Sports Illustrated Interview, Paul Evan Ress, ‘Prince Karim Aga Khan’ (USA) ·· incomplete
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I don’t drink alcoholic beverages for several reasons. For one thing, I am a Muslim. For another, I am an athlete in year-round training. Thirdly, I just don’t like the taste of the stuff….
([A] cause of embarrassment is the numbered jersey he must wear while racing. It often displays an ad for some alcoholic aperitif — this being a ski-race sponsor’s right.) I do not like the thought that the Ismailis may see a newsreel film of some competition and think their Imam was drinking, or urging other people to do so.
INCOMPLETE: We regret that from this interview, only limited portions made public by the reporter are available below. We would be very grateful if any of our readers who may have the complete transcript would kindly share it with us. Please click here for information on making submissions to NanoWisdoms; we thank you for your assistance.
Interviewer: Paul Evan Ress
A rare portrait of an intent young ruler who rejects the temptations of an idle life in order to carry on his dynasty’s sporting tradition. He runs a huge racing stable, is building a vast Mediterranean resort and skis with Olympic skill.
A tall, good-looking young man was peering through binoculars as the horses rounded the bend at Longchamp. Running neck and neck were the Aga Khan’s Jour et Nuit III and Baron Guy de Rothschild’s Corah. As they passed the finish line it looked from the young man’s angle as if Corah had won, and he exclaimed regretfully: “I lost!” Without waiting to hear the loudspeaker announce his defeat, he moved quickly from his box toward the nearest exit. On the way an older man caught up with him and said, “Prince, you have won!” Abruptly the Prince changed direction and made for the paddock. A few minutes later photographers were taking pictures of Jour et Nuit III; France’s most famous jockey, Yves Saint-Martin; France’s most famous trainer, Francois Mathet; and the pleased employer of them all, Prince Karim Aga Khan. Normally the picture-shy Prince has no smiles for photographers. But this fine day at the Paris racetrack Karim was all smiles — and $10,000 richer.
Seven years ago Prince Karim was a soccer-playing student at Harvard who never rode a horse and was bored when his father, Prince Aly Khan, took him to a racecourse. Today, at 27, he is best known as the spiritual leader of 15 million Ismaili Muslims in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. But he is also several other things: the owner and active head of one of the biggest racing stables in the world, with 280 horses scattered over nine stud farms in France and Ireland; the backer and builder of a huge holiday resort area in Sardinia, one of the most ambitious enterprises of its sort in the world; and an Olympic skier capable of beating half the finest downhill and slalom runners in the Alps.
Had it not been for a passage in the will of his fabulous grandfather, Aga Khan III, Karim would very likely be just another candidate for a Ph.D. at the Harvard Graduate School today. The decisive sentence read: “In view of the fundamentally altered conditions in the world in very recent years…including the discoveries of atomic science, I am convinced that it is in the best interests of the Shia Ismaili Muslim community that I should be succeeded by a young man who…brings a new outlook on life to his office.” With that — passing over his charming, horse-loving son, Aly — the 79-year-old Aga chose his 20-year-old grandson, Karim, as his successor.
Overnight (,says Karim,) my whole life changed completely. I woke up with serious responsibilities toward millions of other human beings. I knew I would have to abandon my hopes of studying for a doctorate in history.
Overnight, too, the Prince, whose allowance at Harvard was so small that he could not buy a car or afford even a few ski weekends in Vermont, became an immensely wealthy international figure….
Endowed with youth, a handsome countenance, riches and an athlete’s frame — not to mention sports cars, a yacht, a private plane, an Alpine chalet, a Riviera chateau, a Paris mansion and all those racehorses — Karim could have been expected to become a playboy’s playboy. As he himself admits, his public image is that of a gallivanting jet-setter who wants his horses, cars and women to be fast and who can afford the sleekest of all three because every year his Ismaili subjects put him on a scale and bestow upon him the equivalent of his weight in diamonds or platinum.
As in all legends, there is an iota of truth here. He owns fast cars and hopes he owns fast horses.
I do not like nightclubs or night life generally (,he says). I am not a social butterfly or salon lion.
Since he accepts invitations to almost no balls, galas or soirees, Karim’s name is conspicuously absent from the gossip columns and society pages of the European press. And he is anything but a rake. For the past five years his name has been seriously linked with that of only one woman, an exquisite, publicity-avoiding blonde named Annouchka von Mehks. But K, as intimate friends call him. refuses adamantly to say a word about her.
