Courtesy Vanity Fair
One night the future first lady of Pakistan had a dream. Visions and prophecies were Bushra Maneka’s stock and trade, for she was a female pir,or living saint. Known as Pinky Peerni to her admirers, Maneka’s gift of clairvoyance had earned her a following well beyond her hometown of Pakpattan, a celebrated spiritual center 115 miles southwest of Lahore. In 2015, Maneka had added to her growing list of clients the man who was the object of her prophetic dream: Imran Khan, the legendary cricketer and most famous Pakistani alive. “Spiritual guides, or pirs,” Khan writes in his autobiography, “are quite common in Pakistan. Millions of people, particularly in rural areas of the country, follow them, consulting them on everything from religious matters to sickness and family problems.”
Khan was, if not a living saint, then certainly a living god. From the late 1970s, when my mother, a reporter in India, first interviewed him, to well into the 1990s, when he led the Pakistan team to a World Cup victory against England, he towered over the landscape of practically all those nations where the Union Jack had ever flown. Born in 1952 to an upper-middle-class family in Lahore, he had come of age at a time when cricket, the “gentleman’s game” so intimately associated with the spread of the British Empire, was turning into a blood sport, imbued with the tensions of a newly awakened postcolonial world. “For teams like Pakistan, India, and the West Indies,” Khan writes in his autobiography, “a battle to right colonial wrongs and assert our equality was played out on the cricket field every time we took on England.”
Into this gladiatorial arena, shirt open, eyes bedroom-y, hair long and tousled, stepped Khan. He was one of those rare figures, like Muhammad Ali, who emerge once a generation on the frontier of sport, sex, and politics. “Imran may not have been the first player to enjoy his own cult following,” writes his biographer Christopher Sandford, “but he was more or less single-handedly responsible for sexualizing what had hitherto been an austere, male-oriented activity patronized at the most devoted level by the obsessed or the disturbed.”
Arrestingly handsome and Oxford-educated, albeit with a third-class degree, Khan found the doors of the British aristocracy thrown open to him. Mark Shand, the brother of Camilla Parker Bowles, now the Duchess of Cornwall, was among his best friends; he was seen out on the town with Jerry Hall and Goldie Hawn; if his second wife, the television personality Reham Khan, is to be believed, he took part in a threesome with Grace Jones. The man who shunned the label of “playboy”—“I have never considered myself a sex symbol,” he told my mother in 1983—nonetheless left a long line of Khan-quests from Bollywood to Hollywood, with a pit stop in Chelsea, where his flat, with its tented ceilings of gold silk, was one part harem, one part bordello. “He had a lot of women in his life,” my uncle, Yousaf Salahuddin, one of Khan’s best friends and a cultural institution in his own right, told me recently in Lahore, “because he was a very wanted man. In India, I have seen women from the age of just 6 to 60 going crazy over him.” In 1995, at age 43, Khan married Jemima Goldsmith, the daughter of the tycoon Jimmy Goldsmith, who is said to have presciently remarked of his son-in-law, “He’ll make an excellent first husband.” As a teenager, I remember gaping over paparazzi photos of the newly wed couple, including some of them in flagranteon a balcony in Marbella. If the fascination with Khan’s sexual prowess was fetishistic in Britain, it was edged with racial pride in Pakistan. As Mohsin Hamid, the country’s most famous writer, told me in Lahore, “Imran Khan was a symbol of emancipatory virility.”
In the mid-1990s, there was not a cloud on Khan’s horizon. He had won the World Cup; he had married an alluring social beauty; he had, in memory of his mother, who died of cancer in 1985, opened Pakistan’s first hospital dedicated to the treatment of that disease. It was a massive philanthropic gesture and the crowning achievement of a life showered with gifts. At that juncture, it might well have been asked what a clairvoyant from a small town in Pakistan had to offer Khan that he didn’t already have.
The short answer is politics. In 1996, after years of turning down pleas from established politicians and military dictators eager to align themselves with his celebrity, Khan launched his own political party. In its first election, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, or PTI—which translates as the Movement for Justice—won zero seats in parliament. Five years later, Khan won one seat, his own. Even by 2013, with his personal popularity at an all-time high, the PTI won only 35 seats. For 20 years, he had been telling his friends and well-wishers that “the next time you come to Pakistan, I will be prime minister.” But four elections had come and gone, two marriages had collapsed in their wake, and the quest of this aging playboy to be his country’s premier was no nearer its end.
