FROM THE FIELD Knowing Nancy: An Interview with Afghanistan’s Grandmother, Nancy Hatch Dupree

Joanie Meharry and Shaharzad AkbarFrom the field, Interview4 Comments

Nancy Hatch DupreeIn a country where news typically conjures images of warlords and Talib fighters, ambassadors and international forces, the 85 year old Nancy Hatch Dupree, has stood as an emblem of the country’s rich and ancient cultural heritage.  A force in her own right, her strength has been cemented in her singular, unwavering commitment to the culture of Afghanistan before, during, and after the more than thirty years of war.

Arriving in Afghanistan from the US in the 1960s she fell deeply in love with the country, and not long after, the renowned Harvard archaeologist, Louis Dupree. Together they worked side by side, him studying pre-historic sites and her writing numerous guidebooks. With the great loss of Louis in 1989, Nancy re-doubled her commitment to their work. She expanded the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University (ACKU), a rich source of regional information, which Louis had established in Pakistan before his death and which she moved to Kabul University in 2006. In 1994, Nancy founded the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage (SPACH) in Islamabad in order to organize international efforts to protect the National Museum of Afghanistan during the Mujahideen Civil War.

Today, Nancy Hatch Dupree is affectionately known as “Afghanistan’s grandmother” for her decades of dedication. Never one to withhold her opinions, the following interview is a candid conversation about her experiences and insights into preserving Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. It is by listening and learning from these lessons – along with those of her colleagues interviewed for the Untold Stories series – that we may hope to ensure the country’s heritage for the next generation.

Q: For the sake of the film, could you just introduce yourself?
My name is Nancy Hatch Dupree and I am working with the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University. It is a collection of 60,000 documents related to Afghanistan.

Q: What brought you here? You have been working here for many years.
Well, I came first with the American Embassy, but that was many years ago. And then I married Louis Dupree who was an archaeologist and we spent many years here going to various places in Kandahar, and also in Balkh province, and also in Badakshan province, excavating pre-historic caves. Louis Dupree, my husband at the time, was the only one who was primarily interested in the prehistory of Afghanistan.

You have here the extremely rich cultural heritage; it goes from very early ages: beautiful things from the Kushan period and the Islamic periods. These are your spectacular periods. But if you want to understand the history of man in this area, then you start from the beginning, which is in pre-history. So he was primarily interested in pre-history and found that there was a very active association of peoples primarily in the north during the very, very early times, during the Upper-Paleolithic. And then in the Dasht-e Nawar we found Lower-Paleolithic, and this is a whole new period which has to be studied in greater depth.

Q: What was your own first project on Afghanistan?
I was working with the Garzandoi (Afghan Tours). I went to Bamiyan and this was when there was no paper guides, no two-legged guides. And this is now of the wonders of the world, so I spoke to Wahab Tarzi, who was then the first president of the Garzandoi, which had just been established.

And I said, “You know what? This is a scandal. You are trying to attract tourists but you don’t have any information about the most important tourist site in Afghanistan.”

So he smiled, and he said, “Well, you do something about it.”

I said, “Well, I will not write anything unless I see it, so you send me back to Bamiyan. So I spent a good part of a month in Bamiyan going to all the caves and studying everything. And then I wrote the guide to Bamiyan.

After that I became a guide writer. I wrote not only on Bamiyan but on Kabul and then the next one was on Herat and then the next one was on the north, the provinces in the north. And then finally, I published a general guide to all of Afghanistan.”

Nancy Hatch Dupree

Nancy Hatch Dupree (Jake Simkin)

Q: For me as an Afghan woman who lives now in Afghanistan and finds it very difficult to travel on her own, it is very interesting to see that you traveled to all these places at that time. How was it? How did people behave?
NHD: People, you know, the Afghans, they respect Harijis, foreigners, number one. Or they used to. They respect women also. And, so, I had no trouble travelling alone. People were always very, very hospitable and they wanted to help me.

And then much of the time I was traveling and getting my information for the guide books. I was traveling with my husband after I married him here and he was looking for pre-historic caves. I was looking for interesting material for the guide book, so we worked together. It was a very nice, cooperative relationship. And also he was my photographer. And that was, I think, it was very solidifying as far as the relationship was concerned. It brought us closer together because we were working on things together.