Public figures have a right to a private life (,he insists. His smile turns into a frown and his soft-spoken voice becomes sharp when a photographer seeks to catch the two of them on film). I see no reason why I should help to sell newspapers (,he says).
Nor does he get weighed every year. In his 72 years as the Aga Khan, Karim’s grandfather was given his weight in gold and gems only four times.
The ceremonies are held every 10 years, at most (,explains Karim,) and I have been Imam for only seven years.
Karim is actually closer to being an egghead than a playboy. His first choice of college was significant: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1953 he applied for admission and was accepted. But his grandfather vetoed this and decreed that the Prince must go to Harvard. Karim never lost his interest in science, but his reading today indicates a wide range of thought, from classical novels to modern philosophers, from Balzac to Sartre. He never reads to escape. He considers this wasting time, and he allows himself no time to waste.
Karim’s serious view of life is typified in his approach to horse racing. When the Aga Khan died in 1957, his huge racing establishment did not, as one might suppose, become the exclusive property of his son Aly. The Shia Muslim law of inheritance divided the stud farms and the horses among several heirs. Aly did have the privilege of buying back stock that had been willed to other members of the family, but in the end he had to sell about 100 horses of the 300-horse stable. Stud managers warned him: “You will have no more winners for several years.” The normal turnover of 50 to 56 yearlings fell in a year to 13. “But my father knew what he was doing,” says Karim. “I still think that nobody knew horses better than he did.”
By the time of Aly Khan’s death in an automobile accident in 1960 the $3 million stable was beginning to flourish. But now the inheritance law put Karim in the position of having to acquire from his younger brother Amyn and his half-sister Yasmin, Rita Hayworth’s daughter, their major interest (60%) in the stable. When he had finished doing so, the stable was down to 110 horses.
Worse yet (,says Karim,) I knew nothing about horse racing or breeding. I asked myself seriously whether I could or should attempt to run the establishment. I also was not sure I would have the time to spend on the stable, since I was already working six to 10 hours a day on Ismaili community affairs. And I certainly did not wish to operate a third-rate stable after the glory it had known under my grandfather and father.
When I decided to take on the stable, I had to reorganise my whole life. For one thing, it was obvious that I was going to have to spend much of the year in Paris, where I had no home. I was also going to face a lot of travel — to Chantilly to see the horses train, to Normandy and Ireland to visit the stud farms.
Since Aly Khan had bequeathed his Paris home to Yasmin, Karim told his lawyer and aide, Andr? Ardoin, that he was in the market for a house. As luck would have it, one of the most extraordinary houses in Paris — and one of the most beautiful — had just fallen into the hands of a bankruptcy commission, Le Syndicat de la Faillite. The house, located at 1, Rue des Ursins on the He de la Cit?, had been rented by an architect-builder who had been convicted of fraud in a nationwide housing scandal. It was for rent ridiculously cheap. When Karim heard that Aristotle Onassis was also interested in the house, he rushed to complete the deal.
I didn’t care to find myself bidding against Mr. Onassis (,he says).
If Onassis ever sees this five-story medieval mansion, he will not forgive himself. There are too many rooms to count, a fine spiral stone staircase, 17th century sculptured fireplaces, a 12th century cloister with a glorious fountain, elegantly carved woodwork. Renaissance tapestries, a two-level 15th century dining room and a choice of 16th, 17th and 18th century bedrooms. Opening the door to an 18th century boudoir, Karim remarked:
One does not always care to live in the 16th or 17th century.
Nor does one always like to work in an attic, but Karim does. It is here, at the very top of his house, that he has his office, a Tudor-beamed light-blue room with a memorable view of the Seine. From here Karim runs his racing and breeding establishment. Chantilly is only 15 minutes away, and Normandy less than two hours — as the Prince drives. The Irish stud farms are hardly more distant — as the Prince flies. Unlike his grandfather, who left his trainers and farm managers pretty much alone, Karim keeps an attentive watch on both. It is some measure of his active interest that, after much hesitation last year, he parted company with a longtime family employee, the well-known Alec Head, and replaced him with France’s best-known trainer, Mathet.
