Think of Ali Saleem as the Ali G of Pakistan — if Ali G wore saris and makeup. Since 2005. the openly bisexual twenty-eight-year-old Saleem, who in everyday life wears jeans and a five o'clock shadow, has been transforming himself into Pakistan's most celebrated drag queen, the gorgeous female TV host of AAJ TV's insanely popular Late Night Show With Begum Nawazish Ail.
"I'm not even acting," says Saleem. "When I dress up as Begum, people address me as a lady. Even I believe I'm a woman."
But under the cosmetics is a pioneer with balls of steel — and possible political ambition. In this notoriously conservative and patriarchal country, only a man could get away with Begum's sexual innuendo, risky political gossip and blurring of boundaries. Between songs, she hosts politicians, mullahs and models to discuss women's rights. President Pervez Musharraf and Pakistan's conflicted relationship with the U.S.
Though the show was yanked for the holy month of Ramadan, it returns this month. And as the gulf widens between Pakistanis and their repressive leader (who has the support of the Bush White House), Begum's messages of love and tolerance have never seemed more timely.
"The policies America is following in this region are pushing people toward radicalism," says Saleem. "Not giving them any choice but to blow themselves up." But former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whom Saleem lovingly impersonated in a drag act. just announced she will return to political life from her exile in Dubai. This dovetails nicely with Saleem's own plans, which include a possible run for a seat In Parliament.
"I don't think I'm going to win," he says. "My ambition is to generate interest in democratic reform. Voter turnout in this country has never been more than twenty-five percent. If seventy-five percent of the population is not even casting a vote, those elections mean jack-all."