Up Close but Not Personal with Imran Khan at OPEN Forum
By A.H. Cemendtaur

People are thrilled about the upcoming Organization of Pakistani Entrepreneurs of North America’s (OPEN) forum on leadership featuring Imran Khan as the keynote speaker. I wonder about the excitement, especially when many around me believe Imran Khan’s best days to be behind him. I decide to attend the event and see for myself what potential Imran Khan’s political career holds.
How do you define the celebrity status of a person in this electronic age? Well, you Google them. The more links Google spits about a prominent person, higher is their celebrity status.
As I get in my car and start driving towards the leadership conference arranged by the Organization of Pakistani Entrepreneurs of North America (OPEN) I ask myself what makes Imran Khan an over 100,000 Google hits strong celebrity. One, he is a cricket hero. There is something mystical about seeing a person live in front of you, whom up to that point you only saw on TV. And you see these cricket players so long on your TV screen that one day when they pop out of it for you to see them in person you find the occasion miraculous. But cricket is just one aspect of Imran Khan’s personality. Philanthropy and politics add colorful feathers to his hat.
Pakistanis can be proud of OPEN, a very well run organization of businessmen and technologists. It is an active group that periodically arranges programs and workshops to educate community members. The organizers of today’s program have allowed me to tag along with Imran Khan throughout his many activities at the conference. Thanks to Umair Khan and Junaid Ahmed for that favor.
The program starts on time. I listen to powerful speeches given by motivational speakers, deities of the Silicon Valley. But that is not what I am here for. For me the show starts after lunch when Imran Khan will speak to this group.
Enter Imran Khan
Finally we break for lunch. I quickly eat and return to the hall to grab the best seat, right in the front row. Slowly people start drifting in. A little while later the hall is full and is buzzing with excitement. The audience keeps growing; very soon there is no room to sit and people are standing along the walls. A tall light pole erected by the CNN crew has helped in creating the right atmosphere. The air is soaking with anticipation. You can almost hear the drum roll.
Then you look out of the tall glass panels of the hall and you see Imran Khan making a turn towards the entrance of the conference room. He is with a small entourage. Then you see the CNN crew running towards him. And then you see whole bunch of people rushing in that direction, wanting to shake Imran Khan’s hand or present him a gift.
His speed impeded, he is now moving slowly towards the hall. He enters the room with a bee-like ball of fans surrounding him.
There are a lot of very important people in the hall, but the moment Imran Khan enters the room the wealthiest businessman, the most inspirational CEO, and the keynote speakers are all relegated to the status of second class citizenry; a mere side show, if that.
How should Imran Khan’s surreal entrance be described? Imagine a storm moving towards you in a dark night. You hear the thunder and then wait for the lightning to strike. Seconds later, in a magical moment, the flash of the lightning illuminates everything around you.
Imagine that magical moment, but imagine its novelty to stay. That’s the kind of effect Imran Khan’s arrival has on the attendees. His presence has made everybody and everything alive. He is the walking manifestation, a true personification, of the dictionary entity that defines the word charisma.
Imran Khan is brought to the head of the room and seated there. CNN keeps recording him. There are also other people around him. I wonder what is going on in Imran Khan’s mind, what pep talk he gave himself a little while ago when he was getting ready to come to this conference, when he pushed the knot of his red tie all the way up in the collar, slid himself into the jacket, and stood in front of the mirror. It is hard to see anything behind the serious look Imran Khan is wearing now. He seems comfortable with the attention accorded him -- neither nervous nor haughty, just naturally calm in the warmth of the limelight.
The emcee is on stage giving an introduction of Imran Khan! Emcee, honey, you realize how quickly you are losing your popularity? Turn it over to Imran Khan and leave, NOW, before an object thrown from the audience hits you.
Amidst applause Imran Khan jumps on the stage. He speaks in his characteristic just-woke-up voice. Heeding the topic of the forum he talks in detail about his leadership experiences.