An early riser, Karim usually breakfasts on orange juice, toast and coffee between 6 and 7, reads Ismaili community reports and correspondence, dictates from 10 to 40 letters to a machine, and then turns his attention to horses. At 8 o’clock one morning not long ago Karim set off from Paris on what was to become, over a period of days, a tour of his racing holdings. He drove one of his Maseratis to Chantilly to watch Mathet supervise the training of the 72 horses there. The Prince’s chauffeur, Lucien Lemoussu, was at his usual place, in the right front seat, the steering wheel remaining firmly in Karim’s hands.
As the silver-grey 3?-litre Italian car whipped by everything in front of it at more than 100 miles an hour, Karim discoursed on horse racing.
Thoroughbreds can be either a sportsman’s hobby or a business (,he said). Where a large stable and a lot of money are involved, obviously racing is no longer a hobby.
Admitting what many stable proprietors do not care to, Karim said that racing and breeding horses can be a profitable business.
In France we hope to balance prize money with the cost of running the stable (,he said). The sales of yearlings and stud fees should represent profits. Of course, things do not always work out so nicely.
Last year things did not work out nicely at all for the Aga Khan’s stable. His horses won only 24 of the 160 races in which they were entered and brought in roughly $140,000. This year the Prince’s horses are faring much better. By the middle of July his green-and-red racing silks had won 20 times, placed 10 times and showed 14 times in 77 races — performances that were worth almost $180,000 to Karim.
Another encouraging sign is that 52 foals will be born this year on his Irish and Norman farms, bringing the stable’s total up to the 300 mark.
This is important (,says Karim,) because if you have a big production, you can afford to sell large numbers of your most promising horses. We want buyers to feel we are selling fine horses, and not keeping all the good ones for ourselves.
At this point Karim turned the wheel over to Lucien, but a moment later the chauffeur suddenly slowed down (to 80 miles an hour) behind a Ferrari. “Let’s change places,” Karim told Lucien, who quickly stopped the car. The Prince tooted his four-tone horn, blew a blast on a ship’s siren and passed the Ferrari as if it were a beetle on its back. “He heard us, but he never saw us,” said the chauffeur. By 8:20 Karim was shaking hands with his trainer and saying, “Bonjour, Monsieur Mathet.” Mathet replied: “Bonjour, Monseigneur [My Lord].” Few people address Karim quite so respectfully. Generally he is called “Prince,” occasionally “Your Highness.” The title, incidentally, is not hereditary, as many imagine. Queen Elizabeth II gave it to Karim after the old Aga’s death — a traditional gesture by British sovereigns since the first Aga Khan allied himself with Britain against Afghanistan a century ago. Since Karim is descended from a former ruling family of Persia, the Shah of Iran has added a “Royal” to Karim’s “Highness.”
Karim listened carefully to Mathet’s comments as all 72 horses, each wearing the dark-blue blanket of the stable, filed slowly by. For several hours the two men walked across wet, green meadows and watched the horses canter and gallop. It was evident from Karim’s manner and tone of voice that he was aware of his own youth and Mathet’s vast experience. Toward the end of the morning Karim suggested to Mathet that they meet at Le Bourget airport two days later for a quick trip to Ireland to inspect the stud farms around Dublin. “D’accord” said Mathet, glad for a chance to see horses he would be training later in the year at Chantilly. By midday Karim was back in his attic, working on Ismaili community problems.
Of the world’s reigning princes, Karim must surely be the least clothes-conscious. If it were not for the demands of protocol, he would probably turn up everywhere dressed in what he had on the next day during a visit to his St. Crespin stud farm near Lisieux in Normandy: a pair of blue jeans his father once wore, an ordinary white shirt without a tie, a grey-beige Austrian skiing sweater and undistinguished black shoes. At the insistence of Madame J. J. Vuillier, who has administered the Aga Khan stable since 1931, Karim slipped rubbers over his shoes and donned a raincoat and a cloth hat. Within five minutes the bothersome hat had disappeared and the raincoat was cast aside.
Holding a thick green book in his hand, Karim carefully examined the mares and foals paraded in front of him. The ease with which he commented upon a horse’s strong points or shortcomings suggested that he had successfully passed his equestrian apprenticeship. Observing the scratchy gait of a filly in a pasture, he remarked: “She runs like a typewriter.” Noting the pointed ears of a colt, he said, “It est tres bien coiff?. (He has a good head.)” Once when a horse reared nervously Karim whistled to soothe him. He chatted warmly and joked frequently, a youthful horseman at ease in a rural world.
