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Imran Khan—Sport, Power, Women
This essay appears in the Summer 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
It’s the bottom of the ninth, the crowd is going nuts, and you’re facing the New York Mets’ all-star closing pitcher Edwin Diaz from a distance of twenty-two yards, armed only with a flat-fronted wooden paddle connected to a thin cylindrical handle. To enliven the proceedings, Diaz interacts with you not from the traditional static crouch but after a twenty- or thirty-yard headlong dash from the outfield to the pitcher’s mound, at the climax of which he hurls a cherry-red leather ball in the general direction of your ankles. One other thing: Diaz bowls, as opposed to simply throws. In biomechanical terms, this means he keeps the elbow of his delivery arm rigidly straight and snaps the arm vertically about the shoulder joint to impart velocity to the ball. It travels through the air to you at 90 mph or so.
In most cases, the ball Diaz launches will hit the turf, deviate sharply left or right, and rear up somewhere toward your unprotected midriff. For good measure, he may periodically vary the routine by dropping the ball in shorter, with the result that it bounces off the grass and bears in on your head. Other than avoiding serious injury, your primary job is to score runs—the currency of the game—by striking the ball to the field boundary, or far enough to allow you, the batsman, to run to the other end of the infield before the ball can be returned. When the whole eleven-man batting side has been dismissed, either on account of committing one of various technical indiscretions or by being rendered hors de combat, the two teams’ roles are reversed. After all the players required to bat on both sides have done so either once or twice, a ritual that can take from a few hours to as long as five days, the total number of runs accumulated determines the winner—unless time runs out first, and the result is a draw.
There in a nutshell is cricket, which despite or because of its fabled idiosyncrasies remains the world’s second most popular spectator sport after soccer. It might be going too far, but not going entirely in the wrong direction, to call it a virtual religion throughout much of southeast Asia, where even semiprofessional contests attract fanatical public support, and international or “Test” matches between the region’s neighboring states have sometimes assumed the characteristics of a war by proxy.
For the purposes of our story, the Edwin Diaz figure is Pakistan’s current prime minister, Imran Khan, an all-round cricket superstar who bestrode the game in the 1970s and ’80s. Imran was not only fearsomely fast and accurate when bowling the ball but a formidable batter, too, who ranked among the greats purely for his hitting skills. Unfairly, he was also smolderingly handsome. With the final ball he ever bowled in competitive cricket, the thirty-nine-year-old player dismissed the opposing team’s last remaining batsman in order for Pakistan to win the 1992 World Cup. No self-respecting Hollywood scriptwriter would dare contrive such a climax. Had Imran chosen to put himself forward then instead of waiting as he did to enter politics, it’s a fair bet he might have met with electoral success, if not been appointed supremo for life.
For many impoverished Pakistanis, cricket has never been just a game. To them it represents both an escape from reality and a national propaganda tool no less important than the possession of nuclear weapons. Imran himself became the most potent visual symbol not only of Pakistan but of an entire subcontinent coming to assert itself in the aftermath of independence, a role he played with characteristic self-belief. What’s more, his appeal was always on a rather more earthy level than that of the usual blandly platitudinous politician. A friend of Imran’s named Naeem-ul-Haque once told me of an occasion in the early 1980s when the two of them had been walking through Harrods department store in London and a young woman, seeing the future premier of Pakistan up close, “lost first her decorum and then her consciousness. She literally collapsed at his feet.”
As a young journalist, I followed Imran when he returned to England in the summer of 1987, now as the captain of a Pakistan team that was in the country on a ten-week-long tour. Professional cricketers are often on the field for seven or eight hours a day, and when evening comes they tend to disappear to the team hotel as quickly and quietly as possible, grateful for the chance simply to switch off until the morning.
This was not quite how Imran chose to operate.
