World's Largest Collection of Recent Afghan History

Nov. 16, 2006 — -- When American Nancy Hatch Dupree found out she had been dubbed "Afghanistan's grandmother," she "went into orbit," she said.

The Afghans she worked with didn't understand her fury. She remembers one who said, "We all know we can come to you for advice."

"That's when the penny dropped," she said. "You don't advertise somebody's age in my culture, but for an Afghan, this was a great honor."

After 60 years in Afghanistan, Dupree, now 78, knows a thing or two about Afghan culture.

Half a century ago, she wrote five guidebooks on the country's rich antiquities, traveling to study ancient relics like the Buddhas of Bamyian -- which he Taliban later destroyed -- and the towering Minaret of Jam. Her guides are still widely used today.

Dupree came to Kabul as the young wife of an American diplomat. But when that marriage quickly fell apart, she fell in love with Louis Dupree, then the world's pre-eminent Afghan scholar.

"It was a grand scandal," she said with a shrug, adding, "I was a young chicken then."

To clear her head, she'd ride her stallion across empty rolling plains -- now teeming Kabul neighborhoods -- to visit a crumbling palace she was helping to restore.

She and Louis later married at the palace grounds. "There was deep, deep snow, which was considered good luck," she said. "And it was because we had a very good marriage."

Her husband traveled around the country researching Afghan history, she said, "and I tagged along with my notebook."

When civil war erupted, the couple fled to the Pakistani frontier town of Peshawar, along with millions of Afghan refugees. They launched education programs for refugee children and held court with the various mujahedeen factions fighting the Soviet-backed regime.

Over time, Dupree met just about everybody who came through the Afghan theater. Diplomats, jihadist leaders, journalists, researchers: Everyone came to seek her advice. Even a young Osama bin Laden once turned up at her door.

"Those were in the early days, when he was a very shy character and didn't even have a beard," Dupree said.

She didn't end up helping bin Laden, but her reputation as someone you could go to earned her her sobriquet.

Her husband's death from lung cancer, in 1989, left her briefly despondent, until she embarked on a mammoth project he conceived: a library for Kabul University.

"I am a historian, and I love libraries," she said. "I believe this project is germane to the development of this country."

She has helped amass a collection of 37,000 books and documents: history tomes, works by Afghan writers, reports by aid groups during the Afghan War, even newspapers put out by the jihadist groups.

The Afghan Center at Kabul University, when complete, will bring together the world's largest collection of recent Afghan history. To serve researchers around the globe, a catalog of the entire collection has been put online, in English and Dari.

The university has already given her a plot of land where Dupree hopes to raise $2 million to build the library and research center, plus additional funds for its annual running costs.

It may sound like a daunting project for a woman who's almost 80. She travels back and forth between Kabul and Peshawar, constantly networking to raise money and to find new material for the center.

"I'm going out with my begging bowl," she said. It's hard to imagine her slowing down.

For now, the Afghan Center operates out of cramped, temporary space leant them by the university, where Dupree and her staff work to organize the collection and catalogue new acquisitions. Upstairs, a reading room for students is packed with young people, who can scan the catalogue for relevant material, or just browse the Web.

"At first, they just came to surf the Internet," Dupree says. "That is how we lured them."

But just two months since their opening, they are getting 900 users a month on their catalogue. Slowly but surely, Kabul University undergrads studying everything from animal husbandry to medicine are learning how to research.

The Afghan Center has also produced several dozen mobile libraries of about 200 Dari- and Pashtun-language books that it dispatches to the provinces. Only about a third of Afghans can read, according to UNICEF statistics. Literacy among rural women stands at an appalling 4 to 5 percent.

Dupree geared her mobile libraries to people who have recently learned to read: The books are short and filled with colorful pictures.

"When we started this, I said we have to produce books people cannot resist picking up," she said.

She sends rural people mainly self-help books -- how to improve health care and nutrition, how to get better results farming, how to care for farm animals.

"If you are too busy thinking about survival, you don't really pay much attention to politics," she said. "If I can help advance their livelihood, maybe they'll have time to start thinking about democracy."

In a year when Afghanistan's security and political situation took a clear slide, Dupree said it's sometimes hard to remain optimistic about the future.

"I will not minimize the problems they have, which include weak, weak leadership, corruption, opportunists and all kinds of bad stuff," she said. "But I meet Afghans every day who are doing things that matter, and they haven't lost heart. They aren't despondent yet, and I don't think we should be."

For Afghanistan's grandmother, there can be no better tribute to her and her husband's life's work than a library for Afghan students.