Jemima Khan: Caught between two worlds

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The Independent Online

At 30, Jemima Khan has already lived a fairly eventful life. She has even experienced the profound terror of being seconds from certain death. She, her sons, Sulaiman and Qasim, her mother, Annabel Goldsmith, and other members of her family were on a flight to Nairobi in 2000 when a mentally ill student attacked the pilot. The British Airways Boeing plummeted 10,000 feet as Captain William Hagan struggled to regain control of the aircraft. Another five seconds and the plane would have smashed into the Sudanese desert below. No one could be expected to survive such an impact.

At 30, Jemima Khan has already lived a fairly eventful life. She has even experienced the profound terror of being seconds from certain death. She, her sons, Sulaiman and Qasim, her mother, Annabel Goldsmith, and other members of her family were on a flight to Nairobi in 2000 when a mentally ill student attacked the pilot. The British Airways Boeing plummeted 10,000 feet as Captain William Hagan struggled to regain control of the aircraft. Another five seconds and the plane would have smashed into the Sudanese desert below. No one could be expected to survive such an impact.

Jemima, by her own account, stayed calm because of the children, hugged them, and prayed "like mad". She was not quite as calm, though, as her then husband, Imran Khan. The international cricketer and playboy turned politician and devout Muslim had not been on the flight himself. But when he greeted his wife and sons, having come so close to losing them, it was with rather surprising words: "You see, Jem?" he said to her. "You should have flown PIA."

Jemima told this story last year, and she told it with affection for her husband. She was awed and amused by Imran's disregard for her mortal fear, rather than indignant and hurt. Imran, she explained, is so patriotic that he would never take a BA flight if there was a Pakistan International Airlines flight available. Clearly, he would have done anything, even using a brush with death as propaganda, to have brought his former wife round to his way of thinking.

Even at the time, I thought this anecdote to be a hugely telling one, which spoke volumes about the relationship, and about Imran's priorities as opposed to Jemima's. Now, in the wake of a divorce whose possibility has been denied by both sides a thousand times, and as recently as a few weeks ago, it seems all the more laden with meaning and symbolism.

First and foremost is the flinty, single-minded focus of Imran Khan's nationalistic fervour, and the precedence it takes over his family. It is well documented that during her time in Pakistan Jemima found it difficult to accept that Imran had to be away from the family quite as much as he was, for weeks on end, on the political campaign trail, at meetings, at dinners, at rallies. Imran did have a solution to this fracture in their lives. But friends say it was the opposite of what Jemima had in mind, which was a more realistic division of time between family and career. For Imran, the best thing would have been for Jemima to be more involved with his political life, and more committed to hitting the campaign trail.

Jemima, though, surely must have felt she had already become as involved as she possibly could. Since they had married in 1995, Jemima had made huge efforts to adapt to life in Pakistan. She had famously converted to Islam, a commitment that was dismissed in Britain as largely cosmetic, with Jemima pictured looking even more beautiful in salwar kameez than she had in Western designer labels. But she had made other rather more enormous efforts as well. She had learned Urdu, the language of her husband's Pashtun people, had unofficially been the leader of the women's wing of his Tehrik-e-Insaaf, or Movement for Justice political party, raised funds tirelessly for his cancer hospital - which needs £4m a year to operate - and had even, for some years, moved in with the in-laws in the traditional way.

She had embraced Middle-Eastern politics more widely as well. Even before 11 September, for example, she was deeply involved in the crisis in Afghanistan, and was organising humanitarian aid for Afghan refugees who had fled the Taliban into Pakistan (at a camp that had been declared a no-go zone for the UN). She was outspoken in her support for the Palestinian cause, and last year helped to found a charity, the Hoping Foundation, to help community projects for Palestinian children.

Yet this and much other work made little impact on her standing in Pakistan. Although supporters of the Movement for Justice Party had taken her to their hearts, the truth is that followers of her husband's party are few and far between. Imran's political party is young. But Pakistani political opinion remains convinced that it will never mature into anything more than a one-man show. Imran is his party's only representative in the Pakistani parliament, and he has held that position for only two years. All wise counsel says that if he wishes to advance he should ally himself with one of the larger parties. But Imran stubbornly subscribes to the idea that it is his destiny to become Pakistan's prime minister, to sweep away the corruption which has become endemic to the political fabric of the country, and to transform its ailing fortunes. Nothing distracts him from that, not even the near-death of his wife, his children and many of his closest in-laws.

Returning to the story of the British Airways flight, it has to be noted that if Imran placed such great store by his choice of the national airline, then, by inference, Jemima was not just taking a flight by going with BA but betraying a national preference. She had always emphasised that she felt both British and Pakistani. Despite all of her efforts, she was clearly not Pakistani enough. Which is amazing really, because she gave up a great deal to be with Imran.

