The Doctor

Tom Catena is the only surgeon for thousands of square miles in southern Sudan. His hospital, and his life, are constantly under threat. There is no end to the carnage he must treat, and no sign of it letting up. Why does he refuse to leave?

By James Verini

The Atavist Magazine, No. 53


James Verini is a writer based in Africa. His last story for The Atavist Magazine, “Love and Ruin,” won a 2014 National Magazine Award for feature writing.


Editor: Joel Lovell
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Photographers: Dominic Nahr, Phil Mooren
Videographer: Adam Bailes, Nuba Reports
Map: Made in partnership with Nuba Reports

Published in October 2015. Design updated in 2021.

One

As the sun set on a Saturday in early February, Mubarak Angalo, a farmer in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, was riding in a pickup truck with two friends. They had spent the day at a market, selling vegetables, and were returning to their village when they heard a low droning sound overhead. Instinctively, they knew what it was: the engines of a Soviet-built Antonov bomber. The driver came to a stop, leaned from the window, and looked up. Mubarak listened, hoping to hear the sound diminish.

Nuba is a region of mesa flats, scrubby hills, and escarpments near Sudan’s southernmost border. In the rainy season, its sorghum fields and flowering neem and baobab trees are brilliant greens, and the canopy hides the earthen paths that people travel on between villages. February is the middle of the dry season, however, when the landscape is a milk-coffee brown and the paths are exposed. Antonov pilots scan the horizon easily, looking for dust clouds kicked up by tires.

Nuba has been a war zone for most of the past 25 years, as the government of Sudan has tried to drive Nubans from their land. President Omar al-Bashir, whose regime is dominated by Arab descendants and Islamists, has declared a jihad against the people of Nuba, blacks who practice native religions and Christianity but also Islam. In the past four years, the holy war has been waged largely from the air. The Antonovs strike homes, schools, churches, crop fields, clinics. They drop cluster bombs that send out shrapnel in all directions, inflicting maximum damage on people and livestock. The bombing this year has been the worst in memory. Saturdays, when Nubans set up village markets, are especially lethal.

Every Nuban knows what to do when the drone of the Antonov engines comes: Parents teach children; schools perform drills. If there is a foxhole nearby—and foxholes are ubiquitous, thanks to the constant bombardment—you get in it. If not, you lie facedown where you are. And if you are in a vehicle, you stop, stay inside, and crouch as low as you can. Under no circumstances do you try to run.

As Mubarak and his friends waited in tense silence, the engines grew louder. Mubarak, in his late twenties, knew the rules but panicked. As the plane flew overhead and then released a bomb from the hatch doors in its belly, he jumped from the truck and began running.

About eight hours later, shortly after midnight, the pickup approached a large compound, and the driver honked the horn. A guard unlocked a chain and opened the gate. The driver pulled into a cool courtyard of raked sand and saplings. This was Mother of Mercy Hospital.

A male nurse came outside in the moonlight and looked at Mubarak, who was lying in the flatbed. Shrapnel had torn apart his right arm, left a sucking hole in his left calf, and fractured his skull, exposing brain matter on the right side of his head. The nurse went back inside and unhurriedly returned with a gurney. Mubarak’s friends lifted him onto it and watched as the nurse wheeled the gurney inside. Then they left to begin the long drive home.   

There was no question of where to bring Mubarak. Mother of Mercy is the only fully functional hospital in Nuba, which is about 3,000 square miles. The hospital is overseen by a onetime college nose guard from upstate New York named Tom Catena. Just as there are rules in Nuba for what to do in an Antonov raid, there is a rule for what to do with the victims of the bombing if they are still alive: get them to Doctor Tom as fast as you can.

Near dawn, Catena awoke. He changed into his scrubs, strapped on a Petzl spelunking headlamp, and in long, loping strides descended a slight hill to the hospital. He found Mubarak on the gurney next to a wall in a hallway, alone and untreated. The nurse, assuming Mubarak would die, hadn’t bothered to tell Catena or anyone else about him. The doctor looked at him.

“Ah shit,” he said to himself. “The guy is mangled.”

He rolled the gurney into the operating theater and loosely bandaged Mubarak’s head. He didn’t bother with the arm—it would have to come off. Then he left for Sunday mass.

Carrying a missal and a rosary, Catena walked from the hospital back up the hill, past the cinder-block staff residences, and down a treed bank into a dry riverbed that runs by the hospital’s perimeter fence. A vista of hills came into view, but he kept his eyes on the sand as he gained the far bank and, after passing through a stand of tall bushes, knocked on the metal gate to a compound of small mud-brick huts. A young man, one of Catena’s surgical assistants, came out. Catena told him to be ready for an amputation at eleven.

“Oh, and happy birthday,” Catena said. “It was two days ago, but I forgot to say it then.”

He asked the assistant, Rashid, how old he was. Nubans do not make a habit of noting their birthdays, but he said he was fairly certain he was 21.

“Now you can drink!” Catena said.

Rashid didn’t get the joke, but knew his boss was joking, and laughed.  

Catena arrived at a small brick chapel, about a half-mile from the hospital. A hundred or so people, half of them children, stood in the shade of the boughs of a large neem tree, singing. On the facade above the chapel’s doorway hung an abstract crucifix welded together from pieces of scrap metal. Jesus’s head was a rough-edged triangle. A priest in a batik frock with a green and yellow sunburst pattern led the chorus.

As the congregation sat down, a young man in a tight red T-shirt walked to the podium and read from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. “For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more,” he said, barely audible. “To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak. I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” As he spoke, Catena sat, arms folded on crossed knees, staring intently into the dirt by his feet.  

At eleven, in the anteroom of Mother of Mercy’s surgical theater, Catena put on a black rubber smock and white gum boots, then washed his hands and dried them on a not exactly clean towel. The operating room was small, its shelves and scant floor space taken up with boxes of supplies. Mubarak lay on the operating table. Because the shrapnel had hit the right hemisphere of his brain, his left side was paralyzed. His right leg and arm jerked like a manic marionette. Rashid unwrapped scalpels and clamps from bundles of old, shredded scrubs.

“He still has a pulse,” Catena said. I don’t think he’ll survive, but we gotta see.”

He held up the maimed arm and wagged it.

“Man, look at this.”

Setting to work, Catena murmured a string of instructions and motivational imprecations to himself. As he cleaned dirt and small rocks from what had once been Mubarak’s elbow, he said, “Let’s get this shit out of here. Jesus Christ.” He cut muscle tissue with a scalpel and then burned away bone with a small electric saw. The room filled with smoke and the smell of singed bone and hot metal. “Man, this is a crappy case.”

Rashid asked what Catena was carving into. It was the ulna. Catena spelled it. “And that’s the radial head,” he said, pointing with the saw. “The head of the radius.”

After an hour, with the ulna and radial head, the muscles, and the ligaments and nerves almost all severed, Catena’s mood lightened. He and Rashid shared jokes and discussed Sudanese pop music. A recent and rigorous student of English, Rashid learned new words and expressions by writing them down on a whiteboard mounted on the anteroom wall. Written there at the moment were improvident, piffle, and prescient.

As he handed Catena instruments, Rashid asked for explanations.

“Doctor Tom, what does it mean: ‘An apple a day keeps a doctor away’?”

“If you eat healthy food like apples,” Catena said, not looking up from the forearm, now separated from Mubarak, “you won’t become sick.”

Catena decided not to touch the skull fracture. Rashid wrapped Mubarak’s appendage in old scrub pieces and put it aside. He wheeled the gurney into the male ward, a long corridor with 50-odd beds, all taken. The patients, many of them soldiers, looked on curiously. Rashid put Mubarak in a spot by a doorway facing onto the courtyard that afforded a light breeze.  

At the sink in the surgical theater, Catena rinsed blood from his gum boots. He was still issuing commands to himself, now more blithely.

“Wash these babies up,” he muttered.

Two

Mother of Mercy sits in a shallow ravine in the village of Gidel, in the heart of the Nuba range, which rises like a fable from the baked Sudanese plain. The people of Gidel, like most Nubans, live as their ancestors did, in stone and mud-brick huts that dot the hillsides. There is no power grid, no plumbing. They fetch their water from a borehole and carry it in orange jerricans and hollowed gourds on their shoulders and heads. They travel by foot or donkey or, very occasionally, pickup. They grow sorghum and tend to small herds of lean cows and goats. On Saturdays, they follow the riverbed to the village market, on the far side of a hill, where they call on a smith and a breadmaker, and where the only signs that it is the 21st century are the Chinese batteries and flip-flops for sale in thatch stalls. If they need to make a call, there is a man on a hilltop about 40 miles away who rents out his cell phone.

The hospital was built by the Catholic Church and opened in 2008. Four long rock-walled buildings form a quadrangle around the courtyard. The main buildings contain the wards, a laboratory, a pharmacy, and administrative offices. Small outbuildings serve as the morgue and a laundry; two sets of field tents take the patient overflow during a battle or an outbreak. The wards are a jaundiced green and white, the paint peeling in the corners, and even the corridors that contain light bulbs are dim. They are heavy with the scents of infected wounds, excrement, soiled bandages.

Patients and their families travel for days, sometimes weeks, to get to Gidel. Most walk, often with debilitating injuries or ailments. Along the way, they stop to sleep at the homes of relatives and strangers. Because the trip is so arduous, the families are welcomed to stay at the hospital for as long as treatment lasts. Some remain for months. They camp by the many foxholes and hang their laundry on the perimeter fence. Their straw sleeping mats and jerricans hang from trees. Children make toys out of discarded medicine boxes. In the mornings, the women take pots from a communal shelf and walk up Tuberculosis Hill, as it’s known, to a ring of cook fires. At midday, when the families of patients bring in lunch, the tang of sorghum paste mixes with the odors of suffering. In the afternoons, when the wards become stifling, the sick go outside to lounge with the healthy. They play cards and listen to music. Those with no visiting family often find distant cousins or long-absent friends.

A few days before Mubarak arrived, Catena, who is the only trained surgeon in Nuba, was examining new patients at the intake clinic. A crowd of several dozen sat outside, fanning themselves with their intake cards. (Temperatures in the dry season can reach 120 degrees.) The women, many of them pregnant, wore colorful wraps, the men cheap suit slacks and secondhand T-shirts.

Inside, an examination table, a desk piled with outdated medical journals, and a wooden crucifix left barely enough room for Catena to stand. He had on bronze-frame eyeglasses with large lenses and was wearing scrubs and green Crocs sandals. At 51, Catena owns one pair of non-scrub pants, which he puts on once every other year, when he leaves the hospital to visit the United States. After moving to Nuba, seven years ago, he came to the realization that he needn’t wear socks. This was, he confided to me,an unbelievable moment of clarity.”

A stethoscope hung from his neck, along with a traditional Nuban bead necklace and the scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a Catholic amulet. While he was a medical student at Duke University, Catena considered taking vows but decided if he tried to be both a doctor and a priest, “I’d suck at one of them.”

He examined a middle-aged woman, questioning her in the unaccented Arabic of southern Sudan. His tone was efficient, almost terse. When Catena speaks, people listen: He stands just over six feet tall but seems taller, and has the drawn cheeks, stony chin, shaved head, and deep-set, undistractable eyes of a Roman bust. When he played football at Brown University in the eighties he was 230 pounds. Now he’s a bony 160 but still has a doorway-filling frame.

He pressed lightly on the woman’s back. She winced but did not make a sound. She had a tumor below her shoulder blade.

“Where do you live?” Catena asked.

“We live in a cave,” she said.

She calmly explained that government forces had been shelling her village and that she and her children and many of their neighbors had moved into a cave in the hills. This is common. Thousands of Nubans have had to do the same. Hundreds of thousands of others have fled to the sprawling refugee camp in Yida, in South Sudan, just over the border, or to camps in Kenya and Uganda. Most of the manual labor in Nuba is done by women, and for months she’d been carrying water and firewood uphill to the hideout. Sometimes she had only leaves and bark to feed her family.

“They’ll never say they’re under stress,” Catena said, turning to me. “They’ll say everything’s fine. No, it’s not fine. They live in a cave.”

The next patient was pregnant with her ninth child. Her previous three had died. It wasn’t clear how from her intake card. Next to the names of her living children, “fine” had been written; next to the names of the deceased, “die.”

Between patients, Catena went after the squadron of flies in his office. At Brown he was known for both his vicious tackles and his gracious sportsmanship—“He’d hit the snot out of someone and then help them up,” a former teammate told me. But with flies he is merciless, putting back issues of the Journal of the American College of Surgeons to work in his assaults. A nurse set down his lunch, rice and lentils in small metal bowls, and a thermos of red hibiscus tea. I asked Catena if he drank enough water to counter the heat.

“No. I piss gelatin.”

In the afternoon, his lunch untouched, Catena made rounds in the wards. He kept everyone giggling with a light slapstick patter. He backed into nurses, mock-slapped patients. The staff was in the middle of a weekly cleaning, and as a short nurse passed by, carrying a mattress over her head, Catena snuck up behind her and hinged it down. She twirled in confusion. He lifted his arms, and she looked up at him and blushed as her colleagues laughed.

He washed his hands and picked up a filthy towel. He scowled at a nurse. “Raila, come on,” he said, holding up the towel. Raila didn’t look concerned.

“Don’t dry your hands on that thing,” he told me. “Your hands were cleaner before.”

I offered him my hand sanitizer.

“Wow! Thanks, man.”

Necessities at other hospitals are luxuries at Mother of Mercy, where almost everything—towels, instruments, medicines, uniforms, bed frames, pencils—must be flown on cargo planes from Kenya to the refugee camp in Yida and then driven to the hospital in cargo trucks. (The roof was brought in piece-by-piece from Italy over the course of a year.) The drive can take several hours or several days, depending on the state of the roads and the whims of the Antonov pilots. Other things the staff improvises.

Catena started Mother of Mercy with a small group of foreigners. He took on Nuban employees gradually. “There was nobody who could do anything,” he said. The war had closed most schools, and many of the local hires had no formal education. Others had grown up in refugee camps. They had never seen a sponge, much less a syringe. Now there are 200 people on staff, almost all Nuban. Some, like Rashid, are naturally talented. Catena’s anesthetist, who never got past the third grade, trained on the job. Others struggle to catch on. During the cleaning of the ward, he found a nurse—not for the first time—pouring water over an electrical socket.

Late in the day, a nurse asked Catena to look at a woman with an abscess. The nurse was learning English and could remember only that the body part where the abscess had formed began with a b.

“Is it a brain abscess or a breast abscess?” Catena asked.

She thought.

“Breast.”

“Good, that’s better,” he said. “Between a brain abscess and a breast abscess, take the breast abscess.”

Examining the woman, he stuck a gloved pinky into the small hole in the underside of her breast. She looked on expressionless.

“That’s not much of an abscess,” Catena said. “That’s disappointing.”

Three

In the children’s ward, the rafters were decorated with stuffed animals and doilies made by nurses. Catena checked on a ten-year-old girl, Toma, who was too shy to talk. Her mother, Afaf, explained that the area around their village was bombed constantly. Toma had been at home with her brothers two weeks earlier when they heard an Antonov and made for a foxhole.

Afaf was returning from the market when neighbors rushed up and told her that Toma had been hit. Afaf ran home and found her daughter on the ground. Her left calf had been sheared off by a piece of shrapnel. Toma’s eldest brother went to notify the local army commander. The commander knew of a truck in another village and went to get it. Four hours later he returned. It took another six hours to drive to Gidel. Before they left, Toma’s mother looked for the missing appendage but couldn’t find it.

When Toma arrived at the hospital, Catena examined her leg with some relief. Shrapnel often leaves messy wounds, as with Mubarak’s arm, but hers was clean. She would be a good candidate for a prosthesis.

Until recently, between a million and a million and a half people, from 50 different tribal and language groups, called the Nuba Mountains home. For most of their history, Nubans lived isolated from the world and the rest of Sudan. In precolonial times, the mountains were a refuge from the Arab slave trade. In the 1920s, in an effort to stem the spread of Islamism and Arab nationalism coming from Khartoum, the capital, the British administration closed Nuba off.

