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 FAIR that 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.