In certain quarters and certainly in the domain of glossy magazines, celebrity confers credibility. This is the basis of Aatish Taseer’s profile of Imran Khan for Vanity Fair, which went online last night and immediately became the subject of discussion on Pakistani and Indian Twitter.
I read the profile twice, just to confirm my initial impression: that Aatish Taseer has written a sophisticated, complex piece of journalism: a fairly comprehensive psychological portrait of a man who has attained the heights of personal and political power and yet still does not know what to do with himself, the man, when the masks drop and the doors to the chambers of power are closed for the day. Taseer’s analysis of Pakistan the country through Imran Khan is incisive and intuitive, based on his travels to the country and his intimate knowledge of its workings through his father, the late Salman Taseer.
But this is not a profile of Imran Khan alone: it is a profile of Pakistan, examined through the lens of its biggest celebrity. This is a clever journalistic device that Aatish Taseer deploys with confidence and expertise: taking what he finds to be true of Khan and using it to say profound things about the country which everyone is thinking, but nobody has yet put into words. Out of fear, out of lack of perspective, out of deference, or maybe just out of discretion.
Taseer has none of those things to lose. He is the perpetual outsider: the son of an Indian journalist and a Pakistani politician, born in London, living in America now (I am not gonig to enter into a debate about Taseer’s personal life or his origins beyond these most basic of facts). Most writers can attribute their powers of observation to that outsider status, but Taseer makes use of all his insider status and powerful connections to speak to the people who are closest to Imran Khan: his childhood friend, his pop star devotee, his cricketing colleagues (except for Khan’s ex-wife, Reham, who’s happy to talk to anyone about her former husband).
Those who say that the profile only repeats what has already been said before are missing what Taseer has done: taken all these various fragments, thoughts, beliefs, and synthesized them into a whole. He builds a compelling argument: the conflicted man is a product of, as well as the portrait of, a conflicted country. There are some lines that truly sing in the piece: “He was one of those rare figures, like Muhammed Ali, who emerge once a generation on the frontier of sport, sex and politics.” Another one: “Unlike other populists in the developing world, “Khan is a man guessing at the passions of people he does not actually represent.” And this one was the literary equivalent of a clean bowl: “Here, I remember feeling, was a man who had dealt so little in ideas that every idea he now had struck him as a good one.”
Taseer does a good job of exposing the contradictions in our fevered, hypocritical society, through the parable of the playboy turned Prime Minister, married to a religious clairvoyant (were I writing the piece I would have made the comparison to Macbeth, not Game of Thrones, but the latter is far sexier than the former). “Religion in Pakistan is the source of dystopia, a world turned upside down,” describes exactly the flummoxed feeling many of us have in Pakistan and how religion has been used against the people of this country, where killers are celebrated as saints. I’m not too interested in the allegations of drug taking or of Khan’s louche past, as we’ve heard all this before. Attempts at amateur psychology, as in the line “I was struck by that mixture of narcisissm bordering on sociopathy that afflicts those who have become famous for far too long” is not an original take either. But for a man to become a national leader based on both refutation of this life and the social and political capital which it built him is indeed schizophrenic, and Taseer captures this perfectly.
At the same time, the profile is not without its flaws. Taseer portrays Khan as empty-headed, simplistic and juvenile, his black and white view of the world one shared by fascists and autocrats. At the same time, he recognizes that Khan appears honest and upright to millions of ordinary Pakistanis who admire him for those qualities, seen very rarely among Pakistani politicians. People far more pious than Khan have made the amazing decision to ignore Khan’s bedroom shenanigans as if we were citizens of France, not a conservative Muslim country. How exactly did this happen?
Maybe we would have found out if the very people that Taseer relies on for his story were not merely a select group of elite Lahoris, many of them celebrities in their own right, contain many of the same qualities. So the personal portrait that ensues consists of somewhat vapid quotes that repeat the common mythology surrounding Imran Khan, with perhaps a few sensationalist details that perhaps were not common knowledge before. Taseer goes to the rarified environs of the 1% to make an assessment of Khan that will challenge Western readers, but only strengthens the idea that celebrity confirms credibility.
The article dwells at length on Khan’s reputation as a playboy and his failed marriages, and the strain the current one is under. But Taseer missed a great opportunity to delve deeper into this part of Khan’s psychology: how do his troubled relationships with women play out in the public sphere; why has his government chosen to deliberately exclude women from all sorts of decision-making positions; how does his religious conservatism affect Pakistan’s efforts to empower and improve the status of women? These connections were left unmade by Taseer, which was disappointing to me. He had the opportunity to get into this when he said of Khan, “never was there a greater mansplainer.” But this would have required a more in-depth analyses of gender and power in Pakistan than Taseer’s Vanity Fair editors or readers probably wanted.
Another disappointment for me was to see the prominent space given to Ali Zafar, who has been accused of sexual harassment; it would have been appropriate for Taseer to mention this and address the issue of harassment — which has even reached members of Khan’s government as Pakistani women assert their #MeToo stories — perhaps analyze how some of these harassment cases have affected people’s impressions of the PTI government. Also, the women he chooses to speak to all have a personal or political axe to grind against Khan: ex-wife Reham, former Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, Imaan Hazir, Shireen Mazari’s daughter, who has faced extreme abuse and threats from the PTI trolls, especially at the hands of Farhan K Virk, who Taseer also gives space to in explaining Khan’s appeal to “the youth” of Pakistan. By speaking only to the chief troll, Taseer fails to explore how Khan has weaponized his own sexuality and used it as a political tool to harness the vote for PTI (there is a lot of infatuation from both genders, not just admiration for his “emancipatory virility”) — and how those trolls have used death and rape threats against women in Pakistan who dare criticize government policy, as if jealously committing a virtual honor killing for the sake of Imran Khan’s honor.
The end of the piece discusses the uncomfortable tension between the military and the civilian government, but only quickly, and then returns back to the personal conflicts of Khan. Taseer writes that he “does not clarify reality in Pakistan, but rather adds to the fog with Jekyll and Hyde confusions of his own.” And that “Like so many people who have lived across diverse cultures, Khan seems to have found no internal resolution to these competing [cultural] forces.” Maybe we in Pakistan don’t necessarily resolve them, but we certainly do struggle to balance them. But (and here’s another reference to pop psychology), perhaps we suffer from a sort of multiple personality disorder, and the voices that call to us from the depths of our own mind are the ones that keep us dancing even though there isn’t any music to hear.