. She embarked on a Ph.D. on Kathakali, one of the most spectacular mythological dance traditions of Kerala: “She spent a lot of nights up until dawn in very remote villages watching the universe being destroyed and recreated onstage.”

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 master’s at Columbia—the first time she had lived in an 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.

In Peshawar, she was approached by the young bin Laden, who wanted her help to get his hands on heavy engineering equipment: ‘He was very polite,’ Nancy remembers, ‘and very shy.’

It was in 1962 that Nancy Hatch 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 guidebook. She asked the leading archeological 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 soon began an affair that scandalized 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 Nancy’s ex: “We were the first to have an affair,” she maintains. “They were the first to get married.”

When Nancy tried to explain this wife-swapping scandal to the American ambassador, he suggested the best course would be for him to hold a party to celebrate their engagement and so preempt all the gossip. The reception was held at Bagh-i-Bala, the 19th-century pleasure palace of emir Abdul Rahman Khan. It was followed in 1966 by a marriage in a Sufi shrine outside the city. As snow fell, the maulana conducting the marriage ceremony fixed Nancy’s bride price at 10,000 sheep and Louis presented Nancy with an enameled gold belt, once the property of the emir 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. Meanwhile, Louis conducted a series of pioneering 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 B.C., which he took on a lecture tour around the United States 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 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 parlors, 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 what we read about today: “Delicious Afghan fruits are a treat for travelers,” 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 percent of whose finds are now missing, following serial looting during the mujahideen takeover of Kabul in the 1990s and the destruction of what remained by the Taliban in 2001.


Courtesy of the U.S. State Department

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 visas and briefly imprisoned Louis and interrogated him. After 10 days Louis was formally accused of being a CIA spy and was driven to the Pakistani border. Despite years of service to the Afghans, excavating 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 in the refugee camps. Here she was approached by the young bin Laden, who wanted her help to get his hands on heavy engineering equipment: “He was very polite,” Nancy remembers, “and very shy.”

To add to the pains of exile, Louis contracted cancer in 1988 and died in a U.S. hospital the following year. 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 past 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 reestablished on the throne of 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 19th century: of the 18,000 British troops and camp followers that left Kabul on Jan. 6, 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 the 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 in 2009, Nancy was only too willing to share her unused and unpublished research with me, and 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 Hamid 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 U.S. 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 where the previous set of colonizers 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 back here they block somewhere 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 first 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 mujahideen groups. She had expected to be upset, but at first the city had been so unrecognizable 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 70s 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 Qaeda began to take over toward the end that we saw the museum collection and the Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed.”

‘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.’

In the years that followed, she helped found the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage and in 2005 began planning to relocate the Dupree archive to Kabul and to build a purpose-built facility for it at Kabul University. By this stage the archive had grown to no fewer than 60,000 documents on Afghanistan, and she began moving these slowly up through the Khyber Pass in nearly 300 plastic sacks originally used for fertilizer. Worried that the Pakistanis might object to her removing so important a resource, she smuggled the papers across the Pakistan border, hidden among commercial shipments. In early March, 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 center she has built for her collection. Remarkably, the Afghan Center at Kabul University is the first place in the country dedicated to the study of Afghanistan’s history and society: previously Afghan 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 center about to open gave way, over the course of a bottle of wine, to a deep melancholy. The center was now finished and everything she had worked for was completed. She told me how she had finally left Peshawar after the Red Cross canceled their flights to Kabul last year, and now she didn’t know whether to stay in Kabul or return to the U.S: “I have a problem,” she said. “Half of me thinks I should retire gracefully and let the Afghans get on and run their own center. 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 it’s 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 do miss Louis,” she said after a pause. “Every day. He was so much fun to be with.”

“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 mud on their faces, or to help them zip up the back of their dress. But I am getting used to it.”

Dalrymple’s new book, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839–42, is out in April. From our April 12, 2013, issue; Nancy Hatch Dupree’s Quest to Save Afghanistan’s History.

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Sohail April 10, 2013 - 6:28 pm

Such a remarkable and exotic true story. Can be made a movie about it..Her pic reminds me of old-age Rose Dawson from the movie Titanic…I only hope she lives very long and continues working there in Afghanistan…shes an asset!!

Hina April 18, 2013 - 8:51 pm

Mr. Dalrympl, I wonder if you’ll consider writing her biography before its too late. It will be an interesting read- so say the least.

Ramesh H Sonpal September 11, 2017 - 12:21 pm

Nancy sure is an inspiration. She did enjoy working on Afghanistan, so smilingly accepted ‘come what may’. Must Naveen spiritually evolved to sustain.

Saahil September 11, 2017 - 4:01 pm

RIP Nancy you will always be in our hearth wee will never forgett your services your sincerity your kind soul we afghans never respected our live legends
I recognized you when you were no more with us and it hurt me
I hope i could meet you and talk to you and kiss your hands and saying thanks for what you have done for this poor nation


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