The following day Karim and Mathet flew to Ireland in Karim’s red-and-white Beechcraft Model 80 Queen Air.
This is a radar-equipped plane that seats six and can make 218 miles an hour (,Karim said to Mathet — it was the Prince’s turn to be the expert).
For once Karim was wearing neither blue denims nor a ski sweater, but a dark grey suit with a vest, made in France. Unlike most Englishmen and Americans living in France, who hold French clothes for men in high disdain, Karim is quite content to have suits made by a tailor in Paris. Did he prefer the old-fashioned wide trouser cuffs or the tight Italian-type ones?
I thought all cuffs were the same (,he said, surprised).
The Prince’s Irish stud farm manager, Major Cyril Charles Hall, his foot in a plaster cast because of a kick from a stallion, greeted Karim at the Dublin terminal. A two-car convoy then drove everyone, pilot and co-pilot included, to Gilltown, where a late supper was waiting. Everyone drank French wine except Karim, who took milk.
I don’t drink alcoholic beverages for several reasons (, he said). For one thing, I am a Muslim. For another, I am an athlete in year-round training. Thirdly, I just don’t like the taste of the stuff.
Karim leaves nothing to chance, so before retiring he inquired at what hour the car would be coming to take them on a tour of the farms.
“At 8:30,” he was told.”Let’s say 8:15,” he suggested. While everyone was arranging to be awakened at 7:30 for a fast breakfast, Karim said, “Please wake me at 6.” Next morning he came down to the breakfast table looking annoyed. “I stupidly left my dictating machine in Paris,” he explained.
It was a wet, chilly Irish morning, and Mathet dressed appropriately. In blue jeans and white shirt, without a coat or a pullover, Karim was properly dressed — for Sardinia. Major Hall put a raincoat in the car for Karim, who needed it by the time the party arrived in Sheshoon. It was there that Karim spotted a filly and asked, “Isn’t she the daughter of Charlottesville and Martine?” Informed she was indeed, he added in a satisfied tone: “I thought I spotted a family resemblance.”
After almost a day of looking at horses through a downpour, Karim drove to Dublin airport, took off and by 9 in the evening was back at Le Bourget. Lucien and the Maserati were waiting.
He who would keep up with the Aga Khan must move fast. Thirty-six hours after his Irish trip Karim was flying again, this time to Sardinia to inspect the construction of the holiday resort that he and a consortium are building there. A highly organised person — the dictating machine was not forgotten again — Karim had arranged for his 1500S Volkswagen to be driven from Gstaad to Rome and put on the overnight boat to Olbia in Sardinia. The roads of northeastern Sardinia — where they exist at all — have enormous holes and bumps and are no place for a Maserati.
Karim had also asked that his 72-foot, $200,000 yacht, Amaloun, be brought out of drydock at Varazze on the Italian Riviera and sailed to Sardinia. Originally, the Amaloun made 28 knots. Karim, who relishes speed on water as well as on snow, highways and in the air, had its top cruising speed increased to 33 knots.
The Prince began to appreciate the resort possibilities of Sardinia during a cruise three years ago. The second-largest island in the Mediterranean, Sardinia was virtually undeveloped as a vacation spot. Karim decided that the northeastern corner was the most beautiful and least spoiled — least spoiled being a considerable understatement since, apart from some lean peasants and leaner goats, there was nothing along this 35-mile stretch of glorious coastline. Karim and some wealthy associates, including his half-brother, Patrick Guinness, bought the entire strip.
Karim named the region Costa Smeralda, the Emerald Coast, and becomes lyrical when he talks about it.
The sea here takes on particularly lovely hues (, he says,) ranging from the darkest blue to the purest green. There are scores of fine, sandy beaches with not so much as a cat on them. Rugged green and grey mountains drop abruptly toward the water. A carpet of purple and yellow, and red and blue flowers perfumes the air. The climate is semitropical, much warmer than in the overcrowded resorts of southern France. The thermometer never sinks below 52? F.
In 10 years, at a cost of millions of dollars, Karim proposes to build or to permit the construction of a truly colossal development, including some 35 hotels and 9,000 villas and homes. An estimated 50,000 vacationers will eventually use the 80 beaches, two golf courses, polo field, skin-diving, hunting and horseback-riding clubs, restaurants and bistros.
Karim intensely resents articles that have described the future resort as a “playground for playboys” or “millionaires’ heaven” or “the next St. Tropez for jet-setters.”