One hot evening in August of that year, I watched the Pakistani superstar make his way through a crowd of admirers and out of the gate at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, where he had spent the previous several hours more or less single-handedly demolishing the England team. After hailing a taxi, Imran was off to a mental-health charity fundraiser, where he shared the stage with notables such as the Archbishop of Canterbury and Mick Jagger. He was clearly the main draw of the event, speaking fluently for forty minutes without notes, before signing scores of autographs whose requesters, one noticed, tended to be young, attractive, and female.
At eight that evening, Imran was at a gala to raise funds to buy sports equipment for disadvantaged schoolchildren. Again, there were long lines for autographs. At ten he was at dinner in the London Ritz with two male friends, an actor and a politician, one of whom remembered the “innocent glee Imran took in hearing all the gossip about people’s love affairs.” Midnight found him listening attentively to a spectacularly pert young woman at a low-lit corner table in the nightclub Tramp. A famously androgynous British rock star and his entourage were also sprawled around the place, and thumpingly loud music played over the speakers. Imran was probably the only person on the premises drinking milk. I left him to it as he chugged away on the dance floor, a boyishly happy leer on his face, at around two in the morning.
Less than five hours later, one of the embedded Pakistani cricket reporters glanced out of his hotel window near Lord’s to see his team’s captain, clad in a green tracksuit, setting out for his predawn run, “plowing off into a steady grey London drizzle with only a passing milkman or two for company.”
It was vintage Imran.
* * *
Despite his many triumphs on the sports field, Imran has always divided public opinion. Perhaps in part it was sheer jealousy. In his youth he was blessed with matinee-idol looks and sexual success to match, and thought nothing of strolling around the slum areas of Lahore clad in a silk shirt, gold bling, and probably that city’s only pair of cerise trousers, a blonde on his arm, the better to mingle with what he still calls “the masses.” He was also fiercely opinionated. One of Imran’s Oxford University contemporaries told me that he had had “an antagonistic attitude, which in his mind turned any little slight into a life-or-death struggle. I wouldn’t say he always thought everyone was ganging up on him. That sounds a bit paranoid, whereas in my experience he saw life from a very clear cultural-historical perspective. As far as he was concerned, the British were all unrepentant imperialist swine who had been screwing his people for centuries.”
At the time I came to know him about thirty years later, Imran, though generally charming, was no less sensitive. Interviewing him was bizarre. You’d be given a number to call at a specific time in somewhere like London or New York or the French Riviera, depending on circumstances, and sometimes he would pick up and sometimes he wouldn’t. On July 4, 2008, hoping for a comment on the Pakistani nuclear physicist A. Q. Khan (alleged by some to have sold weapons technology to North Korea), I dialed Imran’s number from my home in Seattle. The instant he picked up the phone in his villa outside Islamabad, a neighbor let off a firework beneath my window, and he hung up. A couple of days later I tried again and this time Imran spoke happily, and at length, on everything from the possibility of President Bush being put on trial as a war criminal (a prospect he relished) to the current state of English league cricket. Even heard down the phone, his voice was a slow, rich, full-bodied instrument that sounded as though it had spent years marinating in port. Speaking of this same quality, the tough old Fleet Street columnist Jean Rook once told me she’d had to “clutch pretty hard” at the remnants of her professional objectivity when interviewing the “bedroom-voiced” Imran, “particularly because he was wearing only a dollop of eye-liner and a short kimono dressing-gown” at the time.
Another time when I phoned Imran by appointment he picked up and for several minutes we spoke pleasantly about cricket. From time to time I could hear the voices of other people in the room with him, some mumbling away in Urdu, with the occasional blunt English intensifier. “We [Pakistan] went to India in 1979,” Imran was saying. “No, I know we were outplayed, but we really chose the wrong team . . . Our selection committee thought the wickets [fields] in India would turn, so they brought two slow left-arm bowlers and a leg-spinner . . . Yeah, yeah, I agree it was mad, but that’s how international cricket was organized back then, a lot of old men sitting around in a smoke-filled room without any real idea of what they were doing . . . O MY LORD! SHUT UP! JUST SHUT UP!” Imran began yelling at someone else in the room with him, and for a moment I found it expedient to hold the receiver away from my ear. “No!” he went on. “You bloody fool! I’m on the phone! Not now!” Then there was a sound like that of a heavy piece of furniture crashing to the ground, followed by another exchange of peak-decibel oaths, and then Imran came back on the line again.