It was then, or not long after, that Bushra Maneka had her dream.
Khan, like a real-world version of Stannis Baratheon desperately consulting the Red Woman in Game of Thrones,had begun to see Pinky for “spiritual guidance.” The clairvoyant’s usual fee for making the impossible possible, a senior media figure in Karachi told me on condition of anonymity, was great vats of cooked meat. These, he explained, over a Japanese meal, she fed to the jinnsshe kept at her disposal.
“Jinns?” I asked, wondering if I had misheard.
“She has two jinns,” the media man said, serving me some more soba noodles.
Then he came to the surreal story that is on the lips of everyone in Pakistan, from senior diplomats and ministers to journalists and entertainers. Although Maneka has dismissed it as mere rumor, the story has attained the status of fable—a supernatural tale that seeks to illuminate a deeper truth. Once Maneka had her prophetic vision, the media veteran told me, no amount of cooked meat would suffice to fulfill Khan’s ambition. The voice in her dream was clear: If Imran Khan was to be prime minister, it was imperative he be married to the right woman—i.e., a member of Maneka’s own family.
In one version of this torrid tale, Maneka offered her sister to Khan. In another, it was her daughter. Either way, Khan demurred. Then Maneka went away to dream again. This time, however, she was no bystander to someone else’s vision. The voice in her head told her that she, Bushra Maneka, a married woman and a mother of five, was the wife Imran Khan needed. What Maneka now wanted from Khan was what every woman had ever wanted from him: She wanted him.
Khan had never set eyes on Maneka, for she consulted her followers from behind a veil. But this time, he acceded to her vision. The stars aligned and Maneka’s husband, a customs official, agreed to give her a divorce, praising Khan as a “disciple of our spiritual family.”
In February 2018, cricketer and clairvoyant were married in a private ceremony. Six months later, Imran Khan was elected prime minister of Pakistan, and Pinky Peerni, a character who would stretch the limits of Salman Rushdie’s imagination, was its first lady.
On the burning hot morning in April when my flight landed at Allama Iqbal International Airport in Lahore, I asked a man with a thickly dyed mustache sitting next to me whether I needed to fill out an entry card. “This is Imran Khan’s Pakistan!” he responded enthusiastically. Khan had promised “a new Pakistan,” and presumably one feature of this utopia, my seatmate implied, is that nobody has to fill out tiresome paperwork anymore.
Khan, both as candidate and prime minister, sounds like populists everywhere, now inveighing against Westernized “dollar-addicted” elites, now promising to fix the problems of one of South Asia’s slowest-growing economies by bringing home magical amounts of black money squirreled away in foreign bank accounts. But as much as his rhetoric resembles that of other populists—from Narendra Modi next door in India, to Erdogan in Turkey and Bolsonaro in Brazil—there is one important difference: Khan is not of the people. If anything, he belongs to an elite even more glamorous and rarefied than the one he routinely attacks. As he said himself, in an article he wrote for Arab Newsin 2002, “I was smoothly moving to becoming a pukkabrown sahib”—a colonial term denoting a native more English than the English. “After all,” he added, “I had the right credentials in terms of school, university, and, above all, acceptability in the English aristocracy.” Unlike other populists in the developing world, Khan is a man guessing at the passions of people he does not actually represent. Like Trump or the Brexiteers, he underwent a Damascene conversion, which, as he wrote, caused him to turn his back on “brown sahibculture” and throw in his lot with the “real Pakistan.”
The man after whom the airport in Lahore is named was easily the single greatest influence in Khan’s transformation from louche fixture of the demimonde to political revolutionary. Sir Muhammad Iqbal, a poet and philosopher, died in 1938, a decade before the founding of Pakistan. But it was he who, in 1930, had first seriously made the case for why Muslims living in British India needed a homeland like Pakistan, where they could realize their “ethical and political ideal.” What seems to have struck Khan hardest about Iqbal’s philosophy was his idea of khudi,or selfhood, which Khan understood to mean “self-reliance, self-respect, self-confidence.” It was precisely what Pakistan needed, Khan thought, to banish the shame of colonial rule and to regain its sense of self. It would also, he believed, armor Pakistan against its own elites, whose “slavish” imitation of Western culture had instilled in them a “self-loathing that stemmed from an ingrained inferiority complex.”
