Unassuming, down-to-earth and soft spoken, tennis ace Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi embodies the spirit of Aman ki Asha, together with his Indian doubles partner Rohan Bopanna, who deserves, he says, “as much credit” for the tremendous support they have received around the world – for their tennis as much as for their message of peace.
Aisam held an extensive meeting with Aman ki Asha in Karachi recently, along with his father Ihtisham-ul-Haq Qureshi. Although details are yet to be worked out, he agreed to participate in a match for Aman ki Asha that would be a fundraiser for the victims of the massive floods that have devastated Pakistan.
The meeting was followed by a lunch hosted in his honour by Aman ki Asha, attended by several prominent sports personalities besides members of the Jang, Geo and News organisations.
Even before this meeting, “The Indo Pak Express” as Aisam and Rohan are known, had publically and whole-heartedly expressed their support for Aman ki Asha, the peace initiative launched by the two largest media houses of Pakistan and India on January 1, 2010.
The slogan “Stop War, Start Tennis” emblazoned behind their track jackets at Wimbledon this year sharply focused the world’s attention on the peace dimension. (“It was Aisam’s idea,” said his father, when asked. “We got an Italian company to make the jackets.”)
Their consistently fine tennis, starting with the win at the South African Open in Johannesburg in February this year, began capturing “the imagination of tennis fans everywhere,” as Inderpreet Sahota commented, in a BBC report after they reached the third round of Wimbledon in June – the first Indo-Pak doubles team to do so. They also pushed tennis to the forefront in cricket-mad South Asia.
“We’ve seen a bigger picture apart from tennis, and it’s about changing people’s views. If we can change even one person’s view, we’ll take it as a positive,” Aisam said. “It’s really nice to see Indians and Pakistanis sitting together supporting one team. You don’t see that anywhere else, in any sport. Our on-court and off-court relationship proves that Indians and Pakistanis can get on fine.”
When The Times of India called to ask if they’d be willing to play a match at the Wagah border, Aisam and Rohan agreed immediately. The idea was for Rohan to play on the Pakistani side and Aisam on the Indian side. “We’re eager to play this match,” Aisam told Aman ki Asha. “But permissions are very difficult to get.”
Given the current policies, each would need a visa allowing him to play on the other side – a multiple entry visa preferably. There might even need to be a customs clearance for the ball (green and orange, perhaps?).
Aisam’s efforts for peace have been recognised around the world. In 2003, the Association of Tennis Professionals’ awarded him and his then doubles partner, Amir Hadad, an Israeli, the prestigious Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year award for playing together despite pressure from people in their respective countries. (Hadad retired shortly afterwards).
In January 2010, Aisam became the first Pakistani to be selected for the Champions of Peace Club of outstanding sports champions dedicated to serving peace, started by the non-profit international organisation Peace and Sport (http://www.peace-sport.org).
Rohan Bopanna was made a member in June this year.
“We told them (Peace and Sport) about the Wagah match idea, and they loved it. They have written to the prime ministers of India and Pakistan seeking permission for the match, but there has been no forward movement on it,” says Aisam.
“All the major news networks have been calling and asking us about it,” said his father. “It would be wonderful if we could make it happen.”
After the US Open Finals, Aisam’s words about the “wrong perception” that the world has of Pakistan as a terrorist country made headlines everywhere. But this was not the first time he had said this. Talking to the BBC in June 2010, he said: “It’s about spreading a positive message about my country. We are loving people, we are hospitable. Pakistanis are basically not terrorists.”
The need to get this message across has driven him for years, his mother Nausheen Ihtisham, a former tennis champ herself, told Aman ki Asha. “The world sees him as a hero now, but for us he has long been a hero, burning with the desire to project Pakistan’s ‘soft image’.”
Aisam and Rohan’s spectacular game at the US Open Finals on Sept 10 – the eve of 9/11, as Bobilli Vijay Kumar noted in The Times of India – also came at a time when ties between India and Pakistan had plummeted to a new low.
Commenting on their game Kumar wrote, “it was clear that they trusted each other, which can’t be said of many Indo-Pak friendships. For once, nobody tried to be the big brother which automatically rubbed away any feeling of inferiority: they were equals out there…
“They are not playing for themselves any longer, or for their respective countries even; it’s become a much, much bigger game now Was it a coincidence that this year Eid and Ganesh Chaturthi have converged too? Maybe not. Maybe, Aman ki asha is not just a grand dream, after all.”