“Well,” he said quietly. “We went to India, and sure enough they completely outfoxed us, their fast bowler Kapil was pretty well unplayable, and by the time we got to Madras for the last match most of us were tired and some of us were injured as well. I remember I had a sore rib on the left side.” Imran said all this in a calm, level voice, obviously as much at home recalling the details of a particular cricket tournament thirty years in the past as he was in debating the more contentious points of current Pakistani politics, and not for the first time when interviewing him I came away struck by the number of masks he seemed to carry around in his capacious internal wardrobe.
The day Imran’s team won the 1992 cricket World Cup was a heady one in the history of modern Pakistan, and also in the nation’s pursuit of an identity separate from the former mother country. The press went into overdrive, and there were street carnivals and ticker-tape parades in Karachi and the other major cities. Anyone familiar with the spectacle of a Super Bowl or World Series–winning team returning in triumph to its hometown streets need only think of that same progress, with an added air of revivalist frenzy, to get some of the flavor. Imran, in short, was the hero of the hour. As well as the many donations in cash and kind that came in from across the country, he was presented with his nation’s most prestigious civil award, the Hilal-i-Imtiaz, or “Crescent of Excellence.” (He later returned this in protest when the Pakistani government gave the same award to Richard Boucher, the U.S. assistant secretary of state, whom Imran considered a warmonger.) To the British journalist Kate Muir, who traveled with him in 1992, it was as if he were “Nelson Mandela, the Beatles, and President Kennedy all rolled into one” in a country famished for idols.
Yet there were those who held back from the general effusion. One or two members of the winning Pakistan team, it transpired, had doubts about their charismatic skipper, and more particularly about the fate of the substantial cash bonuses lavished on the players. Were these for the individual cricketers to divide up equally among themselves, or, rather, a block grant toward the construction costs of Imran’s pet project, a cancer hospital dedicated to his late mother? Eventually two separate laps of honor were undertaken by the Pakistani squad, one a commercial endeavor by the players, and the other a charity fundraising tour by their captain. Imran later told one of his senior colleagues: “I treated you like a brother, but what you did was not great. I was hurt.” Another player wrote to me about Imran: “I was never sure whether to bow, shake his hand, or quietly slip out of the room whenever he appeared.”
* * *
Imran Ahmed Khan Niazi was not born in Lahore on November 25, 1952. Although that date appears both in the definitive Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack and other sources, Imran himself told me that he arrived among us on October 5 of that year. There had been a “bureaucratic foul-up,” he recalled, when he came to obtain his first passport, resulting in an official’s filling in the wrong details. But beyond this somehow characteristic administrative slip, Imran’s early life was a relatively ordered one. Despite the more lurid claims of his later political foes, there were no family upheavals or divorces, no shameful diseases or damaging addiction to drink or drugs. It’s difficult to make sense of his religious beliefs, which seem to have been flexible if not nonexistent until his forties, and one should perhaps leave it at that.
In 1971 the eighteen-year-old Imran was the youngest member of Pakistan’s cricket team on a tour of England. He was only fitfully successful, but the visit had long-term consequences for him. He told me that he was “horribly conflicted” by what he saw in London and elsewhere in the West. “On the one hand you had a deeply ingrained level of racism at all levels of society, and on the other you had a freedom of choice that just wasn’t available in the Pakistan of the 1970s.” Ancient punishments such as the stoning of women and hand amputation were increasingly hard to accept from the perspective of a young professional athlete who liked to unwind after games with a glamorous model under the strobe lighting of a Mayfair discotheque.
