On a cool evening in March, Imran Khan, followed by his dogs, walked around the extensive lawns of his estate, sniffling with an incipient cold. “My ex-wife, Jemima, designed the house - it is really paradise for me,” Khan said of the villa, which sprawls on a ridge overlooking Himalayan foothills and Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.
Khan, once Pakistan’s greatest sportsman and now its most popular politician since Benazir Bhutto, exuded an Olympian solitude that evening; it had been a long day, he explained, of meetings with his party’s senior leaders. The previous two months, he said, had been the most difficult in his life. His party was expanding amazingly fast and attracting “electables” - experienced men from the governing and main opposition parties. But the young people who constituted his base wanted change; they did not want to see old political faces. “I was being pulled apart in different directions,” Khan said. “I thought I was going mad.”
Khan’s granitic handsomeness, which first glamorized international cricket and has sustained the British media’s long fascination with his public and private lives, is now, as he nears 60, a bit craggy. There are lines and dark patches around his eyes. The stylishly barbered hair, thinning at the top, is flecked with gray, and his unmodulated baritone, ubiquitous across Pakistan’s TV channels, can sound irritably didactic.
“The public contact is never easy for me,” he said. “I am basically a private person.”
The moment of melancholy confession passed. Leaning forward in the dark, his hands chopping the air for emphasis, Khan unleashed a flood of strong, often angrily righteous, opinions about secularism, Islam, women’s rights and Salman Rushdie.
That month he had cancelled his participation at a conference in New Delhi where Rushdie was expected, citing the offense caused by “The Satanic Verses” to Muslims worldwide. Rushdie, in turn, suggested Khan was a “dictator in waiting,” comparing his looks with those of Libya’s former dictator, Col. Muammar Gaddafi.
“What is he talking about?” Khan started, “I always hated his writing. He always sees the ugly side of things. He is - what is the word Jews use? - a ‘self-hating’ Muslim.
“Why can’t the West understand? When I first went to England, I was shocked to see the depiction of Christianity in Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian.’ This is their way. But for us Muslims, the holy Quran and the Prophet, peace be upon him, are sacred. Why can’t the West accept that we have different ways of looking at our religions?
“Anyway,” Khan said in a calmer voice, “I am called an Islamic fundamentalist by Rushdie. My critics in Pakistan say I am a Zionist agent. I must be doing something right.”
Those adept at playing Pakistan’s never-ending game of political musical chairs have begun to take note of Khan. His party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice, or PTI, as it is called), has never won more than a single seat in Pakistan’s 342-member National Assembly. But a recent Pew opinion poll reveals Khan to be the country’s most popular politician by a large margin, and his growing appeal has drawn together two rivals from the establishment parties - the suavely patrician figure of Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister from 2008 to 2011, and Javed Hashmi, an older street-fighting politician from Punjab, Pakistan’s politically dominant province - who are now, in Khan’s hastily improvised hierarchy, vice chairman and president of the PTI respectively.
Khan’s campaign strategy is simple: he has promised to uproot corruption within 90 days, end the country’s involvement in America’s war on terror and institute an Islamic welfare state. His quest for a moral Pakistani state and a righteous politics is clearly informed by his own private journey. Famous in the 1980s as a glamorous cricketer, he is at pains to affirm his Islamic identity in his new autobiography, “Pakistan: A Personal History.” A rising politician’s careful self-presentation, the book fails to mention his friendship with Mick Jagger, his frequenting of London’s nightclubs in the 1980s and other instances of presumably un-Islamic deportment, like the series of attractive women with whom he was linked by racy British tabloids. It does devote one chapter to Jemima Goldsmith, the daughter of a wealthy British businessman, Jimmy Goldsmith, whom he married in 1995 - he was 43, she was 21 - but this serves largely as a backdrop for his early, self-sacrificing immersion in politics.
His political enemies in Pakistan, he writes, used Jemima Khan’s partly Jewish ancestry to depict him as a Lothario with dubious Zionist affiliations - attacks that, Khan claims, made Pakistan a taxing place for Jemima and eventually led to their divorce. The marriage ended in 2004. Khan’s two sons now live with their mother in London, but he and his wife have remained friends. In an article in The Independent, Jemima revealed that Khan stays with her mother, Lady Annabel Goldsmith, when in London, and noted that Khan told her not to worry about how their marriage is depicted in the book: “You come across as you always wanted to - Joan of Arc.”
References to Allah’s grace cropped up early on in Khan’s public utterances, but they multiplied as he struggled to break into Pakistani politics. He now casts himself as the archetypal confused sinner who has discovered the restorative certainties of religion and is outraged over the decadence of his own class. “In today’s Lahore and Karachi,” he writes, “rich women go to glitzy parties in Western clothes chauffeured by men with entirely different customs and values.” His avowals of Islam, his identification with the suffering masses and his attacks on his affluent, English-speaking peers have long been mocked in the living rooms of Lahore and Karachi as the hypocritical ravings of “Im the Dim” and “Taliban Khan” - the two favoured monikers for him. (His villa is commonly cited as evidence of his own unalloyed elitism.) Nevertheless, Khan’s autobiography creates a cogent picture out of his - and Pakistan’s - clashing identities. There is the proud young man of Pashtun blood born into Pakistan’s Anglicized feudal and bureaucratic elite - an elite that disdained their poor, Urdu-speaking compatriots. There is the student and cricketer in 1970s Britain, when racism was endemic and even Pakistanis considered themselves inferior to their former white masters. Then we meet the brilliant cricket captain who inspired a world-beating team; the DIY philanthropist who pursued his dream of building a world-class cancer hospital in Pakistan; the jaded middle-aged sybarite who found a wise Sufi mentor; the political neophyte who awakened to social and economic injustice; and finally the experienced politician, who after 15 years of having his faith tested by electoral failure is now convinced of his destiny as Pakistan’s saviour.
The day before our evening walk on his estate, I sat in the living room of Khan’s Moorish-style villa, where Pakistan’s future was being plotted by young men in designer shalwar kameez and sunglasses, huddled mock-conspiratorially in small groups, and older politicians sprawled on sofas on the long veranda. The country’s broiling summer was approaching, and violent street protests over power failures had erupted in many Pakistani cities, adding to the general unease fed by a floundering economy, gang warfare in Karachi, sectarian killings of Shiites, the CIA’s drone attacks in the northwestern tribal areas and the drip-drip of revelations about a defiantly venal ruling class.
Khan was running nearly three hours late for a rally in the town of Mianwali - one of his mass-contact campaigns that had in recent months galvanized his tiny party. After all, Khan is offering nothing less than revolution of the kind that has swept the Arab world, a “tsunami,” in his own ill-chosen metaphor.–Nyt
–To be continued