In 1955, as Sudan approached independence, a civil war broke out between northerners and southerners. It would persist for nearly half a century. At first, Nubans stayed impartial, but when the southern rebellion coalesced into a real army, in the 1980s, Nuban fighters joined up. In 1989, when Omar al-Bashir took power in a coup, government forces set upon Nuba. They torched villages and crop fields, assassinated leaders, mined roads, separated men and women to prevent breeding, and blocked humanitarian aid. They put the population into so-called peace camps, where non-Muslim Nubans were made to practice Islam and abandon their native tongues. Mass rapes were committed. Some called it a policy of genocide. “The aim was nothing less than the complete relocation of the Nuba and the eradication of their traditional identities,” writes historian Alex de Waal.

In 2003, when the civil war finally ended, Bashir shifted his wrath to the western part of the country, supporting a campaign of ethnic cleansing against non-Arabs in Darfur. For this he was indicted by the International Criminal Court, though the case against him was recently shelved. In 2011, Bashir resumed the assault on Nuba. By then, however, the Nubans had an army of their own, and they fought back. So Bashir began the air war. The military converted its fleet of Antonovs—slow, clumsy transport planes—into crude bombers and stocked up on Russian-made Sukhoi jets. Since 2011, the government has dropped nearly 4,000 bombs on civilian targets, according to Nuba Reports, a local online news agency.

At first the ordnance dropped by the Antonovs were so inaccurate, locals called them “dumb bombs.” Recently, the government has improved its technology and introduced surveillance drones. The bombing has become more precise. At the same time, Bashir’s troops have stepped up the shelling. Villages have been inundated with fire from mortars, artillery guns, tanks, and rocket launchers. “The shelling has been just unbelievable,” Ryan Boyette, the editor of Nuba Reports, told me.

Toma’s father was not at Mother of Mercy. Like many Nuban men, during the brief peace of the 2000s, he had moved to Khartoum to find work. The government forbids these migrant workers from returning. Toma had not seen her father, a road cleaner in the capital, in seven years. “If he tries to come out, they will kill him,” Afaf said.

In the hospital, Afaf had become friendly with an uncle and a grandmother of a group of five young cousins. The cousins lay in the beds around Toma’s, naked, their limbs daubed with burn cream and loosely wrapped in gauze. They breathed unsteadily and twitched with pain. The outer layers of their skin had been burned away from their bodies.

The uncle told me that their village had been shelled for months. “They bomb during the day and shell at night,” he said. Most of the children in the village had moved into caves in the hills, but the cousins, who were needed to tend to the family’s goats, stayed. At night they slept in a foxhole. One night the week before, the shelling had started at 10 p.m. Before dawn a shell hit a home, setting it ablaze. The burning branches and grassstraw fell into the foxhole in which the cousins slept. Four of them burned to death. The youngest, a two-year-old girl, died in Mother of Mercy.

As the uncle talked, the grandmother propped up the one surviving boy in the group. She tried to pour water from a cup into his mouth, but his lips were too damaged for him to drink. The water dribbled down his chin. She climbed into the bed and lay down next to him, copying the curve of his raw little body but unable to touch him.

The boy was “probably going to die,” Catena told me flatly, out of earshot from the family. The chances of the other cousins were “halfway decent.” Lately, he had seen more and more children burned beyond repair by shelling. They don’t have enough skin to allow proper grafts, and their bodies are too weak to fight the infections. “You just watch them die,” he said. “There’s not much you can do.”

Nearby were a brother and sister who’d been hit with shrapnel in a jet attack. I asked their mother if she knew why the Sudanese government had targeted their village.

“We don’t know why,” she said. “We know that it’s Bashir who’s doing this, but we don’t know why.”

nad2012008g0-1444668024-46.jpg
Children’s ward, Mother of Mercy Hospital. Photo: Dominic Nahr

Four

Next to the children’s ward was the male ward, where Mubarak lay, unconscious and snoring. His wounded leg and the stump of his right arm were cleanly bandaged, and his head wound was healing. A feeding tube was taped to his cheek, his right leg and right arm bent and relaxed in gentle rhythm.

Standing by the bed was Mubarak’s cousin, a soldier who happened to be at Mother of Mercy visiting a wounded friend when Mubarak was brought in. Other patients stood around as well, enjoying the breeze coming off the courtyard. They took turns fanning Mubarak with a T-shirt.

His cousin told me that Mubarak had three sons and was an industrious man, not just a farmer but a trader of small goods. He was the only one of his brothers who hadn’t gone into the army. “He is just an honest guy,” he said. Word had gotten back to Mubarak’s wife, and she was on her way to the hospital, on foot. Their village was several days’ walk away. Catena, who hadn’t expected Mubarak to survive, was faintly optimistic.

Rashid went to check on Mubarak occasionally, but only occasionally. He’d seen “so many amputations,” he said, “too many amputations.” When he wasn’t working, Rashid spent his time in the anteroom of the surgical theater practicing English. He picked out words from a Collins pocket dictionary and wrote them first on the whiteboard and then in a small notebook that had begun life, apparently, with a different purpose: its cover read URINE SPECIMEN.

Rashid first came to the hospital as a schoolboy, soon after it opened in 2008. He walked there from his village, in the throes of malarial fever. Like many schools in Nuba, where there are few trained teachers, his had Kenyan instructors. He’d learned a lot about Kenya’s past, he told me, but almost nothing of Sudan’s. He knew little about the history of Nuba or the origins of the war he was living through. When the school closed, he took a job to support his mother and six younger siblings.

He was proud to be at Mother of Mercy, as were his colleagues. In the first days I stayed at the hospital, following Catena’s every step, it was easy to see the hospital as his creation, and his and its presence in Nuba as fabulous, almost miraculous. And in a way, he is and it is, and indeed many Nubans, including many who work at Mother of Mercy, see them that way. A surgical assistant told me, “I’d heard about Doctor Tom before I’d seen him. I heard about there is a doctor here in Nuba Mountains. He is the one saving us from the Antonov bombs.” But the more time I spent with Rashid and his colleagues , and the more I saw of Nuba, the more I realized that what Mother of Mercy offers is not apart from the place. On the contrary, it is distinctly native, only forgotten. The hospital allows for the expression of qualities of Nuban character and culture—solicitude, compassion, endless reserves of resilience and dignity—that have been buried under the rubble of years of bombardment. At Mother of Mercy, Nubans gather and mend and talk and—for all the horror of its wards, in the midst of its foxholes—think of a time before, and after, war. The hospital may not exist without Catena, but Nubans make it work. A nurse told me that being there was “the best way to help Nuba, because we have no skills.”

Rashid asked me one day, “Is there a war in the U.S.?”

I told him that the U.S. had gone to war recently, but that there hadn’t been a war on U.S. soil in some time. We were lucky.

“Yes, you’re very lucky,” he said. “Us, we’re very unlucky.”

In the surgical theater, near Rashid’s whiteboard, sat a large bound ledger containing a record of every trauma case Catena had treated since 2011. I counted over 1,700 entries, written in careful blue and black ballpoint by him and the other surgical assistants. Alongside the names of victims were the names of their villages. The entries were chronological, and the same villages appeared again and again as ground was taken by the government and then won back by the Nuban army, year after year. Where the injuries were caused by an Antonov bomb, an “A” was written. There were hundreds of A’s.

Five

Catena lives in a cinder-block house with a pitched aluminum roof and a dirt yard, where hornbills and shrikes congregate in the mango and mahogany saplings. On the unadorned poured-concrete porch are two pairs of broken sandals he has been meaning to get fixed for years and a permanently inert broom. Inside, the floors are covered with scrubs, back issues of Time and Sports Illustrated, and well-worn books. Recently, he’d finished G.K. Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. (“How does a woman get into an old man’s head like that?”) They came in care packages sent by his father. Catena hasn’t gotten around to throwing out the cardboard boxes, which are all around the floor, too.

His father includes jumbo bars of Hershey’s chocolate, which Catena keeps in a sputtering deep-freezer, the only appliance in a communal staff kitchen. Outside the kitchen is a hand pump where he washes his scrubs. The cleaning women would do this, but he doesn’t like to bother them. The pump basin has been taken over by a family of ducks, a gift to Catena from the supreme general of the Nuban army. A constant assassination target, the general lives mostly in undisclosed locations, traveling with, among other keepsakes, the cockpit seat of a downed Antonov. Very fond of the doctor, he occasionally shows up at Mother of Mercy unannounced, bearing unexplained gifts like an extravagant uncle. Recently, he gave Catena 25 pounds of honey.

Catena attends mass every morning at 6:30 and then works for 12 to 14 hours, six or seven days a week, more if there has been a battle or bombing. On Fridays, he performs a dozen or more surgeries. For his work, the Catholic Medical Mission Board, which employs 1,200 volunteers in 27 countries, pays him $350 a month.

He appears never to tire. When he has visitors, he talks with them enthusiastically into the night, listening intently, always looking them in the eyes. When asked questions he speaks expansively, his conversation full of references to old Saturday Night Live skits and college and professional sports. He recalls not just the scores of decades-old football, baseball, and basketball games, but also jersey numbers, the details of plays.

“I miss the contact,” he told me of playing football. “People think I’m crazy when I tell them that, but I say, ‘You haven’t tried it.’ I mean, running full speed at someone and just slamming into them! It’s, it’s—” he tensed his shoulders and raised his arms and grimaced with pain and joy. “But I worry about what’s happening to my head,” he said.

At night the cleaners, who double as cooks, set out pots of rice, lentils, and noodles on a side table in a small dining room. The nurses are responsible for bringing in the flatware and jerricans of water from the kitchen but never do, because they know Catena will. He also clears up after everyone has eaten.

One night he arrived late for dinner because he’d been delivering a child.

“Do you mind if I shower?” he asked. “I’m covered in amniotic fluid and urine.”

When he returned and sat down, he told me how he got to Nuba. He grew up with five brothers and a sister—now a priest, a former Army Ranger, a judge, a marine biologist, a hospital administrator, and a part-time teacher—in Amsterdam, New York, a hollowed-out industrial city between Syracuse and Albany that is home to the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. “There was just nothing there,” Catena said. “Nothing to do.” He was a diligent if not brilliant student and an exceptional and fearless athlete. At Brown, his teammates called him Catman for the relentless way he went after blockers and quarterbacks. Off the field, he was timorous, aghast at and amused by the famously permissive atmosphere of the university. One Saturday night , when he was in his dorm room studying, a young woman he didn’t know, fresh from a costume party and wearing a tinfoil hat, knocked on his door.

“I want to go to bed with you,” she said.

“No! What?” he replied. “I won’t do that. I don’t even know you.”

He majored in mechanical engineering, joined Campus Crusade for Christ, and, as one of his ex-teammates told me, “pretended to drink at parties.” After graduating in 1986, he turned down a job to work at a plant that made nuclear submarines.

The idea to become a doctor arrived as a kind of portent. He was driving through a storm with his brother when lighting struck near the car. They were both momentarily stunned by how close it came, and then Catena turned to his brother and said, “I should go to medical school.” “I don’t know why,” Catena told me. “I just suddenly knew I needed to go.”

To pay for the Duke School of Medicine, Catena joined the Navy and trained as a flight surgeon. He went to dive school in Panama City, Florida, with future SEALs and was later stationed at the naval base in Diego Garcia. He thought he might settle down, have a family, become a small-town doctor—the “Norman Rockwell idea”—but the idea didn’t take. In the late 1990s, he read an article in a Catholic magazine about a man who was both an ordained priest and a physician practicing in East Africa. He was captivated. When I asked him why, he said, I just wanted something more, something deeper out of life.” Catena wrote the doctor-priest, Bill Fryda, asking if he had need of a volunteer. Fryda called back, inviting Catena to assist him for a couple of months at a hospital in Kenya. “That was 15 years ago,” Catena said, his eyebrows arching in surprise.

In Nairobi, Catena met a Sudanese bishop, Macram Gassis, who was in the process of building Mother of Mercy. Catena had never been to Sudan and knew of the Nuba only through the photography of Leni Riefenstahl, who in the sixties and seventies lived among and documented them. He didn’t labor over the decision. When the bishop said the hospital was complete, in March of 2008, Catena moved to Gidel, sight unseen.   

In fact, the hospital hadn’t been completed. He had to share a toilet and shower with patients. At first there was no mortuary, and the newly deceased were left on gurneys in the hallways until they could be buried. The staff complained that the dead roamed the hospital at night. Word got out that an American doctor had come, and soon he was out of beds. Patients lay on the floors, patiently. They suffered from malaria, pneumonia, gastrointestinal disorders, viral and bacterial infections, rheumatic fever, cancers, heart ailments, hernias, birth complications, venereal diseases. Women came in with bones broken from beatings administered with sticks by their husbands, brothers, and fathers. (“It’s way too common here,” he told me, referring to domestic violence. “Our staff have been beaten by their husbands. Some of our male staff beat their wives.”)

As we spoke, nurses and technicians came into the dining room, ate quickly in silence, and left. Catena likes his staff but doesn’t socialize with them much. He does share the contents of his father’s care packages, though. As each finished, he held up a chocolate block.

“Julius, don’t forget your chocolate,” he said to one nurse. Julius chuckled and left, uninterested.  

I noticed on Catena’s wrist a black rubber bracelet engraved with John 3:30. (“He must become greater,” John the Baptist said of Jesus, “and I must become less.”) It’s not his favorite Biblical passage. That is Matthew 19:16, the parable of the rich young lawyer, as it’s known, in which Jesus recommends that the interlocutor in question abandon his wealth and become a disciple.

“I don’t think Christ was kidding,” Catena told me. “He wasn’t saying that to bust the guy’s balls. No. Sell all this shit and come and follow me.”

dnnuba2-1444671092-23.jpg
A family takes shelter in a cave from an aircraft flying overhead. Photo: Phil Moore

Six

At first, Catena wasn’t welcomed in Nuba. Old beliefs persisted, and there was a deep suspicion of Catholicism. Protestant missionaries had been around since the 19th century, but the Catholics didn’t arrive until the 1980s. Word spread that a Sudanese doctor working with Catena had been sent to Nuba from Khartoum to poison them; the doctor had to leave before he was thrown in jail. When a local woman working at the hospital found some human tissue on the floor, she brought it to the authorities. Catena was accused of performing abortions. His plea that he was adamantly pro-life, which he is, didn’t translate. Nor did his English idioms.

“I think a lot of it was, these people have been crapped on for so long,” Catena said. “They’re not going to trust you. You’ve got to prove yourself.”

Slowly, he did so. When a local administrator who had been hostile brought in his pregnant wife, Catena discovered the fetus had died in utero. The mother was hemorrhaging badly and required a transfusion, but Catena had no blood on hand. He noticed he was the same type as her. He put a tube in his arm and pumped out two liters. She lived. The administrator never thanked him but was less hostile after that.

For his part, Catena came upon a profound respect for Nubans. He admired their willingness to “put up with crap, with hardship, day after day after day.” He was taken aback by the generosity some showed him. Kenyans, he’d found, still lived with the insecurities of colonialism. Because he was white, even Kenyan colleagues asked him for money. When they went out, he was expected to pay. After arriving in Gidel, he went to the Saturday market for coffee. A Nuban cleaner at the hospital greeted him briefly and then disappeared. When Catena went to pay, he found that the cleaner had bought the coffee for him. “This was one of our staff who was making peanuts. I was totally dumbfounded.”  

Nubans, who had never been colonized, refused to prostrate themselves. They had to swallow their pride to tell him they were in pain. Many of his patients suffer from the psychological effects of war, and Catena once considered offering counseling services, until he realized it would be impossible to get Nubans to speak about their feelings.  

Everything changed in 2011, with the return of war. Catena had never seen a gunshot wound. Suddenly, he was faced with hundreds of them, and not just any gunshot wounds, but the devastating gashes of 7.62-millimeter rounds shot from Kalashnikovs in close-quarters combat. Within days the floors of the wards were covered over in blood. Few of the wounded soldiers moaned or wept or begged for assistance. One of the first men he treated had been shot in the jaw. The bullet had gone through his throat and out the back of his neck. He was sitting placidly, awaiting his turn with the doctor. “He was pretty friggin’ stoic for a guy that was choking on his own blood.”  

He still doesn’t understand how some of his patients survive. Catena, who trained with commandos in the Navy, described one Nuban general as “the toughest guy I’ve ever seen.” The general had been to Mother of Mercy twice, once after his collarbone was shattered by a bullet, and once after he was shot through the head. Both times the general walked out of the hospital. “He’s a friggin’ warrior, that dude! He’s like a classical Spartan.”

