Remembrance: Writing Advice From An American Who Made a Difference.
In 2009 Nancy Dupree and I sat across a Kabul table filled with tea cups and a plate of poundcake she liked.
“You know what Louis said,” she told me, her white hair stacked in a bun atop her head and a wry smile on her face. “At a certain point, you just gotta put your butt in a chair and start writing.”
Louis was her husband, a renowned Afghanistan scholar with whom she had traveled the country by four-wheel drive. He died just after the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989.
Just then I was mired in research for “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana,” a book which told the story of Kamila Sidiqi and the young women she worked with who supported families in their Kabul neighborhood during the Taliban. I had just spent days researching primary documents from the Taliban era, documents she and her colleagues had helped to preserve and make accessible to others, and I was a bit cross-eyed from all the screen-surfing.
Nancy had put her heart and guts and indomitable spirit into building a world-class research facility there at Kabul University. And her colleagues — all Afghan professionals, no swooped-in expats — made the place a privilege and a pleasure to work in. Better than many such research centers in countries which had never experienced a day of war. You simply went on the computer, found the document you needed — or one you hadn’t known existed, wrote the number down on a piece of paper for the research expert at the front desk and, marvelously and miraculously, when you returned the next day it was there, waiting for you, photocopied and stapled. A pristine piece of primary research just waiting for you to dig in and put it to work.
Nancy knew Afghanistan and loved it. She loved it so deeply that her affection was contagious. She respected the country she had spent six decades calling home and she was driven to contribute to it, to do all she could to help its next generation. She understood better than most how special it was and how much potential it held and holds. Foreign visitors and dignitaries would constantly pay calls to Nancy and want to take a tour of this new, world-class and state-of-the-art research facility she wanted to build. She would always indulge them — and always push them to open their wallets for the funds to help make her dream reality before she let them leave.
The first time I met her she spent a chunk of our visit sizing me up, inspecting me to see if I were serious in her eyes or one more of those foreigners passing through who wanted to take from the country more than contribute to it. Eventually we would spend afternoons together in which she would tell me about Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s. What it was like to be arrested in 1978. The time of the Soviet invasion. And about the time she and her husband got involved in helping to hide and preserve Afghan artifacts during the Taliban time.
She also told me about the time a Saudi came in to ask her for funds for some or other construction project. His name: Osama bin Laden.
Nancy was a keeper of history, a committed preservationist, and an indomitable spirit who never let you get lazy. She was also grand fun, a great wit and a marvelous lunch companion.
I joined her once on Capitol Hill when she received an award for her work. She didn’t think much of official events with all their pomp and show and she would wink at me every now and again around the well-appointed dining table to let me know how silly she thought the fancy Washington footwork. But if it helped bring her research facility closer to reality, she would do it. Anything for the cause.
Nancy was committed to her work because she felt it mattered. And indeed it did; she created opportunity and access for others. She left this world earlier this month. But her life is what I will remember, not her death. She lived a life that was full and full of fun. Nancy showed the impact one life can make. She is an inspiration who made the world bigger, smarter and more generous. And she will be missed.