Former Duke Instructor Nancy Dupree Dies; Helped Preserve Afghan Culture

Nancy Dupree. Photo by Duke University Photography Nancy Dupree, a former Duke instructor who along with her husband, Duke professor Louis Dupree, helped preserve the culture of Afghanistan through numerous wars and conflicts, died Saturday. She was 89.

Her death was announced by the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University, the center she and her husband founded as a repository for literature and information about Afghanistan.

In a Duke Today interview in 2002, Dupree said the center was the brainchild of her husband, but it didn’t received funding until after his death in 1989. It fell to her to organize and operate the center, which preserved thousands of manuscripts and pamphlets vital to an understanding of Afghan culture and history. Most of these documents likely would have been destroyed in the country’s conflicts.

Dupree said the collection was particularly valuable for non-government organizations helping to rebuild Afghan society.

"I didn't know what I was doing, but over time we got a cataloging system, we got computers, and it's developed quite nicely,” Dupree said in the 2002 interview. “It's mostly used by the aid community and university students wanting to trace the history of development in the region."

In the chaos that followed first the 1979 Soviet invasion and, later, the ascendancy of the Taliban in the mid-1990s, much of Afghan's cultural history was at risk. To protect the documents from the Taliban, Dupree moved the entire collection across the border to Pakistan, returning them only after the Taliban fell from power in 2001.

"Private libraries in Kabul were being looted, not only private libraries, but also the university and public libraries,” Dupree said. “And in those libraries were the works of Afghan intellectuals, scientists, historians, professionals. Their works were being sold on the sidewalk, sometimes for waste paper. All that heritage was being lost."

Under the Taliban, Arab influence in the government rose, and the rulers targeted Afghan's cultural heritage, all in the name of turning the country into a model Islamic state, she said.

"To do this, they had to diminish any sense of any Afghanness on the part of the Afghan society. They started in little ways, subtle ways. Libraries get looted. They used to have Radio Afghanistan. Then suddenly one day the Taliban made it Radio Sharia.”

Dupree taught for several years at Duke, picking up his husband’s classes after his death. She maintained a house in Durham and returned here regularly from Central Asia.

She and her husband received numerous awards from the Afghan government and other organizations. She published five books on Afghanistan, one of which, “An Historical Guide to Kabul,” became the basis for Tony Kushner’s award-winning play “Homebody/Kabul.”

Read the rest of the 2002 interview with Dupree here.