Uncategorized 07.11.2019

A league of his own

BY Asif

Our nerves had kicked in the night before. We had been warned that we would become speechless but obviously we did not take this seriously. We arrive at iron gates where a solitary guard stops us. He is a tiny man with spectacles, his hair and beard dyed a deep mehndi orange.

“Khan Sahib is asleep,” he says, after we ask to be let in. We look at each other and laugh at his excuse. We explain that we have an appointment for 3 pm and we’re here to interview him. “You should’ve said interview,” he says, shaking his head and waving us in and up another road winding through forest.

Set in the middle of 35 lush acres is a pretty, Mediterranean-style villa, more Marbella than Margalla, looking small in its awesome surroundings. An attendant, and two Alsatians, welcome us at the door. There is no electricity, nor the tell-tale hum of a generator. We’re led inside through a veranda past a central courtyard attached to various rooms and into a lounge with cream sofas and red cushions, cool air and afternoon sunshine seeping in through open windows looking into more forest.

Driving through the winding, tree-lined roads of Bani gala in the Margalla Hills, we talk about Imran Khan, the captain who lifted the world cup and who is now the politician crusading against corruption.

Before we get a chance to soak in our surroundings, he walks in, wearing his trademark white shalwar kameez and platform khairees. Imran Khan, the icon, the cricket legend, the philanthropist, the politician.He is tall and strong, and though a little more wrinkled with age, he is as fit and athletic as when he was still in cricket (clearly the gym room across the courtyard is put to good use).

With perfect posture he sits down, back straight, right across from us. An awkward silence ensues. “Come on let’s start. Ask some questions,” he says in his deep voice. Perhaps the warnings should have been heeded.

At the age of 39, though he had ostensibly retired from cricket, Imran was asked to play one final World Cup. He had by then become deeply committed to building a hospital in his mother’s name (Shaukat Khanum) and needed to raise money. He felt the World Cup was his best chance, as winning it would give him the platform from which to raise funds for his cause. But Pakistan had lost two key players (Waqar Younis and Saeed Anwar), Imran had his own shoulder injury to deal with and the team made a poor start. Pakistan seemed completely out of contention for the title.

“To win under those circumstances was unbelievable,” he says. “And of course it was the will of God because we were destined to win.”

I was a rolling stone – you know the phrase rolling stones gather no moss? –  so I can’t remember (my first love). Besides I can’t take one name and risk annoying the others.

After leading the Pakistani team to victory Imran took his place in history as the only Pakistani captain to bring home the World Cup. With a nation so fanatic about cricket, he was adored and respected by millions.Imran used that success to mobilise a grateful nation of ecstatic cricket fans into collecting money for the country’s first cancer hospital. Other good social works followed like Namal College and The Knowledge City in his hometown of Mianwali.

And then at age 45, Imran Khan entered politics. We asked him why, instead of settling gently into one of the many excellent opportunities he would have had in the traditional ex-cricketer roles in media or coaching, he chose to get into the messy and undignified world of politics.

“The moment challenge disappears from your life, you decay as a human being. I had achieved everything I had wanted to in cricket. It was not a career, it was a passion and when I had consumed that passion I was done with it. It’s like a love affair, once it is over, the only way you get over it is to fall in love again. So the moment one passion is over, it’s time for another. Politics became my passion and mission, a mission to save Pakistan.”

It is this sense of mission, to save Pakistan from its state of permanent crisis, that Imran is trying to bring to politics. Elections are due in 2013 and he has never been more popular as a politician.

But that same sense of mission sometimes leaves him open to accusations of arrogance. We ask him about his World Cup victory speech, in which an exultant captain neglected to mention his teammates. “I still cringe when I hear it,” Imran says. “Truthfully at that time I couldn’t even speak to a room full of people let alone the millions who were watching the World Cup that day. I didn’t even know what I said until I heard it after and I realised it was a horrible speech.”

He is not arrogant, he says, only firm in his faith of his mission. “You see the moment you have faith, the moment you have true spirituality you can never be arrogant, because arrogance means that you believe whatever success or talent you have, you attribute to yourself. On the other hand, spirituality means that you bow in front of and thank the Almighty for your success.”