One curious rumor that reached me when I was writing Imran’s biography was that at some point around 1975 he had found time to carry on a brief affair with a fellow Oxford undergraduate named Benazir Bhutto. The daughter of the former Pakistani president was said to have been “visibly impressed” or even “infatuated” with her nation’s rising young cricket star, whom she affectionately dubbed the “Lion of Lahore.”
It may well be that the relationship between these two future Pakistani prime ministers was purely one of mutual intellectual respect and friendship. The reason some people allowed themselves to suppose it went further was because, to quote one Oxford friend, “Imran slept with everyone”—a gross calumny, but one takes the point—rather than because of any hard evidence of an affair. Nonetheless I printed the rumor, clearly labeling it as such, and Imran wasn’t pleased. It was the only bone he picked from among the five hundred or so pages of text. Generally he was happy to confirm his reputation as a ladies man during and after his Oxford days, and at one point he wryly quoted Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: “A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousands.”
It’s worth dwelling on Imran’s social life a moment longer, if only to show how it might, and did, provide such fuel to his latter-day adversaries. If in fact he was at no time romantically involved with Benazir Bhutto, that may have been the one and only liaison he failed to consummate. The following list is far from exhaustive, but it would include the German-born MTV presenter Kristiane Backer, Hollywood’s Goldie Hawn, the London portrait artist Emma Sergeant, Mick Jagger’s sometime partner Jerry Hall (now Rupert Murdoch’s wife), fashion guru Susannah Constantine, Lady Diana Spencer, and several other names less familiar to the tabloid media. Later in the 1980s Imran met a flaxen-haired young socialite named Sita White, heir to the multimillionaire Lord Gordon White, one of the most prolific corporate raiders of even the Thatcher era. A judge in California later ruled that Imran was the father of Sita White’s child. Not wholly untypical of the press coverage at the time was the comment by the Weekly Standard: “Not long ago, Khan denounced the West with its ‘fat women in miniskirts.’ Presumably the skinny ones in miniskirts he dated were OK, then?”
In 1995 Imran married twenty-one-year-old Jemima Goldsmith, daughter of the Anglo-French financier Sir James Goldsmith, a man of unorthodox family values who once remarked, “When you marry your mistress, you create a job vacancy.” There was some skepticism about the impeccably upper-crust Jemima taking to her new life as a Lahore housewife. In time James Goldsmith’s family lawyer took public exception to comments attributed to Jemima in which she questioned Israeli policy toward Palestine. The lawyer resigned his post, remarking that Jemima “no longer understands what being a Goldsmith means.” In 2004 it was announced that the Khans had divorced, ending the nine-year marriage because it was “difficult for Jemima to adapt to life in Pakistan.”
In 2014 Imran married the Anglo-Pakistani journalist Reham Khan, a union that lasted just eight months. The second Mrs. Khan later made a number of disobliging remarks about her ex-husband. In January 2018 Imran announced that he had married his spiritual mentor Bushra Bibi, a development said to have significantly deepened his interest in Islamic mysticism. It seems fair to say that at one time he projected a slightly dangerous, saturnine demeanor. Women wanted to get to know him better, and the feeling was mutual.
The turning point of Imran’s life, and his first step on the road to political power, also involved a woman. When his mother Shaukat died of cancer in February 1985, aged sixty-three, a loss that he told me would have been preventable with proper care, he resolved to help other sufferers of the disease. Today there are three separate hospitals dedicated to Shaukat’s name. A quarter of a million patients visit one or more of them each year, about 75 percent of them without charge. As a result of all the traveling and fundraising this involved, Imran developed an interest in politics. As he put it in 1992, with characteristic lack of understatement: “All through Pakistan history, stooges of the past and present colonial masters have led us. My new party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, will be a broad-based movement for change whose mission is to create a free society based on justice. We will prevail.”
