Conversation: “Trying to get individuals to appreciate what they have and preserve it, is the biggest

Published October 2, 2016
Nancy Hatch Dupree giving a speech during the International Architectural Ideas Competition at the National Museum of Afghanistan in September 2012 in Kabul, Afghanistan – Photo Courtesy of the US State Department
Nancy Hatch Dupree giving a speech during the International Architectural Ideas Competition at the National Museum of Afghanistan in September 2012 in Kabul, Afghanistan – Photo Courtesy of the US State Department

Conversation: “Trying to get individuals to appreciate what they have and preserve it, is the biggest challenge” — Nancy Hatch Dupree

The director of the Afghanistan Centre at Kabul University, Nancy Hatch Dupree, is quite cognisant of the obstacles archaeologists and preservationists encounter while documenting and preserving cultural heritage. She and her late husband, archaeologist Louis Dupree, dedicated their lives in doing this monumental work and under difficult circumstances. Established in 2007, the Afghanistan Centre houses 80,000 documents, enormously aiding researchers and students who are interested in studying Afghanistan.

The country has become better for archaeologists in some ways since then — an international research team, the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan (DAFA), has recently launched a project to map out the country’s cultural heritage using satellite imaging and to establish a database of such sites.

Mrs Dupree and Noor Agha Noori, curator at the National Museum of Afghanistan, spoke to Dawn during their visit to Lahore earlier this year about the challenges they face in running their organisations set up for preserving the heritage of Afghanistan.

Q. What challenges have you faced while pushing for the preservation of cultural heritage in Afghanistan?

A. The main challenge is people don’t know about their culture. And when they don’t know about their culture they don’t care whether their cultural heritage is being looted or not looted. Also, there is a very bad attitude that preservation of culture is the duty of the government. And it is a big challenge to get people to say that you are responsible for what is in your area. Trying to get individuals to see what they have and appreciate what they have and preserve what they have is a big challenge.

Q. Have there been other challenges besides changing the mindset of the people?

A. Foreign archaeological teams in Afghanistan have caused problems. The Afghan government has been smart because, you know, archaeologists fight all the time. There is a lot of jealousy and suspicion. They [the government] gave certain territory to certain countries. The Italians had Ghazni, the British had Helmand and the Japanese had a site to the north of Kabul. And that was their territory.

But, it was very difficult for one nationality’s team member to visit another nationality’s territory. They thought if he is coming, he will take a picture and he will publish it before we publish it.

It was all professional jealousy. But my husband was working on pre-history. Nobody cared about pre-history. So he was welcome everywhere. We easily got all of the permits and the NOCs [No Objection Certificates]. We always had to take someone from the museum, ostensibly to help us, but also to see we didn’t get ‘light fingers’. There are challenges but they are not insurmountable.

Q. Noor, would you like to add to what Mrs Dupree has just said?

A. There are too many challenges. There is scarcity of financial and human resources. We don’t have professionals. Our pay is quite less. As chief curator I get only 15,000 Afghanis which is equivalent to 25,000 Pakistani rupees. Because of this nobody wants to work for the government. Security is also a big challenge. We have about 30 policemen securing 50 staff members of the museum.

Mrs Dupree: We have electricity only two hours a day.

Q. Did you ever face the challenge of what to preserve and what not to?

A. Everything is worth preserving. You make that decision before you start to dig. And once you dig you are committed.

Q. Was it difficult to obtain funding for your work?

A. We were always talking to donors. The United Nations helped us. Various Italian and German universities sent restorers. The Kanishka statue had been broken into pieces the size of fists and it was incredible how they restored it. I have been very lucky. I have a big centre in Kabul University which is very modern and I got the money [to run it] from the government.

Q. I was quite surprised when during your talk you said that Mullah Omar issued edicts in favour of preserving the Buddha statues of Bamiyan but he was eventually overruled by the hardliners in 2001. What we know is on the contrary …

A. People like to put everything bad on the Taliban and for that reason people have called me ‘a gullible, ageing Taliban apologist’. I am not an apologist for them but you don’t put bad things on them when they didn’t do it.

And Mullah Omar was so cooperative. Every time we would hear that there was a commander outside of Bamiyan and would be like ‘I am going to go in there and blow it up’, we would immediately go to the deputy minister and he would pass on the message to Mullah Omar. And then Mullah Omar would issue a decree not to do so. Gradually, the hardliners took over. By 2001, I really felt sorry for Mullah

Omar as he had to give a decree to destroy everything but I knew his heart wasn’t in it.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 2nd, 2016

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