His faith, like the hospital, was inspired by his mother. “My spiritual journey started after my mother’s death when I was about 33. Most people ask themselves two fundamental questions that modern education or science cannot answer: What is my purpose? And what will happen to me after my death? These two questions always carry on an internal debate. I began searching for answers and educating myself about Islam.”

He’s trying to pass on this faith to his sons Sulaiman Isa and Kasim, who live in England with their mother, Jemima. “Nothing in my life has made me happier than being a father and the greatest gift I can give my sons is to teach them faith. I think it’s very important to arm my children with a basic framework of religion.”

He says he misses them and would love for them to live in Pakistan, but wouldn’t want to separate them from their mother. “Children derive completely different things from their mother and father; they are different but complimentary roles. I am a role model for my sons and Jemima calls me when they need to be disciplined. We speak on the phone regularly and I have them over for the holidays. For now this is the only situation that can work.”

We begin to speak about Jemima and their marriage.“Never did I try harder in anything in my life than my marriage. I gave everything to it and I was a hands-on father,” he says.

I have never given one statement supporting the Taliban.”

Imran complains about attacks on Jemima by his political opponents. “I used to feel really guilty when my opponents were attacking Jemima and making false accusations against her. I saw her suffer because of me and it killed me.” But that wasn’t the only reason their marriage of nine years ended in divorce. “While Jemima tried her best to settle here, my political life and all the traveling that goes with it made it difficult for her to adapt to life in Pakistan.”

The conversation shifts to politics again and Imran expresses dismay. Most politicians have only stolen from the country, he says. “Corruption is the number one issue in Pakistan.”

For example, he says, corruption prevents the state from being able to collect taxes. “The key is taxation in Pakistan. The reason why we don’t collect taxes is, one, we don’t trust the government, and two, barely any of the leadership in this country pays taxes. Rest assured that Tehreek-e-Insaaf will collect taxes.”

He speaks about the Prophet (peace be upon him) as a political role model. “He was the most humane person and set up the first welfare state in the history of mankind. Women were given rights to own property. Slaves were freed. In his last sermon he basically said, ‘Everyone is equal.’ It was a revolution.”

The ‘Islamic’ state that he wants would not be a fundamentalist Taliban-style government, but one that gives the best possible social welfare and justice to its people. “For me, the most Islamic states right now are the Scandinavian countries,” he says.

Imran has been extremely vocal in his criticism of American drone attacks in the tribal areas. He says the relationship between the two countries should be based on self-respect. “We should not take American aid and raise revenues by taxing the rich. With aid we will remain dependent, live beyond our means and will be forced to tow their line.”

He likens the military operations in the tribal areas to the brutal separation of East Pakistan to become Bangladesh, perhaps the most infamous period in our country’s turbulent history.

“They are fighting militants hidden in villages by bombing entire villages. They’re killing so many civilians as collateral damage. One day when the truth comes out, I promise you it will be no less than what we did in East Pakistan. I was a teenager then and I remember we were fed lies and propaganda that we are only killing Indian-backed terrorists. It turned out that we had killed hundreds and thousands of innocent people. And we’re doing exactly the same in our tribal areas.”

This, he says, simply breeds more hatred against the state and violence against its people. The military operations, he says, amount to “an occupation of the tribal areas by Pakistan. Just like in Afghanistan, the majority of people are not fighting for a Taliban ideology; they’re fighting a war of liberation against a foreign occupation, just as they fought the Soviets. The same way, our tribal people are fighting an occupation.”

But what about the violence perpetrated by the Taliban against innocent civilians? Shouldn’t they be stopped?

“Are you going to treat the symptoms or the root cause of the illness? The cause is sending our own army to kill our own people. By doing so we have radicalised the area, destroyed the tribal structure and created militants and fanatics who are growing day by day.”

He suggests that the way to counter Talibanisation is to withdraw from the tribal areas and give people good governance and rule of law. He rejects being labelled pro-Taliban. “This is the polarisation. On one hand opposition to military operation is considered pro-Taliban. On the other hand, anyone who says anything against suicide bombings is considered American or kafir.”