Nonsense (,he says). We are already building homes which will cost as little as $10,000. There will be many in the $20,000 to $30,000 bracket. A $40,000 villa will be the exception. These are not extravagant prices today in the Mediterranean basin. Besides, we are not foolish. We realise that there simply are not enough millionaires or playboys to make a 35-mile resort area prosper. There will be houses, restaurants, nightclubs, shops and sporting facilities for wallets of all sizes.
To make certain that Costa Smeralda does not turn into another Mediterranean eyesore, the consortium has set severe architectural and zoning standards. Buildings must blend into the mountainous landscape and not clash in style with Sardinian rural dwellings. Pastel colours are preferred, white is banned. Before the consortium set forth these rules, the former Paris fashion model Bettina, who was Aly Khan’s constant companion, built a large white villa. It is quite conspicuous, and there will be no more like it.
Begun two years ago — “from nothing,” Karim reminds visitors — the resort is today a series of busy construction sites joined by dirt roads that are soon to be asphalted by the Italian government. One hotel, the Cala di Volpe, is already open to the public, and the yacht harbour should be finished by late summer.
Karim had invited a group of Parisian friends, including Miss von Mehks, to spend the week with him in Sardinia, and they saw more of Sardinia than of Karim. Three times a day he inspected the construction site at Porto Cervo; he lunched with engineers and architects; he held nightly work sessions at the hotel from 7 to 10 while his resigned friends dined alone. When Karim gets enthusiastic about a project, the world can entertain itself. His friends are all accustomed to this purposefulness.
One day, however, the Aga Khan suggested a cruise on the Amaloun to the spot that pleases him most, the yacht harbour at Porto Cervo, four miles down the coast from the hotel. A few hundred yards from the port Karim turned to his guests and said:
I’ll bet you can’t find the harbour from here. (No one could.) It is extraordinary (,he said). The entrance is only 320 feet wide. It is a kind of pirates’ cove. We’ve forbidden any construction on the shore to preserve the hideaway character. The water is 45 feet deep in the middle, and along our 1,060-foot quay it is 21 feet deep. It is such a large harbour that we are building three separate series of moorings. Last year we had only a pontoon, yet 120 yachts tied up in August, more than at Portofino. Eventually Porto Cervo will be one of the finest ports in the world, and civilised, too. I mean, nobody will throw tomatoes at the boats, anchor lines won’t get tangled and a yachtsman will not feel he is an animal in a zoo.
Rowing himself and friends ashore, Karim made immediately for the chief engineer’s shack. Speaking Italian, he discussed a blueprint of the quay with the engineer and several construction bosses. Twice he contradicted the Italians about the height of quays on a neighbouring island. “I know,” he said. “I sailed there yesterday to check it.” The Italians may well have thought the Prince was a young man with too much money, but they respected his ability to read blueprints, speak their language and measure quays.
Actually, Karim is one-fourth Italian. He was born in a Geneva clinic on December 13, 1936 to Prince Aly Khan and Joan Yarde-Buller, who was previously married to Loci Guinness, of the banking, not the beer. Guinnesses. As Aly was half Persian and half Italian and Karim’s mother was English, the leader of the Ismailis is one-quarter Persian, one-quarter Italian and half English. His looks suggest that he could come from any of half a dozen countries — European countries. He stands just under 5 feet 11 inches and weighs 178 pounds. Although he keeps in superb physical trim, eats moderately and drinks nothing alcoholic, he tends to put on weight. He has a strong, straight nose, hazel eyes that at times seem greenish, straight brown hair and the receding hairline that runs in the family. His soft manner of speech sounds, to American ears, like English English. And he is, as he puts it, “shortsighted.” Actually, he is so nearsighted that he usually wears contact lenses.
I had 20-20 vision when I entered Harvard (,he says). I don’t know why, but my eyes deteriorated there rapidly.
At the outbreak of World War II, Karim, then a child of 3, and his younger brother Amyn went with a nurse to Lebanon, presumably a safe spot. But when France fell, the children were bundled off to Egypt. In 1941 German and Italian troops drove dangerously close to Cairo, and it was thought wise to take the boys to Nairobi, Kenya, where the family owned a home. The house in which (he future Aga Khan spent his boyhood is now the residence of Kenya’s leader, Jomo Kenyatta.
