Thursday, 2 February 2012

Nancy Dupree my "Queen of Kabul."

Kabul, the city Nancy Dupree wrote a book on and fell in love with. Photo: Bob McKerrow

It has been most enjoyable and productive having Ebrahim Faghihi working with us on a Sri Lanka Red Cross flood recovery operation. Over dinner last night we spoke of those wonderful days in 95-96 when we spent time exploring Kabul with Nancy Dupree the great historian on Afghanistan and author of so many books on the country. Here is a photo I took of Ebrahim with Nancy in 1996 on the outskirts of Kabul..

I knew got to know Nancy in those difficult days in Kabul between 1993-96 when Nancy was living in Peshawar. She stayed at my house in Kabul on visits to Afghanistan a number of times and Ebrahim and I often did day tours of Kabul with her where she explained in minute details, every scrap of history she knew of.
Although working for the International Red Cross, I gave a lot of my spare time working with her and colleagues, rescuing treasures from the Kabul museum which was coming under bombing by the Talibans and looting from other warring factions. We also worked together on preserving the British (Foreigners) cemetary
in Kabul which hid a rich history from the time of the early Ango Afghan wars.
Honouring 45 years since the death of the great archaeologist Aurel Stein at his grave in the Kabul cemetary. Tim Johnston AFP (2nd from left) and Ahmed Gizo (right). We invited Nancy Dupree but was unable to make because of fighting in Kabul. Photo: Bob McKerrow

As I was able to travel freely in Afghanistan in the course of my work, I took photographs for Nancy of historic sites her and Louis thirty years earlier and brought her back photographs. She was so grateful and could never thank me enough.

When I published my book on Afghanistan in 2003 I dedicated it to "My Queen of Kabul, Nancy Dupree."

She was grateful to get a copy of my book but I much more grateful to have autographed copies of all her books, which guided me through Afghanistan.

She would tell me over a wine at nights of her love affair with Afghanistan and her late husband Louis Dupree. These were romantic evenings around a log fire in Kabul, with a woman 20 years older than me, recounting her early and carefree days of the 1960s.

Kabul the city that Nancy Dupree fell in love with. Photo: Bob McKerrow
I haven't seen Nancy for 14 years but we kept in touch by email for a long time. Who better to tell her love story than C.M. Sennott from the GlobalPost who published this article in June 2009.

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.

I did day trips with Nancy out towards the Jebal Seraj in winter to view the mighty Hindu Kush. Photo: Bob McKerrow

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.