That he went to the school that produced the best Brown Sahibs in Pakistan, people who thought they were English Public School boys, snobs who, like their earlier colonial masters, loathed the native people and their culture. That he always set his goals high, that he wanted to be the best fast bowler in the world, and when he became that, he wanted Pakistan to be the best team. That when his mother died of cancer and he had to suffer he realized how much more the ordinary people who didn’t have all that he had must suffer. That realization made him decide to build a cancer hospital.
“Those six months that I traveled through twenty-nine cities of Pakistan, collecting funds for the hospital, made me realize how disconnected we are with the common folks.”
Imran Khan speaks with the poise serious politicians who have taken public speaking lessons speak. His speech is punctuated with humor, wisdom, and anecdotes.
“In the late 70s and throughout most of the 80s the West Indies was the best cricket team. It would not only defeat you, it will destroy you. It will make you lose your confidence, not for months, but for years.”
At the end of Imran Khan’s speech there is a short Q & A session. Presently Imran Khan has a single point agenda in his alliance with other political parties: Get rid of Musharraf. He thinks he is justified in making such alliances even with parties he doesn’t agree with on other points. It is a marriage of convenience, naked politics. You wonder how will it play out. Save for popular agitation throughout the country, what factor could motivate the army to relinquish power? And amid the revived economic activity in Pakistan -- fueled by circumstances that the current Pakistani administration has no control over -- it will be hard to foster unrest in the public.
Why has Imran suddenly turned against the military dictator? Imran Khan says he initially supported Pervez Musharraf because Musharraf “came out so well, a breath of fresh air after Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto.” That Imran Khan later realized that Musharraf too, like his predecessors, was only interested in being in power. But one can see something else in Imran Khan’s U-turn on Musharraf. Imran has played one-day cricket too long to forget how easily time can slip out of one’s hands. Imran knows that he is getting older. He doesn’t want to die a Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan. There is no firm date for the elections but Imran has already started his campaign. He is doing what his rival politicians are not doing. He is on the move, meeting people and impressing them with the clarity of his thought.
You hear Imran Khan talk about reformation in the society and you wonder what is stopping Imran Khan from doing grassroots work in Mianwali, his political constituency -- build organized communities and institutions in that area and make that region an enviable example for the rest of the country. And this goes for every single politician in Pakistan. Promises are fine but a good working example of how you would turn the country around once in power will be much more persuasive. Why should you be trusted to run the country when you haven’t demonstrated your skills in making a drastic change in your own constituency?
But no one wants to upset the show today. In awe, they all quietly listen to Imran Khan.
At the conclusion of the Q&A session Imran Khan is ushered out of the hall. I am left behind. I run and quickly catch up with his entourage. Young people enchanted by Imran Khan’s persona walk behind him - people do galvanize around those who they consider to be powerful, who they believe have figured out the whole deal.
I look at Imran Khan more closely. Sporting a lean figure he is undoubtedly the best looking 53-year old man walking on this planet.
In every era beauty is defined by the physical features of the most powerful -- power is revered, traits of the powerful are found desirable to be imitated. You may sympathize with the weak but that is not what you want to become; you want to join the ranks of the powerful. In our age world power is concentrated in the hands of the western nations, and therefore their facial features have set the global standards of beauty. Where does Imran Khan fit in this discourse?
Well, Imran is closest to a white man that Pakistan normally produces. That gives him a special place in the Pakistani society and in the power-beauty-sensitive world we live in. What is special about Imran is that whereas his looks got him to certain places, he used his brain to go even farther and higher.
Lunch and then a TV interview
We go to a conference room where a local TV production has set up its equipment to interview Imran Khan. Imran is asked to have his lunch before the interview. Imran takes a small portion and eats while seven surrounding people look at him with reverence. To make people comfortable he tells them about a fan he met in Dubai.