The future Aga Khan was tutored daily not only in the usual subjects, but in Arabic, Urdu, the Qur’an and Islamic culture. An Islamic instructor continued Karim’s religious education in Rolle and Gstaad in Switzerland, where, from the age of 8 to 17. Karim attended the fashionable Le Rosey prep school.
At Le Rosey, where his classmates included the Duke of Kent, the present King of the Belgians, Baudouin, and Prince Victor Emmanuel of Italy, Karim admits he could not have cared less about studies or more about sports.
(He played tennis, soccer,) even basketball, but only because they could get no one else.
He ran the 80-yard dash, broad-jumped and threw the shot-put. Forced to choose between skiing and ice hockey, Karim selected hockey. Le Rosey’s hockey team was so strong that it competed against men’s teams in the national championships. Karim also stroked a four-man crew to victory in 1953 at Lucerne in the Swiss national open rowing championship. He won almost every athletic medal and trophy Le Rosey presented, including an award for the giant slalom that was named after his stepmother: the Rita Hayworth Cup.
Both his father and grandfather, active athletes in their own youth, strongly encouraged Karim to engage in sports. The old Aga Khan was a physical-culture enthusiast who enjoyed boxing and took long cycling tours around Europe. Eventually he replaced these more violent forms of exercise with tennis and golf. “I know of no more exhilarating sport than jackal hunting in the rice fields near Bombay early on a cold winter morning,” the Aga once declared. And he was proud of having pioneered field hockey in India and Pakistan.
(Aly Khan, in Karim’s words,) played good tennis, skied a bit, jumped horses, rode wonderfully and won more than 100 races as a gentleman jockey.
Karim’s great-grandfather, Aga Khan II, was a big-game hunter who specialised in tigers. He died in 1885 from a chill he caught while water-fowling near Poona. The sporting tradition in Karim’s aristocratic Persian family goes far, far back and may best be summed up in three words: hawks, hounds, horses. Karim shares his ancestors’ love for hounds and horses but abhors hunting.
Once I killed a rabbit (,he says). It was awful. I never hunted again.
Karim eventually ended up with fair grades at Le Rosey but, even so, he says,
I was thoroughly lost when I got to Harvard. I had done my secondary work in French and was poorly read in English. My reading capacity in English was deplorable. I was unaccustomed to finding myself a number in a big bowl. I knew no one. So I got into the freshman rut: to bed at 4 in the morning after a terrific bull session and up at noon. I cut too many classes. I found my feet only at the end of my sophomore year.
In a sense, Karim found his feet in his freshman year, but that was on the soccer field.
My legs were particularly strong (,he says,) and in Europe I had naturally been thoroughly trained in soccer’s techniques. I made the freshman team, and we went through the season undefeated. I played outside left and scored occasionally. I think I skied once for the freshman team in a meet. I was not nearly good enough to make the ice hockey team, and I did not make the crew either. I was too heavy for the 150-pounders and not big enough for the regular crew. As for watching athletic events, I never did go to see a baseball game. American football puzzled me. Either I bothered my neighbours for explanations all the time or I understood nothing. If you cannot fathom a game, it is a bore.
In 1957, his junior year, two impressive things happened to Karim. He made the dean’s list and became the Aga Khan. He decided he would have to interrupt his studies, but in the fall of 1958 he returned to Harvard accompanied, because of his new political and religious functions, by a “public relations representative.” Karim badly needed someone to arrange things with the press because, as the Aga Khan, he was in great demand for interviews, especially on television. On one U.S. nationwide television show Karim was asked by a sceptical journalist how long he could go on being the Imam of millions of Muslims, a student and athlete at Harvard, and continue to give interviews.
Not for very long (,replied Karim,) and this will be one of my last interviews. (It was.)
In June 1959 Karim graduated with a cum laude degree in history and his varsity H for soccer.
Cum laude at Harvard is not very impressive (,Karim says,) but it did make me feel as if I had progressed since my fumbling freshman beginnings. Had my grandfather not died, I intended to study for a doctorate.
He will never have time to do that now, for his responsibilities are too wide-ranging and time-consuming. Karim, whose name means “the open-hearted” or “the generous,” is one of an uninterrupted line of Imams who can trace their ancestry some 1,300 years directly back to the prophet Muhammad. Most Muslims, it is true, do not recognise Karim as the Imam, but the Shia Ismaili sect does. This means that for them Karim’s word in religious matters is final. In secular affairs the Ismailis consult the Aga Khan, but they are not obliged to heed his advice.
