- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2006


One is Pakistan’s cross-dressing answer to Dame Edna Everage, while the other hosts a macho car-racing program. The two are brothers and are at the forefront of the television revolution in this Islamic republic.

Even if their styles are miles apart, Ali and Umar Saleem, the sons of a retired army colonel, have both opted for the bright lights of the new cable channels that are avidly watched by Pakistan’s young people.

Ali Saleem dons a jeweled sari and makeup to become (Mrs.) Nawazish Ali, his feminine alter ego, for his weekly talk show, where he greets his guests with a cabaret song and a mix of saucy banter and hard-hitting questions.

“The purpose of the show is to break barriers and to show that there is no man or woman, no Pakistan or India, no gay and no straight,” says Ali Saleem, 27.

“The Late Night Show With Begum Nawazish Ali” appears on Aaj Television, Pakistan’s third main private channel and one of dozens that have sprung up under liberal media laws introduced by military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

His creation, a glamorous, catty widow looking for a husband, has raised a few eyebrows in conservative Pakistan, but urbanites have largely greeted Ali Saleem with a mixture of amusement and applause.

“When I wear the sari, I only get adoration, I only get praise. I have never had any threats or discrimination, not from the fundos (Islamic fundamentalists),” says Ali Saleem, whose talk-show guests have included rape victim Mukhtaran Mai, an Islamic hard-liner, various politicians and a Bollywood actress and director.

He says his dream guest is Mr. Musharraf himself, “although the president might get intimidated by Begum Nawazish Ali.”

The roots of the character, Ali Saleem says, are in his childhood.

“When I was a child, I was very fond of wearing my mother’s dupattas (head scarves). I liked to look at myself in the mirror and admire myself as a lady,” he says.

“I prayed to Allah. I wanted to be a girl and wanted to wear dresses.”

After the show, he ducks into his changing room and reappears in scruffy black jeans, a T-shirt and light stubble. Only the bouffant hairdo — his own and not a wig — remains.

Asked about his sexuality, he replies: “I discount these boundaries, I believe that all this conversation is passe. I am trysexual, with a Y.”

His program follows in the footsteps of several satirical shows spawned by the end of the state monopoly on broadcasting in 2003.

Meanwhile, “High Octane,” Umar Saleem’s program on rival HUM TV, is more straightforward and celebrates the joys of fast cars and vintage automobiles.

“Ali and I are a lot different; we love each other to bits, but we don’t move in the same scene,” Umar Saleem, 26, says.

A rally driver and motor sports fan, he says he wants to be Pakistan’s version of Jeremy Clarkson, the host of the popular BBC car show “Top Gear.”

Umar Saleem reinforced his motor-head credentials when his car rolled at about 100 mph in a cross-country rally last year. He lost the tip of his ear but escaped serious injury. “High Octane,” he says, taps into the growing fascination with luxury products and leisure activities among Pakistan’s young rich, fueled by an economic boom at the top end of the country’s 150 million people.

Umar Saleem says he tried to dissuade his brother when Ali announced his plans to appear on television in drag, fearing he would provoke trouble from religious conservatives.

“But I am surprised how no one really has given him any trouble. People will come to me to say nice things about my show, but there are grown men who will walk up to him and salute him,” Umar Saleem says.

He says, however, that his brother’s show is “not really my cup of tea” and that he doubts whether Ali sits down to watch a program about motor racing.

Umar is mistaken, Ali Saleem says, even if he and his younger sibling are “poles apart.”

“I do watch his program,” Ali says, “but we have very little in common. Every time we have a conversation, we have a fight because we have radically different views on life.”

Their father, Col. Ahmad Zafar, says he is proud of the mini media dynasty his “amazingly talented” boys have created, even if he is at a loss to explain why they are so different.

He also has a gentle word of warning for Ali and his drag-queen act.

“I keep praying for his success every time I go to the mosque,” the soft-spoken officer says, “but I have just made a suggestion to him that he should start going on to an absolutely different role instead of continuing to keep on treading the same road.”

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