“Itnee baree darhi thee uss kee (His beard was this long)” Imran cups his right hand in front of his navel, to indicate both the length and the curvature of the beard, “bilkul safaid; kehta hai keh (completely gray; and he says to me), ‘Hum to aap ko bachpan saay TV peh dekhtay aa rahay hain’ (‘I have been seeing you on TV since my childhood.) “
Imran lifts his right eyebrow to indicate his incredulity. He adds: “Mainay kaha haan, tum to paida bhee nahin hoay thaay jub main naa khailna shroo kiya. (And I say, ‘Right! Actually you were not even born when I started playing cricket.’)” People sheepishly giggle at this joke - I wonder if Imran expected a more hearty laughter.
Gone are the days when Imran Khan could afford to be rude with his fans. Now every Pakistani he meets is a potential vote. He is congenial with strangers, even with the simpleton who shakes Imran’s hand and says: “Remember me? I met you two years ago.” Imran smiles and gives a cryptic nod. The visitor might think Imran recognized him, but others in the room are sure Imran is just being polite.
The public is being stopped outside the room we are in; still persistent visitors trickle in - people who one way or the other personally know Imran Khan; they include a woman whom Imran saw years ago. Imran is genuinely excited to meet her.
“Aray! Tumm chhotee see bachchee hoa kertee theen. (You were a little girl when I last saw you).” Imran tells her. It is hard not to think of that gray-bearded Dubai man.
The visitors greet Imran with broad smiles and give him business cards, brochures, and other information; Imran promptly passes these to a couple of girls hovering around him.
He has finished eating. People are asked to leave the room.
Imran Khan comments on the number of the production’s team members present there. “When I am interviewed at CNN, there is normally just one person. He sets up everything; he is the same person who asks me if I would like to have coffee, and if I wish to put on any make-up.”
The local production’s anchorman mumbles something in response.
The CNN crew enters the room. They want to take a shot of Imran Khan being interviewed by the Pakistani TV production.
While CNN shoots, Imran Khan talks to the interviewer about ‘them’, the Western media. “Sara maslah yeh hai keh hamaray loag hain hee nahin iss field mein. (The problem is that our people are not in media. Yeh jo chahtay hain apnee murzee saay lagatay rehtay hain. (They tell the world their side of the story.)”
Imran Khan is obviously upset by Western media’s latest onslaught on him. Being the whistle blower on Newsweek’s Qur’an desecration story he is being portrayed as the villain that incited Muslim masses to rioting.
The CNN crew is now gone. The interviewer politely asks Imran if there are any questions Imran wouldn’t like him to ask on camera. “Just don’t ask any personal questions.” Imran replies.
My jaw drops. What a letdown! No questions about Imran’s personal life! That’s where the juice was. But why am I disappointed? I know that Imran doesn’t let you dig in his personal life for free. Not too long ago Imran Khan gave an interview to the Hello! Magazine in which he let the interviewer delve into his separation with Jemima.
Rumor has it that Imran charged a hefty price for that interview. Imran knows what sells. It is natural that he wants his cut when people sell gossip about him. Point to consider: whereas most guys lose their shirts in divorce, Imran Khan has made money out of that misfortune.
The interviewer assures Imran Khan he was not going to ask him personal questions any way. It will be Cricket, then Shaukat Khanum Hospital, and lastly politics: trite questions that Imran Khan is fully prepared to answer.
“Is the interview going to be in English?” Imran asks him.
“No, it will be in Urdu.” The interviewer responds.
But then the interviewer starts asking questions in Urdlish, that vulgar language in which every couple of Urdu words are followed by streams of English phrases.
Aap yeh bataiya keh why is it that keh jubb bhee aap…… Ugghhh! It is comforting to see Imran Khan’s discern in linguistic matters. Imran answers in purer Urdu with occasional injection of English words he can’t find good translations for.
The interview is soon over. It is time to go the next meeting.
