The blue-eyed grandmother of the Afghans still finds ways to help after 30 years

The blue-eyed grandmother of the Afghans still finds ways to help after 30 years

By Fariba Nawa
November 30, 2000
Pacific News Service

Peshawar, Pakistan — With her soft silver hair in a bun and round glasses magnifying her clear blue eyes, Nancy Hatch Dupree looks like the idealized image of an American grandmother. But don’t expect Dupree, 73, to offer fresh-baked cookies. She’s too busy being the Grandmother of Afghanistan, a title bestowed upon her by hundreds of Afghans.

For the past 11 years, she has been living in Peshawar, Pakistan, two hours from the border of war-ravaged Afghanistan. A senior consultant to the non-governmental Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, Dupree is the expert on Afghan issues that Afghans themselves recommend to CNN and BBC.

The widow of Louis Dupree, an archaeologist and scholar whose writings introduced Afghanistan to Americans in the 1950s, Dupree is seen by many Afghans as the one foreigner who knows and understands their misunderstood nation. Not everyone agreed with Louis Dupree, but it proved impossible to find anyone willing to criticize his widow.

“She has spent most of her life serving Afghans,” said Nooria Saidi, an aid provider who has worked with Dupree for three years. “How can anyone criticize her?”

In more than 250 works – including tour guides, articles and book chapters – Dupree has written on such topics as Afghan history, archaeology, women and libraries. In education-starved Afghanistan, she has helped set up 300 libraries across the country in mosques, schools and community centers. And in Peshawar, Dupree has established the world’s most comprehensive resource center on Afghanistan.

Dupree travels to Afghanistan occasionally to oversee her cultural projects but treads lightly. She is aware that the Taliban ejected Mary MacMackin – an American who had worked in Afghanistan for 30 years – for hiring Afghan women in her organization.

When they seized control of the country six years ago, the ruling militia banned Afghan women from getting a formal education or going to work.

But Dupree is far from the Taliban’s ideal. She’s a no-nonsense, opinionated workaholic. She works from 6 a.m. to the evening hours, writing, holding meetings, answering phone inquiries and letters and giving interviews. In between phone calls and knocks on the door, Dupree talks of politics, not her personal life.

She is succinct and sometimes sarcastic. Women’s rights in Afghanistan were “the flavor of the month” for the press, she said. Afghan and Western feminists, she feels, are harming Afghan women by campaigning against the Taliban. The feminists need to consider Afghan women in the context of their families, not just as individuals, and stop exaggerating abuses against them.

As she talked, she walked around her office sifting through files, showing documents of her different projects.

“Everybody around here gets out of my way when I’m on a tirade,” she said. “They grin knowing it won’t last.”

But those who know Dupree say her flexibility and ability to understand Afghans’ needs are key to 37 years of warm relations.

“She values something more important than politics – that’s culture,” said Afghan writer and journalist Saboor Siasang. “She’s an optimist who’s more Afghan than American. She’s a living a memory of Afghan history.”

Dupree fell in love with Louis Dupree and Afghanistan simultaneously. She first arrived in the Afghan capital Kabul as the wife of an American diplomat. She met Louis Dupree, divorced her husband and married the Harvard-educated adventurer, and the two traveled freely through the rugged, landlocked country as he searched for archaeological sites and she gathered material for tour books.

“He was audacious, exciting, on the go – it was an exhilarating experience to be near him,” Dupree said.

In 1978 when the Soviet puppet regime took control of Afghanistan, Louis Dupree was arrested and accused of being a CIA agent. He was released but the couple supported those fighting against the Soviets throughout the war. Dupree denied that her husband might have been a spy. “People got suspicious because they couldn’t understand why you would spend 30 years in Afghanistan.”

Louis Dupree died in North Carolina in 1989. Dupree says she has few attachments in life, but her husband and Afghanistan have been her two lasting passions. When her beloved died, Dupree said she felt aimless for a while. The only solace was returning to Peshawar and continuing their fight for peace through this organization, which her husband had established.

Now after 22 years of war, Dupree is still hopeful that peace will come, even if not in her lifetime.

Dupree scattered her husband’s ashes on Afghan soil at his request. That is where she wants to be buried as well.

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