NOTE: On Friday, Oct. 14, SAJA & Columbia Journalism School hosted Imran Khan, Pakistani politician, cricket legend, Chancellor of the University of Bradford (UK) and author of a new book, "Pakistan: A Personal History," in conversation with Bobby Ghosh, World editor of Time. This is one of several SAJAforum reports on the event.
When Imran Khan, legendary cricketer and now politician in Pakistan, first entered the room for his talk sponsored by the South Asian Journalists Association at Columbia Journalism School Friday night, a crowd of eager and giddy men and women swarmed him, pulling out iPhones, Blackberries, and whatever else picture-taking devices they had on hand.
The adoration is a strange sight for those uninitiated to the cult of Khan, especially given the fact that he is a politician in a politically troubled land.
But Khan of course, is not just a politician. While observing normally serious journalists, lawyers, and activists turn into exhilarated fans, it is clear that Khan is a larger than life force, a strange mix of a sports star, political visionary, intellect and celebrity, the likes of which are unprecedented even in the Western world.
In New York City promoting his new book, "Pakistan: A Personal History," Khan spoke to the packed crowd on such heavy topics as the war on terror, corruption and tribalism in Pakistan, and the prospects of his political party in the next election in his country. He was interviewed on stage by Bobby Ghosh, World Editor of Time.
And while many present were eager to probe him on issues like the blasphemy law and Pakistan's relations with India, others were simply satisfied to see their childhood hero in the flesh.
"We're all very giddy," explained Ammara Afzaal, 21, a student at New York University. "We signed up immediately when we heard about the event."
"We both felt very unreal here," said an ecstatic Fatima Khan, 20, who grew up admiring Khan in her household.
This dichotomy continued throughout the evening: a sincere, and sometimes tense discussion about the future of Pakistan and its politics, intermixed with adulation from a crowd that pulsed with excitement, and snapped photos every few minutes.
The fandom reached an apex at the very end, when Khan, who barely finished his last sentence, was swarmed by a crush of admirers seeking an elusive photograph with him. The intensity of the crowd even caused Columbia professor Sree Sreenivasan, the host of the evening, to appeal to the crowd, "Please let him go down the center aisle (to exit). Please!"
Khan, surrounded by handlers that helped move him through the crowd, appeared unfazed at the reaction that he was getting, clearly used to his celebrity.
Though the night's event touched on several issues facing Pakistan, one has to wonder whether Khan's status as a legendary cricketer distracted from a more serious conversation about Pakistan's future that night.
As Omar Akhtar, a Masters student at the Columbia Journalism School, tweeted: "We lost a great opportunity to ask Imran Khan some tough questions."