Meeting with businessmen
Before Imran Khan leaves the interview room one of the organizers speaks to him in low voice. Imran is apprised that people in the next room are members of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TIE), businessmen, mostly from India.
That information does come handy later. Talking to the TiE members when Imran mentions the drugs needed at Shaukhat Khanum Hospital he says he wants Pakistan to import medicines from India and not from other countries.
When asked about his favorite cricket moments Imran Khan starts telling the audience how hard he had to work to achieve what he has achieved.
“When other players would rest in their rooms, I’d practice.”
See, if you are Imran Khan you can afford to completely ignore the question and give an answer you really want to give.
I wonder if Imran Khan feels frustrated when people ask him questions about his cricket days. Why do they want to push him back to his past? He wants to talk about politics. He is here to widen his vote bank. He wants to achieve what lays ahead of him.
And very soon Imran Khan does start talking politics. “If the military establishment steps aside and allows fair and free elections, I can promise you, none of you can predict what is going to happen.”
It is the first time we hear someone talking so openly about Pakistan Army’s alleged manipulation of elections.
One person asks Imran Khan’s opinion on the persecution of Ahmadis in Pakistan. It helps that that person has identified himself as an Ahmadi. Imran Khan is sympathetic to him; he says it was unfortunate that the Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims; he hopes that this will be corrected soon. The questioner doesn’t ask Imran’s promise to make the legislation overturn its earlier decision when Imran comes to power.
Meeting with the businessmen is over and now it is time to talk to a few younger folks.
The next room is full of students from 88Stanford and UC Berkeley campuses. Here Imran Khan puts on his mentor hat. He is now a sage telling the cubs how to start off their lives on the right foot.
“If you want to do big things in your life, don’t make comfort and financial well being your aim. Even if you want to make money it should be for a purpose. Otherwise it is just a rat race. You will not get happiness,” he advises them. Young men and women have their eyes twinkling seeing in person the man whom up to this point they only saw on TV.
Besides other things Imran talks about Pakistani cricket. Imran disapproves Kardar’s legacy in Pakistani cricket, that the sport is patronized by corporations. He wants to see regional cricket teams.
He believes towns and provinces playing cricket against each other will get more people excited about local matches -- ompared to the insipid meets of today (for example, between UBL and Railway). One wonders about the political consequences of Imran Khan’s proposition.
How would the cocktail of regionalism and cricket passion explode if Imran Khan’s recipe were adopted? Would East Pakistan have separated earlier than 1971 after a Cricket match between Bengal and Punjab, had Imran Khan’s formula of regional cricket been in place at that time?
There is a question about institution building, an observation that in Pakistan personalities are stronger than institutions; that this anomaly results in the collapse of the institution once the strong personality is gone.
Imran Khan defends himself by telling the audience that Shaukat Khanum Hospital has a competent team running the affairs of that institution. He is hardly there; still things are fine - a proof that he is able to build a strong institution.
He confesses that his political party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, is not a strong institution yet. He complains of the dearth of good managers and leaders in Pakistan.
Sitting in the front row in every session and taking Imran’s picture every couple of minutes, I wonder if I am wearing off his patience. But he seems oblivious to the photo shoot. Or, maybe it reminds him of his modeling days. Maybe he is actually enjoying it. He starts gesticulating more: a hand in the pocket while listening to a question, both arms stretched out, hand clinched in a fist; the clicking pace of my camera picks up.
Prime Minister Imran Khan?
Meeting with the students being the last program at OPEN Imran Khan leaves the venue. The CNN crew and I record his exit. After his departure I pack up my gear and leave, evaluating my last impressions of the man.
Celebrity status aside, is Imran Khan still relevant? Is he going to amount to anything in politics? Somewhere deep inside me I hear a resounding yes. Imran Khan has all that is needed in a person to run a country. The sheer variety and volume of his experiences make him head and shoulders above other Pakistani politicians. It is hard to doubt that one day Imran Khan will be holding the reins of Pakistan. The question is not, if, but when.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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