Most numerous in Pakistan, India, Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika, but present also in Southeast Asia, throughout the Middle East and elsewhere in Africa, the Ismailis have no common homeland, but they do possess a flag. It is a diagonal red stripe on a green background. Like the Chinese in Indonesia and the Philippines, the Ismailis are primarily thriving shopkeepers, merchants and middlemen. This is particularly true in East Africa, India and Pakistan. By and large they are better off economically and better educated than the populations among which they live. This is not an altogether happy state of affairs, since it exposes the Ismailis to discrimination, persecution and, as recently occurred in East Africa, to physical attack. Thirty Ismailis were killed in the Zanzibar revolution last January.
Karim is well aware of the dangers facing his people in nationalistic Africa and in underdeveloped India and Pakistan. He has launched an ambitious industrialisation program to modify radically the economic role of the 250,000 Ismailis in the new African states.
We Ismailis must toil with our hands as well as our brains, on factory assembly lines and in offices as well as in shops (,he repeatedly has told members of his East African community). We must also work hand in hand with the newly liberated Africans.
Such a profound change in the Ismailis’ agreeable, comfortable way of life naturally has encountered some resistance. The general looting of shops in Tanganyika during the last crisis has served, however, as a warning.
Karim has a practical means of preaching realism in East Africa. He owns a string of 15 English and Swahili newspapers. Well before the two British colonies won their independence, Karim’s newspapers set out to make readers “more African-than European-minded.” In a cautious way they suggested that a political meeting of 20,000 Africans might be more important than a garden party of 200 Europeans. Not only has history proved Karim right, but his pre-independence point of view has won solid friends for the Ismailis in the new African states.
If Karim is asked how rich he is, he laughs and says:
Not nearly so rich as you think.
The truth is that he probably does not really know how much money he has. The old Aga Khan once commented: “I have seen estimates of both capital and income so inaccurate that not one but two noughts at the end should be knocked off.” But this is not to suggest that Prince Karim is not tremendously wealthy. His way of life displays what the French income tax forms so engagingly call “the exterior signs of riches.”
After Harvard, and even though I was the Aga Khan (,Karim says,) I hated the thought of becoming a rich lizard. So I decided to take up an active sport again, skiing, and I built a chalet in Gstaad in the Bernese Alps.
Karim’s three-story, 13-room Swiss chalet, with its white walls, grey stone corners, dark-brown tile roof and golden-brown carved wood balconies, resembles the sober chalets of the region. Sober, too, is the interior. Apart from framed paintings of Alpine flowers, modern copies of Persian miniatures and a herd of ivory elephants on a ledge, the walls bear no works of art. To see the Aga Khan here is to once again sense his purposefulness.
A white-coated butler and Karim’s shepherd dog receive visitors at the door. A minute or two later, the punctual Prince emerges from his study and suggests coffee.
We can chat for an hour or so (,he says). Then I have a series of meetings with Ismaili leaders who have just arrived from Pakistan and India.
Conversations with the Aga Khan are invariably interrupted by long-distance telephone calls or meetings with men who have come long distances.
Did you see that post in the front yard as you came in? (Karim asked.) It has an electronic eye that opens the garage door. It enables visitors to avoid walking in the snow. It also allows me to drive into the garage without getting out to open the doors and finding myself at the mercy of telephoto maniacs. If a photographer is polite enough to ask me for permission, 99 times out of 100, I say, ‘Go ahead and shoot,’ or I suggest another place and time. I just don’t like to be treated like an animal.
I take all sorts of precautions when I go out with friends. I have taught myself not to show any emotion in public places. I never sit next to a woman with whom the press is trying to link me. Here in Gstaad I go often to a bistro outside the village for a fondue because the proprietor will not let anyone take pictures in his establishment. I stopped going to certain Paris theatres because I discovered they were tipping off the press to my presence. I realise that I may seem extreme on the subject, but do not forget that my mail has been stolen and my servants bribed. Close personal friends have taken private snapshots of me in my home and then sold them to magazines. I have been blackmailed on the telephone. All I desire is to have my private life respected. Is that unreasonable?
The one place he moves into the public eye — because it cannot be avoided — is on the ski slopes.
