Only a decade ago, Imran Khan’s just-completed mansion on a hill outside the Pakistani capital Islamabad was so remote that he was attacked by armed robbers on his way home.
“There were hardly any houses and there was a dirt track all up here and I actually got mugged with my children, armed-robbed on the way back because it was so isolated,” says the man who has transformed himself from a cricketer and social celebrity into a political leader in one of the world’s most populous Muslim countries. “But the first night I spent here I still remember it felt like home.”
The 62-year-old, cheerful but sweating in the monsoon heat, explains in the sitting room overlooking the lawn that it was his first wife, Jemima Goldsmith, the British journalist and heiress, who organised the building and decoration of the spacious, colonial-style, five-bedroom house with the help of an Australian architect.
The two are on good terms despite the divorce and there is no awkwardness discussing the history of the house in front of Khan’s new wife, Reham, a 42-year-old British-Pakistani social activist, television presenter and former weather forecaster for BBC South. She has moved in with a massive Belgian Shepherd dog called Hugo Maximus or Max.
For Khan, however, the importance of the house is not its structure or its contents but its surroundings. The location in the suburban countryside of Bani Gala above the city gives him the opportunity for landscaping and planting trees, for working and eating on the pillared terrace outside and recalling his semi-rural childhood on the outskirts of Lahore, where he was surrounded by dozens of relatives as well as cows, buffaloes and chickens.
“Where I used to live was like living on a farm because it was outside the city, and as I grew up it became bang in the middle of the city and Lahore became very polluted, very noisy,” he says. He moved to Islamabad — “the most beautiful city in Pakistan, near to the mountains, on a height, not polluted” — and bought the land 14 years ago from a man desperate to sell because his uncle was being investigated for corruption by the National Accountability Bureau.
“It was love at first sight. I looked at this place on the hill, there was nothing. There was just scrub jungle everywhere. There were no houses except at the edge of the lake,” says Khan. “I had a flat in London which I bought during my cricketing days, so I sold that flat and bought this, almost 40 acres of land. This is the best investment I ever did. The price has gone 50 times up since I bought [it], per acre.”
Outside, we pass the lawn where Khan once played cricket with Lionel Barber, the FT’s editor, for a column on the sports and hobbies of the famous, skirt the pool and look down from a crag on to the fast-expanding suburb of Bani Gala and numerous construction sites for villas on nearby hillsides.
Islamabad has not escaped the impact of Pakistan’s growing population — already more than 185m — and Khan’s retreat is clearly not as remote as it once was. The house, reached up a bumpy track and driveway that take you past a security barrier and gate, nevertheless enjoys a certain magnificent isolation. Khan, like his political rival Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister, is now considered a possible assassination target and is guarded by a security firm as well as a couple of police officers, while the mansion is served by a staff of 10 gardeners, cooks and cleaners.
Khan’s pride and joy is all around in the eclectic range of trees he has planted in his grounds, both Mediterranean and subtropical, to suit a place that is hot in summer and cool in winter: pine, cypress, silver oak, olive, shisham (Indian rosewood), peach, orange, mango and avocado.
You enter the house, which has the feel of a rather heavy-set Italian villa, through a courtyard with a tiled fountain that recalls Moorish Spain or ancient Rome, but which Khan points out is the norm for the inward-looking homes of his Pashtun homeland in north-west Pakistan.
The walls are thick, the ceilings are high and the living room fireplace large enough to dispel the chill of winter nights. One concession to modernity is the gym. During Pakistan’s general election campaign in 2013 Khan fell headfirst off a makeshift lift next to the stage of a big political rally. He attributes his survival and continuing good health to a mixture of luck and “years of regular training and exercise and fitness”.
Khan, who cracked or broke four of his vertebrae, said the doctors who examined him found his bone density to be as good as that of a man half his age. “I’m a walking miracle,” he laughs.
A typical day at home means rising “early” — 8.30am or 9am in winter, 7.30am or 8am in summer (politics in south Asia is not a dawn affair) — then breakfasting outside, walking the dogs and gathering his thoughts, and then exercising for 40 minutes or an hour. “Then it’s work. Then I have meetings.”
That means politics. Thirty years ago, Khan — Pakistan cricket captain, fast bowler and batsman, who led his team to a World Cup victory in 1992 — was known as a sporting hero and a playboy. “I had a bad reputation because I should have got married,” he says, “But then I realised that cricket life and marriage were not compatible.” Today, he has just embarked on his second marriage and his life is largely consumed by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Justice Movement), the political party he founded in 1996. The PTI is big in Punjab province, where most voters live, and many of Khan’s meetings at the house are about reorganising a young party that grew too fast to be properly managed and at one time boasted 7m signed-up members. Some walls are decorated with photographs of Khan and his political rallies, and he is being talked of as possible future prime minister.
His rise to prominence as a politician has not been free of controversy. Although he has won support for his outspoken attacks on the corruption of the established parties, his critics say he acted undemocratically in staging months of anti-government demonstrations last year in the centre of Islamabad. They accuse him of acting at the behest of the army generals who wanted to destabilise Sharif’s government. Some even call him “Taliban Khan”, complaining that he has been too soft on Pakistan’s Islamist Taliban extremists: their stronghold, like the PTI’s, is Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Pashtun homeland formerly known as North-West Frontier Province.
Khan, however, abandoned his Islamabad sit-in after a savage Taliban attack on an army school in Peshawar in December, in which more than 140 children and teachers were slaughtered. He is unrepentant about his claim that the 2013 election was rigged, but sees the Peshawar attack as a historic event that united Pakistanis against terrorism, as well as persuading democrats to back military trials for terrorists because civilian judges have been too petrified to find them guilty.
“You just had to close ranks,” he says. “It was so gruesome. Everyone pictured their own children. It was the way they just systematically executed children, piled them up and then shot them in the back of their heads.”
Cricket is not exactly forgotten in the house — as we leave, Reham’s son, Sahir, tells us of a flurry of wickets just taken by England’s bowler Stuart Broad in the latest Ashes test against Australia. Yet Khan says “every cricket thing I owned” was auctioned to help finance the cancer hospital he has founded, so there are no visible cricket mementos. Instead we come across a stuffed falcon, a trio of home-made rifles from Pashtun tribesmen, books about Islam, a painted gold verse from the Koran in the form of a tiger (a gift from Jemima, who converted to Islam before their wedding), and some old photographs.
Khan is obviously not passionate about interior decoration and shows no concern about the occasional patch of peeling paint, though he does agree that the solar panels on the roof are useful to compensate for frequent power cuts. It is left to Reham to explain how she found that the archways in the courtyard were flawed, allowing water to seep behind the plaster, and that the roof tiles had been installed upside down. “There are leakages,” she says. “We’re trying to fix the house.”
When she is at home, she also tries to ensure that Khan has enough to eat, something he apparently forgets when on his own. But she says she has failed to curb his macho stunts such as the time he insisted on driving their heavy, bulletproof car across the weir that provides access to the neighbourhood even when the river was dangerously swollen with monsoon rain and risked sweeping the vehicle away.
Khan himself is content simply to enjoy his home of the past decade. “I’ve always been a very introverted, private person,” he says. “I do travel a lot, but I used to travel a lot more. But this is like my retreat. It’s almost God-given because I need that peace of mind. Politics is with people all the time. I always preferred — seclusion, what’s the word? I liked to retreat and completely unwind. It’s from my cricketing days, actually. Because if you had an intense day, in the evening I always needed to have that seclusion to unwind. This is the best place I have.”