Monday, 7 May 2012

The American Club Peshawar

The American Club (in Peshawar) was populated by a peculiar group of colorful ex-patriots: journalists, aid workers, would-be spies, and political operatives. The strongest presence at the club was a clique of journalists who covered the Afghan war with a markedly pro-American intervention bias. Key players of this group in the late 1980s included Kurt Lohbeck of CBS News, his girlfriend Anne Hurd of Mercy Fund (a pro-Mujahideen charity), and Steve Masty, an independent journalist and writer. For years their reporting had been nurturing a positive image of the Mujahideen in the American press. They portrayed the Afghan fighters as noble warriors fighting solely to liberate their country from brutal Soviet invaders and their puppet Marxist government.

from the Spy of the Heart by Robert Abdul Hayy Darr click here

Brilliant musicians gathered at the American Club, and so many were of Irish descent. I frequented this establishment regularly between 1993-96 and the photos were taken in that era.

Sean pictured below, must have been the most colourful of them all, with an amazing voice. But with the passage of time, I have forgotten the names of other performers who appear in the photos below. If you know the names of any of these characters, please make a comment in the section at the end.


Sean, the Irish Australian singer who played the banjo so well.








                Some good old boys sat in a circle near the bar singing songs poking fun at the Mujahideen to popular 1960s melodies strummed on the guitar. Laughter and shouts added rhythm to the songs as they floated across the smoke-filled room and mixed with the clanging of glasses and bottles, fuel for the party atmosphere.



All sorts of groups formed at the bar and I became a member of a paragliding club that practiced at Kohat.



I first met Steve Masty (left) in Peshawar He was managing the American Club. It was late 1993, He was louging in a wicker chair, wearing white Shalwar Kemeez and chatting to a friend. I used every drop of charm and decorum. I possessed as I was going to work some years in Afghanistan and wanted membership to the club, as it was the only place in this fundamentalist frontier city one could have a wee dram when visiting.


"No problem, “ he smiled. This was the start of a friendship that has lasted ever since.

What a talented man: Song writer, movie director, singer, author, once a speech writer for Ronald Reegan, Steve did a PhD in Scottish literature in Edinburgh.

To describe the  of that era I quote from the Spy of the Heart by Robert Abdul Hayy Darr

Chapter 11. A Loss of Face


The first evening back in Peshawar, I walked ten minutes along the main avenue to the nearest ice-cream parlor to claim the treat I had been thinking about for the last few months. I was still exhausted from my trip to northern Afghanistan, but excited by the prospect of meeting some friends at the local gathering place for ex-patriots of all descriptions. The American Club was located in University Town, the nicest and safest neighborhood in Peshawar, on a large parcel of well-watered land planted with all kinds of trees and flowers that thrived in the heat of the Subcontinent. The club building was a simple two-story cement structure, square in appearance like most of the buildings in the neighborhood, but considerably larger. The club is where journalists and aid workers from all over the world met for drinks and talk.


Some good old boys sat in a circle near the bar singing songs poking fun at the Mujahideen to popular 1960s melodies strummed on the guitar. Laughter and shouts added rhythm to the songs as they floated across the smoke-filled room and mixed with the clanging of glasses and bottles, fuel for the party atmosphere. The consumption of alcohol was no small part of club life.

Alcohol was by law forbidden to Pakistani Muslims, but within the confines of the club, Scotch whiskey and American triumphalism flowed freely. I could smell it on the breath of the guests and in the sweat in the air. I could hear the unreason of alcohol in the livelier-than-usual conversations, sometimes unduly insistent, but often quirky and amusing, here at happy hour central. The lampooning of the Mujahideen and their leaders was just part of the usual night of fun at the American Club.

It felt very strange to be back here after my recent mission to remote northern Afghanistan. As desperate as things were in the famine area and as agitated as I had been working with the various parties of that conflict, those experiences felt solid and meaningful compared to this social carnival.