In the past four years, Catena has become a vocal critic of the Sudanese government. In interviews with journalists, he calls Omar al-Bashir a war criminal. He feeds information on attacks to reporters and posts pictures of maimed patients on his Facebook page. I’d brought a box of cheap red wine for Catena from Nairobi, and one night he suggested we “crack that baby open.” As we sat on plastic chairs in his yard drinking, his anger rose. “This country is a joke!” he said. “The only thing the army is good for is killing its own people. Can you imagine if they had to fight a real war? Anyone could come here and destroy them. San Marino could invade Sudan and take it over!” He described a recent government attack on civilians. Like almost all such attacks, it had not been mentioned in any media anywhere. “If your own government bombs a place and kills nine people and puts twelve in the hospital, that would normally get mentioned, right?” he asked, earnestly. “I don’t even know which end is up anymore. Is that normal? If you’re on the outside, is that something normal?”

He sank back in his chair and shook his head. “You kind of get beaten down by it,” Catena said. “You’re like, Yeah, whatever, no one gives a shit. Maybe every government does this. I don’t know. I used to think, Why don’t they get worked up, the people who live here? Why don’t they get furious and worked up? Then, when you’re here for a while, you understand. Nothing really changes.”

Bishop Macram, who manages Mother of Mercy from Nairobi, frequently reprimands Catena for his outspokenness. When I sought permission to go to the hospital, Macram advised me: “Don’t talk to Doctor Tom too much. He’s too angry. He doesn’t know what he’s saying sometimes.” Though the cargo trucks that bring supplies to Gidel from the refugee camp in Yida bear Macram’s name in large white block lettering, Macram himself is too frightened to travel there. He fears he’ll be assassinated.

Catena, however, rarely leaves Mother of Mercy. He hasn’t been to the Saturday market, a ten-minute walk away, in five years. One day a colleague who manages the hospital’s outreach clinics asked if he’d accompany her to a nearby village. “No way,” he told her. Every time he goes away, someone arrives who won’t survive without him. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

He makes his biennial visits to the U.S. reluctantly. Last year he received an award from the National Football Foundation. It entailed giving a speech before a crowd of hundreds at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. Catena dreads speaking in front of groups—he doesn’t even address his staff en masse. “I was hoping the government would attack and close the road and I couldn’t get out,” he said. He eventually consented and found himself in New York in a borrowed tuxedo, the jacket several sizes too large, and a loose clip-on tie. For all his anxiety, he is a forceful orator and enjoyed delivering the speech.

In 2011, when the assault on Nuba began, humanitarian organizations closed their offices and expatriates fled. Macram instructed Catena to evacuate. He refused. Macram threatened to fire him. He still refused. “Terminate me,” he told the bishop, “I’m not leaving.” In the speech at the Waldorf, he recounted the episode with visible annoyance. “What they were in a sense saying was, ‘Tom, your life is worth more than these people here.’ And I said that’s a bunch of, a bunch of’”—he wanted to say bullshit but caught himself—“‘nonsense. Their lives are as equal as my life is. In the eyes of God, we’re all created equal. So Tom’s life is the same as Joe Blow in the Nuba Mountains. There’s no difference.” He told the audience, which included professional football players and socialites, that while in New York he’d received an email from Mother of Mercy. Thirty casualties had come in from a battle. “It killed me to not be there and help out. I felt like an injured football player on the sidelines.”  

During the trip, he visited his family in Amsterdam. He went to the church where his parents and sister were married and he was baptized. It had closed. Posters on the doors suggested it was being converted into a New Age Buddhist temple. He was chagrined. Hatching a scheme to salvage the statuary, he tried to knock the door open, but it wouldn’t give.

For many Nubans, Catena now carries the aura of a saint or deity. Patients will refuse to accept medicine from nurses, imagining it will work only if it comes from him. Some ask him to put a hand on them, believing he can cure by touch. (The ultrasound machine in his office, which Catena occasionally turns on for no other reason than to make patients believe he’s using every modern tool to cure them, adds to the mystique.) In certain villages he is known, only half jokingly, as the Second God. When he leaves, people weep openly and pray for his return. I mentioned this to Catena, and he frowned.

“These people kind of look at me as being an equal. I don’t think they look at me as being a white person or a foreigner, as being superior, at all. I hope to God that doesn’t change,” he said.

A partial tally of reported bomb and artillery attacks in the region, 2012–15. Data: Nuba Reports

Seven

In December 2014, Bashir announced that victory in Nuba was close at hand and ordered a multifront assault. That month saw more bombs dropped on the region—over 300—than any on record. By January of 2015, Mother of Mercy was full of wounded soldiers.

When I was there in February, about 50 were left. Most had come from a nearby area, Angartu, the site of the deadliest and most bitter fighting. They were missing fingers, arms, legs. One man had on stylish wrap-around sunglasses, the sole intact lens covering his good eye, while the other socket, blasted out, was filled with wadded gauze. The soldiers wore uniforms in various patterns and shades of camouflage, listened to American country music on a radio, and drank from old, boxy metal canteens.

A soldier in his thirties, with a neatly trimmed mustache, had been shot in the knee. He told me that when he was a boy his village was attacked. His elder brother and father were killed. “I grew up with anger,” he said. He and most of his friends joined the army. Only a few have survived. “The government says they don’t need black skin. They hate black skin. They want to get rid of it in Sudan, especially the Nuba. But black skin was offered by God. It is a gift.”

The most talkative soldier, a hulking young man named Abdul, had taken a bullet to the abdomen. He was usually outside playing cards or eating sorghum paste with his mother. He spoke clear, blunt English, and the wound didn’t seem to bother him.

“I love war,” he said, holding up his bowl and insisting I have some paste. “I want to kill them all.” All who? “Just my enemies.”

Bashir is adept at turning the Sudanese minorities he victimizes against one another. For years he enlisted Darfuris to attack Nuba. At Angartu, as at other battles this year, the government deployed a paramilitary detachment, the Rapid Support Forces, made of up Nuban soldiers: Nubans were now fighting each other. Though some of those fighting for the government were doing it for money, or the promise of it, most appeared to be forced conscripts. I mentioned this to Abdul.

“Yes, I know that,” he said. “But still I want to kill them all. Why do they leave the Nuba Mountains? And then they’ll go join Omar? They must be punished, here and in the eyes of God.” He wouldn’t return to the army once he recovered, however—he planned to go to the refugee camp in Yida and enroll in school. He wanted to become a politician. “I want to kill enemies,” he said, “and then I want to travel to school.”


On a hot afternoon, I traveled to Angartu in a Land Cruiser. To get to the frontlines in Nuba, you must carry a handwritten permission note from an army administrator. In every village are checkpoints, which consist of lengths of string run between slim branches held up by rusted truck rims. The guards rarely ask for the notes; they almost never see people they don’t know. Families hoping to find rides to Yida congregate at the checkpoints, their possessions in frayed suitcases and plastic grain sacks. When vehicles pull up, they rush to the windows and beg to be taken on.  

The Nuban army has no bomb-disposal operation, so undetonated ordnance is often left where it lands. Along the road, we passed at least three unexploded bombs that I noticed, their noses buried in the soil and drab olive green tails pointing in the air. One had been shrouded in thornbush by locals to keep children from playing with it. The bombing and shelling had left Angartu with the annihilated appearance of a wildfire zone. For miles, craters pocked the ground, fields were blackened, trees dismembered and pulped.

A few days earlier, near the village of Mendi, the Nuban army had knocked the government forces from their position at the foot of a hill. Dug around the hill were trenches, along their edges the tableaux of hasty retreat: cigarette packets, plastic mouth tips for hookahs, half-used tubes of toothpaste. The stamps and labels on the shell casings and unused rockets and mines left behind were in Persian, Russian, Chinese. The corpse of a government soldier lay crumpled in a latrine well, a tank shell on top of him. On the hillside was a patch of rocks, about 30 feet wide, where the Nubans had buried enemy dead. “So they don’t smell,” a soldier explained.

In the 1990s, Mendi had been a government-run peace camp, which in reality meant it was the site of unnumbered murders and rapes. A stately but neglected mosque still stood in the village center. During the recent fighting, homes and market stalls had burned down, leaving perfect squares of black on the ground. Residents had fled into the hills and were only now returning. Already new straw roofs and fences were up. An elderly leper slowly hammered in a fencepost with defingered hands. The village had been destroyed and rebuilt many times, he told me, but he would never leave. I asked an old woman about the bombings. “You can’t even count,” she said. “We’re just patient.”

In a hut, the Nuban sector commander sat in plaid cargo shorts, playing cards with his lieutenants. Outside was the truck he’d been going around in since the victory, a retrofitted pickup, one of many vehicles left by the government troops. A Russian-made recoilless rifle was mounted in the bed, and on the cab, in thick yellow Arabic lettering, was painted Glorious is Allah.

The sector commander estimated that almost 100 of his men who’d fought at Angartu had gone to Mother of Mercy afterward. A lieutenant stood up and showed me a shrapnel scar on his arm that Catena had stitched. Half the men in the hut, it turned out, had been treated by Catena over the years, not just for war wounds, but also for stomach ailments, heart conditions, infections.

“I thank God I’m close to Doctor Tom,” said the commander, whose rheumatic knee Catena had fixed. “Somebody needs to think for others.”

nad2012010g2-1444669122-22.jpg
Soldiers fighting against the Sudanese government during a battle in the Nuba Mountains in 2012. Photo: Dominic Nahr

Nine

The battle for Angartu could be heard at Mother of Mercy. On some days, the accompanying lamentation could be heard, too, the collective wailing of wives and mothers reverberating through the hills. The war had never come so close to the hospital, and as it approached, Catena told me, he began to have “heinous dreams.” In one, jets and helicopters landed near the hospital, and government soldiers rushed inside and grabbed him. A man took an audio recorder from his pocket and played back recordings of insulting statements Catena had made about Bashir.

“I was like, Shit, they got me!”

This was more troubling even than his usual nightmare: It’s two weeks before the beginning of the football season, and he looks down at himself to see not the 20-year-old Catena, but the concave-chested current version. He gets onto a bench press but can’t lift the bar. He’ll never survive on the field, he realizes.

As the battle went on, Catena made plans to evacuate patients and staff. If the hospital was overrun, he decided, he would try to set up a mobile clinic, and if that didn’t work, he would move into the hills with locals and care for them the best he could. He suspected the latter option was more likely. Often, Catena worries that Nubans have been so brutalized by endless war, they’ve forgotten how to care about each other. Last year an Antonov and a Sukhoi jet bombed the hospital. Catena was in the operating room, a patient with an opened abdomen on the table. (He finished the operation.) No one was seriously injured, though one bomb landed near Catena’s house, dislodging the roof and sending the doors flying from their hinges. He hoped the attack would bring everyone together. Instead, about half the staff left work without a word. A few never returned. “Some were scared. Some saw it as an opportunity to take a few days off, which kind of annoyed me,” he said. “I was like, Come on, man. Everybody’s in the same boat.”

I asked Catena if he would ever consider leaving Nuba. There was a very real chance that he would someday be killed. He shook his head without having to think. “If you can’t stand with the persecuted people, then what are you doing? You should just become an atheist.”

There are aspects of life in Nuba that still drive him to distraction. Patients refuse to give blood, believing it will kill them. He has watched parents refuse to give blood to dying children. It’s rare that he sees a patient who hasn’t already been to a traditional healer, who offer cures for everything from malaria to Antonovs. Nubans arrive comatose from supposedly medicinal roots or with gangrenous limbs that have been set improperly. One day, in the female ward, Catena turned over an unconscious young woman to find a line of fresh burn scars along her spine—a popular and expensive folk remedy offered by healers for “yellow fever,” which can mean anything.

“Don’t do that!” he reprimanded her parents, pointing at the burns. “It can’t help.”

They looked at him blankly.

He no longer tries to use the argument that he is a doctor and understands things patients do not. Nubans call half the people who work at Mother of Mercy “doctor,” he has learned.

“Everything is a pain in the ass here, for everyone,” he told me one day. “Nothing’s been really developed or adapted. There’s just friggin’ nothing. If something spills in my office, there’s no mop anywhere. There’s just a rag, and no water.” Children routinely excrete on the hospital floors. Adults, including his staff, spit constantly. He used to put up signs explaining that spitting spread tuberculosis. They made no difference. “We’re fighting a million years of people spitting,” he said. Recently, he found a patient wiping his snot on the wall. “I was like, Come on—what are you doing?”

Still, Catena stays. Will and stubborn faith are not the only anchors. He admits that he suffers from a disorder known as founder’s syndrome. It’s a self-diagnosis. His aim, his fondest hope, is to leave Mother of Mercy in Nuban hands. But for seven years he has invested every moment, every emotion, every ambition, into the hospital, and now he can’t bear the thought of turning it over to someone else. Bishop Macram has sent other doctors. Some have left at Catena’s insistence, others at their own. One American got so frustrated with Catena he tried to walk to South Sudan.

Catena has an increasingly hard time imagining his place in the outside world. Some aspects of modernity have left him behind. One night I found him in his office, trying to type a document in Microsoft Word. He asked if I could change the font and spacing—he didn’t know how. I asked if he was joking. “No, man, this isn’t what I do. I cut off arms!”

But mostly he stays because he admires and loves Nubans. Sometimes he is so touched by their understanding and gratitude, he believes he could live with them for the rest of his life. Recently, American friends of his organized a shoe drive. A shipping container of donated sneakers and boots and wingtips arrived in Gidel. Catena made a rare trip away from the hospital to personally deliver some of them to villages. A few weeks later, in the middle of a downpour, he was at home, enjoying a rare moment of rest, reading, when he heard singing. He went outside to find a procession approaching. It was the population of one of the villages he’d brought shoes to. They were carrying firewood and chickens and sorghum beer. They had walked for hours in the rain in order to thank him in song and feast.

“That blew me away.”

One evening, I watched him playing with a baby boy outside the intake clinic. Catena, who has never been married and has no children—he hasn’t had a girlfriend since leaving Kenya—can’t resist Nuban children.

“Mashallah!” he said (an Arabic expression of elation) as he squeezed the boy’s chubby arm. “Look at this kid. My God! Two months? Look at this!”

Catena asked the mother where they were from. She said they were from the refugee camp in Yida, South Sudan. They had walked for days to be treated by him. (The border between the two countries is porous.) Catena can’t stand it when Nubans say they are from Yida; he sees at as an admission of defeat.

“You’re not from Yida!” he said to her. “No one’s from Yida. Where are you really from?”

She named her village. Government forces occupied it, so she and her children had lived in the camp for three years.

“We want to be back in our real home,” she told him.

nad2012008g0-1444669231-31.jpg
Mother of Mercy Hospital. Photo: Dominic Nahr

Ten

While he waited for Catena in the surgical theater one morning, a few days before I left Gidel, Rashid wrote new words on the whiteboard: puerile, lethal, robust, poverty, soiree. It was nearly the beginning of the school term, and Rashid had decided to go to high school. At 21, he’d be a freshman. His goal, he told me, was to become a surgeon and a writer: “I want to write about what is happening in Nuba.”

The Catholic diocese runs a high school in Gidel, and students were arriving from around Nuba. Most were in their twenties and thirties; some were former soldiers. On the hillsides around the hospital, they were building the small mud huts that would serve as their homes throughout the term.

Catena came into the operating room, followed by one of the burned cousins, who was on a gurney pushed by a nurse. To keep the cousins alive, every few days Catena had to slice the dead and dying skin from their bodies and smother them in burn cream. As Rashid stripped the soiled gauze from the girl’s body, she trembled and moaned.

“Khalas, khalas,” the anesthetist said to her. (“Enough, enough.”)

Rashid told Catena that he couldn’t find the definition for prosthetic excretion in his dictionary, and Catena nodded sympathetically. As he cut away, he cursed to himself and then calculated that 20 percent of her body was burned.

“The body has percentage?” Rashid asked.

“Yeah. It’s called the rule of nines,” Catena said. Each side of each appendage that was burned counted for nine percent. “The total is 100 percent.”

Rashid quickly did the math, figuring out that 100 isn’t divisible by nine. “What about 99 percent?” he asked.