What that meant in practice was several years of Imran wandering the back roads of Pakistan telling the people he met there that they could be truly free if only they would reject the established political class in Islamabad and, while they were at it, evict “the U.S. military invaders” from their country. It was lonely work, and sometimes the crowds lining up for one of Imran’s roadside campaigns were thin. “I bought in at the bottom of the market” was how he described his political apprenticeship. Even then he was rarely a martyr to self-doubt. Imran wasn’t a man to die in the last ditch: for him the only honorable course was to die in the first ditch, regardless of whether anyone else was prepared to share it with him, though he advanced with ferocious clarity the arguments that showed why they should.
* * *
Imran probably first came to the attention of the non-cricket-playing world in May 2005 as a result of a Newsweek article claiming that U.S. interrogators had desecrated copies of the Koran while questioning prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The three-hundred-word story cited sources as saying that investigators looking into abuses at the military jail had found that American GIs “placed Korans on toilets, and in at least one case flushed a holy book down the pan.” Imran lost little time in calling a press conference in Islamabad, in which, flourishing a copy of the magazine, he called the incident “a disgrace” and “an insult to Muslims,” who were now “themselves under attack from the West.” At least seventeen people were killed and up to six hundred injured when demonstrators then took to the streets of Pakistan to shout anti-U.S. slogans and burn the American flag. It took five days for the disturbances to be brought under control.
Imran was unapologetic. “To throw the Koran in the toilet is the greatest violation of a Muslim’s human rights,” he told me. “Should we close Amnesty International or the Red Cross because they bring up violations?” I spoke to him a few weeks later, after Newsweek had disowned much of its original story. “Bloodshed is regrettable,” Imran allowed. “But the fact is we’re no longer in a war against terror. We’re in a war against Islam.”
In time, Imran’s critics would come to view him as a sort of bouffant-haired Bernie Sanders figure, if such a thing can be imagined, his politics largely a mélange of utopian-socialist mumblings in which the word change substituted for any coherent philosophy. His party was consistently rebuffed at the polls. At one point the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, told CNN: “Khan uses his foreign contacts, or actually his ex-wife’s contacts, to come on television. . . . Every time he gets the chance to make a decision, he, without any fail, makes the wrong decision. He fights with every person. He hasn’t left anyone in Pakistan alone. . . . He is just ridiculous.”
Such observers underestimated Imran’s obstinacy and resilience. He used his intellect and his willpower to push arguments to an extreme. Pakistan was becoming no more than an advance base for U.S. assets, “much like America herself objected to in Cuba” with respect to Soviet influence, he once reminded me. For more than twenty years he remained at the head of a fringe socio-political group regarded in some quarters as having little or no future, and in others as a complete joke. During this time, Imran was often on his own as he traveled the world, doggedly meeting with anyone who would see him, tirelessly hawking the party line. More than once he found himself addressing half-empty press conferences where the questions tended to be as much on his personal life as on Pakistan’s role in the world. When in March 2008 he visited Washington, D.C., he was given a five-minute audience with then Majority Leader Harry Reid. A well-placed source told me that Imran’s meeting with the Nevada senator had consisted of “little more than a few glassy-eyed pleasantries” followed by a bland joint statement. Reid was, however, personally “quite impressed by Imran, whom he seemed to think had been an international croquet star in his previous career.”
Imran told me that when he looked back on his life he made a distinction between the “humble sinner” who had gone around the world playing cricket and bedding an unfeasible number of women, and his later incarnation as the defender of his country’s sovereignty and honor. His wilderness years would have been enough to discourage most politicians, but Imran was content to keep rolling on, continually reminding the electorate that—in a weird sort of foreshadowing of Donald Trump—their country was being tyrannized by an Establishment class, in this case a toxic mixture of corrupt oligarchs and ambitious army officers, in which the oligarchs passed laws to make the military men rich, and in return the generals ruthlessly suppressed opposition in order to make the oligarchs more powerful. Imran was not lying, apparently, when he told me that he was steadily building a support base of “millions of common folk” who felt the same way he did about this state of affairs, whatever demographic niche they might otherwise fit into. He finally reached the finish line in August 2018, when, after a typically protracted election count, he became the twenty-third prime minister in Pakistan’s seventy-one-year-history.