Indeed, it is Khan’s extensive personal experience of what he now condemns as Western decadence that enables him to rail against it so authoritatively. “An emotion that he feels very strongly about is that we should stop feeling enslaved to the West mentally,” said Ali Zafar, Khan’s friend and Pakistan’s biggest pop star. “He feels that since he’s gone there—he’s been there and done that—he knows the West more than anybody else over here. He’s telling them, ‘Look, you’ve got to find your own space, your own identity, your own thing, your own culture, your own roots.’ ”
During the weeks I spent reporting this piece in Pakistan, I made repeated attempts to reach out to the prime minister, but his political handlers seemed alarmed at the prospect of resurrecting his past in the pages of a glossy magazine. In 2000, Khan, then married to Jemima, had been the subject of a profile in VANITY FAIRthat focused on his youthful escapades. When I spoke to Zulfi Bokhari, a frequenter of nightclubs from the London days who is now a junior minister in Khan’s government, he sought assurances that my piece would be positive; otherwise, he told me, it would be his ass on the line. A few days later, Bokhari WhatsApped me: “Unfortunately the PM has said he can’t do it right now. Perhaps in the near future.”
I first spoke with Khan at a party in London, when I was 25. At the time I was dating Ella Windsor, a minor member of the British royal family who was a family friend of the Goldsmiths. To see Khan out and about in London—the legend himself—was to understand how truly at home he was among the highest echelons of British society. The English upper classes adore cricket—it is one of the many coded ways in which their class system works—and the allure of the former captain of the Pakistani cricket team was still very real. The night we met, in late summer 2006, Khan had come to a party at a Chelsea studio overlooking the Moravian burial ground. On that balmy evening, surrounded by the silhouettes of plane trees, it was clear that Khan, five years after 9/11, was in the throes of a religious and political transformation. I was researching my first book, Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands,and had only just returned from an eight-month trip through Syria, Yemen, Iran, and Pakistan. Khan’s views, though alarming in their intensity, struck me as juvenile. He said he believed that suicide bombers, according to “the rules of the Geneva Convention,” had the right to blow themselves up. Here, I remember feeling, was a man who had dealt so little in ideas that every idea he had now struck him as a good one.
The next time I met Khan was under dramatically altered circumstances. In December 2007, I was staying with my uncle Yousaf in his house in the old city of Lahore, when televisions across the country began to flash the news that Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister, had been assassinated. It was deeply affecting, even for those who disliked Bhutto, to see this tarnished but enduring symbol of hope and democracy cut down so violently. Upon her death, Pakistan, battered by terror and military dictatorship, descended into paroxysms of grief. Into this atmosphere Khan arrived a few days later with a French girlfriend. He had been in Mumbai, staying at the house of a prominent socialite, where he had been photographed poolside in swimming trunks as his country was engulfed in trauma.
Khan has a commanding presence. He fills a room and has a tendency to speak at people, rather than to them; never was there a greater mansplainer. What he lacks in intelligence, however, he makes up for in intensity, vigor, and what feels almost like a kind of nobility. As Wasim Akram—Khan’s protégé and his successor as captain of the Pakistan team—said to me in Karachi, “There are two types of people, the followers and the leaders. And he is definitely a leader. Not just in cricket—in general.” To describe Khan as Im the Dim, as he has long been known in London circles, fails to capture what it feels like to be around him. “You might say he’s a duffer; you might say he’s a buffoon,” his second wife, Reham, told me over lunch in London. “He doesn’t have intelligence of economic principles. He doesn’t have academic intelligence. But he’s very street, so he figures you out.” Like his coeval in the White House, Khan has been reading people all his life—on and off the field. This knowing quality, combined with the raw glamour of vintage fame, creates a palpable tension in his presence. The air bristles; oxygen levels crash. The line is taut, if no longer with sex appeal, then its closest substitute: massive celebrity.