“Well, the kuka area is one percent,” Catena shot back. Kuka is Arabic slang for the scrotum. Rashid laughed. “But on some dudes it’s way more than one percent!” Catena added.

Rashid didn’t get it, but laughed along with his boss.

The next cousin was brought in, and Rashid studied her.

“This is 20-something percent,” he said.

Earlier some of the cousins had gotten out of bed for the first time. They could not put on clothing, and were obviously still in great pain, but felt well enough to walk. The grandmother held their hands and led them in a small circle around the courtyard. Soon after, Mubarak’s wife arrived, having walked for three days. Mubarak began moving his eyes soon after she appeared at his bedside. He seemed to be nearing consciousness. Late the next afternoon, however, his eyes stopped moving. Within moments he was dead.

Catena found out hours later, when a nurse mentioned it to him offhandedly. “Ain’t nothing easy,” he said afterward. He was standing on his porch, shaking his head. “Anyway, you can’t change it. That’s the way it is.”

It was dark when Mubarak’s body was brought to the morgue. Outside, his wife crouched in the dirt. She was not crying but wore a slight frown as she stared intently at nothing. She had found some men who would help her dig a grave. Now she was waiting to claim her husband. There was only one stretcher at the morgue, and there were people ahead of her in line, also waiting to bury their dead.

The next morning, I got a ride with a convoy going to Yida. At a checkpoint, a young man with a backpack ran up to the truck and asked to be taken on. He’d been waiting there for days, he explained. The truck was full, the driver told him.  

When he learned I had come from Mother of Mercy, the young man asked if I’d met Toma, the girl who’d lost her foot in an Antonov bombing. He was her cousin. I told him that I had and that she was doing well—she was being fitted for a prosthesis. She would be able to go back to school. It would take her longer to walk there now, but that wouldn’t stop her.

“That’s good,” he said.

He waved as we pulled away, and the dust from the truck’s tires enveloped him.

Love and Ruin

webcover213-1459604919-19.jpg

Love and Ruin

An exhilarating and heartbreaking tale of lives lived to the fullest in one of the world’s most fascinating and forbidding places.

By James Verini

Winner of the 2015 National Magazine Award for Feature Writing

The Atavist Magazine, No. 34


James Verini is a writer based in Africa. You can see more of his work at jamesverini.com.

Editor: Charles Homans
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Research: Laura Smith
Illustrations: Raul Allen
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Soundtrack: “Hope,” written and performed by Quraishi
Video: Excerpts from “Afghan Nomads: The Maldar” and “Afghan Women,” by the AUFS Afghanistan Film Project
Images: Getty Images, Los Angeles Times, and courtesy John Allison
Audio: Passages from Homebody/Kabul, by Tony Kushner, and An Historical Guide to Afghanistan, by Nancy Hatch Dupree, read by Robin Higginbotham

Published in February 2014. Design updated in 2021.

Prologue

It has no official number in the archaeological record, nor an agreed-upon name. Some curators at the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, where it resides, have called it the Limestone Head. Others call it the Carved Pebble. Still others call it simply the Head, and while there is no question that the artifact they’re talking about depicts a head, the answer to the question of just whose head it depicts—which person or deity its unyielding eyes and screwed mouth reflect—is lost, like so much else in Afghanistan is lost, to some insolently mute vault of time.

The Head is carved into a limestone pebble two and a half inches high by one and a quarter inches wide. It dates from around 10,000 B.C.E., placing it in the Upper Paleolithic and making it one of the oldest pieces of sculpture ever found on the Asian continent. We know that it turned up in a gorge near the village of Aq Kupruk, in the northern foothills of the Hindu Kush. Beyond that we know nothing. The best that the most thorough scholarly paper written about the Head—published by the American Philosophical Society in 1972, seven years after it was discovered—can say for its subject is that it is “apparently humanoid.” Was it devotional, decorative, whimsical? “Was the head made for a onetime limited use or was it intended for long-term retention and repeated use? … Since it will not stand, was it intended to be carried about?” The Head won’t say.

But its dumbness beckons. The Head’s sculptor was far cleverer than an artist living 12,000 years ago had any call to be. The eyes are not crude circles (all you’d really need in the Upper Paleolithic, you’d think), but composed of a series of subtle line strokes, as though they are contemplating us wearily. The nose, the American Philosophical Society paper observes, “begins with a wide angular cleft rather like that of the nose cavity in a skull and seems almost to be intentionally ‘unrealistic,’” while the “deeply engraved line of the mouth itself apparently arcs upward in what seems to be a smile.” The paper concludes that the Head does not come from an “individual or cultural ‘infantilism.’” Yet the overall effect, millennia later, is a kind of infancy. It’s somehow fetal looking, the Head. Some observers see on its face a smile, others a frown, and still others that inscrutable expression, neither frown nor smile, that a wise child makes when he peers into you.

The archaeologist who unearthed the Head, who might have had the most questions about it, had the fewest. Louis Dupree was certain it depicted a woman—and, furthermore, that it had been carved by one. “What else?” Dupree said to a New York Times reporter, rather tauntingly, in 1968, when he brought the relic to the American Museum of Natural History. “Women ruled the hearth and the world then. The men were away hunting.” Of course it was a woman.

That was how Louis Dupree talked—to Times writers, to fellow archeologists, presidents, statesmen, interrogators, spies. He even talked that way to his wife, Nancy, who, when asked whether it was true her husband swore like sailor (and a sailor he had been before becoming an archaeologist), would sometimes sigh longingly and reply, “Worse.”

Dupree’s personal correspondence is full of letters from nervous museum administrators asking after unaccounted-for expenses and unpaid salaries. In the field he worked casually. In 1962, he carried out the first major excavation at Aq Kupruk, an immensely important site, essentially by himself. For the follow-up dig, three years later, when he discovered the Head, he splurged and brought along as diggers and assistants a pair of graduate students, a pair of precocious high schoolers, and his cook.

“We were very, very careful with it,” Charles Kolb, one of the graduate students, recalled of the Head. Except for Dupree, that is. Although it was very possibly the most important find of his career, he never properly catalogued it (thus its lack of a single name or record number). Then, in Kabul, he took it home with him, where Nancy, a writer of guidebooks and an amateur scholar, came to adore it as much as he did. Dupree’s daughter took a shine to it, too, and called it Daddy’s Head. The name stuck.

The Afghan official who granted Dupree permission to take Daddy’s Head to New York told him, “If you lose it, you’ll owe us half a million dollars.” The careful procedure Dupree employed to transport it overseas involved putting it in his jacket pocket, folding the jacket, and stuffing the jacket into the overhead shelf on the plane. Nancy spent the flight looking up nervously at the bundle.

Upon its return from the United States, Daddy’s Head was installed at the National Museum in Kabul. Between their excavations, research trips, lecture tours, and teaching stints abroad, Louis and Nancy would visit it there. They’d stare at it for what seemed like hours, talking about the history it must have witnessed. One photograph of the couple shows them sitting at a table, gazing at the artifact as Louis holds it in his fingers (gingerly, but on equal terms). They appear mesmerized, as though Daddy’s Head is almost physically drawing them back in time. The photo was taken in 1971, as they were falling more deeply in love with one another, and, together, with Afghanistan. They peered into the country’s wondrous, terrible, unknowable past. Daddy’s Head, they liked to think, was opening its vault of secrets.

In 1978, a communist cabal seized power in Afghanistan. Louis was imprisoned and deported. The next year the Soviet Union invaded. Its troops pulverized the country, reducing much of its history—the unearthed chapters and those still buried—to rubble. Louis helped the Afghan resistance while Nancy worked with refugees. The struggle against the Soviets gave way to civil war, and their beloved National Museum was in the crossfire.

Nancy and others tried to save the artifacts in the collection. But she didn’t find Daddy’s Head. The Taliban ended the civil war, but followed that by closing schools, ransacking libraries, and destroying much of what was left of the collection. She wondered if all of the work she and Louis had done to preserve Afghan culture had been in vain. She assumed she would never see Daddy’s Head again.

nancydupree-1394149333-49.jpg

One

I first encountered Nancy Dupree in a ghostly sort of a way. On a Tuesday night in 2003, while soldiers my age were in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban, I was sitting in a theater in Los Angeles, watching a production of Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul. The play’s first scene is given over entirely to a monologue spoken by a Mrs. Dalloway–type character. Why she is addressing us, and from where, she leaves unspoken, as she does her identity—she does not name herself and is known in the program only as the Homebody—but we’re aware from the Homebody’s first words that the central fact about this woman is that she is deeply taken by, even lost to, Afghanistan. She speaks about the country with passionate eloquence, yet it seems her knowledge of the place has left her understanding less about it, not more. In the convolutions of her speech and mind, the Homebody is wise and helpless, composed and scattered, ancient and infantile. “Our story begins at the very dawn of history, circa 3,000 B.C.,”, as the lights come up, but interrupts herself at once to explain, “I am reading from an outdated guidebook about the city of Kabul.”

The Homebody’s monologue is brilliant but tortuous, almost infuriatingly so. She departs the narrative of Afghan history for jags about party etiquette and antidepressants, uses words no audience member could be expected to know and then apologizes for them. She is, in other words, very human. So much so, it’s clear—or anyway was to me that night—that she must be based on a real woman.

Curious, I eventually contacted Kushner and learned her backstory. In the 1990s, he was browsing the stacks at the New York University library, looking for material about Afghanistan, when he stumbled across a volume titled An Historical Guide to Kabul. He opened the book and didn’t close it until he’d read to the end; the Homebody and the play had emerged. The guidebook’s author’s name was Nancy Hatch Dupree.

I started asking around about her.

“If the Afghans ever go back to deities, she’ll be one,” the former American ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker told me of Dupree. “They all know what she’s gone through with them and on their behalf.” 

Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan intellectual and presidential candidate, described her as “a grandmother figure and mother figure in Afghanistan. Somebody who’s given us our cultural heritage. Someone who’s played a living witness to our history.”

Kushner, who since writing the play has become friends with Dupree and serves on the advisory council of her foundation, called her a woman of “dazzling erudition.” (Nancy has never seen Homebody/Kabul. “I hear it’s good,” she tells people.)

The Grandmother of Afghanistan—that is not original to Ghani. It is what Afghans call Dupree, aware that she is technically American. In fact, if she could be said to have any single vocation, this may be it: She is a self-appointed but also widely acknowledged guardian of Afghan culture, the country’s bluffest and most beloved expatriate busybody. Among other things, she is the author of dozens of books and scholarly articles on Afghanistan’s history, architecture, politics, music, literature, and art; a founder of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage; the creator of a library extension service that distributes books to schools and government bodies around the country; the creator of the most extensive digital archive of Afghan historical materials; an occasional adviser to ministers and generals; and an advocate for Afghan women’s and children’s rights.

Natives and foreigners alike have been trading stories and legends of her ever since she first arrived in Afghanistan over a half-century ago. There was the episode in the 1960s, for instance, when Nancy saved Bagh-e-Bala, the onetime summer palace of the emirs, from destruction, partly out of scholarly devotion to the building and partly so she could host her wedding there. In the 1980s, a young Saudi man approached her, looking for help bringing in equipment to dig tunnels where mujahideen fighters could hide between attacks on Soviet troops. Dupree was not an official, he was aware, but he had heard that she knew everyone of importance in Afghanistan, and that she had the rind to get what she wanted from any one of them. Nancy was too busy to help him, but she recalls the man, who went by the name Osama bin Laden, being “very shy and polite.”

More recently, while ordering lumber for a construction project, Nancy ran up against a moratorium on logging that Hamid Karzai had instated. After she called him and made her frustrations known, Karzai ordered the moratorium lifted temporarily. “He was just a little nobody when I first met him,” she told me of the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

Karzai had other reasons to be helpful. The lumber was for a library Dupree was building at Kabul University, for which he’d already helped raise $2.5 million. The project that could most properly be called her life’s work, she has been planning the library and collecting its contents for thirty years. Those contents represent one of the most comprehensive, if not the most comprehensive, archives of post-1979 Afghan historical documents and scholarship anywhere. The library is the more impressive because it is a repository of knowledge about a time during which knowledge was concertedly destroyed in Afghanistan—a memory bank for a generation of Afghans whose clearest personal memories are of exile. She sees it as her greatest gift to her adopted home, as well as her last attempt to save Afghanistan’s past, as it were, from itself.

Like other Americans, in the years after 9/11 I read and thought a lot about Afghanistan, that country—in the Homebody’s words—“so at the heart of the world the world has forgotten it.” After learning of Dupree’s collection, I found myself thinking a lot about it, too. I tried to picture its old books and photographs. I wondered what they had to say about this place that has so changed the course of my own country’s history, this place where so many Americans have gone to die, but about which America still knows so little. In the fall of 2012, I heard that Dupree’s library was, after so many years in the making, finally scheduled to open. I also heard that her health was failing. I called her and told her I wanted to come to Afghanistan. She wasn’t overly excited at the prospect, but neither did she exactly object. I booked a ticket for Kabul. 

Two

On a hot September morning, I stepped from one of Kabul’s loud, dusty streets to the Kabul University gate. The guard refused to let me in. “I’m here to see Nancy Dupree,” I told him, reckoning the Grandmother of Afghanistan must be known to all. His expression underwent no change. “The Afghanistan Center at Kabul University?” Nothing. Finally, losing interest, he waved me through.

Dark episodes in recent Afghan history originated on the university campus. It was here that Communists and Islamists first did battle in the ideological skirmishes that led up to the Soviet invasion, here that the warlords who would destroy the country—and who still run much of it—first rubbed shoulders. told me that when he came to the university, “people were literally killing each other there. There were warring student gangs.” One of his first acts as chancellor was to remove 43 tons of scrap metal from the school, he said, most of it pieces of blown-up tanks. The tanks have been replaced by a lot of healthy-looking trees, and fewer, less-healthy-looking buildings. Today the campus has a liberal vibe that contrasts with the rest of the country. Female students wear cursory headscarves or none at all; they and their male classmates look at and sometimes even talk to each other.

Twenty feet from the gate I got lost. Dupree had anticipated this, apparently: Soon a silver sedan pulled alongside me. The silhouette of what might have been a child appeared in a back window. I’d never met Dupree, only spoken with her on the phone. Her avian voice hadn’t prepared me for the diminutive woman I found. A collapsing robin’s nest of gray hair didn’t quite get her to five feet, and she couldn’t have weighed more in pounds than her age in years, 86 at the time. Her eyes were sunken, her face a topography of wrinkles. (I was reminded of the Homebody’s description of an Afghan whose “skin is broken by webs of lines inscribed by hardships, siroccos, and strife.”) But her cheeks were girlish and full, her mouth small and coy. 

Hidden inside a light blue salwar kameez and a long scarf, Dupree seemed already to be in mid-conversation when I settled next to her in the backseat. That morning had produced a dustup over fabrics that she wanted for the library, she was saying, and “people just do not realize you don’t accomplish things overnight here. They come from somewhere else and expect everything to fall into place. But it takes so much bloody time.” Looking out the window, she added, “That’s why everything here is kind of… half-assed.”

We drove to her temporary office, which she’d been working out of for years, in a converted garage. With a cough, she eased into a chair behind the old dining room table that serves as her desk. Her staff, at small desks around the room, greeted her as Nancy Jan. (Jan is a Dari diminutive that means, roughly, “dear.”) They were all Afghan, all in their twenties or thirties, and all, I noticed, men.

“Oh, I’m notorious,” she said when I asked her to square this with her advocacy for Afghan women. “In Peshawar, I tried to have women, and I discovered that they’re not reliable. In this society, you get somebody trained and then the father says, ‘We’re moving from Peshawar to Islamabad,’ and off they go. Or they get married. Or they’ve got children and, you know, they don’t turn up because their child’s got diarrhea.”

A cook brought out plates of rice pilau from the kitchen (a closet with a hot plate) as the library’s designers arrived to discuss the fabric situation. Dupree had been informed there was not enough of the red pattern she’d ordered long before for all the upholstery and curtains in the library and now was, she announced, “really browned off. We could have done this six months ago!”

“Two years ago,” said Dupree’s executive director, Waheed Wafa, a tall, warm-voiced man whose face exuded beleaguerment. Like many educated Kabulis, Wafa grew up with the Duprees’ books. Also like many educated Kabulis, he was beaten by the Taliban. When the U.S.–led coalition invaded, in 2001, he became a fixer for The New York Times, then a reporter. Dupree hired him in 2011.

