Fighting to Preserve Afghanistan's History

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October 1, 2002

 

Geoffrey Mock, editor of Duke Dialogue, the university's faculty and staff publication, interviewed a former professor this summer:

Dupree: "All that heritage was being lost

Dupree: "All that heritage was being lost".

One thing Nancy Dupree wants people to know about Afghanistan is that it didn't have to happen this way. The former Duke faculty member has been there for five decades, before the chaos, when Kabul was a sophisticated place, when universities thrived, political dissent was open, and women were formidable activists.

"In the 1960s, the country made a strong movement toward development, meaning road building, communications, and education," says Dupree. "This was very successful. People were going around the world to learn the professions. There were thousands of engineers, many intellectuals. Millions of dollars were coming in through foreign investment from the Germans, the Russians, the Indians, and others. There were jazz clubs, nightclubs, great restaurants of all kinds. Women had come out of the home and could move about in the public sphere. They wore the veil, but on a voluntary basis."

That Kabul is mostly a memory now, lost to the nearly twenty-five years of fighting and the crackdown on civil society by governments starting with the Soviet invasion and continuing through the religious edicts of the Taliban. But Dupree, age seventy-four, the widow of the late Duke professor Louis Dupree, is making a heroic effort to help the Afghan people reclaim that cultural heritage.

She was in Durham in July, visiting friends and getting a medical checkup. But for most of the year, she is in Peshawar, Pakistan, just across the border from Afghanistan, where she runs the ACBAR Resource and Information Center, with more than 25,000 volumes in a variety of languages. It's an information clearinghouse for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to learn about current and past aid projects in Afghanistan. It's a place where NGOs can coordinate efforts, share success stories, and avoid duplication.

The center was the brainchild of her husband, a scholar whose work in Afghanistan dates back to the 1950s. He and Nancy were thrown out of the country by the Soviets, but they continued their work with Afghan refugees from Pakistan and from Durham. Both were honored on several occasions for their extensive contributions to the refugees. Louis Dupree died in 1989.

"When the Soviets withdrew, that's when Louis passed away. I said to him that he should be happy because he had been predicting all along that the Soviets would leave and everyone laughed at him. But he said, 'Yes, it's a good step, but the troubles are just beginning.' Yet I don't think even he would have imagined that it would have been going on for so long."

After Louis' death, Nancy, author of five guidebooks on Kabul and Afghanistan, taught his courses at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. She realized she needed something to prevent a deep depression. "When the semester ended, the realization of Louis' death hit me like a ton of bricks. That's when I got a phone call from Peshawar. They had accepted a proposal from Louis for this information center. They told me, 'We've bought the idea, but it's not working. You have to come out here and put yourself where Louis' big mouth is.'

"I didn't know what I was doing, but over time we got a cataloguing system, we got computers, and it's developed quite nicely. It's mostly used by the aid community and university students wanting to trace the history of development in the region."

When Dupree returned to the region, it soon became clear that the chaos in Afghanistan was putting Afghan's cultural history at risk. "Private libraries in Kabul were being looted--not only private libraries, but also the university and public libraries. And in those libraries were the works of Afghan intellectuals, scientists, historians, professionals. Their works were being sold on the sidewalk, sometimes for waste paper. All that heritage was being lost."

Archaeological artifacts, some dating back to Roman times, were also disappearing. Dupree helped organize the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural History, which made efforts to purchase or acquire as many of the books and artifacts as possible before they were lost for good.