I always felt out of place when I stepped into the club. I didn’t drink or smoke, I didn’t enjoy small talk and gossip. When staying in Peshawar, I usually remained with the Afghan staff that I worked with, even into the evening. This was partly because my office and living quarters were in the same compound as those of our foundation’s local manager, Mohammed Ali. Only a wall running down the middle of the compound separated us. I was delighted by the opportunity to learn about Afghan culture and language as fully and quickly as I could.

There were times that I could not avoid going to the American Club to meet colleagues, and for special events. Our foundation, the Afghan Cultural Assistance Foundation, occasionally made presentations on Afghan poetry and music at the American Club. We would also take the foundation’s refugee-made crafts to sell there on certain evenings.

The American Club was populated by a peculiar group of colorful ex-patriots: journalists, aid workers, would-be spies, and political operatives. The strongest presence at the club was a clique of journalists who covered the Afghan war with a markedly pro-American intervention bias. Key players of this group in the late 1980s included Kurt Lohbeck of CBS News, his girlfriend Anne Hurd of Mercy Fund (a pro-Mujahideen charity), and Steve Masty, an independent journalist and writer. For years their reporting had been nurturing a positive image of the Mujahideen in the American press. They portrayed the Afghan fighters as noble warriors fighting solely to liberate their country from brutal Soviet invaders and their puppet Marxist government.

This certainly was true in a general sense. The irrepressible Afghan will to drive out the invader was both heart-wrenching and inspiring to witness throughout the early years of that conflict. Yet a shadow was falling across this bright picture of bravery, a pall of sectarian and interethnic warfare and the emergence of those with a literalist, militant interpretation of Islam. Theft, murder, drug smuggling, and the oppressive reign of petty warlords also darkened this image of the struggle for freedom. Yet none of these issues were adequately addressed by the press. The Peshawar clique was partly responsible for this inattention to detail. Its members were fully engaged in describing a simple military struggle. For many of these journalists and politically-motivated aid workers, the Afghan Mujahideen were doing what the Cold War had been unable to do: bring down the “Evil Empire.”

I met Lohbeck at the Club sometime in 1987. My first impressions of him left me amused and wary. He presented himself as an authority on all aspects of the Afghan conflict. Over time I observed that, although he did have many Afghan acquaintances, he did not speak Persian or Pashto. He was like most foreigners to the region, a “special case” for Afghans who relax the social rules in the presence of Westerners like Lohbeck in order to better understand them while trying to obtain their help. Lohbeck weighed in on conversations about the war and American policy in the region, with a particular bias on which Afghan leaders he thought were worthy of support. His own support for Commander Abdul Haq was really unquestioned. He glowingly portrayed Abdul Haq as the liberator of Afghanistan and its likely future president because, he said, all the other commanders accepted Abdul Haq’s authority. I knew that this assertion was really far from the truth (though I wish it had been true—Commander Abdul Haq was one of the few commanders who was both a good military strategist and ethically beyond serious reproach). But because of Lohbeck’s bias, I naturally came to question, like many others, whether he had the objectivity necessary for good journalism

10 comments:

Joe Lowry said...

Grand bunch of knackers right enough Bob! I'm sure they could fight too!

Bob McKerrow said...

Joe they could sing, fight and write. A bright bunch.

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Oli B said...

Hey Bob - great site, I frequented the American Club between 1993-1994 whilst working in Jalalabad. I remember Sean very well - the guy leaning on his shoulder with the dreadful trousers and US navy hat is Chris Jones I think

I also Joined the paper gliding club with Chris Jones and Colin, Eric the mad Frenchman and Mella....

Those were good times....

I have a few photos from there myself - feel free to drop me a line - oli_barrington@hotmail.com

Oli b said...

Oops Paragliding. Damn auto spell

Unknown said...

i m just a wee bit late but still have my club card. I joined in 1985 and remained a member until evacuation in 1991. It was our home away from home.

cheers/bob Brenner
Class of 85

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