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Pakistani shock jock wins over young crowd

On his radio show, the Oxford-educated Fasi Zaka insults listeners, questions sacred truths and dispenses mass therapy. His irreverence has earned him criticism and a few death threats.

September 02, 2009|Mark Magnier

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Fasi Zaka settles his 320-pound frame into a swivel chair in the small, stuffy FM studio, pulls his microphone close and lets it rip.

An upwardly mobile caller seeks a girlfriend and wonders whether he should move overseas for love and fortune.

Adopting an exaggerated posh South Asian accent, Zaka gently mocks the man's concerns.

"I want young girl. I am engineer," he says, speaking in a clipped, whiny fashion for comic effect. "Give me green card. I love America," he continues, before letting out a belly laugh and moving on to the next caller: "OK, buddy, hope you get someone."

In a country with conservative Islamic values whose government is battling the Taliban, rampant corruption, frequent suicide bombings and a limping economy, Zaka skirts the edge, variously insulting listeners, questioning sacred truths and dispensing mass therapy.

The idea of a Pakistani shock jock underscores some of the nuances, complexity and diversity of a society often seen by foreigners as little more than a land of suicide bombers, inflammatory mullahs and political turmoil.

In a recent tongue-in-cheek article, Zaka speculated what two fictional Pakistani Taliban leaders, Breath (bad) Nullah from Waziristan and Fuzz Gandah Nallah from Swat, might say at an English tea party.

"We should also take action against Cartoon Network."

"Yes, we should. Tom is always chasing Jerry. They are always naked."

"Yes, it is an American conspiracy to spread sex."

Even as he's panned as frivolous or ignored by some critics and establishment types, Zaka's irreverent tone has hit a chord with the mostly 16- to 25-year-old set, making his radio program among the most popular in the nation. A core operating principle: Pakistanis are so weighted down by daily life that they need a laugh.

The 3-year-old "Fasi Zaka Show" on FM 91, which airs nationwide three nights a week from 10 to midnight, has been described as part Jon Stewart, part Monty Python, part stripped-down Howard Stern.

"Stripped down because Howard Stern has no limits," says Hassan Gulfaraz, a frequent co-host. "We're in a very conservative country . . . which means we have to be more creative."

Zaka doesn't exactly fit the mold for someone in this line of work. The 32-year-old ethnic Pashtun from the woolly North-West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan is an Oxford graduate and Rhodes scholar. After school he ignored family pressure to become a doctor, lawyer or multinational functionary.

One recent riff on the show involved repeated playing of the military ballad "Oh Pak Navy!"

"We are playing the Pakistani navy song in case someday the Taliban learns how to swim," Zaka explained into the microphone.

"Or their donkeys," Gulfaraz said.

"Oh Pakistan, you are the pride of our nation," Zaka continued. "The Pakistani army never had time to get ready for the Taliban, so we want to encourage the navy."

His irreverence occasionally draws threats. A religious caller seven months into the show threatened repeatedly to kill him. Text messages periodically heap abuse, including a recent one that read, "I'm from the Taliban. Let's see if you still have this show when we come to power."

But those tend to be the exception.

"It's a good program that really connects with young people," says Fatima Hussain, 16, a student. "I love it."

Some have been less effusive, chiding its disrespectful tone, widespread use of slang and "lightweight content."

"I wouldn't call it frivolous -- it has its moments," says Nadeem Farooq Paracha, a cultural critic. "But it's a bit silly."

Others say Zaka is squandering a golden opportunity to be constructive and to foster moderation in a confused younger generation.

"It bothers me when people do silly entertainment shows when we really need people to make a difference," says Mani, another radio host, who uses only one name.

Radio hosts don't have to be boring and didactic to get their message across, counters Zaka, pointing to frequent discussions on extremism, women's equality and the violence sweeping Pakistan.

"They presume preaching is the way for change," he says. "It isn't."

The chain-smoking Zaka shows his more serious side and strong liberal leanings in regular op-ed columns. In short order, over pizza in his bare-bones Islamabad apartment, largely devoid of pictures or much in the way of personal effects, he criticizes Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari as uneducated and small-minded, the Obama administration strategy for the region as naive and a feeding trough for corrupt local officials, and Pakistani society as unwilling to face tough problems.

"We're an ostrich nation, really," he says. "We're just hoping it all goes away."

Despite the show's wing-it format, Zaka keeps a few ground rules. Sex, drugs and religion are addressed at best peripherally, in line with social mores.

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