KABUL — Inside a modern cultural center at Kabul University, a student in a leather jacket walked up to a white-haired American woman wearing an olive shawl and shyly asked: “Can I please have a picture with you?”
Nancy Hatch Dupree smiled and nodded, unfazed by the attention. The man, in his early 20s, handed his smartphone to a friend and stood next to Dupree, a wide smile spreading across his face. Then he thanked her, bowing in respect.
“I am an ancient monument of Afghanistan,” Dupree, who is in her late 80s, joked after he left.
The arc of Dupree’s unique life journey and love affair with Afghanistan has traced the country’s volatile trajectory over more than half a century. Since first arriving in the early 1960s, Dupree has witnessed the exile of Afghanistan’s king, coups, the Soviet invasion, the rise and fall of the Taliban Islamist regime, and the arrival of U.S. combat troops.
She has met Osama bin Laden, written several books about Afghanistan and conducted expeditions around the country in a Land Rover with her late husband, the renowned Afghanistan scholar Louis Dupree. Former president Hamid Karzai and other Afghans refer to her as the country’s “grandmother.”
Now, with the United States having ended its combat mission and the Taliban remaining a potent threat to Afghanistan’s fragile new government, Dupree is concerned about her adopted country’s future. But she insists she has no intention of leaving, determined more than ever to help Afghanistan.
Her work in Kabul, she said, “keeps the adrenaline going.”
Dupree is a fixture in the Afghan capital, spending her days at Kabul University, where she is the executive coordinator of the Afghanistan Center. On a recent morning, dozens of students were in the computer room, chatting or doing research online. On a lower floor, employees were cataloguing documents. Others were digitizing fraying newspapers to preserve them.
For Dupree, petite with twinkling eyes and a raspy voice, the center is more than a research project. It’s a way to help build a nation. Millions of Afghan youths, she said, grew up in refugee camps where “they didn’t even see a book about Afghan history.”
“They don’t have a sense of belonging to Afghanistan, of what does it mean to be an Afghan,” Dupree said. “What we are trying to do is to inject this idea that to have a sense of identity is what makes you strong. . . . Changing attitudes is at the heart of what is needed here.”
Dupree herself had a peripatetic past. Her mother was an actress in the 1920s; her father ran an agricultural project in southern India, where Dupree grew up. She later attended Barnard College and Columbia University, earning degrees in Chinese studies.
In 1962, she arrived in Kabul with her first husband, a U.S. diplomat. She met Louis Dupree when a mutual friend suggested she show him a manuscript of a travel guide she was writing about Bamian province, the site of the giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. At the time, Louis Dupree was considered the preeminent archaeologist and anthropologist on Afghanistan. He was also married to someone else.
But their relationship blossomed. Eventually they divorced their respective spouses and married in 1966 at an ornate palace in Kabul. By the 1970s, they were the toast of Kabul society; the city at the time was nothing like it is today. It was a lively place of nightclubs and free-running booze, where women walked in miniskirts. The Duprees were known for evening parties they called the “five o’clock follies.”
In 1978, though, the Soviet-backed Communist government expelled the Duprees, after accusing Louis of being a spy. They ended up in North Carolina, where Louis became a professor at both the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University.
But they retained their close ties to Afghanistan. In the 1980s, Louis suggested to refugee agencies and exiled Afghans in Peshawar, Pakistan, that they start collecting documents for an archive. By the time he died of cancer in March 1989 — the year the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan — the archive had grown to thousands of documents, a mix of U.N. reports, newspapers and statements by anti-Soviet mujahideen commanders.
After her husband’s death, Dupree took over teaching his courses. But when summer came, she felt his loss more than ever.
“It was only when the students disappeared I realized what happened to me, and I was depressed,” she recalled.
Her friends encouraged her to return to Peshawar and continue her husband’s dream of creating the archive, then funded by various donors. So she moved there in late 1989, and for the next decade she grew the collection.
A few months after she arrived, a visitor named Osama bin Laden came to her office seeking help. At the time, he was an anti-Soviet mujahideen financier.
“He wanted me to get permission from the Pakistan government to import bulldozers,” Dupree said. “I told him I couldn’t help him, and he left.”
In the 1990s, she had no qualms about dealing with the Taliban government in Kabul, developing relationships with moderate officials — which, she said, helped save some artifacts from being looted from Kabul’s museum and, for a time, delaying the destruction of the giant Buddhas.
In 2006, two years after Karzai was elected president, she decided it was time to transfer the archive to Afghanistan. By then, there were more than 36,000 documents. She placed them in dozens of wheat bags and loaded them onto four trucks in Peshawar. Hours later, they were housed in Kabul University’s library.
Karzai authorized funding for the center, built with gray stone from Wardak province and cedar wood from Konar province. After long bureaucratic delays, the center opened in 2013.
Today, it houses more than 100,000 documents and other materials. They include Louis Dupree’s collection of 20,000 slides, the earliest dating to the 1940s. The center hosts lectures, seminars, poetry readings and other cultural events. Researchers come to peruse the materials, especially Taliban and mujahideen newspapers.
“This is the most credible information center on Afghan-related issues,” said Reza Farzam, a lecturer in economics at Kabul University.
Dupree has no plans to return to North Carolina, where she still owns a large, comfortable house and a big pond filled with ducks and geese.
“I found a lot of happiness here,” she said.
And there’s another reason: Louis.
“I am trying to fill his shoes, and they are pretty big shoes.”
Mohammad Sharif contributed to this report.