Wafa produced a fan of swatches, potential replacements, and held up a reddish one. “That’s dullsville,” Dupree said, waving a hand dismissively. She jumped to the issue of acoustics. Without enough good fabric to absorb sound, the library would be too loud.

“What about urns?” Waheed suggested. Knowing Dupree’s mood could be improved by a story of Afghan ingenuity, he told one: During the Taliban years, he said, his friends in the Kabul underground used to hold meetings in a room they thought was secure. But one day they realized Talibs were listening outside. So they lined the walls of the room with large urns, to muffle their voices.

“Oh yes, yes!” Dupree said, getting into the story, and smiling for the first time since I’d met her. A cordial South African designer stepped into the office and joined the conversation. “See how everything in Afghanistan has to be negotiated?” he whispered to me.

After some gentle cajoling from Wafa and the others, Dupree agreed on potential vendors. “OK, that’s done. Decision made. Bang!” she said, slapping her hand on the table. Her staff looked up from their desks hopefully. A date was set to go to the market, and the group left. “He’s writing a book,” Dupree said of the South African designer once he had gone. “Everybody’s writing a book.” I asked if she ever thought of writing another book. “No. I don’t know enough. I don’t care enough.”

Later, Wafa told me the new library was still months from completion. Since Dupree was relying on the Afghan government to pay for much of it, she was also relying on the government to pay the workers who were supposed to be finishing it. It hadn’t been, and they weren’t. I asked him when it might open. “God knows,” Waheed said, dragging on a Marlboro. He’d recently upped from a half-pack to a whole pack per day, he confided. 

nancydupree-1394149347-84.jpg
Nancy Hatch Dupree at the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University in 2013. (Photo: Los Angeles Times)

Three

A few days later, Dupree and a thickset, bearded man in his mid-thirties named Mashall, who manages her box-library program, drove to Charikar, a town about 40 miles north of Kabul, to check in on a provincial council and a few schools. As we were departing, I asked if it was safe in Charikar. “We don’t ask questions like that,” she said. “If you think about that you’ll go nowhere. And that’s why the Americans don’t go anywhere.” Not just Americans but foreigners generally are seen by Afghans mostly as they make their way in chauffeured cars between fortified homes, fortified offices, fortified hotels, and fortified restaurants. Dupree is known for going anywhere she likes and for despising fortification.

On Kabul’s outskirts, we drove past mile after mile of new cinderblock homes and roadside shops fashioned from steel shipping containers. “What you’re going through now, this place used to be desert, complete desert, just ten years ago,” she said. “It just shows that when Afghans decide to do something, they’re not slackers, they get at it and they do!” Then she pondered. Her mood turned. “But it’s not organized. It’s all… personal. I suppose they tax all this, but do they pay the taxes? Who knows. It’s higgledy-piggledy.”

“It’s not sketched, Nancy Jan,” Mashall said.

Like many Afghans, Mashall has come to know Afghanistan only in adulthood. Before that he lived in Pakistan, where he’d moved as a child after his village was bombed in the Soviet war. He grew up in Peshawar, where he met Dupree in 1999. “When people see Nancy on the TV,” he said, “they say, ‘She’s still working, she’s still here.’ We say to our women, ‘Look at Nancy Dupree, she’s 80 and still working.’”

Dupree waved a hand. “When people see me they say, ‘Good God, that woman is still alive?’”

She looked from the window onto a magnificent view. In the distance were the “skirts of the mountains,” as a Persian poet once called the foothills of the Hindu Kush, and before them the Shomali Plain, a mine-ridden flatland once alive with vegetables and grapevines. We passed a cinderblock sprawl that had been a meadow, the site of a cavalry battle in the First Anglo-Afghan war, in the early 1840s. Dupree recounted how she and a friend used to ride horses there and reenact the fighting. “I swear there must be people in that village who tell stories about these two crazy women who rode around charging at each other.”

We passed , the domed hilltop palace that the emir Abdur Rahman built to escape the heat of the Kabul Valley at the end of the 19th century. “That’s where Louis and I were married,” she said.

baghebala13-1394149331-21.png
Bagh-e-Bala 

Four

Nancy Hatch was born in Cooperstown, New York, in 1926, and raised in Travancore, a small feudal kingdom on the southern tip of India, during the last gasps of the Raj. Her mother, a onetime stage actress, studied traditional Indian theater and wrote a guidebook to Travancore. Her father, who’d fought in the First World War with the British, worked on education projects for UNESCO around Asia. “He taught me a tremendous amount,” Dupree said. “One thing was, if you hold on to something too long, it fails.”

Living in India in the 1930s and ’40s, she told me, “was like growing up on a movie set. The Maharaja was very fond of my father. I was the same age as the Maharaja’s brother. Every time there was a new birth of leopards or tigers at the zoo, they’d bring the cubs to the palace, and I’d go to the palace with my little white gloves and big hat.” She left to study at Barnard College and after graduating performed as a harpist. She gave that up to enroll in the Chinese and Japanese Studies Department at Columbia University, and then returned to Asia, following her father into UNESCO, where she worked as an adviser to the governments of India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

At Columbia, she met an aspiring diplomat named Alan Wolfe, a suave and capable product of Manhattan wealth. They married in Ceylon. The match was not ideal, according to some friends. Wolfe was “definitely not Nancy’s type,” said one of them, Mary MacMakin. “Though the fact that he was in the Foreign Service was such a draw for her. I think that’s why she married him.” According to MacMakin, Nancy was “a party girl” but “a brain, too.”

Wolfe joined the Foreign Service after the war. He was posted to Iraq, where Nancy edited a news bulletin for American embassy staff, and then transferred to Pakistan. One day they were gazing toward the Khyber Pass, the entrance to the Hindu Kush and Afghanistan, and she suggested a trip there. “He couldn’t think of anything worse,” she told me. But, to her delight, Wolfe was assigned to the Kabul embassy in 1962. “He wasn’t happy. I was very happy.” Though on paper Wolfe was a cultural attaché, in truth Afghan culture was of only secondary interest to him. That was because, off the books, he was the Central Intelligence Agency’s new chief of station in Kabul.

A rising star in the agency, Wolfe was, if not the best-liked operative in the Clandestine Services, surely among its most ambitious. An underling once described him to a journalist as “the kind of guy who only speaks to Cabots, Lodges, and God.” Duane Clarridge, a former CIA agent who worked under Wolfe, writes in his memoir that Wolfe “constantly measured [his superior’s] chair for size” and had “a low threshold for the dim-witted.” Another former agent who worked under him described to me his first meeting with Wolfe. “Wolfe was dressed in a very good suit, Brooks Brothers I’m sure,” he said. He walked around the room, making a point to look at his pocket watch every few minutes. “I’m expecting a call from Kissinger,” Wolfe kept saying.

Soon after they moved to Kabul, Alan and Nancy met Louis Dupree. Born in 1925 to descendants of French Huguenots on the family tobacco farm at Dupree’s Crossroads, North Carolina, as a boy Dupree thought he would become a Presbyterian preacher. He also believed in integration, and the two were immiscible in the Jim Crow South. As a youth leader in the church, said Nancy—with the air of hagiography that characterizes much of her recollection of Louis—he invited a black boy to a service, and “when the church elders told him he couldn’t do that, he said, ‘Fuck you.’

“This was way before Martin Luther King,” she added.

With the outbreak of World War II, Dupree dropped out of school to attend the Coast Guard Academy, then joined the Merchant Marine. At sea he read everything he could. In 1944, he joined the Army, trained as a paratrooper, and was dispatched to the Pacific, where his most challenging mission, according to stories he would later tell, found him dropping behind enemy lines in the Philippines to recruit Bontoc Igorot natives to fight the Japanese. The Bontoc, renowned headhunters, didn’t require much training. “Louis would tell us how they’d come back from raids with bags, sometimes, of Japanese heads,” , the archaeologist who worked with Dupree at Aq Kupruk, recalled. Dupree was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

After the war, he won a scholarship contest for veterans and, with no high school diploma, was admitted to Harvard, where in eight years he completed bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees in anthropology. The Harvard archaeologist Carleton Coon took Dupree under his wing. One of the last great American academic generalists, Coon was, like Dupree, interested primarily in prehistoric Asian archaeology, but he convinced his pupil that to really understand the world, he must be versed not only in archaeology, but also history, geography, biology, linguistics, ethnomusicology, political science, and whatever else he had time for. Dupree agreed. His dissertation, on Paleolithic tools, took up two volumes.

Early on, he displayed a knack for portentous finds. At an excavation in Iran, he and Coon discovered skeletal remains that helped debunk the theory, dominant in archaeology at the time, that humanity’s origins lay in the Far East. On an expedition in France, he unearthed a stone carved with animal images dating from 25,000 B.C.E., at the time the oldest piece of moveable sculpture ever found. Then Dupree—the church youth leader had grown into a master schmoozer—convinced the French government to let his team take it back to Harvard.

In the summer of 1949, he and a friend were sent by the Museum of Natural History to carry out the first American dig in Afghanistan. French and German archaeologists had long been active in the country, but their interest was in its Buddhist past. The remnants of prehistory lay mostly untouched. Within a few months, Dupree and a colleague had found the medieval city of Peshawarun, long thought vanished, in Afghanistan’s southwestern desert. They stumbled upon it while searching for a drink of water, they explained. Later Dupree found the oldest human remains ever discovered in Afghanistan, dated to 30,000 B.C.E., and the oldest tools, dated to 100,000 B.C.E.

Dupree and his colleagues were regularly written up in newspapers, but they were anachronisms; the swashbuckling era of archaeology was ending. Coon’s generation had relied on their vast stores of personal knowledge to arrive at grand theories. Dupree’s contemporaries, by contrast, were scientific specialists who employed new technologies and meticulous record keeping—all of which bored Dupree no end. “He wasn’t really up on the Paleolithic literature or the most recent anthropological theories,” said Rick Davis, an archaeologist who worked for Dupree. “He kind of painted with a broad brush.” Charles Kolb said the handling of the Aq Kupruk artifacts was shambolic: When it came time to divide the excavation’s yield—including Daddy’s Head—among the Afghan and American partners, they simply laid out the thousands of pieces they’d found and commenced haggling.

What Dupree lacked in punctiliousness, however, he compensated for with toil, good cheer, and a leonine confidence. He had the aura of a bygone age about him, at once domineering and gracious. “He was a real commander [and] was very direct,” said Davis. “He facilitated and encouraged so many people who came to Afghanistan, even people with the most slender credentials. He’d introduce these wayfaring scholars to these local people.” He added: “He worked very hard and liked to have a drink after six o’clock.”

Ashraf Ghani was one of many young Afghan scholars whom Dupree helped and encouraged. “He was an incredibly gracious man,” Ghani said. “It was the openness of his mind. He exemplified a tolerance for critique, for ideas.”

Dupree signed off letters with the Latinism “Summum Bonum.” Originally an Aristotelian notion translated as “the highest good,” he meant it more as Cicero had, as something like “happiness is to be found in the highest pursuits.” Depending on the day, he embodied this ideal, or its opposite, or both simultaneously.

He was “a very profane character,” the American ambassador to Afghanistan in the mid-1970s, Ted Eliot, said. The first time Eliot’s wife dined at Dupree’s home in Kabul, a high-ranking Afghan official was also present. Eliot’s wife privately expressed her worry to Dupree that the Afghan regime was spoiling for a war with Pakistan. Dupree, well into his cups, brought the official over to Mrs. Eliot. “So what about it?” Dupree asked him. “Are you going to start a fucking war with Pakistan?”

“That was typical,” Eliot said.

In the list of Dupree’s published works for 1967—this is on his official résumé—one finds an entry for an article entitled “The Relationship of Religious Ritual to Orgasm Frequency among the Tribal Women of Fungoolistan: A Humping and Gathering Society.”

Such impieties aside, by the 1960s Dupree was, by general consent, the leading Western expert on Afghanistan’s history. Some said the leading expert. His “knowledge of the country was extraordinary,” Kolb said. “He understood it from the prehistoric era through the current political situation.” 

Five

Abdur Rahman, the builder of Bagh-e-Bala, liked to call his country Yaghistan: Land of Insolence. And, indeed, while there was much about Afghanistan to attract the polymath bon vivant Dupree, its chief appeal to his rebellious nature may have been precisely that. “The insolence of the Afghan, however, is not the frustrated insolence of urbanized, dehumanized man in western society,” Dupree would write in the introduction to his most important book, Afghanistan. “But insolence without arrogance, the insolence of harsh freedoms set against a backdrop of rough mountains and deserts, the insolence of equality felt and practiced (with an occasional touch of superiority), the insolence of bravery past and bravery anticipated.”

Afghans like to claim that Cain and Abel founded Kabul, and that Cain is buried there. If so, he was only the first of many murderous dynasty builders to arrive. He was followed by the Aryans, the Kushans, the Persians, Alexander the Great and the Greeks, the White Huns, the Arabs, Tamurlane and the Mongols, the Ghaznavids, and yet more Persians. Afghanistan emerged as a loose coalition of territories under a monarchy only in the mid-1700s, and its boundaries were not formally delineated until the 1880s, when they were decided on by British and Russian cartographers. Seeing the country as a mutually beneficial stretch of insulation between the Raj and the Tsar, they gave little thought to the myriad cultures and faiths that unwittingly found themselves inside the new borders: Pashtuns, Turkmen, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and Baluchis, who variously practiced Sunni, Sufi, and Shiite Islam, Buddhism, and even some Zoroastrianism, along with expert grudge-holding and famously bloody battles over succession. The colonially minded American historian Theophilus Rodenbough, writing in 1885, observed that “the love of war is felt much more among Afghans then by other eastern peoples.” Commenting on local dress, he noted, “Weapons are borne by all.”

Britain and Russia spent much of the 19th century vying for control of Central and South Asia in the sadistic enterprise known as the Great Game. Rodenbough proudly related that during the First Anglo-Afghan War, “Kabul and other towns were leveled with the ground; [Afghan] troops were blown from guns, and the people were collected together and destroyed like worms.” However, the Afghans had one elusive advantage over their would-be occupiers: Unlike the Britons and the Russians, they were not, had never been, a feudal people. Afghan political life was arranged around complex authority-sharing conclaves known as jirgas and shuras. When trouble arose, elders, chiefs, and religious leaders would act together to protect their territories. In this way, they had rebuffed one attempted conquest after another. Uninterested in cohering in peacetime, in war Afghans were something to watch; the British may have blown their enemy from cannons, but eventually they left in humiliation.

In the 1930s, Afghanistan—for as long as anyone could remember, a byword for exotic isolation—began opening up to the world. On the eve of World War II, King Mohammed Zahir Shah aligned Afghanistan with the Axis powers and then, seeing which way the wind was blowing, switched to the Allies, thus avoiding being drawn into actual conflict by either. The Dari term for this is bi-tarafi, or “without sides.” Some observers called it self-preservation, others a way of playing world powers off each other, still others plain deceit. The Westerners, like Dupree, who understood Afghanistan best understood that bi-tarafi is all those things. Dupree admired the Afghans’ ability to stay out of fights just as much as their willingness to get into them. He liked to call his adopted home the Switzerland of Asia, where “spies swapped lies and information and played cat-and-mouse with counter-agents and counter-counter-agents.”

1950safghan-1394149341-27.jpg
Two women shopping at a record store in Kabul in the 1950s.

By the time Dupree settled in Kabul, in the 1950s, its upper classes were dressing in Savile Row suits and sending their sons to Oxford. In 1958, the prime minister, Mohammed Daoud, became the first Afghan leader to visit Washington, and the next year Dwight Eisenhower returned the favor, the first American president to venture to the Afghan capital. Embassies opened. Diplomats, academics, archaeologists, and explorers arrived. Kabul University expanded. The Peace Corps set up shop. Kabul became a spur on the Hippie Trail, the path of enlightenment and drug tourism that snaked from Europe to India.

Dupree was in the middle of it all. When not out on a dig, he taught courses and lectured about Afghanistan, compiled reports, advised governments and corporations, filmed documentaries, and wrote or edited scholarly articles and books (some 218 of the former and 22 of the latter by the end of his career). In between he socialized endlessly. “He knew everybody, whether they were Americans, Afghans, French, Russians, East Germans, West Germans, civilians, military,” Kolb said. “You name them, he seemed to know them.”

