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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

'Honorary grandmother of Afghanistan' dies in Kabul

Nancy Hatch Dupree amassed a vast collection of books, maps, photographs and even rare recordings of folk music, all now housed at a centre she founded at Kabul University.

Nancy Hatch Dupree during an interview with The Associated Press at the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University. Dupree, an American historian who spent decades in Afghanistan working to preserve the heritage of the war-torn country has died following a long illness. Massoud Hossaini / AP Photo.
Nancy Hatch Dupree during an interview with The Associated Press at the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University. Dupree, an American historian who spent decades in Afghanistan working to preserve the heritage of the war-torn country has died following a long illness. Massoud Hossaini / AP Photo.

An American historian who spent decades in Afghanistan working to preserve the heritage of the war-torn country died on Sunday.

An Afghan government statement said Nancy Hatch Dupree, who first came to Afghanistan in 1962 and spent much of her life collecting and documenting historical artefacts, passed away at a Kabul hospital at the age of 90.

She amassed a vast collection of books, maps, photographs and even rare recordings of folk music, all now housed at a centre she founded at Kabul University. She also wrote five guidebooks and with her husband, Louis Dupree, wrote the definitive book on Afghanistan, an encyclopaedic tome about the country they adopted as their own.

Dupree lamented the fact that young people in Afghanistan, many of whom had grown up as refugees in neighbouring countries, knew little if anything about their own history.

"So many young Afghans know more about the histories of the countries where they lived as refugees than their own country's history," she said. "It makes me sad because their own history is so rich."

To remedy this, she founded the Afghan Center at Kabul University in 2006, where she worked to create an extensive library that could be accessed electronically from universities in Herat, Kandahar, Jalalabad and Mazar-e-Sharif.

Dupree was born in 1927 in Kerala (then known as Travancore), where her American parents were working on rural development projects and spent most of her childhood there. She first arrived in Afghanistan as the wife of a diplomat. Some years later, she met archaeologist and anthropologist Louis Dupree, — also American and also married — when she asked him for help with her first guidebook on Afghanistan. Their love affair caused a scandal in Kabul but they married and stayed on in Afghanistan for more than a decade, with Nancy writing guidebooks and Louis uncovering prehistoric settlements, and the couple visiting historical sites all over the country together and documenting them all.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Louis was imprisoned under suspicion of spying for the CIA. Rather than return to the US, Nancy joined thousands of Afghan exiles in a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, where her husband eventually joined her. During their time there, she realised how easily unique historical documents about Afghanistan could be lost forever and with her husband began collecting everything they could find pertaining to the country's history and culture — including the Soviet invasion, the Mujahideen and the Taliban.

It was just as well. In the looting that followed the Soviet invasion, many priceless books were sold for fuel or as food wrapping. Louis died in 1989, just a month after the Soviets left Afghanistan, but Nancy carried on collecting. By 1999, she had amassed 7,739 titles written in Pashto, Dari and several European languages.

She returned to Kabul in 2005, smuggling in her precious collection in 300 plastic fertiliser sacks. Two years later, it was installed in Kabul University, with funds from the Afghan finance ministry She also launched a mobile library scheme that brought thousands of books, including easy-to-read volumes in Pashto and Dari, to remote communities, often on the backs of donkeys.

She was dubbed her the "honorary grandmother of Afghanistan". The centre she founded said, "We stand in hommage to a woman of exemplary grace, dedication, humour and humanity" and news of her death prompted hundreds of messages from Afghans on social media.

Apart from visits to her home in Louis' native North Carolina, Dupree remained in Kabul., even though it was no longer the peaceful city of her youth.

"Kabul is grim now, all these concrete walls and barriers and razor wire. it is not my Kabul.," she said. But she had no intention of leaving. She is survived by her daughter.

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