Q: Were you able to continue your work once the civil war began with the Soviet invasion?
I was thrown out before the Soviets came, when Taraki (Nur Muhammad Taraki) came. During the Taraki regime we were thrown out and my husband was put in jail. By then we were living in Peshawar. He was coming back with the Mujahideen. I didn’t come with the Mujahideen. I thought it was not fair because, again, the Afghan character, they respected an old lady, and if there was a helicopter coming he would stay in order to help me. And I was endangering his life and I had no right to do that.

So my husband, he was like a goat with the Mujahideen. They could find shelter. But, so, he was covering the Mujahideen. I was covering the growth of the refugees in Peshawar. You know, it grew from nothing. We have a picture; I have a picture, of one of the largest refugee camps when it had one tent.

And it became a big city, you know, hundreds and hundreds of houses. But we were there from the beginning. I was studying the development of the refugees and while he was travelling with the Mujahideen.

Q: Were you doing some preservation work as well when you were in Pakistan?
Well there wasn’t much preservation except for the preservation of information. Now this is very important because it’s not very well developed here. And that’s one of the reasons for ACKU, my center. I’m collecting the things that everybody is working on, all the research that is being done now. Because usually what happens, with these big agencies, they bring a reporter or a consultant, pay them big money, and they write a report and they circulate it for a short time and then it disappears. So all that information is wasted. So we collect, or try to collect, all the reporting that is being generated by the NGOs, by the bilateral governments, by the UN agencies, anything that describes what is going on, and what is the situation here in Afghanistan. And the reason we do this is because I am convinced that if you give the people of Afghanistan access to the information they need, that they themselves will do 80% of all this specific development.

People seem to think that just because people in the rural areas can’t read and write, they’re stupid. They’re not! They’re very, very bright and they showed that during their time in exile. They learned a great deal. Their minds were open and they are thirsting for things. They will pick up what they think is useful for them. If you give them information they don’t think is useful they won’t take it. But if it’s useful they’ll take it.

I had a recent experience with this. I’m profoundly bleak that this is true, because one time I was living in a village in northern Afghanistan next to my husband’s excavations. Two ladies came with a baby and the eyes were all stuck-up. They wanted penicillin and I said, “you go home, make some very, very strong tea and I will come. And they were laughing at me.”

They said, “ha, ha. We come, we ask this woman for help, and she said go make tea.”

Shaharzad interviewing Nancy Hatch Dupree

Shaharzad interviewing Nancy Hatch Dupree (Joanie Meharry)

So, they were laughing at me and off they went. So when I got there they had the tea and we washed the baby’s eyes with the tea. And about two days later they came back, and this baby with these big beautiful eyes wide-open. There is nothing more beautiful than Afghan eyes.

They said, “Look at this!”

I said, “Yes, you see, the tea was better medicine than the penicillin. There is tannic acid.”

So then about a month later I was at a fatia, and we were all crammed into this room, and suddenly a woman with a baby with all stuck-up eyes, she began crawling towards me. And the women sitting around, they could see she was coming to me, they knew what was going to happen. And immediately, before she got to me, all the ladies were saying, “tannic acid, tannic acid, tannic acid! Go home and make tea!”

So, you know, this was learning. Not learning in a dull way, just learning practically, learning with good humor. And this is why I have a program where I publish books that are made for new literates. It is very simple but with very strong messages, not only about health, but about geography, about history, about home management. We have a hundred and twenty-two – oh no, now we have more – two hundred and seven titles in something called the ABLE box library extension, which goes into a district high schools and into village communities.

And this is part of what I do here at ACKU, because ACKU, they’ve got 60,000 documents. OK. They’re all catalogued. That takes a long time. And they are also all digitized. They’ll be coming, but they’re not all done. But anyway, about three-quarters of them are digitized. And the reason for digitizing is to preserve them, right? But also, you know, it’s very nice to have them on the shelves. I’m very proud and they’re very neat and everything. You can find what you want. You can search for it and you can go and find it.

That’s all very good, but actually, those documents are no use unless somebody takes them off the shelves and reads. So in order to distribute more widely, we’ll put all of this digitized material on DVDs, and we send them to Herat, Mazar, Kandahar, Khost, wherever there is a university, wherever there is the facilities to use it.

We will share this information with the whole of Afghanistan. The motto of ACKU is “sharing information for nation building,” because you can take this information and build on the livelihoods of the people. And I’m convinced that this is very, very important: access, access to knowledge.

What Afghanistan needs is a national information network, because there is lots of information here.  And we know, for instance, one very interesting thing. You know, Afghanistan is very high in child mortality, very, very high. And the mothers, the maternal mortality rate is also very high. And you know 87% of that high rate is caused by the fact that the people don’t know they are preventable. You can prevent the causes of that high mortality rate. Prevent by giving them information about what causes disease, what are germs, where they lurk in your house, and how to avoid them. Simple things like washing your hands. So we have books on that.

