While the biggest highlight of my trip to Karachi last week was definitely meeting all the applicants to the Pakistan Fellows Program, the most fun and surprising piece was getting to play squash twice during the week.
Pakistan has an incredibly illustrious history in squash – Pakistan dominated the sport for nearly five decades, starting in 1951 when Hashim Khan, a former squash coach in the British Army, won the British open (dominating then champion Mahmoud Karim of Egypt 9-5, 9-0, 9-0), and carrying through the reign of Jahangir Khan, considered by many to be the greatest player ever to play the sport – he won the Squash World Open six times and the British open 10 times, and had a 555 match winning streak from 1981 to 1986. Unfortunately since 1998, when Jansher Khan was defeated in the finals of the British open, squash has fallen from prominence in Pakistan, but there remains a proud history and tradition in Pakistani squash.
And so, the day I arrived in Karachi, after 20 hours of flights and then heading straight to the office to work, I was particularly excited when my Acumen colleague Humza Khan dusted off his squash racquet and took me out for a game. As I told Humza, on my spectrum of ways to spend a first night on the road, if the bottom of the spectrum is being alone in a hotel room ordering room service and watching crummy TV (and not being able to sleep because of jetlag), pretty near the top of the spectrum is getting to play a good game of squash with some (new) friends.
Yes, Karachi can feel very foreign, but to get the chance, within 12 hours of arrival, to step on a squash court with a colleague and then rotate through games with a bunch of other guys who were playing…at that moment when you’re on the court, everything else drops away and you are just two people playing a sport that you love, interacting as equals and using the shared vocabulary of a game. And in that moment you glimpse and feel your shared humanity with ease.
It made me think that it would be fabulous if it were easier to travel places and find a great squash match, cricket game, game of pick-up football, you name it. What better way to really get to know a place?
After our game that night, Humza (who does amazing work with youth football in Karachi) and I got to talking about sport, and he shared that the only time Pakistan feels and acts truly like a nation – and not tribes or sects or groups with regional differences – is when Pakistan plays a cricket match.
In sport we are human, and for a few brief moments all that makes us different is stripped away. I wonder how we might access that feeling and spirit more often.