I had been less aware of this when I first met Khan in London. But to see him two years later in the old city of Lahore, doing more dips in the gym at 55 than I could do at 27, watching him fawned over by young and old men alike, was to feel myself in the company of a demigod. Alone with him, I was struck by that mixture of narcissism bordering on sociopathy that afflicts those who have been famous too long. His utter lack of emotion when it came to Bhutto—whom he had been at Oxford with, and had known most of his life—was startling. “Look at Benazir,” he told me as we drove through Lahore one morning, past knots of mourners and protesters. “I mean, God really saved her.” Then he began fulminating against Bhutto for having agreed to legitimize General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s military dictator, in return for the government dropping corruption charges against her.
“Imagine that,” Khan said. “It’s the most immoral thing you could have done. So this thing has come as a blessing for her.”
“This thing?” I asked.
“Death,” he said matter-of-factly. Then, with what sounded almost like envy, he added, “Benazir has become a martyr. She has become immortal.”
Khan’s inability to enter the grief of his country—even if he felt none for Bhutto—is an extension of his messianism, which prevents him from being in sympathy with any national drama in which he is not the key protagonist. But when the conversation turned to the elite whom Bhutto represented, another aspect of his character emerged. Khan, who had just returned from partying with Bollywood stars in Mumbai, began to speak without a shred of irony of the virtues of Victorianism. “Societies are strong,” he told me, “when their elites are strong. If you look at Victorian England, you’ll see that their elite was strong and moral. Our problem, both in India and Pakistan, is that our elites have decayed.” He pointed to my father, who had recently joined Musharraf’s government as a minister. Khan told me he feared that my father lacked “a moral anchor. He just sits there drinking his whiskeys, laughing at everything, putting everything down. He’s cynical. Not at all like me: I am an optimist.”
It is easy to view the contradiction between Khan’s words and actions as hypocrisy. But to my mind, hypocrisy implies willful cynicism. This was different. It was as if Khan was unable to make a whole of the many people he had been—unable to find a moral system that could support the varied lives he had led. For his new self to live, it seemed, the old one had to be renounced. “This man has a Jekyll and Hyde problem,” Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s former foreign minister, explained to me in Lahore. “He is actually two people at the same time.”
The distance between the “day-time Khan” and the “night-time Khan,” his biographer suggests, was something that people had noticed about him even in the 1980s, when he was playing county cricket in Britain. But what one can dismiss in a sportsman is harder to ignore in a politician—especially one who is as stern a moralist as Khan. “To the Weekly Standard,” writes Sandford, “he was the ‘Khan artist’ who continued to ‘inveigh against the West by day and enjoy its pleasures by night.’ ” In treating the West as nothing but a source of permissiveness and turning the East into a romantic symbol of purity, Khan provides a fascinating mirror of the cultural confusions and anxieties of our time. As Imaan Hazir, a human rights lawyer whose mother serves as a minister in Khan’s government, put it to me: “It’s quite common among Pakistanis that we dislike in others what we most dislike about ourselves.”
“Politics in Pakistan,” my father always said, “is a game of the appointed and the disappointed.”
He was referring to the fluctuating interplay of forces—now the all-powerful military, now the feudal chieftains who control large portions of the rural electorate—that make up the establishment in Pakistan. In 2008, it was my father who had been appointed, first as a minister under Musharraf, then as governor of Punjab. Before Khan became prime minister, he felt free to denounce any compromise that civilian leaders like my father might manage to broker with Musharraf. “Even if I’m alone, I would stand away,” he told me during our drive into Lahore. “See, what faith does is liberate you. La illa il Allah”—the Islamic testament of faith—“is a charter of freedom. What makes a human bigger than others is when he stands up against lies. And what destroys a human being are compromises.”
Today, 10 years on, my father is dead, assassinated by his own bodyguard in 2011 for his uncompromising defense of a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. Now it is Khan who has been appointed, presiding over a government in which there are no fewer than 10 Musharraf-era ministers.