And also, we don’t like to work in isolation. We like to work in a parallel with the government ministries. For instance, on health: they are lowering the mortality rate – one of the accomplishments, achievements of this government. And they are doing it through community health workers. They bring the community health workers for training and they send them home. But they don’t give them anything in their hand. So, when the community health workers think, “my god, was I supposed to put one teaspoon or two teaspoons of salt in this medicine?” Can’t remember and there’s nothing to tell. So we write a book that goes exactly according to the messages that the Ministry of Public Health are teaching. Nothing else, just reinforcing the same messages. But it is something that they can have in their hand. So we do this for veterinarians, we do this for agriculture, we do this in addition to the history, which they like very much.

Q: How long has the center been in place and how many people work for you? Are these Afghans?
All are Afghans, except me. And I’m going to be replaced very soon with a very superior Afghan who will be joining us in October. So I’m very happy about that. I have about 23 people who are working: the digitizers, the catalogers, and there’s the finance, and there’s the IT. And we have a reading room also in the library. You can take pictures of the reading room if you like, where the students and the professors, they can access our documents. And now we are building because we have very little space here, because there is more to sharing information than just cataloging books: exhibitions, lectures, films, all of kinds of events.

And, as I say, I look about this as one step, one step towards the establishment of a national information network, which we should have, because there is a lot of information here. But there is no way to get it out. It is really concentrated here. For instance, we have the boxed libraries, the ABLE libraries; we have in the provincial councils.

You know, the basis of democracy is your provincial councils. And I went to Charikar and I saw the provincial council. They didn’t even have a copy of the constitution. Now how can you be an effective provincial council if you don’t even know what your rights are?

So, initially we were only sending books to the community. And the community, they manage these. We don’t – we deliver the box and the community selects who is to be the custodian. They decide where they are going to put it. Some of our ABLE boxes are mobile boxes. Some of them are in schools and some of them are in clinics. The mullah’s like them very much. They’re in the mosque and sometimes in the shop because, you know, they’re lending libraries. So when somebody comes to return a book and take a new book, they see something to buy, so the shopkeepers like them also. So it depends, if the community makes the decision and manages it.

Q: What do you think about the ongoing preservation projects that are going on in Ghazni, Herat, Mes Aynak and the groups working there?
Well I’ve been working with the museum for…I don’t like to say for how many years because it makes me look very old. But the Kabul museum is very dear to my heart, and to see it being looted the way it was during the war was very disturbing. But the soil of Afghanistan is so rich that we now have Mes Aynak, which we didn’t know anything about then.

The video, “Who is the Historian?,” is available on YouTube and Kabul at Work.


Joanie Meharry is director of Untold Stories: The Oral Histories of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage with grants from the Hollings Center in 2011-12.  She has conducted fieldwork on Afghanistan’s cultural heritage with fellowships from the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies at Boston University in 2012 and the Global Heritage Fund in 2011, and an oral history project on the National Museum of Afghanistan with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in 2009. She writes often on Afghanistan’s culture and politics. Joanie holds a double-master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies and International and Comparative Legal Studies.


Shaharzad Akbar is partner and senior consultant with QARA Consulting, Inc. in Kabul, Afghanistan. Shaharzad studied anthropology at Smith College and recently completed an MPhil in Development Studies at University of Oxford. Shaharzad has extensive media and development work experience in Afghanistan. In 2005, she was the journalism intern for the book Women of Courage. Reporting for the book, she traveled across Afghanistan to meet and interview active Afghan women in all sectors. She has also worked as local reporter for BBC for Afghanistan, producer and host of a youth talk show on radio Killid and writer and editor for several Afghan magazines and newspapers.

4 Comments on “FROM THE FIELD Knowing Nancy: An Interview with Afghanistan’s Grandmother, Nancy Hatch Dupree”

  1. Brigitte Neubacher

    Thanks, Nancy, for sharing your vast knowledge with me during our years together with SPACH. And even more gratitude for your inspiration, determination and good humor. We used to say: can it get worse? And it did. Nevertheless we continued our work to preserve Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage. One unforgettable moment I need to share: Nancy and I climbed up the narrow stairs next to the big Bamyan Buddha. And then standing on top of the head of the Buddha, gazing at the spectacular landscape below. Forever grateful to you, Nancy!

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