More than any other foreigner, Dupree knew Afghans, all kinds of Afghans; he was as charmed by goatherds as he was by the royal family. They all had something to teach him, he felt. He assumed that Afghans found him charming, too, and indeed many did. What Dupree failed to see—what other Americans who knew and loved the country less did see—was that while Afghans liked him, that didn’t mean they trusted him. “Afghans were very cautious with Americans,” Ted Eliot, the former ambassador, said. “Their long history with foreigners taught them that you never knew who would be in charge next.”

From “Afghan Women,” AUFS Afghanistan Film Project, 1972. Cultural advisers: Louis and Nancy Dupree.

Six

Louis Dupree and were the only Americans in Kabul who could match one another cocktail for cocktail and tale for tale, and by the mid-1960s they had become good friends. “He was very smooth,” Mary MacMakin said of Wolfe. “A good talker, a good dancer, a good drinker—drinking especially.” And Dupree, who had a connection at customs and brought in liquor by the crate, seemed “impervious to alcohol.” Wolfe relished drinking martinis with Dupree and listening to stories of the Bontoc headhunters.

To much of the rest of the world, as to the country’s more cosmopolitan citizens, the opening of Afghanistan was an encouragement, proof that the Cold War could be avoided in certain corners of the globe. Dupree’s social calendar seemed proof of this: On a given night, he might be found dining in the company of the American ambassador or the Russian one. But to Wolfe—a gentleman spy in the classical mold who spoke seven languages and thought a great deal about meaning in history—Afghanistan wasn’t just another front in the Cold War; it was a deceptively important one, and one to which Washington wasn’t paying sufficient attention, he believed.

And, to a degree, he was right. Russia’s preoccupation with Afghanistan had persisted through the fall of the Romanovs and the October Revolution. “The road to Paris and London might lead through Kabul,” Leon Trotsky remarked, to the agreement of his boss, V. I. Lenin, who said, “The East will help us to conquer the West. Let us turn our faces toward Asia.” For a time, the Afghan royal family was receptive to the Kremlin’s overtures, particularly after Lenin wrote the king a pandering letter in which he expressed his conviction that Afghanistan had been chosen by history for a “great and historic task,” namely to “unite all the enslaved Muslim peoples.” Afghanistan was the first country to recognize Soviet Russia, in 1917, and two years later the USSR was the first nation to recognize an independent Afghanistan.

But the Afghans perceived, rightly, that the atheist Moscow regime was out to topple Islam along with all other religions. They also suspected that the Bolsheviks’ intentions for Afghanistan weren’t all that different from what the old regime’s had been: where the Tsars saw Afghanistan as the passageway to a larger empire, the Bolsheviks saw it as the means to further revolution. Neither much appealed. This suspicion was confirmed when Lenin backed a plan to recruit an army of disaffected Muslims and use Afghanistan as a staging ground to attack British India. Relations soured further in the 1930s, when Stalin ordered the Muslim leadership in Soviet Central Asia decimated and instituted forced collectivization, sending hordes of refugees into Afghanistan.

The Afghan government wanted help in modernizing, however, and during the Cold War help came from one of two places. Finding American requests to sign mutual security pacts and contain “Communist aggression” too demanding, Kabul turned to Moscow. Beginning in the 1950s, Soviet arms, advisers, and economic aid came rushing in. Afghans traveled to the USSR for academic and military training. Washington countered with projects and weapons of its own but it never caught up.

Wolfe was acutely aware of all this. How much he privately told Dupree about his work was known only to the two friends. Publicly, they were at the center of Kabul’s international social scene. This being the 1960s, that scene was characterized not only by heavy boozing but by adultery. Afghan officials bedded foreign diplomats’ wives; foreign diplomats bedded Afghan officials’ wives; wives bedded wives. Nancy and Annie Dupree, Louis’s wife, rebuffed any number of offers. In the midst of it the two women, who were very different—Nancy was childless and famously flirtatious, Annie more traditional and shy, with three children—bonded. It was with Annie that Nancy reenacted the battles on horseback in the meadow.

Soon after arriving in Afghanistan, Nancy the American ambassador to see the giant Buddhas at Bamiyan. Appointed to act as an unofficial historian for the trip, she attempted to read up on the statues, but was appalled to find that no guidebooks to existed. At a cocktail party upon their return, she cornered the Afghan minister for tourism, Abdul Tarzi. She recalled the encounter this way: “Now, instead of being a diplomat’s wife, I said, ‘Mr. Tarzi, it’s a scandal. That is one of the wonders of the world and you don’t have a proper guide, you don’t have anything.’ And in typical Afghan style, this Mr. Tarzi drew himself up, and he said, ‘You’re quite right, why don’t you do something about it?’ A French archaeologist who was part of the discussion said, ‘Madam, do you like ladies’ coffee parties?’ I said, ‘Not really.’ He said, ‘Do you play bridge, Madam?’ I said, ‘That’s a waste of time.’ ‘Then,’ he says, ‘I suggest you take up this challenge of Mr. Tarzi’s.’”

She did. Tarzi liked the manuscript for The Valley of Bamiyan so much, he had the tourism ministry publish it. She went on to write guides to Balkh, Herat, and the National Museum. The books were increasingly handsome; Afghanistan was becoming a tourist destination, and, as Nancy put it to me, “They needed to be printed in some kind of form that these rich bitches would take notice of.” An Historical Guide to Kabul, the book that 30 years later would possess Tony Kushner, was published in 1965. Annie proofread it. In the acknowledgements, Nancy wrote, “I owe her for more than these labors, for her understanding of and sympathy for the city has been a constant guide since my arrival.”

What happened next is still obscured by mystery and rumor. No two people tell the story the same way. Finally, the one fact that can be verified is the only essential one: At some point, the couples switched partners. 

nancydupree-1394149334-61.jpg

Seven

Some friends of the Duprees and Wolfes believe Annie and Alan fell in love first, leaving Louis and Nancy to do the same. Others maintain that it was the reverse. Charles Kolb had long suspected that Louis and Nancy were having an affair. She visited the camp at Aq Kupruk for no apparent practical reason. Kolb recalls flying into Kabul in 1966 to resume work at Aq Kupruk. Louis picked him up at the airport and, with his customary bluntness, announced, “I’ve divorced Annie and married Nancy.”

“That’s all he said about it,” Kolb told me. “I said, ‘OK.’”

When I asked Nancy about it, she did what she usually did when she didn’t want to discuss something—she recalled the most famous and most anodyne episode from the affair and then abruptly ended the conversation. When she finished writing The Valley of Bamiyan, she told me, she sent the manuscript to Dupree for fact-checking. For some time she heard nothing back. Finally, he summoned her. When she arrived at his home, he was sitting behind a large desk in a room full of plants that had been moved inside for winter storage. He handed her the manuscript without looking at her. At the top of the first page he’d written, “Adequate, but nothing original.”

“After a curt riposte, I turned on my heel and stomped off,” she recalled. “I got to the door and he said, ‘Come back here.’ So I went back. And I never left.”

They were married in the winter of 1966, in a blizzard. Minister Tarzi stood in for her father during the negotiation of the bride price, which Louis set at 10,000 sheep. “Even in a situation like that,” she told me, “he was a joker.”

Alan and Annie Wolfe left Kabul, and Louis and Nancy Dupree became its expat nucleus. They lived in a compound in the modern Shar-e-Nau district. Nancy worked in the main house, Louis in a building in the courtyard. So many visitors stopped by that they had to instruct their guards not to admit anyone who hadn’t made an appointment. In the evenings, they hosted a recurring cocktail party known as the Five O’clock Follies. “An amazing troupe of people would come by: Americans, Europeans, Japanese, Afghans,” the archaeologist Rick Davis remembered. “He and Nancy were terrific, they were inseparable.” Everybody, he said, “wanted to be around them.”

Otherwise, the Duprees could be found traveling Afghanistan’s rough mountains and deserts in Louis’s red Land Rover. “He was always looking for new caves. And I was always happy to go along because I might see something. And if there was something I needed for the guidebooks he was always happy to go along, because he might find another cave,” Nancy said. “Every time one of us would finish an article, he’d open a bottle of champagne. It was real companionship.” Together they fell in thrall to a country where, in the Homebody’s words, “one might seek in submission the unanswered need.”

“I was happy then,” Nancy told me. “Going around and learning everything new with Louis Jan. So enthusiastic, like a teenager.”

In 1973, Louis published his magnum opus, Afghanistan, the culmination of a quarter-century of work and travel. It’s still the definitive survey text on the country. For all his lack of sentimentality and his admiration of Afghan insolence, Dupree was an optimist, and the book’s keynote is one of hope for the country’s future. Bi-tarafi had allowed the Afghans not only to stay neutral in the Cold War, Dupree argued, but also to coax mortal enemies into cooperating. In their efforts to use Afghanistan as a proxy battlefield, the United States and the Soviet Union had ended up helping it. “The Soviets assisted the Afghans in building roads from the north, the U.S. from the south,” he wrote. “The Soviets helped construct the landing strips and buildings for the new International Airport at Kabul; the Americans installed the electrical and communications equipment.”

“But since the West and the Soviet Union are both interested in winning, the question of ‘Who’s winning, the Americans or the Russians?’ should be considered,” he went on. “In all honesty, one must answer ‘Neither—the Afghans are winning.’”

Nancy likes to deny what everyone knows, which is that she was essential to the research and composition of Afghanistan. She claims she merely transcribed it. “You’ve seen his book?” she asked me one day. I said yes, I’d read it. “Alright, and it’s a thick one. I typed that dumb thing three times over—on a manual typewriter! Three times, and I was happy to do it.”

The false modesty of this claim was demonstrated when her An Historical Guide to Afghanistan was published. Where Afghanistan is a monument to fact, her book is an exercise in style and wit, and it’s still an indispensable guide for diehard Afghanophiles, who—like Kushner—don’t read it so much for the information as for her voice. (“We were totally committed to her guidebooks as we traveled around the country,” Ted Eliot, the former ambassador, told me.) In the acknowledgements she wrote, “From my husband, Louis Dupree, I draw a constant charge of excitement and enthusiasm for this land and its people. Together we find new depths and new values. I shall be well pleased if this book succeeds in conveying our continuing affection for Afghanistan.”

Eight

After the two hour-long drive north, Nancy, Mashall, and I arrived in in the late morning. From Western news coverage one can get the idea that, 12 years after the American invasion, the Taliban is still confined to Afghanistan’s peripheries. This isn’t the case. The Taliban controls much of the countryside, it’s true, but it also wields influence and fear in just about every city and major town, including Kabul. Nancy’s first stop was at the offices of the provincial council in Charikar, which had been attacked recently. They sit behind blast-shielding berms and a pair of guards whose faces suggest they don’t expect to be much help when the next bomb explodes.

For years, Dupree has been sending books, thousands of them, to provincial councils—on history, administration, farming science, public health, and anything else she can have printed—in the hopes that local officials will use them to better govern. “Mr. Karzai and the government, they don’t like it, because it takes away from their own power,” she says. “But until the people get a voice, Afghanistan’s not going anywhere.” After three and a half decades of war, however, the country is still mostly run by small groups of old men, many of them illiterate.

She and Mashall were led into a narrow, dark room lined with overstuffed green felt chairs and coffee tables. A policeman with a limp put out bowls of pistachios and poured tea as provincial officials, all of them old and hirsute—reesh safeda, or whitebeards, they’re called—shuffled in. Without greeting Nancy, they sank into chairs. She has forgotten most of her Dari, so she asked them questions through an interpreter.

“Is Kabul listening to you?”

Murmurs.

“Are you getting the money for the projects you want to do?”

Fewer murmurs.

“Do you listen to the women and get them money?”

Silence.

The whitebeards knew who she was, perhaps they even appreciated her help, but they couldn’t have been less interested in her presence. Dupree elicited somewhat more adamant murmuring when she asked about the recent murder of a local woman. An official spoke to the interpreter, who turned to Dupree and said, “They are totally against the things which are bad.” Dupree frowned. The official was now talking into his phone. The meeting was over.

As the officials shuffled out, a younger man introduced himself as the secretary. In precise English, he explained that the council valued her books. They had tried to set up a public library, as she’d requested, but people borrowed the books and neglected to return them. So he’d moved them into a locked office. Now officials neglected to return them.

As he and Dupree talked, he unburdened himself. “The problem in Afghanistan is everything is based on theory,” he told her. The council had no money. He hadn’t been paid a salary in a year and half. A local merchant had donated the big green chairs. Dupree listened intently, made suggestions. She said she wanted him to connect the council to her organization online, so she could distribute the newsletter he wrote and send him materials. He looked at the floor. “We don’t have Internet.”

“This is so typical,” she said to Mashall as they left. “He’s got the spirit. He wants to do something, not for himself, but for other people. But he can’t break out.”

“It’s true, Nancy Jan.”


Some days later, Nancy and Mashall visited a boys’ school in an impoverished village on Kabul’s fringe. Its mud-brick homes were not old, but the Afghan summers and winters and dust had left them looking like ruins. In the school’s drab courtyard, makeshift classrooms were set up under plastic tarps. A geography teacher led them around. Nancy asked him what he could use. “Maps,” he said. He taught geography, but there were no maps.

The teacher brought them to the library, a disheartening sight. It was doing double-duty as a storeroom for an old generator and for laboratory equipment that some foreign government had donated, which might have been useful if the school had a laboratory. “They don’t have a card catalog, they don’t have a computer. How do they know what’s here?” she asked Mashall between coughs. He pointed to a handwritten list of books taped to the side of a cabinet.

An English teacher who spoke very little English brought me to his classroom. Boys sat on windowsills, on top of one another. There were no books, no paper, no pencils. “Most students don’t know what books are here,” he told me. But they were unbelievably disciplined and, their eyes suggested, dying to learn something, anything. I asked if they liked to read.

“Yes!” they shouted in unison. I asked what they liked to read.

“Histories!” one boy said.

His name was Saddiq, and he obviously took school quite seriously. Though he looked no more than 13, he was wearing a pink dress shirt and a frayed brown blazer. Saddiq loved Dupree’s library, the teacher said. He was borrowing books all the time. I asked Saddiq what period of Afghan history he liked to read about. “The Ghaznavids,” he said, referring to the Turkic dynasty that ruled much of what would become Afghanistan in the tenth through twelfth centuries. Many Afghans regard the period as the high point of their history. When I asked whether he didn’t want to learn about more recent events, about the time in which he lived, he considered the question. “No,” Saddiq said. “It’s all war.”

In the car on the way back to Kabul, Dupree looked out the window silently and sank lower and lower into her seat. A friend of hers had told me that, left to herself, her thoughts always drifted back to Louis. “If you just watch her body language,” he’d said, “it’s very distressing.” He was right. As we drove by a hillside blooming with redbud, she muttered, “Redbud… I wanted redbud for Louis’s memorial service, but I couldn’t get it. Protected species.”

Nine

In 1973, in Afghanistan, Louis had expressed great hope for the country’s future—too much, as it turned out. He didn’t mention that radical Communism and radical Islamism were on the rise, nor that the halting attempts at modernization and religious and social reforms undertaken by —who’d been removed from the prime ministership by his cousin, , nearly a decade earlier—hadn’t made it out of the cities. The gaps between the increasingly secular urban elite and the poor, illiterate, and devout peasantry were more glaring than ever. In 1972, when the country was overcome by famine and hundreds of thousands died, an official remarked, “If the peasants eat grass, it’s hardly grave. They’re beasts. They’re used to it.” The next year, after Dupree had completed his book, Daoud staged a palace coup and took back control of the government.

Louis knew the autocratic but generous-spirited Daoud as well as any foreigner did. “You must understand one thing in the beginning: Afghanistan is a backward country,” he’d once told Dupree during an interview. “We accept this. We know that we must do something about it or die as a nation.” Daoud wanted America to support Afghanistan, he said, but not at the price of its independence. “We first turned to the Unites States for aid, because we believe in the American ideology. The idea of freedom for all is the idea that we have for Afghanistan… but any aid which any country gives to us must be with no strings attached.”