The moral landscape of Pakistan is not always easy for outsiders to navigate. “All morality originates from religion,” Khan once asserted, but sometimes it can feel that religion in Pakistan is the source of dystopia, a world turned upside down. Last April, on the way to my uncle’s house in the old city, we passed walls plastered with posters of my father’s killer, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, under whose image are the words, “I am Mumtaz Qadri.” Through the distorting eye of faith, Qadri is a hero in Pakistan, with a shrine in his name, near the capital Islamabad.
Khan—or “Taliban Khan,” as he is sometimes referred to by his critics—has often seemed sympathetic to the religious extremism sweeping his country. The man who once invited the Taliban to open a political office in Pakistan days after a church bombing in Peshawar killed 81 people, and whose government has funded seminaries that have produced jihadis—including Mullah Omar, the founder of the Afghan Taliban—seems never to express the same violence of opinion for Islamic extremism as comes so easily to him when attacking the West. “Here he is, trying to play a very difficult game,” Salman Rushdie said of Khan at a panel I chaired in Delhi in 2012. (Khan, the chief guest, had withdrawn in protest upon hearing that the author of The Satanic Verseswould be present.) Khan, Rushdie said, was “placating the mullahs on one hand, cozying up to the army on the other, while trying to present himself to the West as the modernizing face of Pakistan.” He added acidly, “I’d concentrate on that, Imran. Try and keep those balls in the air. It’s not going to be easy.”
On social issues, Khan has certainly played to both sides. He fired one minister for speaking in bigoted ways about Hindus—a tiny minority in Pakistan—but dropped a leading member of his economic advisory council for belonging to a sect considered heretical. Khan’s supporters argue that he is merely being strategic in dealing with Islamic extremism. Once, on a flight to China, Ali Zafar asked Khan about his right-wing tilt. “It’s a very sensitive society toward certain issues,” the cricketer told the pop star. “You just can’t talk about those issues so openly, because you’re going to be penalized for it.” Khan assured Zafar that he knew what he was doing. “You know me,” he said. “I’m a liberal; I’ve got friends in India; I’ve got friends who are atheists. But you’ve got to be careful here.”
Earlier this year, when massive protests erupted in Pakistan after the acquittal of Asia Bibi, the Christian woman my father had died defending, Khan’s response was indeed calculated. His government initially gave the extremists plenty of rope with which to hang themselves, then cracked down hard on their leaders. “Look at the way he’s dealt with these bastard maulvis,” my uncle Yousaf told me.
“What did Imran do?” I asked.
“He threw them all in jail and beat some sense into them.”
My uncle—the grandson of Muhammad Iqbal, Khan’s political hero—was convalescing at home after a leg injury. We sat in a beautiful room with green silk upholstery and stained glass windows. One of Pakistan’s most famous actresses, Mehwish Hayat, leaned against a bolster, languidly smoking a cigarette. A vigorous man in his late 60s, Yousaf has known Khan since they were at Aitchison College together—Pakistan’s equivalent of Exeter. His faith in his friend is boundless. “I always knew he was a blessed child,” Yousaf said. “Whatever he sets out to achieve, he will achieve.” He initially tried to dissuade Khan from going into politics. “This just isn’t a decent man’s game,” he told him. Khan responded by quoting Iqbal, Yousaf’s own grandfather. “If no one is prepared to do it,” he added, “then who will do it?” But when I asked Yousaf about how strange it is that a man who started a family with someone as mondaineas Jemima Goldsmith is now married to a small-town spiritual guru, he became defensive. “What?” he said, as if surprised by my surprise. “What of it?”
If Khan’s personal life fascinates, it’s because it so closely reflects the moral and cultural schizophrenia of the society in which he operates. Like evangelicals in the United States, in whom a politicized faith conceals an uneasy relationship with modernity and temptation, Khan’s contradictions are not incidental; they are the key to who he is, and perhaps to what Pakistan is. Like other populists, Khan knows far better what he is against than what he is for. His hatred of the “ruling elite,” to which he belongs, is the animating force behind his politics. He faults reformers, such as Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk and Iran’s Reza Shah Pahlavi, for falsely believing that “by imposing the outward manifestations of Westernization they could catapult their countries forward by decades.”
