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Pakistan's Most Unexpected Superstar

Ali Saleem, the openly bisexual, cross-dressing actor speaks exclusively about his work and fears for his safety

 

How much do you know about Pakistan? When you think of it do you think of curries and cricket, or the Taliban and terrorism? Situated right next to Afghanistan, and itself full of extremist Islamist strongholds, it has long been strategically important and after 9-11 it's on the front line as never before.

 

‘Begum’ is Pakistan's most popular TV chat show; its host, Begum Nawazish Ali, is television's most popular star. In a conservative, male-dominated country she asks the questions no-one else dares ask and has achieved more than any woman since the late Benazir Bhutto. What's her secret? It’s no secret; everyone knows she's a character played by a man.

 

Begum's creator, actor Ali Saleem, is a sensation in his own right. Openly bisexual and transvestite, he speaks exclusively with Impolite Conversation about being a modern man challenging centuries-old ideas in one of the most dangerous and strategically important countries in the world.

 

IC

Hello Ali and thanks for speaking with us. For our readers who are as yet unaware of your work, how would you introduce yourself?

 

Ali Saleem

Well I'm an actor; I started acting when I was 19 years old and I'm 34 now, which means I've been associated with the performing arts for the last 15 years. I've worked across all media, in theatre, TV and film, and I've had the privilege, or opportunity and good fortune, of not only having worked in Pakistan but also across the border in our neighbour India. That would be a professional introduction; on a personal level I'm just Ali Saleem, Mohammed Ali Saleem. I was born to a conventional family, my father being an army officer and my mother a civil servant in the government of Pakistan. I've had the good fortune of growing up in different parts of Pakistan and other than that I'm kind of a regular guy.

 

IC And you're best known in Pakistan and around the world for your alter ego, Begum Nawazish Ali...
 
Ali Saleem

Yes. Begum Nawazish Ali is a widow. Born into privilege, she comes from this very aristocratic Pakistani family and married into privilege itself again. She was married to a colonel back at the time when the army was in charge in Pakistan; she was married very young, and had a lot of exposure to society in her early life and then unfortunately her husband passed away. She decided, because she was still in love with him, never to remarry and spent many years in confinement, not socialising much or interacting with people. Then one day she decided to open her drawing room to the world, on camera and on stage and of course the rest is history.

 

IC Is Begum recording a series at the moment?
 
Ali Saleem

We're not recording right now; Begum was on air until about a month ago, before Ramadan. Now Begum is going to reinvent; to relaunch herself with a completely new look and feel. We are now in the rat race of show business which means reinventing and offering viewers something fresh. Trends have changed, times have changed, tastes and peoples' appetites for entertainment have grown so we have to clarify that appetite and cater to it. One must reinvent and that's what Begum is in the process of doing, and she will be back very soon.

 

IC

You represent a very different Pakistan from the one that is usually portrayed in the media here in the UK, i.e. teetering on the brink of becoming a failed state. Would you say you are more cosmopolitan than the mainstream and are the fundamentalists less powerful and representative of the mainstream too? How representative is either image of the reality in Pakistan for most people?

 

Ali Saleem

A few hours ago I was at the Governor of Punjab's house; he's the head of government in Pakistan's most populous province, accounting for 55% of the country's population. At his official residence this afternoon we had a fashion show in commemoration of International Hijab Day. Now the hijab is a headgear for women that is recommended, but not necessitated in Islam. There's been press against it, lots of debate against women wearing the hijab in the Western world. I was there personally with Meera, an actress who's very controversial in Pakistan for having worked in India, and we had the men from Jamat–al–Islam, which is the largest Islamist political party in Pakistan, as well as the president of the women's wing, members of parliament and ex-ministers, so it was a mixed gathering.

 

What I'm trying to say first of all is that it's important to understand how the media works. We rely heavily upon the media for information; we're all glued to television screens and stuff and we believe what we hear but we do not, maybe, spend the time and effort to validate a person's report, to find out the correctness of that reporting itself. The media is a tool that is being used for positive reasons and also for negative interests.

