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 naughts 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, gray 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 theaters because I discovered they were tipping off the press to my presence. I realize 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 afterward 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.