Begum Nawazish Ali
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Begum Nawazish Ali flirts with the country’s law minister, batting her long eyelashes and calling him darling. She kisses one of the minister’s sons on the cheek and practically asks another son to marry her. All in front of the television cameras.
“Look at my hands,” she tells the minister, showing off her French manicure.
“Your hands are beautiful,” he responds. “I feel like kissing them.”
This is the most outrageous TV program in Pakistan, one that has regularly violated conservative Islamic rules and Pakistani customs while becoming a top-rated talk show. But Ali is more than just a mouthy woman, and that’s what makes this popular show truly revolutionary, even subversive.
Ali is actually a mouthy man in drag.
Because of this, Ali, played by actor Ali Saleem, 28, is able to shatter every cultural and religious norm. Pakistani men and women normally do not flirt publicly. Television hosts do not call people “darling,” or refer to President Pervez Musharraf as “brother Pervez” or insinuate about all their affairs.
Most men do not publicly hug women or kiss them on the cheek. Conservative Muslims do not even shake a woman’s hand. Last month, religious scholars at the Lal Masjid, a controversial mosque in Islamabad, even declared that the country’s female tourism minister should be fired because she hugged her skydiving teacher in Paris.
But Saleem, portraying a lusty 40-something widow of an Army colonel, can hug a man and kiss him on the cheek, even though Saleem appears to be a woman. He can hug a woman because he’s dressed as one.
Saleem has become a celebrity able to slip sexual innuendo past strict censors and push the limits on what Pakistani society accepts.
“In this country, the more hype you have, the more indestructible you are,” said Fayez Agariah, 30, who designs most of Ali’s saris. “People are awestruck because he’s on TV. He’s not a transsexual. He’s not a transvestite. He plays a character. There’s no label for him.”
The show, called “Late Night Show with Begum Nawazish Ali,” also underscores the extremes of modern-day Pakistan, which most Westerners associate more with jihad-spouting Islamic fundamentalists than gender-bending performance art. The parliament features outspoken women who would sooner shave their heads than be forced to cover their hair, alongside men who believe Pakistan should be run under Islamic law. Alcohol is difficult to obtain legally, but all-night rave parties feature cocaine and club-drug Ecstasy.
The contradictions are often difficult to resolve: At the Karachi airport last month, a woman in a black burqa that covered everything but her eyes held the hand of her son, who sported blue jeans and a T-shirt proclaiming, “No money, no honey.”
Strangely, the television show has not sparked many complaints.
“Living in a so-called extremist society, I have never received any threats, I have never received any hate mail,” Saleem said in an interview.
Since it first aired in the summer of 2005, the show had been recorded in Karachi, the cultural and business hub of Pakistan, in a room that looks something like a bordello sitting room, all lush velvet, curtains, dim lights and pillars. But recently, the program hit the road, looking for provocative guests.
Some fancy Begum Nawazish Ali’s grand outfits and dramatic makeup. Others like the character because she preaches love, goodwill and tolerance, even between rivals Pakistan and India. And for some, there’s another reason.
“He is looking very beautiful as a she,” said Fareed Ahmed Khan, 38, who runs an electronics store in Karachi. “I know he’s a man. But when I see him - just tell her she is very beautiful.”
Not everyone is an admirer. An online petition urges the Aaj television station to make Begum Nawazish Ali pack “its” bags. It says it has collected 532 signatures. Some men say the show has lost its charm. Some women find it vulgar.
“It’s like a freak show,” said Shahida Jamil, the former minister of law and the environment. “It’s an aberration. It’s not normal Pakistan. People watch, I think, because of fascination and discomfort.”
On the program, Begum Nawazish Ali comes across like a kinder David Letterman or a smarter Ali G, except in drag. Guests run the gamut from Indian movie celebrities to Pakistani politicians. This is where famous Pakistani people come to rehabilitate their image or just look cool, as if they’re in on the joke.
So the men flirt back with Begum Nawazish Ali and offer to marry her and smile, sometimes awkwardly, when she makes jokes about joysticks, having affairs with the fathers of guests and being too drunk to perform at a wedding.
At a show recorded in Islamabad late last month, the country’s embattled law minister, Wasi Zafar, and the television host sat in armchairs in his garden. Zafar has been under attack for recommending the suspension of the country’s chief justice, a hugely unpopular move. Zafar later verbally assaulted a reporter on live radio, earning even more criticism.
This late-night show was his attempt at redemption, at a softer image. Zafar occasionally appeared nervous, shifting his eyes back and forth, unsure of how to respond to the host’s more salacious questions but managing to appear friendly. Begum Nawazish Ali wore heavy makeup, sleek hair and a shimmery blue-and-gold sari that showed off plenty of skin.
“What do you keep on your table?” she asked. “Do you like things like me on your table?”
“I’ve got files and papers on my table,” Zafar responded. “Things like you are not supposed to be on tables.”
His son, Umair Wasi, 24, stood off to the side, his arms folded on his chest. “This is just against nature,” he said.
Off the air, Saleem is still a bit of a diva, speaking in exclamation points and “darlings.” He keeps his long fingernails painted between shows and his eyebrows plucked, resulting in the bizarre contrast of Saleem smoking a cigarette with beard stubble, groomed brows and bright red nail polish. Turning him into Begum Nawazish Ali takes a team of up to five people two hours, for the heavy makeup and architectural hair.
Last month, Saleem wanted to interview Mullah Abdul Rashid Ghazi, one of two brothers who runs the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, the Islamabad mosque that is pushing for Islamic law in Pakistan and complaining about the country’s tourism minister. A show featuring the mosque official would be a huge publicity coup.
“Whoever gets me Lal Masjid gets a blank check,” Saleem announced to his staff.
The director made the pitch to Ghazi, meeting the cleric at his mosque and even handing over a copy of an earlier show with a conservative cleric. Ghazi seemed interested. But eventually he said no. The whole idea of a man dressing up as a woman is against Islam, he said, and is just too much.