Daoud delivered the same message, with less tact, to Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev. By the late 1970s, Moscow was largely keeping Daoud’s government afloat, but still he liked to “light Soviet cigarettes with American matches,” as one KGB officer put it. “We will never allow you to dictate to us how to run our country,” Daoud reportedly told Brezhnev, dispensing with the subtleties of bi-tarafi, after the Kremlin had instructed him to expel workers from NATO countries. “Afghanistan shall remain poor, if necessary, but free in its acts and decisions.”

In 1978, Afghan Marxists murdered Daoud and his family. Mayhem of the sort not seen since the Anglo-Afghan wars ensued. Officials, academics, businessmen, landowners, journalists, religious leaders, and anyone else deemed a threat to the socialist revolution were rounded up, tortured, and executed.

Louis, of course, knew the Marxist cabal well, including the new president, Nur Mohammed Taraki, a sadistic KGB provocateur of long standing. Taraki, a firm believer in terror, liked to say, “Lenin taught us to be merciless towards the enemies of the revolution.” Despite this, Dupree was at first sanguine about his intentions—or startlingly naive, depending on whom one asked. A month after the coup, Dupree wrote a letter to The New York Times emphasizing the nationalist character of Taraki’s regime. “One may deplore the bloodshed which accompanied the revolution and feel remorse for the dead, but an enlightened press should avoid the loose use of the term ‘Communist,’” he wrote. recalled Dupree telling him, “These Communists are friends from way back.” Eliot was amazed. “I said, ‘Louis, this is different. It’s the Soviet Communists.’”

Dupree’s delusional attitude derived in part from experience, one suspects, and in part from pride, but more than either from his love of the Afghans. He similarly assumed he wouldn’t be targeted, regardless of the persistent rumors about him, because so many Afghans loved him. “Louis’s conviction was that every Afghan knew he was a friend of Afghanistan and they wouldn’t hurt him,” Eliot said.

One day in November 1978, Louis and Nancy went to the National Museum to pay a visit to . That afternoon, after Louis had returned to the hotel suite where they were staying at the time, secret policemen knocked on the door. An Afghan translator Dupree worked with had been arrested and, after being tortured, had identified Dupree as a spy. Others followed suit—maybe to save their skins, maybe because they knew something.

In Kabul, it had long been suspected that Dupree’s relationship with Alan Wolfe extended beyond friendship and the eventual exchange of spouses. During the Cold War, it was common for American scholars to gather information for the CIA, and Dupree was a perfect candidate for recruitment: three Harvard degrees, military experience, unparalleled knowledge of the country. He’d been surrounded by spies of one type or another for much of his life. (Carleton Coon, his mentor at Harvard, had been an agent in the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s precursor.) And Dupree never really left military service. He always considered himself a soldier at heart. Before moving to Kabul, he’d worked as a researcher in troop behavior for the Air Force, writing field manuals and course curricula, and later taught at West Point. He didn’t officially retire from the Army until 1967.

It would have surprised no one, in other words, if Dupree had worked with the CIA. He always denied the rumors—adamantly, sometimes angrily. According to some people who knew him well, however, that may have been a front.

As Kabul station chief, Wolfe had been tasked with providing the CIA with intelligence on the Russian-made hardware being used by the Afghan military. Most of it was in the north of the country, as is Aq Kupruk. The archaeologist Charles Kolb said that on their way to and from the excavation site, Dupree and he took detailed notes on the Russian equipment they saw. Dupree photographed it with a high-speed camera. Kolb believes he was doing this for Wolfe and that Wolfe or the CIA may have funded Dupree’s work in some capacity. “We were always looking for military installations,” Kolb told me. “He was working with Alan and providing information to Alan directly.” He also believes Dupree’s popular parties were a means for the pair to gather intelligence. His “soirees were very eye-opening, because you got people together who were theoretically political enemies, but in that environment they would talk. It was very good for Louis to learn what was going on and for Alan Wolfe to get what he needed.”

Ten

“Dupree, the biggest CIA agent!” the interrogator called out when the police brought the archaeologist to a seized government building. On a desk, while Dupree was questioned, sat a Kalashnikov, its barrel pointed at him. He was moved to another building, where a man took calls, calmly tabulating political assassinations, as two guards smiled at Dupree and drew their fingers across their necks.

The next day he was interrogated for nine hours. He was instructed to make a list of all the Afghan intellectuals he knew. Suspecting it would be used as a kill list, he refused, telling his captors, “I know practically everyone.” He was told instead to make a list of all the Kabulis he knew. He consented, and the first name he wrote down was that of Nur Mohammed Taraki, the new president and possibly the man who’d ordered him arrested. No more lists were requested. Asked what he would say if someone accused him of working for the CIA, Dupree replied, “If you want to accuse me of working for the CIA, don’t go through this God damn nonsense,” according to an of his incarceration that he later dictated to Nancy. “Just go ahead and accuse me.”

The translator who fingered him was brought in. The man was shaking, and according to Dupree “his face was not his face, it had about a month or more of growth of beard. It was totally misshapen, his eyes were not his own, his lips were swollen and almost dropping down to his lower jaw, he could hardly talk.”

An interrogator questioned the translator in front of Dupree.

“Is Dupree CIA?” he demanded.

“Yes, everybody knows Dupree is CIA,” the translator whimpered.

Uninvited, Dupree jumped in.

“” he asked. The translator said no. “Did I ever try to recruit you for CIA?” No again.

The next night, Dupree was made to watch as a cellmate was beaten by a guard. “He just picked him up with one hand and started slapping the bejesus out of him,” he told Nancy. “One kicked him in the balls and the other one hit him in the stomach.” Then a guard brought in an electrical device with wires hanging out of it, “wiggling like the tentacles of a Medusa trying to escape.” The cellmate “just went to pieces.”

Through it all, Dupree managed to keep his sense of humor. “I made friends with the cop who brought the food around,” he recounted. He found he liked the jail bread. “I always insisted on the end piece, being an old Southern boy, I love the end piece of bread and it’s much better to make spoons out of.” His attempts to go to sleep were thwarted by “some noises of human beings in distress that occasionally came through the walls and naturally this did not improve my frame of mind at the time.” And “little buggies,” he went on, “were busy chewing my ass off all the night.” The next morning: “No one brought me bed tea; highly pissed off.” At one point in the transcript of Dupree’s account is the following aside: “Interruption now, because it is 5 o’clock and time for delicious martinis.”

After five days, Dupree was brought to the Ministry of Interior. Women demanding to know where their husbands and sons had been taken were being thrown around by their burkas. An official recognized Dupree and, forgetting himself for a moment, shook his hand. Then he stiffened and handed Dupree a statement to sign. “You are hereby informed that you are ordered out of the country never to return,” it read. “If you ever do return to Afghanistan, you will be responsible for the consequences.” Dupree signed it, but not before appending a statement of his own in the margin: “I would like to add that I have great love and affection for the people of Afghanistan and I hope that eventually a true experiment in socialism will succeed in Afghanistan for the benefit of all the people.” 

He found Nancy, who’d somehow kept it together during his incarceration. They drove in the red Land Rover to the border. There they were officially expelled from Afghanistan.

To this day, she maintains that none of the rumors about Louis had any basis in fact—that he’d never been connected with the CIA in any way. The translator and others named him, she said, because he was a gossiped-about American and because they didn’t want to die. “Some of these characters, I’ve run into them,” she said. “It takes them a long time, but eventually they’ll get me into a room all by ourselves, and they’ll let it all spill out. They feel so guilty because they turned him in. But it was life or death for them. They were killing people all over the place.”

nancydupree-1394149333-74.jpg
gettyimages-1394149361-95.jpg
Mujahideen in Afghanistan, 1979. (Photo: Getty Images)

Eleven

Louis and Nancy drove over the Khyber Pass to Peshawar, where other expatriate and Afghan friends who’d made it out were gathering. They moved into Dean’s, a Victorian hotel, a hangout for people with information about what was happening in Afghanistan. Their rooms came to be known as the Dupree Suite. They tried to approximate their old life, confident that soon enough everything would calm down and they’d return.

But the Afghanistan they’d known was disappearing. In February 1979, the American ambassador was kidnapped by Islamic extremists and later killed in a shootout. Washington began supplying anti-Communist rebels. In September, Taraki’s prime minister had him strangled in his bed and took power. The next month Afghans went into open revolt against the Moscow-backed regime and its heavy-handed religious and social reforms. Officials, Soviet advisers, and their families were tortured and murdered, their bodies paraded on pikes in the streets. On Christmas Day, the Soviets invaded.

From its start, the invasion’s brutality was matched by its clumsiness. (A Soviet general staff officer remarked that “no one ever actually ordered the invasion of Afghanistan.”) The Kremlin promised a months-long operation; a ten-year occupation followed. In that time, over 600,000 Russian troops would be sent to Afghanistan. Fourteen thousand of them would be killed, according to official estimates (unofficial estimates go as high as 75,000) and 400,000 injured or taken ill. Roughly a million and a half Afghans—most of them civilians—would die, and numberless villages and towns would be leveled.

All of it was in vain. It was not long before Russians were referring to the war in Af-gavni-stan: Afshitstan. The Afghans simply would not submit. Calling on the old traditions of the jirgas and the shuras, they created an endlessly brave and hugely effective network of resistance, joined by deserters from the Afghan army and fighters from around the Muslim world. At first they fought with 19th-century muskets and WWII-era Lee Enfield rifles and made bullets by hand from spent shell casings. One Afghan attempted a suicide attack by setting himself on fire and rushing at a Russian tank. Eventually, a disorderly coalition of world powers and adversaries that included the U.S., China, Pakistan, Israel, Britain, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia provided the mujahideen, as they called themselves—warriors of God—with serious weaponry. Decades worth of grudges against the USSR were avenged on television screens around the world as grainy footage of shoulder-launched rockets turning Russian helicopters into fireballs emerged from the Hindu Kush.

American support for the resistance was run out of CIA headquarters. Among its choreographers there was Alan Wolfe, who had moved to Washington with Annie. By now he was the chief of the Near East Division, known as its Grand Old Man. Shortly after the 1978 coup, Wolfe flew to Islamabad to confer with agents. He told them a story. “I came home the other day, and my wife and I were having our evening martini, and The Washington Post was on the coffee table,” Wolfe said. “The photo on the front page was of the new Afghan flag being raised in Kabul. I picked it up and showed it to my wife. ‘They’re fucking with our country, dear!’ I can’t have that. I am going to change that fucking government, toss those commie bastards out on their asses.”

“I sat there looking at Wolfe as he spoke,” the agent who worked under him told me. “It was clear to me that this was one of those moments that you hear about but rarely are lucky enough to witness.” Years later he bumped into Wolfe, and they reminisced about the meeting. “I reminded him that he had indeed started the process that removed the Communist regime. He looked at me like I was from outer space. ‘Of course I did. Did you think that I wouldn’t succeed?’”

On the ground, the Afghan resistance was run by Pakistani intelligence from Peshawar, where armies of refugees, many eager to fight, were massing. Nancy worked in the overflowing refugee camps, while back at Dean’s, rebel leaders conferred with Louis, whose understanding of guerilla warfare and connections with influential leaders across Afghanistan were invaluable. He no longer harbored any illusions about the communists. Word spread. One day someone walked into the hotel with a copy of the Los Angeles Times. In it was an op-ed, by a Russian political commentator, entitled “CIA Perfidy Necessitated Rescue by Soviet Union.” It read: “In May, 1979, the American intelligence men in Pakistan who were engaged in training Afghan rebels were led by the well-known CIA operative Louis Dupree.”

Twelve

There is no evidence Dupree led a rebel army, much as he probably would have liked to, but he did much else to assist the mujahideen. He had known most of its field commanders since they were young men. He snuck into Afghanistan to advise and fight with them. “Actually,” claims Nancy, “it was Louis who taught them how to make a Molotov cocktail.”

When he wasn’t with the rebels or in Peshawar, Dupree traveled to American universities and think tanks to lecture about the war and urge people to get involved; cofounded groups to support the fighters and refugees; and wrote reports and op-eds. He always stressed that this was not a proxy fight between capitalism and communism, that Afghanistan was not a “client” of the West—a position offered with increasing bluster as the mujahideen became celebrities in Georgetown sitting rooms. Afghanistan was its own country fighting for its own future, Dupree reminded his audiences.

In 1981, he was in a near fatal car accident. In the hospital for a year, he underwent two brain surgeries. Still partially paralyzed after being discharged, he went to Washington to urge lawmakers to send the rebels more weapons. Testifying before the Senate, he said, “This is, in my opinion, the most important political and moral issue that faces us at this time and is probably the most important since the Second World War.”

In Dupree’s personal papers, one finds dozens of letters he sent—to politicians, employers, deans—on behalf of Afghan exiles. More poignant, however, are the letters written to him by the exiles themselves. “Since the year that the Russian took over Afghanistan, many people have been died and many were slaughtered by Russians army,” wrote a student turned fighter named Hafizullah who’d fled to Iran. “I was charged for the crime that [I] worked for and with Americans in Kabul. Now I am in Tehran have no passport and I am eager to come over to USA for my further studies or if not possible to take refugee there at that part of the world.”

Life got worse for the Duprees, too. Still suspected of being a spy, Louis was expelled from Pakistan in 1979. “I have been followed, harassed and hounded by various elements in the Pakistani government,” he wrote in a letter of complaint to (who else?) Pakistani president Muhammed Zia-ul-Haq. “Somewhere in the bowels of the Pakistani bureaucracy exists a hard-core belief that I am a CIA agent.” Eventually, he was readmitted.

Although Louis had taken up a professorship at Duke University, he and Nancy never entertained the thought of moving permanently to North Carolina.  When I asked her why, she said, “These people were in trouble. Refugees were coming in. It never occurred to me leave. They had given us so much.” She choked up. “How could you turn your back on them at that time?”


By 1985, the year Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, two things were obvious. The first was that the USSR had lost the war in Afghanistan. Though the conflict wouldn’t officially end for another four years, withdrawal talks were already under way. The second was that Afghanistan was, in a more profound sense, lost. Five and a half million people—one-third of the population—would flee the country by the end of the decade, and another two million would be displaced internally. Louis called it a “migratory genocide.”

If the human toll wasn’t enough, there was the cost to Afghan history. As the White Hun and Mongol invaders had tried to do centuries earlier, the Soviets seemed to want to punish Afghanistan for its resistance by trying to make the world forget there had ever been indigenous culture there. The policy was known, with the Russian flair for bloody-minded understatement, as “rubblization.” Whole swaths of the country were laid waste; mosques, libraries, schools, museums, and archaeological sites were razed. It was as though some horrible wind had swept in from the north and erased epochs.

As the crisis worsened, so did Louis. Still disabled from the car accident, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He remained the final authority on Afghan history, however, so when a consortium of charity organizations dealing with the preservation of Afghan culture needed to assemble a bibliography of scholarship on the country, he was the obvious choice. No sooner had he submitted the bibliography, however, than he convinced the consortium it wasn’t what they wanted. What they wanted, he said, was the stuff produced during the war: the underground newspapers, the home footage of fighting, the testimonies of Russian defectors, and so on—the documents that would tell a generation living in exile what their country was like while they were gone. “In the camps around Peshawar, they had an unprecedented phenomenon—Afghans from all over the country, populations that had never interacted with each other, gathering in one place,” Nancy said. “The possibilities to create a legacy of learning for when they repatriated were enormous.” She and Louis began collecting. It was the start of her library.

Louis was always sure the refugees would repatriate and reclaim their country from the Soviets. “He had every faith,” said Nancy. “He said, ‘The Afghans will throw them out.’” In January of 1989, as he lay dying in Durham, North Carolina, the last Soviet tanks rolled out of Afghanistan. The mujahideen had captured everything except Kabul.

“Well, darling, you were right,” she told him.

Louis looked up at her. “The problems are just beginning.”


People traveled from around the world to attend the memorial service at Duke. Dupree’s eulogy, read by the director of its Islamic and Arabian Development Studies Department, Ralph Braibanti, was entitled “Tribute to a Mujahid.” Louis and Nancy, he told the mourners, had “appeared in a moment in history when the culture they so admired was in crisis. It was this transmigration of their spiritual being that enabled each of them to preserve some part of the national character which now became part of their persona.”