 

I am somebody who's very unorthodox, very unconventional; very different for the society I live in. Sometimes I feel that I’m kind of a misfit, that I don't even belong here, that I don't even belong to these people. I have to encounter these kinds of vices and prejudices, that narrowness of heart; the intolerance and hostility that I have to face, those are realities I have to live with. But at the same time I see there's another side to my country where I see that there are people who are as liberal, as open, or as broad-minded, as free in their thoughts and actions as I am. So it's very wrong to demonise and say that a certain country or a certain society is this way or that. I mean, I don't know what you base it on; I mean do you base it on stories that the media hype, that the media propagate? Because in a report on any part of the world, there's always another side; it's only what we decide to highlight more.

 

Pakistan is a complex country, very very very difficult to describe in words. I'm living it every day; there are days when I hate it, when I hate my existence here, when I hate my fellow Karachis being murdered, the people, the mindset and it's a struggle.

 

I'm thankful to Allah that I am a celebrity in this country, a national star – whatever you want to call it. I'm a Pakistani and I love my people and their spirit but another part of me wants to say that there is a vast population in Pakistan that still holds on to very un-evolved traditions and mindsets.

 

IC

So your work must be risky; do you incur the wrath of fundamentalists there?

 

Ali Saleem

At first I was on stage impersonating Benazir Bhutto, the first woman to have been elected head of government in any Islamic country around the world, and perhaps that's what made her so endearing, so enchanting to me – the fact that she was the first woman and because I have been a feminist since I was a kid.

 

As a child, to see a strong woman in this country, in a society where men have subjugated women and have restricted them to the small confines of the four walls of their home, I thought that Benazir Bhutto coming out was a symbol to me of strength, empowerment, progress and moderation. With role models like her at such a young age I grew up hoping that I would be able to pitch in my two cents in helping women become more free here.

 

I've always been on the side of the underdog. I remember as a child, growing up under [Military Dictator] Zia-ul-Haq, at the time when the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan and Pakistan was the front line state, the closest US ally in fighting off the infidels, the Soviets. Funding was going through us; millions of dollars were flowing to the Afghan freedom fighters, as they were called at that time, the Mujahadeen, the forerunners of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Because my father was in the army it was all happening in front of us. The army was ruling Pakistan and we were living in Quetta, a city in Balochistan province, close to the Afghan border, and we would feed Mujahadeen at our back door; they were asking for food and shelter and clothes and I saw it all very closely growing up.

 

I was pushed into political awareness and awakening at a very young age and always liked to fight for the underdog. If women, or anybody, were being ill-treated, I somehow found it my responsibility to take a stand for them, to protect them. I had neighbours who belonged to a sect that the government had declared non-Muslim and when they were being hassled I stood up for them, saying if you want to talk to them talk to me. That's just what I grew up with and Begum is a result of my childhood ambition to help others.

 

The honest answer is that yes, I live in constant fear. I have lived under that fear since I started acting professionally; when I did my first play when I was 19 years old in 1998 back in Karachi. This was a time when Karachi, I recall, was the only city in the country that had a lot of political problems; when I started as an actor I was doing political satire on stage and it was very risky. Somehow, maybe it was destiny, I found myself in a space where I had thought of myself as an entertainer but I was just entertaining; I had suddenly become a political performer.

 

IC

You mentioned Benazir Bhutto was a big inspiration to you as the first woman to be elected head of government in a Muslim country; you've achieved a few firsts of your own, haven't you?

 

Ali Saleem

Yes I have; but the problem is that the first woman Prime Minister in the Islamic world was assassinated in broad daylight in Pakistan and, after her assassination, her party formed the government for five years - they even wrote to the UN for help - and they still have not been able to apprehend her attackers; there's been no real attempt to. They just talk eyewash about it all to fool people.

 

It's a dangerous phase we are entering. Unfortunately suddenly there's the realisation that this might be my fate also; maybe that is what they'll do to me and whoever tries will walk off scot free. It’s so easy to silence whoever else tries to liberate, to help people climb or take that next step forward.

 

IC

Do you get many explicit threats from the extremists?

