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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.”

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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. 

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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.”

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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.