RIP Nancy Hatch Dupree – The ‘Grandmother of Afghanistan’

“A nation stays alive if its culture stays alive.”

No truer words, and interestingly many nations owe it to foreigners for the survival of their culture. Afghanistan is an example and the author of above words Nancy Hatch Dupree spent 55 of her 89 years on this planet working to preserve the history and culture of this battered nation. Ironically, for this Afghanistan, a country which is all Muslim and is often anti-non-Muslim, anti-American and anti-women owes such a mountain of gratitude to a Christian American woman!

For Mrs Dupree and her husband – who died in 1989 lived in Afghanistan (or in Pakistan when deported from there) since 1962 – the toughest time was after Soviet invasion when these Americans were looked at with suspicion and during the rule of the Taliban.

During the Taliban years, Mrs. Dupree made repeated trips to Kabul to meet with their senior officials, both to preserve the public library and to try to persuade them to not destroy cultural artifacts. The Taliban minister of culture, an official in a government that had banned women from public life, reciprocated by dropping by to see her in Peshawar.

The Taliban nonetheless blew up the ancient Buddhas of Bamiyan, the subject of one of Mrs. Dupree’s first writings on Afghanistan.

“She came into the office with tears in her eyes, and said ‘they destroyed the Buddhas,’” recalled Abdul Rahim Qadrdan, who began working with Mrs. Dupree in 1999 and now manages the collection at her center.

In her final years, Mrs. Dupree was overtaken by nostalgia for a lost Afghanistan, something she shares with many Afghans of her generation and even younger.

Over the weekend, I heard a clip of an interview she gave to BBC in 2009 and when she was asked why she chose to stay in such a dangerous country she answered, ‘Actually when you are where they say it is dangerous it does not feel so dangerous’.

I am sure many of us can relate to this. I am often asked when I am going to Pakistan if it is safe, and the fact is that I have never felt unsafe in Pakistan.

Mrs. Dupree wrote five books, and more than 100 articles and pamphlets, on Afghanistan. Her legacy, which she often described as the completion of her husband’s vision, is an academic oasis: the Afghanistan Center, a state-of-the-art research hub that houses more than 100,000 items of primary and secondary sources.

In recent years, as her health declined, she refused to return to US for treatment and chose to keep working for Afghanistan till the very end. And no doubt she stays in Afghanistan after her death, for as per her wishes her ashes were buried on top of a Kabul hill, the Bagh-e-Bala, just down the steps from the restaurant where she and her husband married. She chose the place for the fantastic view it provided of the beautiful Afghanistan she loved so much.

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