Khan may be right to critique a modernity so thin that it has come to be synonymous with the outward trappings of Western culture. But he is himself guilty of reducing the West to little more than permissiveness and materialism. When it comes to its indisputable achievements, such as democracy and the welfare state, Khan conveniently grafts them on to the history of Islam. “Democratic principles,” he writes, “were an inherent part of Islamic society during the golden age of Islam, from the passing of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and under the first four caliphs.”
Khan is not the first Islamic leader to insist that all good things flow from Islam and that all error is the fault of the West. But to do so is to end up with a political program that is by necessity negative, deriving its energy not from what it has to offer but from its virulent critique of late-stage capitalism. “The life that had come to Islam,” V.S. Naipaul wrote almost 40 years ago in Among the Believers,for which he traveled extensively in Pakistan, “had not come from within. It had come from outside events and circumstances, the spread of the universal civilization.” Khan’s repurposing of Iqbal serves in part as an inoculation against the West, and in part as a cudgel with which to beat Pakistan’s elite. But it does not amount to a serious reckoning with the power of the West, or with the limitations of one’s own society. As such, it cannot bring about the “cultural, intellectual, and moral renaissance” that Khan yearns for. Under his version of khudi, people genuflect toward Islam but quietly continue to lead secret Western lives.
“Six grams?” I asked Reham Khan in disbelief. “He couldn’t have been doing six grams a day. He would be dead, right?”
It was a bright blue day at the Ivy brasserie on Kensington High Street in London, and Khan’s ex-wife was wearing a black polo-neck blouse and gold necklace. Their brief and calamitous marriage ended after only 10 months, with Reham writing an explosive tell-all book in which she accused Khan of everything from bisexuality and infidelity to a daily intake of cocaine large enough to kill a baby elephant.
“There would be three sachets in the drawer on a regular basis,” Reham insisted. “Within each sachet would be like three candy—you know, like in old times we used to have those twisted type candies.” She then went on to describe her ex-husband’s ecstasy consumption. “Half an ecstasy every night with the coke,” she said. “And before speeches, he would take a full ecstasy tablet.”
Reham’s book is too much an act of revenge to be taken at face value. But even as an exaggerated version of reality, it reflects Khan’s years in the political wilderness—a bleak, solitary time, confirmed by multiple sources, in which the aging celebrity turned to drugs out of loneliness and desperation. “That’s the dark side of his life,” one of Pakistan’s senior-most columnists told me. “He wanted to get rid of all these shady friends. Now I’m told that they’re not allowed to enter his house.” The columnist, who had grown up with Khan, recalls him as a troubled young man. On one occasion, Khan was riding pillion on a bike with the columnist’s younger brother, when he saw his father in a car with another woman. “Follow the car,” Khan said. “I want to kill the bastard.”
Khan is often compared to Trump, but the politician he most resembles is Bill Clinton. According to Reham’s book, Khan’s father, a civil engineer, was a womanizing drunk who beat his mother. And as a celebrity and politician, Khan was never averse to using his position to add to his sexual conquests. “He’s a nymphomaniac,” someone who has known Khan for years told me in a Lahore coffee shop. “At fund-raisers in America, one of his stooges used to walk behind him. Khan would take a picture with some woman, and if she was hot, he’d tell this guy, and that guy would come and say, ‘Madam, is it possible to meet afterward? What’s your number?’ He would just collect phone numbers.”
The conflation of virility with political power is as old as Islam itself; Khan likes to compare his pleasure seeking with that of Muhammad bin Qasim, the eighth-century conqueror of Sindh. But if the prophet himself, who displayed a healthy sexual appetite, made his example one that all men could follow, Khan is very much a law unto himself. In a society as repressed as Pakistan’s, where normal urges can turn corrosive, Khan makes no allowances for others to enjoy the pleasures in which he has indulged so conspicuously. As such, he cannot escape the charge his former associate leveled against him: “He encapsulates all the double standards that Pakistan has.”
Indeed, Khan’s faith appears to be rooted more in superstition than in what we normally think of as religious faith. What he describes in his autobiography as “spiritual” experiences would be familiar to any parlor-room psychic—a pir telling his mother that he will go on to be a household name, a holy man who somehow knows how many sisters Khan has and what their names are. In practicing a form of Islam that flirts with shirq, or idolatry, Khan recently found himself the subject of a viral video, in which he is seen prostrating himself at the shrine of a Sufi mystic. (It is forbidden in Islam to prostrate oneself before anyone but Allah.) “His knowledge of Islam is extremely limited,” Reham told me. “With the magic thing, people will think less of him.”
