I Think I'll Just Finish My Chips

By Dalrymple, William | Newsweek, March 29, 2013 | Go to article overview

I Think I'll Just Finish My Chips


Dalrymple, William, Newsweek


Byline: William Dalrymple

As bullets fly, men duck, and America flees, Nancy Hatch Dupree is quietly saving Afghanistan's history.

Nancy Hatch Dupree is sitting in the Gandamak Lodge, the foreign correspondents' hangout in Kabul. Most of the other diners, and almost all those propping up the bar, are gym-buffed young men with shaved heads in their 20s and 30s: a scrum of adrenalin-surfing hacks and cameramen who grew up watching movies like Salvador and The Year of Living Dangerously and who now fill the barroom with their tales of derring-do in Helmand and close calls in Lashkar Gah.

None of them, however, have half as good a seam of stories as this tiny, birdlike 86-year-old woman, picking at her burger at the corner table. Over the course of dinner, Nancy tells a series of tales that would rival a Hollywood movie: of her passionate affair in 1960s Kabul with a handsome, Harvard-educated, ex-paratrooper and archeologist who made Indiana Jones seem positively suburban; of her expulsion from Afghanistan at the communist takeover and her husband's arrest and interrogation as a CIA spy; of her meetings with bin Laden, and her trips as a solo American woman into Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. She talks also of her current life commuting between her homes in Kabul and Peshawar, sometimes driving herself down the Khyber Pass in her little Renault 5, sometimes by Red Cross flights: "I am their only frequent flyer," she tells me. Although she is heading for 90, Nancy is terrific company, and completely fearless.

She speaks with scorn of the risk-averse life lived by most of the foreigners in Afghanistan as they sit locked up in their heavily fortified houses and will only venture out in armored vehicles, with security guards and with elaborate ECM [Electronic Counter Measures] protection: "They hardly leave their compound and never make friends with Afghans--can you imagine?" she asks with incredulity. "It's such a mess. No one is here for the Afghans. Seventy percent of all U.S. aid to this country goes back to where it came from in salaries. We're awash with contractors and crooks making a killing here. It's all flowing back to U.S. bank accounts."

To look at, Nancy is small and fragile, with features as gentle as the grandmother from "Little Red Riding Hood," all gray curls and innocent blue eyes; yet she is active, alert, and passionate in her anger: "The worst of it is that it's all deliberate policy," she continues, nibbling at her salad. "Rumsfeld claimed he had privatized war. So much of the occupation was given over to private companies, and done for profit. The NGOs here these days are little better. It's like a zoo, except all the animals are out and clawing each other, competing for the same resources."

At this point, bursts of automatic gunfire echo from the street outside. Immediately, all the hardened correspondents dive for cover, myself among them. Only Nancy continues unfazed, announcing from her seat, "I think I'll just finish my chips."

Nancy Hatch was born in 1927. Her parents lived in Travancore, part of the modern state of Kerala in hot, wet, tropical southwest India. Her father was an American who had served with the British Army on the North West Frontier and who was wounded at the Siege of Kut (in the Mesopotamian provinces of the Ottoman Empire, now Iraq) during the First World War. He convalesced in India and fell in love with the country, staying on after his recovery as an early pioneer of rural development programs, at a time when such projects were almost unknown.

On a vacation in New York he met and wooed Nancy's mother, a Broadway actress who specialized in tragedies, and persuaded her to join him in India. On arrival Mrs. Hatch, clearly as adaptable and enterprising a woman as her daughter, began writing and performing plays to educate the villagers on rural development and choosing better crop varieties. She also embarked on a Ph. …

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