She was just 21 when she married, giving up an English degree at Bristol University to do so. She had always been close to her unconventional family, but she moved 4,000 miles away from them. And she left behind enormous material wealth. Her father, James Goldsmith, was a billionaire, and the family was used to a lavish lifestyle. Jemima herself was considered an "it-girl" and lived the sort of party lifestyle that most 21-year-olds can only dream of.

In Pakistan she lived in three rooms in her father-in-law's house alongside Imran's sister and other relatives, in a house described by Vanity Fair as having "grimy sofas" and "peeling paint". Her husband did not set great store by material possessions, and had given all of his cricketing millions to his hospital. Meanwhile, at home, the water and electricity supply was sporadic, and Jemima and her sons were plagued by stomach bugs. Jemima was sick so much of the time that she became very thin. There was malicious speculation that she might have an eating disorder. The effect this might have on his young wife troubled him little. "Struggle is good for you, "he told Vanity Fair. "If people avoid struggle, they decay. Life has been very easy for Jemima. Maybe I'm a Godsend, to make her struggle."

In this country the endless press speculation centred on her putative unhappiness, the possibility of marital breakdown and the general business of waiting for disaster to strike. But in Pakistan, the situation was more serious. There, Jemima was seen as a way of hurting her husband politically. She was constantly attacked as an insincere Muslim, part - because of her Jewish grandfather - of a "Semitic conspiracy" and a living tribute to her husband's decadent ways as a former playboy. When Jemima finished her degree at Bristol, by correspondence, it became apparent that she must have read some Salman Rushdie to have completed a dissertation about the portrayal of Muslim culture in English literature. For this she was pilloried as an enemy of Islam. She was even threatened with jail at one point, when immigration officials had her arrested under trumped-up charges of smuggling national antiquities. The allegations were proved to be false, but did not enhance her husband's campaign in the run-up to the last election.

During the period when she was being investigated, Jemima stayed in Britain, fearful of being detained if she tried to get back into Pakistan. During this time, as well as giving birth to her second son, she busied herself with the fashion design business that she had launched a couple of years before. The business was set up to provide work for Pakistani women with children who needed to earn money. Jemima would design and commission dresses in Britain, have them hand-embroidered in Pakistan, and sell them mainly in London and New York. She employed somewhere between 700 and 1,000 women. "The clothes are a bit of both [Pakistan and Britain]," she told one journalist, "because that is how I feel myself." The business collapsed after 11 September, when orders, particularly from New York, were unceremoniously cancelled.

Indeed, for the kind of relationship Imran and Jemima were trying to forge, an Islam-meets-West combination of piety and glamour, 11 September was not, to say the least, a positive development. It would be ridiculous and pretentious to suggest that the marriage was in any way a casualty of the atrocities. But if it could be said in any way to represent in microcosm the idea of marriage between Islam and the West, then it was inevitable that it could not last.

Even Jemima's closest friends and family predicted that the marriage would fail from the start. Her late father commented that Imran would make a "wonderful first husband". Whether he did, or not, is open to debate. Certainly all of the compromises made in the relationship were made on Jemima's side. After the aborted hijack, which prompted in Jemima an almost uncontrollable fear of flying, her ability to scoot around the world, flitting between her English family and her Pakistani family, was deeply compromised.

Undoubtedly, in the febrile atmosphere of Pakistani politics and media, pictures of Jemima back on the London party circuit, escorted by male friends such as A A Gill and Hugh Grant, will have driven Imran to accept that his lovely, intelligent wife could never have become an asset to his political career. There are plenty of people in Britain, too, who are ready to believe that her years in Pakistan were an aberration, and that the shallow it-girl has finally come home.

They will not, I think, get the last laugh. For an it-girl, Jemima's time is taken up with quite serious matters. She is currently studying for a master's degree in international affairs at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and she remains a believer in hands-on parenting, even if she has abandoned the idea of educating her boys in Pakistan. Much celebrated for her mane-like hair, she confides that it is something of a drag when she is pinned down by a boy asleep on each side of her.

The boys, now eight and five, still get in with their mum at night. Imran and Jemima may not have crossed cultural barriers in their marriage, but if Jemima has anything to do with it, their sons will succeed where their parents failed. Jemima Khan has not finished with Pakistan, with the Middle East or with Islam, whether they like it or not.

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born: 30 January 1974 in London to Sir James Goldsmith and his then mistress (and later wife), Lady Annabel Vane Tempest Stewart.

Family: Married Pakistani cricket star Imran Khan in Paris in May 1995. Divorced June 2004. Two sons: Sulaiman (seven) and Qasim (five).

Education: BA, Bristol University, in English literature. Currently studying, at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, for a master's degree in international relations.

Activities: Socialite, charity worker, columnist, fashion entrepreneur.

She says: "Had I not got married when I did, I would probably have become a journalist."

"I think politics is a terrible profession to be in for anyone who values their privacy."

They say: "Whilst Jemima tried her best to settle here, my political life made it difficult for her to adapt to life in Pakistan." - Imran Khan

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