A veteran journalist recently reported that Khan’s marriage to Maneka is in trouble, and a message making the rounds on WhatsApp alleges that she stormed out after she caught him exchanging sexts with a junior minister. In response, Khan issued a statement that he will stay with Maneka “until my last breath.” (As the saying goes, “Never believe a rumor until you hear it officially denied.”) The clairvoyant, wearing a white veil, issued a message of her own, one couched in the prophetic imperative employed by strongmen everywhere. “Only Imran Khan can bring change in Pakistan,” she said, “but change requires time.”
During our drive together in 2008, Khan spoke of how faith protected him from selling out his principles. Today, former supporters accuse him of the ultimate compromise. “He’s a stooge of the army,” a journalist in Islamabad told me. The journalist, who has known Khan for years, once counted himself among the cricketer’s greatest fans. “I consider myself to be that unlucky person who built a dream about an individual and saw it shattered before my eyes,” he said.
In 2013, after years of military rule, Pakistan finally achieved what it never had before: a peaceful transfer of power. These signs of a maturing democracy, however, posed a direct threat to the power of the military, which began, in the words of Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, to develop the art of the “non-coup coup.” That, the journalist said, is “where the unholy alliance between Imran Khan and the establishment began.” The following year, Khan led what are called the dharnadays—months of protest calling for the overthrow of Pakistan’s democratically elected government.
Farhan Virk, a young medical student, was there for the dharnadays. One night, in August 2014, there was a crackdown against the protesters. “In front of my eyes,” Virk told me via Skype, “the government was firing tear-gas shells and rubber bullets.” Most of the protesters managed to flee. “But Imran Khan, who was merely a cricketer, was still standing there,” Virk recalled. “I thought, if under these terrible conditions, he can remain here, then it really means something.” Finding himself “radicalized” by the crackdown, and by Khan’s display of personal courage, Virk became a yuthiya—one of the rabid Khan supporters, active on social media, who are roughly comparable to Trump’s army of internet trolls.
Whatever else can be said about Khan, he inspires hope the likes of which Pakistan has not known for a long time. Attiya Noon, an interior designer, was seven months pregnant when she went to see Khan speak at the Minar-e-Pakistan monument in 2011—widely regarded as the moment when Khan became a credible political choice. “Up until that point,” Noon said, “we had no hope in the system. We all felt that this guy means well, but he’s not going to get anywhere.” Noon recalls the rally as electrifying, with its songs and slogans and the yuthiyaswith their faces painted in PTI greens and reds. In a country where politics had for so long been the preserve of a feudal class and the rural poor, this was a new kind of politics, with a new constituency located within a nascent urban middle class. “It was such a festive atmosphere,” Noon said. “There were people from all walks of life—society aunties, groups of boys and girls together. People were pressed on people, but there was no pushing, no shoving. Everyone was really respectful.” The event confirmed Noon as something of a Khan political groupie; ever since, she has followed him from rally to rally.
The zealous support of followers like Noon is both a source of Khan’s power and a comfort to the military. “From the generals’ point of view, things could not be better,” observed Haqqani, the former ambassador. “They have an ostensibly civilian government in place, which can get the blame for Pakistan’s myriad problems, while the generals run the government.” Khan has called out the army on its support of terrorist groups and was nothing short of statesmanlike earlier this year in calming tensions between India and Pakistan. In late July, Khan scored another coup during a White House meeting with Trump. The dynamic between the two philandering narcissists was positively electric. Trump called Khan a “great leader”—his highest praise—and offered to serve as a mediator over the contested state of Kashmir. The remark set off a furor in India, which has since stripped Kashmir of its autonomy and flooded the region with troops, further escalating tensions.
The greatest challenge of Khan’s tenure, however, is whether he can find a way to get his debt-ridden country out of the doldrums of economic despair. As his government gets ready to accept a $6 billion bailout from the I.M.F.—an organization to which, with characteristic imperiousness, Khan had refused to go “begging”—the only subject on anybody’s lips is the massive inflation on daily goods such as petrol, sugar, and butter that has accompanied a rupee in free fall. As I was leaving Islamabad, Khan was getting ready to sack his finance minister, part of a sweeping cabinet reshuffle.