In the service program was printed a photograph of Louis taken a few years before, during a mission with the mujahideen. He’s wearing large, professorial eyeglasses, an Afghan vest, and a traditional pakol cap, gray hair flowing from its brim. He looks haggard but highly pissed off. Aged but eager. A boyish mischievousness dances across his face, halfway between a smile and a frown. “I know a lot,” his unyielding eyes and pursed mouth seem to say, “but I’m not going to tell you a fucking thing.”

Thirteen

After Louis died, Nancy wound up his affairs, taught his classes through the end of the term, and broke down. She considered “joining Louis”—i.e., killing herself. It didn’t help that there were Afghan exiles living in America who could help her mourn. “The Afghans have a terrible habit,” she told me. “I mean, it’s a lovely habit, but it’s awful. When somebody loses a husband or a wife, they come and they sit and they tell you all about how wonderful they were. You say thank you and you cry and you cry and you cry. That’s the whole point I suppose.”

But she didn’t just miss Louis; she missed Afghanistan. They had been her two greatest loves. So when she was invited to return to Peshawar to head an Afghan cultural organization, she thought it might be an opportunity to carry on his work, and she accepted before she could refuse.

Civil war persisted for seven years after the Soviet departure. Kabul, which had made it out of the occupation mostly unscathed, was torn apart. The rebel leaders Louis had helped were now warlords. They battled block by block for control of the city while the last Soviet-backed president, Muhammed Najibullah, tried in vain to hold on to power. Rockets slammed into the National Museum, and soldiers and militiamen looted the collection. In 1993, Nancy traveled to Kabul to assess the damage for the United Nations. “Artifacts [were] strewn among the rubble, and filing cabinets of museum records and catalogs indiscriminately dumped,” she later recounted in an article. “Hasps had been unscrewed and locks ripped off steel storage boxes, and drawers and crates had been methodically emptied onto the floor.” It was rumored that thieves were using her guidebook to the museum to value stolen pieces. Seventy percent of the collection, she estimated, was gone. Among the missing pieces, it appeared, was Daddy’s Head.

In 1996, the warlords were swept from Kabul by the Taliban, which at first was more respectful than anyone had dared hope. The Taliban leader, Muhammad Omar, appointed a cultural minister and decreed the smuggling of relics illegal. He allowed the UN to repair part of the museum. But in 2001 he changed course, ordering the —the subject of Nancy’s first guidebook—destroyed. When footage of Talibs blowing up the statues was broadcast around the world, it became clear that hardliners loyal to the polite Saudi she’d met years before, Osama bin Laden, had taken control. Next, Omar ordered what remained of the museum’s collection destroyed. Heavies from the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice arrived, hammers in hand.

When Dupree went to the museum afterward, “there were pieces no bigger than this,” she told me, holding up her thumb and index finger close to each other. “And the rest was all dust. I stood there watching the museum staff collecting these pieces, including the dust. They were sweeping it up, putting it in bags, and I thought, God, you know, what do you think the Taliban is going to do to us?”

Later that year, however, the United States invaded. In 2004, the museum reopened. The curators returned to work. They took the salvaged artifacts from their hiding places and began the slow process of re-cataloging them. Nancy, who had been splitting her time between Peshawar and North Carolina, began the process of moving back to Kabul the same year. One day, she received an email from a curator who had “found a remarkable little bundle wrapped in brown paper,” Dupree said, recounting the message. “She tore off the paper only to come to another layer of paper, newspaper. She continued peeling the bundle, and under the newspaper she found toilet paper and then tissue paper.”

Inside the tissue paper was a small, very old rock. There were markings carved into it. The features were faint.

“Daddy’s Head,” Dupree said to herself.

Fourteen

After Louis died, one of the things Nancy did to keep her mind off him was continue the collection they’d started during the war. She scoured and antiques stores and book stalls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. She visited old mujahideen and exiles and aid workers to see what they had. She hired unemployed men to help her. She stored the old books, reports, pamphlets, newspapers and magazines, tracts, treatises, photos, film reels and slides she gathered in Peshawar. “If it had Afghanistan in the title, it wasn’t safe around me,” she said.

Of course, it didn’t work. In every new find, there was something to remind her of Louis. “Louis would have liked this,” she would say to herself, handling a book, or, reading an account of a particular battle, “Louis would have disagreed with that.” Finally, she admitted to herself that the collection was her way not of moving on from Louis, but of remembering him. More than that, of memorializing him, and his love of Afghanistan.

While her new library awaited completion in late 2012, her collection sat in Kabul University’s main library, a sad affair in the middle of campus. Most of the materials were stored in locked, fragrant cedar cabinets. In the back of the building was the small, stuffy archiving room. On the days I visited, young male archivists (and one woman) could be found studying and scanning, copying and uploading, unbinding and rebinding. One day I looked over the shoulder of an archivist as he paged through a Taliban propaganda newspaper from 1996 whose headline read “Congratulations to the People of Afghanistan About the Capture of Kabul by the Taliban.” Another archivist was at a computer, going through scans of photographs taken by an aid worker. “When people die and their estates don’t know what to do with their God damn things,” Nancy said, “they call us.”

Operations were overseen by Rahim, a dour, wiry man whom Dupree hired in Peshawar. He and a group of helpers smuggled the collection into Afghanistan. They stuffed about 30,000 items into sacks and loaded them onto the backs of horses and men for the trek over the Khyber Pass. It took six months. Rahim said it was worth it. “We learn many things from Nancy,” he told me. “Many information about Afghanistan we get from Nancy.” Now they have about 90,000 items.

In 2005, when he was university chancellor, Ashraf Ghani donated a plot of land on the campus to Dupree to house the collection. When I asked him why, he told me the collection “represents the proposition that to overcome the past we need to understand it. The past is haunting Afghanistan. We have too much history—history that has not become historical. History that lives. Our perceptions of history are clouding our future. We’ve done horrible things to each other, and those things need to be put to rest, and this collection is part of that.”

Browsing the cabinets one day, I found myself thinking of a line from the Homebody’s monologue:

My research is moth-like. Impassioned, fluttery, doomed. A subject strikes my fancy: Kabul, you will see why, that’s the tale I’m telling—but then, I can’t help myself, it’s almost perverse, in libraries, in secondhand bookshops, I invariably seek out not the source but all that which was dropped by the wayside on the way to the source…. Old magazines, hysterical political treatises written by an advocate of some long-since defeated or abandoned or transmuted cause; and I find these irrelevant and irresistible, ghostly, dreamy, the knowing what was known before the more that has since become known overwhelms.


One day in the archiving room, I overheard Nancy speaking with a young Englishman who’d been volunteering his time. He had just told her that he would have to come in less.

“So you’re leaving us?” she said to him in a plaintive voice.

“No, Nancy,” he said, trying to be as gentle as possible. “I’m not leaving. I’ll just be able to come in less than I have.”

“You’ll leave, I suppose,” she said. “Everybody leaves eventually.”

Maybe sensing he’d stay if she offered him some compensation, she added, “You know, we’re out of money. We’re broke, completely.”

She wasn’t exaggerating. It had been obvious enough to me, watching it at work, that her organization was inefficient. Her staff was well intentioned but poorly trained and overly worshipful of her. Nancy herself was Homebody-like, unable to focus on any single task or line of thought for very long. Just how inefficient I learned on my last days in Kabul. Wafa, her executive director, admitted to me that the organization was, indeed, broke. Nancy had blown through a $3 million grant from the State Department a year ahead of schedule. The Norwegian government had stepped in with a bridge loan, but now that was nearly gone, too.

An auditor hired by the grant administrator to assess Dupree’s organization told me she “is completely exhausted and wants to let go, and she’s trying to hand it over, but her board can’t be bothered.” The whole thing was being held together, barely, on the strength of her legend, he believed. “The American government has spent $3 million supporting the cult of an old lady.” An employee of hers told me the organization “will collapse when Nancy is gone,” a contention with which the auditor agreed. Indeed, many of the people around her seemed to believe this.  

Penury nagged at her. Grasping deans at the university were making noises about commandeering her new library. She worried that Karzai, having paid for some of it, might use it for his own purposes. After trips such as the one to Charikar, she suspected that Afghans were indifferent to her projects. She seemed to become sicker and more impatient by the day. Her coughing fits grew deeper and longer, her outbursts more plangent and scattershot; it was as though everyone reminded her of how little time she had left, and thus everyone was a waste of time. Americans took the worst of it. Around them she became annoyed before they’d had a chance to open their mouths. It wasn’t long before she was blowing up at me when I walked into her office each morning. She would lapse into the first person plural, as though she were yelling at herself, too. “You don’t seem to be interested in the things we are doing!” she said one day. “What are we doing here? Why?! What’s our purpose?” 

Fifteen

For weeks I had been bothering Dupree to take me to the National Museum. I wanted to see Daddy’s Head with her. Finally, she relented, and I could see as soon as we arrived why she hadn’t wanted to come. The museum still pains her. Everything in it reminds her of Afghanistan’s past, of her past, of Louis.

At the entranceway stands a second-century marble relief of the Kushan king Kinishka that is particularly close to her heart. She likes to call Kinishka, a scholar and arts patron, her hero. The statue’s head is gone, smashed by a Talib. “This poor little fella,” she said as we walked by him. Inside we passed a damaged Buddha. “I, ah—” she said, then turned away, on the brink of tears.

Upstairs, after looking at a display of gold coins (“I kept telling Louis to find me some gold,” she joked), we emerged from the gallery to find burly military contractors with assault rifles taking up positions on the staircase. They looked as though they expected the statues to come to life. Nancy didn’t flinch. Nor did she betray interest when their charge—an official, clearly American, in a baggy suit, moustache, bad haircut—bounded up the stairs. He introduced himself as a deputy ambassador of something.

“Another ambassador?” she said.

“There are so many of us,” he replied gamely.

The ambassador’s wife introduced herself with an eagerness that made it clear she’d wanted to meet Dupree for some time. “Yes, yes,” Nancy said, waving a hand and pushing past.

As I was about to ask about Daddy’s Head, the museum director, Omara Massoudi, approached. Old friends, he and Dupree used to comb the bazaars in Peshawar together, looking for stolen artifacts. In the Taliban years, he sold potatoes on the street.

“Nancy Jan, will you have a cup of tea with me?” Massoudi asked. 

“You’re very kind,” she said. “Do you really want me to?” The ambassador and his wife and their aides joined them in Massoudi’s large, barren office. After business cards had been exchanged, she asked the ambassador, “But anyway, how do you find our poor museum?”

“It’s mixed emotions,” he said. “It’s so impressive and so gorgeous what you see, and heartbreaking to think of what was lost. But I think it is a tribute to—”

“You have to have been here,” she said, cutting him off. “Mr. Massoudi and I, we’ve gone through a lot. You see, he’s such a gentleman. Impeccably dressed. Can you imagine him with a beard down to here?” she said, gesturing at her knees. Everyone laughed, and she was off. “And he used to turn up in Peshawar and—those were hard times. But! It was even harder times for the museum, because a rocket had hit the roof and flames all over the place. The roof had fallen onto these precious Islamic bronzes, and they were all melted together. There was no electricity, no water, no nothing. No heat. And the walls were all covered with soot and grime and dust. We went like that for many, many months. So I cannot believe it when I come here, to see this sparkling, beautiful building. It’s a miracle.

“I’m building a very small building, but it’s taken a long time,” she went on. “You must come and see my center.”

“I’d love to,” the ambassador said. He attempted to make his farewells, but Dupree kept talking. More about the museum, musings on the promise of Afghan youth; then her monologue became moth-like, impassioned, fluttery, doomed. I was sitting next to the Homebody.

“The other day I went to a music concert,” she told the ambassador. “Modern classical music. John Cage and all that. You know John Cage?”

“Yeah,” the ambassador said, almost hiding his confusion.

Ping, bonk, henk, hah, all that?”

“Yeah.”

“Well he used to be my neighbor. And I didn’t think much of his music then. And so these people were doing a fantastic job with the cello and the saxophone and the—but all modern. I thought it was quite pleasant. Then they played one with John Cage’s concept that there is music in everything. All noise has music. Got it? So these three or four people on the stage, they each had a radio. And one by one they each turned the radio to static. Chek-wawa-kchaea. This is supposed to be music? I’m sorry. It didn’t catch me then and it doesn’t catch me now.

“I went out after that,” she continued, “and I saw the cellist. She had been overworked, and I gave her a big hug and I said, ‘Beautifully done, except that last thing left me cold.’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘we did that because it’s his 100th anniversary.’ My neighbor? Hundredth anniversary? And they were all so embarrassed because I’m nearly a hundred. They didn’t mean it that way, but it came out that way.”

Nervous laughter.

“Well,” the ambassador said, getting up, his moustache hairs seeming to bristle with alarm, or maybe pity. “Anyway the, the—I want to thank you all for the opportunity to visit this museum. It’s a real privilege and honor to do it. And I feel much, ah, richer for the experience.”

Sixteen

Afterward, I asked Nancy what she thought of him. “He’s an ambassador,” she said. By this I took her to mean: My patience for my countrymen, and their preposterous exertions in this doomed place that I love so much, is at an end. And it was a position for which I could hardly blame her. On the contrary, the ignorance and futility—there is no other term for it: the abject failure—of the American adventure in Afghanistan is obvious as soon as one sets foot in the country. Our attempts to rebuild institutions and infrastructure have come to little; hugely expensive projects sit skeletal and looted, the countryside poor and benighted; Karzai’s ministers live like pashas in Kabul. This is to say nothing of a reinvigorated Taliban or of the daily bombings, maimings, beheadings. All of it at the expense of the American taxpayer, America’s reputation, and, worst of all, everyday Afghans, the people whom Dupree has been trying to help for most of her adult life. 

“We have really destroyed this very sensitive characteristic of the Afghan character, which is self-sufficiency,” she told me one day. “They used to be proud of the fact that they did things for themselves. But now they’ve had so much money thrown at them, they’ve had so many advisers telling them what to do, that from the village on up, these young people don’t want to think for themselves. Let the foreigners do it.”

Dupree feels this failure deeply, and as an American adopted by Afghans, it takes a double toll on her, embarrassing and infuriating her in equal measure. She knows that she is part of this failure; that, as the quintessential expat do-gooder in Kabul, she somehow embodies it. On her good days, she also remembers that she is separate from it, that Afghans love her, perhaps even need her. She remembers that, if the glories of Afghanistan’s past can only be imagined, she can imagine them better than anyone, and help others in the imagining. But on her bad days, she carries this failure on her face, in her bones, like a walking broken promise. She worries that one or the other of her homelands might blithely do away with her legacy. Her library finally opened in March of last year, several months after my visit. But even as the building’s completion approached, she spoke of it as a tenuous thing. “It would only take one mullah with a match or one American daisy cutter,” she told me, “and it would be finished.”


Dupree had reluctantly agreed to speak with me one last time. Shortly after I got to her office, however, so did a young Afghan-American woman, two hours late for an appointment. Dupree had been yelling about her—“Where the hell is this person? God damn it, damn it, damn it!”—but when the woman finally arrived, apologizing profusely, Dupree issued a contrition-banishing wave of the hand and invited her to sit down.

It was her first time in Kabul, the woman explained, and she’d gotten lost. She was a graduate student, about to begin research near Kandahar. She had nothing pressing to ask of Dupree, nothing to offer her, but Dupree put aside what she was doing—and me—to speak with her, about nothing much. Soon they were trading stories and laughing. She took the woman out to tour the campus. When I returned to the office, three hours later, they were having lunch. Dupree was talking about Louis. It was the happiest I’d seen her. I left quietly.

On my way off campus, I stopped at the new library, recalling something the auditor had said about it. “She wanted to make sense of what her legacy would be,” he’d said, “so she’s become obsessed with the building.” He was probably right—and the obsession had paid off. It was a beautiful building. Its granite walls and stolid wooden beams and flagstone portico were somehow already perfectly weathered. Inside, there was no furniture, no curtains, no books. It felt new and old at the same time. It knew a lot but would say nothing. Students were already walking by it as though it had been there forever, and soon enough, none will remember its provenance. Though it is Nancy’s monument to Louis, to their love of Afghanistan, she has refused to put their name on it. It is called, simply, the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University.

I walked into the interior courtyard. A solitary worker was cleaning a new windowpane. Nearby his young son was sitting with a neat pile of tattered textbooks. The school year had started, and he wanted them to last through the long winter ahead. He was carefully wrapping each cover in brown paper.