KABUL — Enter the steel gates that lead to the courtyard and well-tended gardens of a faded, but still elegant, manse where Nancy Hatch Dupree greets us on the steps.
For a moment, you feel what it must have been like to live here in the early 1960s.
That’s when Dupree first arrived in Kabul and where she would meet the two great loves of her life. The first was her husband, Louis Dupree, the dashing American paratrooper turned world-famous archeologist. The second love was one they both shared: the cultural and historic riches of the rugged, magical landscape of Afghanistan and its people.
As an archeologist and ethnologist, Afghanistan has been the focus of their life’s work.
She and Louis, who passed away in 1989, lived through it all and suffered with the Afghans through the wars and celebrated the life that has gone on in between. She survived the dark days of the civil war here in the early 1990s and the even darker days of the Taliban. Through it all, she studied and worked to protect and preserve the country’s culture and heritage. Today, there is no Westerner who knows the Afghan people like Nancy.
Some 45 years after her arrival here, I meet with Dupree on a sunny day in the late afternoon shadows of the once-grand home where she lives part of the year in downtown Kabul.
The rest of the year she lives just across the border in Peshawar, Pakistan, still writing and researching at the age of 83. She divides her time between the two cities, tending an archive that is housed at Kabul University. The archive, an idea inspired by Louis, is dedicated to creating a resource center for all the different aid workers and Afghan experts who could no longer travel freely in war-torn Afghanistan.
She looks heartsick when she talks about the Taliban’s destruction of the two giant Buddha carvings of Bamayan. She also wants to set the record straight that she was negotiating with the Taliban leadership to protect the Buddhas, and believes the decision to dynamite them was made by a militant fringe closely connected to Al Qaeda. She insists that many in the Taliban government were opposed to the destruction, but the militants had run away with the Taliban movement.
She holds the secrets to so much of the politics that has gone on in Afghanistan, but at every turn the conversation comes back to the Afghan people and her love for and fascination with them and their history.
“I’m a people person,” says Nancy, who apologizes that she doesn’t have much time to talk as she is heading out to a party at the embassy to meet the newly appointed American Ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, who also served as the commanding general in Afghanistan.
Right away, she wants to get into it.
Nancy still has a lot of fire in her voice and she has some stern criticism of the U.S. military and diplomatic approach in Afghanistan.
“They make strategies for people who they don’t talk to,” she says, sitting on a couch in the parlor where we are talking and leaning forward with intensity.
“They sit behind the fortress with razor wire walls of the Embassy. And the rest make their strategy from behind desks thousands of miles away … They don’t seem to realize that the strategy has to be about the people,” she says.
She checks her watch and says, “Sorry, I have to go put on my face now and get ready for all the diplomats. Too many of them, if you ask me.”
Moments later she heads out through the steel gate, looking elegant in a long, traditional embroidered gown. She slides into the back seat and she and her driver head out down the crowded, chaotic and sometimes-perilous streets of Kabul, the city she loves.
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