I decided to participate in ski races because I love competitive sports and rough training (, he says). Good or bad skier, I knew the training and the racing to be excellent discipline. I like the atmosphere in ski racing, too. It is a democratic sport. One’s name does not count.
With spectators at ski meets, however, especially women spectators, the Aga Khan’s name does count. When the loudspeaker announces the departure of “Son Altesse l’ Aga Khan” they do not miss a movement of the descending skier. They encourage him with bravos and surround him at the bottom of the piste. Karim will answer questions at such moments and sign autographs politely if not enthusiastically. He does not lose his temper — though he might be excused if he did. At Wengen this year he had to escape admirers by skiing off at full speed under a railroad trestle. At Chamonix, in another mob scene, when an American reporter asked if he could do something for him, Karim answered, “Yes, help me get away from here!“
Another cause of embarrassment is the numbered jersey he must wear while racing. It often displays an ad for some alcoholic aperitif — this being a ski-race sponsor’s right.
I do not like the thought that the Ismailis may see a newsreel film of some competition (,Karim says,) and think their Imam was drinking, or urging other people to do so.
How good a skier is the Aga Khan? A very good one. He is not in a class with the top 40 in the Alps, but he is close. In major European ski competitions he is likely to place 50th out of a field of 100.
For someone who does something besides ski, that is a creditable performance. There are no miracles in sport, though, and Karim owes his showing to the serious training he undergoes with the Austrian national team. True, he has his own coach, Hans Senger, a former Austrian champion, but he also follows the Austrians from one physical education course and ski resort to another. In 1962 Karim participated in the world championships at Chamonix as a member of the British team.
In the downhill training I took a fall and banged myself up (, he says). I felt punchy afterword and missed qualifying for the slalom final by a second. I fared better in the giant slalom, however, and finished 37th.
The British hoped that Karim would ski with them in the Innsbruck Olympics, but the Iranians invited him first. Moreover, the British team’s training period coincided with independence ceremonies in Kenya and Zanzibar that Karim had to attend.
By another unfortunate coincidence the Olympic Games took place in Austria exactly at the moment that rioting swept parts of East Africa, taking a toll of Ismaili lives and property. Ismaili leaders showered Karim in Innsbruck with cables asking advice on whether to try to hold on in Africa or to return to India and Pakistan. Other Ismailis flew to Innsbruck to consult Karim.
I am not looking for excuses, but I was not psychologically prepared for the Olympics. I did not have my mind 100% on the races (,says Karim).
In a practise run Karim skied off the treacherous downhill run — the so-called piste de la mort — into the branches of a tree. He was lucky to escape serious injury. When autograph hunters rushed at him down below, Karim tried to get away — by skiing backward. It turned out the fall had torn a big hole in the seat of his pants. At Innsbruck, Karim placed 53rd out of 96 in the giant slalom and 59th out of 84 in the downhill.
It was (,as he puts it,) respectable if not glorious.
Travelling from one ski race to another, Karim clocks 12,000 miles every winter in his red Volkswagen. For anyone unaccustomed to icy Alpine roads it is a frightening experience to drive with him. But Karim has never had a serious accident, either in a car or on skis. The one time he broke his leg it was high-jumping. Prudently, the Prince skips certain downhill races if they look “really dangerous.”
As Aga Khan, I cannot afford to risk my life on a piste (,he says).
However, the speeds at which he habitually drives a car — 90 to 145 miles an hour, road permitting — strike many as “really dangerous.”
This summer he had a minor, but ominous, accident on the way to the horse races at St. Cloud. It occurred only a quarter mile from the scene of his father’s fatal crash. But Karim has great confidence in his driving ability, and in the quality of his cars. He changes them often. Recently he sold his Lancia and the two Maseratis. He replaced them with a new Maserati and his favourite, a dark-blue 5.7-litre Iso-Rivolta.
Karim is going to keep driving as he pleases, but he says he will pass up the top ski races next year.
I’ve hung up my racing skis forever (,he insists). I no longer have the time.
There are a lot of Alpine skiers who doubt this. They know Karim’s passion for the sport. What they do not know is that the ski-loving Aga Khan has just discovered a stimulating new activity: flying.
Piloting (,he says,) that’s what I’m going to take up next. A man must not stand still.
A mistake which this prince seems unlikely to make.
- Sports Illustrated, Prince Karim Aga Khan, 10 August 1964, pp 56, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/edb/reader.html?magID=SI&issueDate=19640810&mode=reader_vault
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