 

Ali Saleem

This is the first time I've spoken about this; I've never spoken about this to the Pakistani media because I've been advised against doing it but I'm telling you absolutely, there's been an organised conspiracy against me for the last six years. I was initially told that the [intelligence] agencies could be behind it and I was told get in touch with military intelligence (MI).

 

I must mention here that I started my show when Pervez Musharraf was the president and, after the fourth episode, I was invited for tea at MI headquarters. I wondered whether they would lock me up if I went and not let me out but was advised that I'd be fine so I went. On arrival I was received and given a photocall with all these officers; we had tea together and they gave me their mobile numbers and, “Begum said this is great for Pakistan, this is exactly what we want; we want to operate a progressive liberal democratic Pakistan. But please, there's just one thing we want to make clear, one thing you don't do in your programme is criticise the institution of the Pakistani army, or the ideology of Pakistan.” I assured them that my father's an army man so I would make sure of that. Then they gave me another number and said, “If you have any threats against you from any Taliban or extremists, just know that we're here to protect you; use this number.” That was in Pervez Musharraf's time.

 

And then the government changed, and so-called democracy returned to Pakistan. I was always a very strong activist for democracy and campaigner; I always spoke about democracy and tried to glorify it to people and extend the concept to them. I've become one of democracy's first few victims though, with an initial information campaign against me. I can't go into detail about the threats I have received but what makes the whole story terrible is I went to the law enforcement agencies, the police, I went to intelligence agencies, and asked them for their help and all I got, the response from them was, you know, “just chill, forget about it, don't get involved, why do you want to?” Instead of being helpful they shunned me away. When you realise that you are living in a society where you are being constantly attacked and there's nobody to protect you except Allah or God, whatever you want to call the divine being, then your perception changes and then you start losing hope, you start losing that connection you once felt with your story.

 

IC

You were at the centre of an international incident a couple of years ago when you appeared on ‘Bigg Boss’, the Indian equivalent of Big Brother, and Hindu nationalists staged deadly protests against the presence of Pakistani stars on the show. What did you take out of that experience?

 

Ali Saleem

‘Bigg Boss’ was a great experience for me because it taught me many things; it changed my perception about life and when I thought about it suddenly I realised that maybe the whole universe is like one big house, it's Bigg Boss's house and Bigg Boss is watching us. Unfortunately I did not go in prepared for Bigg Boss. My problem is that I've tried to lead a very honest and straightforward life, you know, I haven't been a hypocrite in my life, I've been very opinionated, very expressive of my opinions. I didn't go into Big Boss knowing what to expect, I went in because I had prior experience of working professionally in India, with Indian channels and production companies, with Endemol India, an offshoot of Endemol UK and my experience working with them was great. In Pakistan people in the media still don't have professional ethics. If you think about it, our independent media is in its infancy; it only really got moving in about 2004/2005 so things are still developing, whereas India has strong cinema, television and media industries; it's been around for much longer and working with them on a professional level as an actor was great – everything was spot on.

 

IC

A few years ago you were quoted in the Washington Post as saying: “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” Is that just Pakistan or do you think that's men general the world?

 

Ali Saleem The interview you're quoting was many years ago, at least five or six years ago and the thing is, each day one learns more about life and ones thoughts, perceptions, ideas and everything changes, how you look at things but yes, I did say it and I still own it; I did say it and I still reiterate the fact that there is a lot of sexual repression in Pakistan and I don't know so much about, because I'm not an authority either on sex or the international community so I can only speak for myself, and for my society and my surroundings and my environment. I have said that there's sexual repression and yes, people are looking for an outlet and I will say further that sex is a very basic human need and unfortunately has been, well, demonised and made, turned into a taboo in certain societies around the world which I condemn strongly. I think people exercising sexual liberation are more comfortable with their own existence and I feel that places and societies in the world where sexual repression exists we have very frustrated individuals and we see it being translated into aggression and violence and intolerance and negativity. So it's not about straight or gay, homosexual or heterosexual or bisexual, it's about opportunity and hello dude, everybody needs to get off so you make the best of what's available.

 

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