Lahore, Pakistan - "I'm a drag queen, darling…not an extremist…and I still say if Pakistanis had more self-respect, we'd be even more anti-American," says Ali Saleem, who glosses his lips and dons a sari each week to interview celebrities and politicians on his TV program Begum Nawazish Ali, a talk show sensation in Pakistan. "I'm not speaking religion; it's common sense."
From politics to culture, Ali says American intervention in Pakistan has “brought nothing but sadness” by supporting dictators and rendering Pakistan’s people impotent, constantly looking to the outside world, particularly the U.S., for help solving its own problems.
He sees his TV show as an attempt to rekindle a sense of pride and responsibility in his viewers. He uses our interview to call for a boycott of all American goods and cultural products. Pakistanis must “Turn within for inspiration.”
That’s what Ali did. Growing up in an army cantonment on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border during General Zia ul-Haq’s years, Ali always knew he was a woman and “would just sit and pray for hours and hours in one place and say again and again to Allah, ‘Make me a girl, please make me a girl.’”
Allah seemed to be listening. In the late '80s Zia ul-Haq’s plane mysteriously crashed, the Cold War drew to a close, and Ali’s first muse, the 35-year-old Benazir Bhutto, became Prime Minister. “I fell head over heels in love with her,” Ali says and discovered his uncanny ability to impersonate Benazir. He achieved a modicum of parlor fame performing “my Benazir” before his friends at school and later in elite theaters around Karachi.
But as years passed by, he fell deep into depression, unhappy living out his fantasies through the façade of another. He claims to have attempted suicide 17 times. But one day a surgeon in Lahore associated with a new private TV station took him aside and told Ali there was “a true diva within,” dying to come out.
When Musharaff liberalized the airwaves in 2003, it did. Ali stopped impersonating Bhutto and developed “the woman I was born to be” before the camera. Begum Nawazish Ali was born.
Ali tells me this story in his hotel room over cigarettes and fried shrimp at 2pm. He just woke up but is still tired. He drank a lot the night before. The conversation turns to sex.
“Any man off the street will be open for sex with another man, trust me, but ask them if they’re gay and of course they say no. In a way, Pakistan is much more open than it’s given credit for,” Ali says, despite draconian anti-sodomy laws and routine abuse of gender minorities.
I ask about the sexual revolution in the West, and drag TV hosts from the UK and U.S. Were they influences? “Not at all!” he exclaims. American “jeans, t-shirts, Coca-Cola, great.” But it’s not about Americanization, Ali emphasizes. “Pakistanis are evolving their own way forward.”
In fact, those who link internal sexual struggles too closely with the U.S. can actually do the movement a disservice by propagating the myth that homosexuality is derived from Western licentiousness, says Ali. He says homegrown heroines like Begum Nawazish Ali must give the underground gay scene public voice, not U.S. calls for gender equality.
“America just cares about its interests, not about principle,” says Ali. “You can’t trust it. It’s selfish and cold.” What Pakistan needs is a warm local face of difference, be it a male, female, or both.