In an age of majoritarian grievance, Khan has joined the pantheon of populist leaders around the world whom people look to as saviors. “These leaders,” Mohsin Hamid told me, “are the versions of ourselves we would like to believe in.” When I asked him about Khan’s future, the writer made what felt like a prescient remark. “The pattern we see again and again,” Hamid said, “is the rise of the charismatic leader who thinks he knows best—even better than the military—and then is undone by the military.”
In 1981, Naipaul wrote of Pakistan, “The state withered. But faith didn’t. Failure only led back to the faith.” Now, almost 40 years later, Imran Khan is once again making the case for a society founded on the principles of the Koran. But religion, far from being the solution to Pakistan’s problems, appears to be an impediment to a society struggling to make its peace with modern realities. The country that banned pornography in the name of faith also happens to be among its most voracious consumers; gay dating apps like Grindr flourish, but homosexuality is on paper punishable by death; Pakistan is dry, but behind closed doors its elite consume great quantities of alcohol and cocaine. In such a place, it is but a short step from distorted individual realities to a distorted collective one. To visit Pakistan is to inhabit an alternate reality; the great majority of people I spoke with, from Lahore drawing rooms to the street, believe that 9/11 was an American conspiracy. Imran Khan, with his experience of the world beyond, does not clarify reality in Pakistan, but rather adds to the fog with Jekyll and Hyde confusions of his own.
I asked Zafar, the pop star, about his friend’s internal contradictions. “I think the effort to understand and balance the East and West is a colossal challenge,” he said. The night before, Zafar had led me by the hand to a Buddha tree in his garden, from which a Chinese wind chime hung. He struck the chime and asked me to listen to its reverberations. He wanted me, I suppose, to see that the key to understanding Khan lies in the spiritual journey he had undertaken—that it is in faith that the many people Khan had carried within him all his life would be subsumed.
In an important passage in his autobiography, Khan, in explaining his failure to adhere to the religion his mother wanted him to follow, writes that she “had no way of really comprehending the impact of the competing cultural forces in my life.” Like so many people who have lived across diverse cultures, Khan seems to have found no internal resolution to these competing forces. Instead, he decided to kill off the man he had been in the West. As someone who was once close to him told me, Khan has cut off all contact with members of the “old guard” after this “latest, very weird marriage.”
Submission—which is, of course, the literal meaning of “Islam”—is the word that Zafar uses to describe Bushra Maneka’s appeal for Khan. We were sitting in the pop star’s man cave, full of trophies and framed magazine covers. A sign on the wall read, “Old cowboys never die, they just smell that way.” Zafar brought up the one Khan trait that even his worst enemies don’t begrudge him: He never gives up. He recalled visiting Khan in the hospital in 2013, after his friend had fallen 20 feet during an election rally and injured his back. A TV in the room was broadcasting a cricket match, which Pakistan was losing badly. Bedridden, Khan flicked a cricket ball from hand to hand, as if reliving the anxiety of captaining the team. “We can win,” the man still known in Pakistan as kaptaankept insisting, right up until the match’s final moment. “We can still win.” Khan exuded power and resolve; but, as Zafar said, even the most powerful men have a vulnerable side, “a child inside you, who is wanting to be nurtured and be taken care of.” That was what Maneka provided Khan, in the midst of his campaign to become prime minister.
“Imagine 22 years of struggle,” Zafar said, “and you’ve got this election coming. And if it’s not this, then you don’t know….” His voice trailed off. “I think she gave him that surety, which he needed, and also that warmth. I think he submitted himself to her.”
The last time the two men saw each other was at a fund-raiser. Onstage, Khan asked Zafar what he was doing with his life these days. “I’m studying Rumi,” the pop star said. “I’m digging deeper into the spiritual aspect of things. I’m swimming in that sea.”
“Let me tell you something,” replied the future prime minister of Pakistan, the man whom destiny had appointed once again to captain his country. “This—what you’re looking for—is the only thing there is.”