The idea of a hardline Muslim head of government working in cooperation with a Republican U.S. president—let alone one like Trump—might come as a shock to those who have followed the course of U.S.-Pakistan relations in the years following 9/11. The two states became the odd couple of the war on terror. Between 2002 and 2012, Congress voted Pakistan a total of $21 billion in military and economic aid, about half of it in direct financial payments, and in return the U.S. was provided “exclusive use of facilities such as the Shamsi Airfield, [along with] full and complete support from domestic land warfare units and other assets,” to quote the Pakistani joint chiefs on the subject. Yet it would be a mistake to think that the relationship between Washington and Islamabad took a significant upturn during these years. Instead, it got worse.
There was the occasion in October 2005, for example, when U.S. missiles were targeted at Osama bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was thought to be visiting one of his wives in the frontier village of Damadola. On that occasion, the rockets missed al-Zawahiri but killed thirteen civilians, including women and children. There were to be a number of similarly botched operations over the years, along with mounting criticisms from the U.S. about the ultimate destination of their subsidies to Pakistan. President Bush’s visit to the region was marked by an eruption of Taliban-inspired violence, at the end of which 262 soldiers and civilians had died. After a suicide attack on a northwest Pakistan army barracks, a U.S. special forces team blew up the area’s main Islamic school, which they claimed had been used as a militant base. Six months later, the U.S. launched missiles at what was variously described as a “theological college” or a “terrorist camp” in North Waziristan. On that occasion, 86 people died.
Imran’s reaction to these events was not marked by friendly or unstinting support for the U.S. position, and when I asked him about it he shouted down the phone line: “People just don’t understand what’s going on out here. If they did, they wouldn’t countenance it.” Expounding on this theme at a political rally in Lahore, Imran announced: “This is a civil war in the making. Refugees have been created. Innocent people killed; children left without arms and legs. And all under the magic mantra of fighting so-called extremism.”
Yet despite the rhetoric, Imran is nothing if not a pragmatist. As the ruling party in Islamabad contemplates financial projections that show how unlikely it is that they will meet their fiscal rule of having the national debt fall as a percentage of GDP by the year 2021–22, it’s reassuring to them to know that they will be able to call on the stimulus package from Washington. And on a more personal level, Imran continues to rely on the charity of individual American donors to keep his cancer hospitals afloat. I once watched him as he charmed an audience of some five hundred Boeing and Microsoft executives and their families at a fundraiser held in a downtown Seattle ballroom. His speech continually dwelt upon the essential generosity and goodness of his host country. He told me that he considered the United States a “wonderful nation of three hundred million hardworking, tolerant individuals” that unfortunately had “about five hundred people at the top of it who are complete shits.”
As everyone was finally packing up and leaving the hotel that warm July evening, a middle-aged female admirer approached Imran and requested an autograph. He told her he was happy to oblige. As he was signing the proffered piece of paper, the woman asked him if he felt he had made a “political mistake” in speaking out about the Newsweek story several years earlier.
Imran knocked that one out of the park. “I’m not talking about politics,” he said. “I’m talking about decency. It was a foul thing to do. It’s a desecration. This is a fantastic country almost everywhere you go except for the Pentagon.”
At that, Imran affably posed for a picture or two before strolling off into the summer night, whistling quietly to himself as he did so. ♦
Christopher Sandford is the author of many books, including Imran Khan: The Biography and The Man Who Would Be Sherlock: The Real-Life Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle.
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