A few nights ago I was invited to a reception to honor an archivist. I went because a friend had organized it, but to be honest I didn’t expect much. Archivist?! Howinterestingisthat? Little did I know that the archivist was Nancy Hatch Dupree. For more than an hour this elegant, tiny American woman, well into her eighties, held the audience in the auditorium of New York City’s Rubin Museum in her sway as she talked about what she cares about most: Afghanistan.
Dupree has given her life to documenting and saving Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. She is an internationally recognized expert on the country’s history, art, and archaeology. She produced a guide to the (currently closed) National Museum in Kabul that is the closest thing the museum possesses to an illustrated inventory of its rare and priceless collections. She has written several books on Afghan history and culture; with her husband, Louis Dupree (a renowned archaeologist and professor at Duke University who died in 1989), she helped start the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage (SPACH); on her own, she went on to create the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University (ACKU), whose box library program, ABLE, publishes books in Dari and Pashto for distribution throughout Afghanistan—numerous titles on everything from Afghan heroes, sheep husbandry, and eye care to the nourishment and education of children. The Louis and Nancy Hatch Dupree Foundation was founded in 2008 to help raise awareness and funds for ACKU (its tagline is “Rebuilding Afghanistan, One Book at a Time”).
The foundation states that it’s organized “exclusively for charitable, education and scientific purposes to raise awareness and knowledge about the history and culture of the people of Afghanistan in America; support the cultural heritage preservation and research efforts of the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University (ACKU); and support the information-sharing objectives of the ACKU.” Stanley Cohen, bestowing his Scone Foundation’s Archivist of the Year award the other night, said he’d struggled over how to categorize the unclassifiable Dupree.
Complex and frustrating
Dupree’s talk, with slides, was about her work, which also means about her interests and passions: building a new library at Kabul University; supplying reading material to villages, districts and public libraries as well as setting up small, mobile libraries; providing teaching devices—things like maps and charts—to be used in schools; helping save objects from Kabul’s National Museum; protecting endangered archaeological sites from mining projects; keeping track of happenings among the world’s largest refugee population—a crucial component of Afghan heritage; publishing books; and digitizing important documents. It’s a staggering workload in a complicated and very difficult country. To a bureaucracy that is much like bureaucracy anywhere have to be added the results of decades of war, corruption and the influence of the Taliban. But listening to Dupree—even when she was talking of the frustrations of getting things done—I couldn’t help feeling just the tiniest bit sorry for any bureaucrat or Taliban member who might get in her way. “All the people of Afghanistan need access to knowledge,” she said firmly. “And if you give them knowledge they will very soon move forward and stand on their own feet.”
Dupree has lived in Afghanistan since the early 1960s, except for a period in the late ’80s when she moved for a while to Peshawar, Pakistan, where she continued to work educating both Afghans and the world about Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. All the programmes and initiatives she’s involved with offer Afghans from all walks of life, especially young people, incentives to acquire information that will help them address the challenges of rebuilding their country. Afghanistan, says Dupree, has “one great advantage, and that is its people.”
At the reception for Dupree we watched a video of another event at which the late Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special adviser on Pakistan and Afghanistan until his death last year, said that Dupree made him proud to be an American. It seemed to everyone there last night that Dupree made one proud just to be human.—LUCY SISMAN