Afghanistan Obit Dupree
Afghanistan Obit Dupree

Nancy Dupree wasn't born in Afghanistan, but she is widely known as the country's "grandmother" for her efforts to provide a recent history for the millions of people who have been displaced during the Soviet occupation, civil war and terrorism over the past four decades.

The culmination of her tenacity, hard work and love for her adopted country is the American Center at Kabul University, where more than 90,000 books, papers and other items provide a searchlight — perhaps the best one — through the country's recent chaos.

"I think the great legacy is her passion for Afghanistan," Fiona Gall, the director of Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief and Development, said during the memorial service for Dupree, who died September 10 at age 89.

"She believed in Afghanistan," said Gall, who had known Dupree since arriving in 1988 in Peshawar, Pakistan. "She believed we need to know our history and our culture, and we need to be critical of ourselves and to learn and improve."

Arrived in 1962

Born in Cooperstown, N.Y., Dupree first went to Kabul in 1962 as the wife of diplomat Alan Wolfe. Before long, she was immersed in the culture, rubbing shoulders with Afghanistan's elite, including rising stars like future Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani.

As her love for the country took root and she produced several guidebooks for the country, so did her love for archaeologist Louis Dupree, one of the top experts on Afghanistan's earlier history. She ended up marrying Dupree, whose wife married Wolfe.

Together, the Duprees dedicated their lives to Afghanistan and its fiercely independent people. When they were expelled over allegations that Louis was an American spy, they moved to Peshawar, where he helped train resistance fighters. Nancy became involved in helping those who had fled the Soviets' brutal 10-year-occupation, which caused an estimated 6 million people to flee their homes.

The Soviets also destroyed much of Afghanistan's history, and the Taliban continued the process, blowing up the famed Bamiyan Buddhas that were the subject of Nancy's first guidebook.

It was during this period the Duprees decided to collect what artifacts they could find, focusing on virtually anything that was written or photographed since the Soviet invasion in 1979.

When she was allowed back into Afghanistan, she brought her growing collection. Ghani donated a plot on the Kabul University campus for Dupree's library, with Karzai earmarking $2.5 million for the project and the U.S. State Department providing $3 million.

A hard worker

Nancy went to work gathering more material for the library, sending books to provincial councils around the country and advocating for the rights of women and children.

"She was very hardworking," Gall said. "She was very good at networking. She was able to convince many people to support her."

Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker said Dupree, who traveled around the country despite the risks, won over the Afghan people with her drive and commitment.

Afghanistan Preserving the Past
FILE - In this Dec. 9, 2014, photo, Nancy Hatch Dupree looks out of a window at her office during an interview with The Associated Press at the Afghanistan Center in Kabul University.

"If the Afghans ever go back to deities, she'll be one," Crocker told journalist James Verini for a long profile of the Duprees in The Atavist Magazine. "They all know what she's gone through with them and on their behalf."

Ghani described her as "a grandmother figure and mother figure in Afghanistan. Somebody who's given us our cultural heritage. Someone who's played a living witness to our history."

Dupree established the Louis and Nancy Hatch Dupree Foundation in 2017, which raises awareness of the history and culture of Afghanistan.

Verini wrote that Dupree worried about the impact of foreign intervention on Afghans, particularly the influx of aid funds — and the possibility that her library could be wiped out if a lasting peace couldn't be reached.

"We have really destroyed this very sensitive characteristic of the Afghan character, which is self-sufficiency," Dupree told Verini. "They used to be proud of the fact that they did things for themselves. But now they've had so much money thrown at them, they've had so many advisers telling them what to do, that from the village up, these young people don't want to think for themselves."

'A walking broken promise'

As a foreigner herself, Verini said it was clear that Dupree felt she shared in that failure and even embodied it.

"On her good days, she also remembers that she is separate from it, that Afghans love her, perhaps need her," Verini wrote. "But on her bad days, she carries this failure on her face, in her bones, like a walking broken promise."

The granite-and-wood library opened in 2012, and the petite Dupree remained involved in it until her death, despite her failing health. She could have gone to the U.S. for treatment, but she refused to leave her beloved Afghanistan.

For her memorial service, her staff put a photograph of Dupree, with her wispy white hair, on her modest desk, along with several of the books she wrote. A wreath from the Asia Foundation included a card that read: "You will always be remembered for your everlasting legacy in Afghanistan."