He sighs and adds: “There is no debate left. You’re either one or the other. I have never given one statement supporting the Taliban. Every statement has been that military operations are not a solution and because of that they call me pro-Taliban. I have condemned every act that has killed innocent people. Go on our website (www.insaf.pk) we have condemned every single violent act but the media does not publish any of that.”

He says we should turn to Iqbal, his favourite writer, to learn that the answer to tackling fundamentalism is knowledge. “Allama Iqbal swept the whole youth with him because educated people realised the truth. But now there are three parallel cultures: Urdru medium, English medium and madrassas. Each of them interprets Islam in their own way. That is why there needs to be a renaissance of Islam. If educated people do not come up with their version of Islam then Islam will be in the hands of those people who are not equipped to understand the depth of it. Religion and faith is something you cannot force on people. Everything should be a choice. When I married Jemima, she converted because she wanted to, not because I asked her to.”

As one of the most famous men in Pakistan, Imran is sensitive to subjects of interest to the local tabloids, such as the questions of whom and when he will remarry. Sadly for the gossip columnists, he says his current passion is all consuming.

“I would have to think long and hard because I fear I wouldn’t be able to give it enough time. If I can’t do justice to a marriage then I won’t marry again because it’s a huge responsibility.”

But true to his playboy reputation he keeps potential love interests hanging on by not denying the possibility he may remarry. “Experience in my life has taught me one thing, you can never predict your future. So I can’t make any statement about what might happen. But marriage is the end of hope because you are always waiting for your great love to arrive.”

He laughs and adds: “On a serious note I am very pro marriage and believe there is nothing better than a good marriage and nothing worse than a bad marriage. Lady Diana said to me once ‘being in a bad marriage is lonelier than solitude.’”

We probe his defences further. Who was his first love?

With a smirk he says, “I’ve forgotten. When you’re touching 60 you forget all those things. I was a rolling stone; you know the phrase ‘rolling stones gather no moss’? So I can’t remember. Besides I can’t take one name and risk annoying the others.” He laughs out loud. 

We insist for specifics. He squints and smiles. “That initial feeling of love is attraction and that has a shelf life. When you are at my age, after 40 years of relationships everything falls into perspective. Looks mean nothing to me and have no effect on me. Let me tell you what I find attractive: a belief system beyond the superficial. Someone who genuinely believes in causes, not just fashionable ones; a person who has a cause beyond the self.”

We get back to the subject of his latest cause and passion. So after 15 years in politics and little impact in terms of parliamentary seats, can he and his Tehreek-e-Insaaf really win the next election?

“We will, Inshallah, sweep the election. Why? Because 70 per cent of the population is under 30. No one can stop this movement now.”

Forgive us for being cynical, but aren’t most votes in Pakistan based on patronage or dynastic politics?

“Don’t worry about this. The people in this country are very savvy,” he says. “If they feel that a movement is coming that’s going to change their lives, nothing will stop them.”

He says he wants to institutionalise the country, like he is trying to do with his party. “My goal for my party is that it becomes an institution with elected posts. Once you have elections at every level, including the chairman, then Imran Khan becomes dispensable. I sat in Shaukat Khanam for five years but today it doesn’t need me anymore because it has become an institution. The problem with Pakistan is that the individual is stronger than the institution.”

Making Pakistanis respect institutions would be quite an achievement. Does he wonder how he will be remembered in Pakistan?

“I never think of that. I am completely immune to things like popularity. When I started cricket, if someone wrote a critical article about me I would have sleepless nights. But I’ve become impervious to it because my faith tells me that respect and humiliation is in God’s hands.”

And if he fails?

“When failure cannot defeat you then failure becomes the best teacher. I have always been my best critic. So every set back became an opportunity to better myself. I always take failure in a positive light and think about the lessons I have learnt from it.”

With a mission to achieve and a country to save, how does he unwind?

“Being in solitude, being in open places,” he says. “I think it is the best time for soul searching. I spend time here, sometimes days by myself.”

As we drive away from his estate we can’t help but think of him in his Fortress of Solitude, the leader of ‘The Justice League’ on a quest, patiently waiting for his fellow comrades to take their place by his side. Can this ‘Justice League’ save our metropolis? Imran Khan certainly believes it can. The crusade against corruption will be a daunting task, but like he says, “I look at life as a series of goals to achieve and I never admit defeat.”