El Cajon councilman sued over Miss Middle East pageant

Former contestant alleges Ben Kalasho propositioned her

Ben Kalasho allegedly waited for his one-on-one interview with Zhala Tawfiq in a darkened room with a camera.
  • Ben Kalasho allegedly waited for his one-on-one interview with Zhala Tawfiq in a darkened room with a camera.
  • Image by Andy Boyd

In El Cajon city councilmember Ben Kalasho’s words, he created the Miss Middle East Beauty Pageant to “empower” Middle Eastern women and award them the freedom to “wear what you want, marry who you want, vote, drive and have equal standings in court and community.”

Zhala Tawfiq was stripped of her crown

Zhala Tawfiq was stripped of her crown

The pageant is in its fourth year. Kalasho, who was elected to El Cajon’s City Council in 2016, boasts Miss Middle East is the “largest ethnic beauty pageant in the world.”

The pageant’s goal, adds Kalasho, is to provide Middle Eastern women a “vehicle for such bold and empowering steps. We owe it to our girls, our women, our future....”

Now, two former contestants are suing Kalasho and his pageant. They claim the contest is less a vehicle for boosting Middle Eastern women than it is a vehicle for Kalasho to commit fraud, obtain fame, harass and denigrate women, and, according to one contestant, a tool to lure women into having sex with him.

On June 7, Zhala Tawfiq, who won the crown in 2016, filed a lawsuit against Kalasho and the Miss Middle East Pageant for fraud and for posting fake nude photos of her online after the parties had a contractual dispute.

Now another former contestant has come forward with allegations that Kalasho harassed her and propositioned her to have sex with him in exchange for the crown.

I was terrified

Zhala Tawfiq, 26, decided to enter the pageant in 2016 despite working a full-time job and living in Los Angeles. “I knew the pageant was small and that it was not going to bring me substantial opportunities or career advancement, but I loved the mission and purpose of Miss Middle East,” she writes in a July 20 email.

On May 19, 2016, Tawfiq won the Miss Middle East crown. When the results were announced She approached center stage and took hold of the four-by-two-foot symbolic check for $2000.

Three days after the pageant, Kalasho and his wife Jessica, a former model who helps run the pageant, emailed Tawfiq with an employment contract to sign. The terms: Kalasho and his Miss Middle East Pageant would pay Tawfiq three installments of $666.66 over the course of the year as her prize money. In exchange, Ben or Jessica Kalasho wanted control of Tawfiq’s social media profiles in order to post messages, pictures, and promote the pageant. The contract also required Tawfiq to sell five tickets for the following year’s pageant and five tickets to Kalasho’s San Diego East County Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce (whose name has since changed) annual Royal Masquerade Party. Lastly, Kalasho required Tawfiq to appear at five additional chamber-of-commerce events.

Tawfiq says she found the proposed arrangement odd, but she gave Kalasho the benefit of doubt. “I was a bit suspicious but I also had no pageant experience. I told myself that this is probably common for all pageants. I figured that since they started a pageant and want it to be successful they would go by the book.”

However, after signing the contract, “I realized something was amiss. After I won, I had no agenda, no itinerary, and no duties as Miss Middle East. I finally emailed [Ben and Jessica Kalasho] a month later asking if they have an itinerary for upcoming events for the year so that I make sure I am available. I was eager and excited to get started, but unfortunately I learned quickly that the pageant was more for show than making actual real impact on the community.”

Tawfiq scheduled her own appearances, absent Kalasho’s direction. One month after winning, she visited educational camps for underprivileged children in Los Angeles and spoke about her culture, background, the pageant, and her work in the pharmaceutical industry. In July 2016 she appeared at a Women in Action conference in Chicago where she promoted the pageant without Kalasho’s direction. In December she hosted a party for Syrian refugees in El Cajon, again without Kalasho’s participation.

By that time Tawfiq had cashed two of the three checks for a total of $1332. Meanwhile she had spent several thousand dollars on hair, makeup, and clothes for photo-shoots and other appearances.

In March 2017, Kalasho posted a video on Tawfiq’s Facebook profile without Tawfiq’s approval. She wrote to Kalasho on Snapchat.

“Hi Ben, you should let me know next time you upload to my Facebook ;)”

Kalasho responded, “Nah.”

Tawfiq informed him she had changed her password and he should not “invade her [Facebook] and upload a video I am not even in.”

Kalasho’s shot back, “It’s part of your job. In it or not, it wasn’t a random thing…Duh…. Next upload will be next week. I suggest the password be accessible immediately.”

In April, Tawfiq was set to fly to Kurdistan on a vacation. She planned to promote the pageant on television and magazines in addition to visit family.

While at the airport waiting to depart, she found a fake Instagram account titled “Zhala_Tawfiq_Fanpage.” The account featured four doctored nude photos of Tawfiq. The profile description stated, “Leaked images of Miss Middle East Beauty Queen fan page.”

Tawfiq has never posed nude. She says she initally refused to pose in a bathing suit for a pageant photo-shoot, though she relented because the clothing designer was a breast-cancer survivor and the suit was conservatively fashioned for fellow survivors.

Asked whether she believes the Kalashos were behind the fake profile, Tawfiq says, “No doubt in my mind. When I saw them I couldn’t hold back the tears. I was terrified of someone getting a hold of it and spreading it on the internet. I would be humiliated, not to mention it could jeopardize my career.”

The profile was removed. On May 15, 2017, Kalasho informed Tawfiq that he was stripping her of her crown.

I wouldn’t hook up with him

Paris Kargar walks toward an outside table at True Food in Fashion Valley. She struts as if walking down the fashion runway. She is tall, thin. Her hair is straight and dark, her skin olive.

Jessica Kalasho found Kargar on Facebook and contacted her a few months before the 2016 competition. Jessica Kalasho and Kargar met at a Starbucks in Santee the following day. Minutes into the meeting,“I questioned whether the pageant was legit,” Kargar says in a thick Eastern European accent — she is half Persian and half Russian. “I’ve been in pageants before, big ones, and this is not how it is done. In my previous contests I had to fill out long applications, like 100 pages, with detailed questions. But Jessica just asked me for the $50 entry fee and basic information. In fact, even before completing the form she asks how many tickets I would like to buy because seats go fast. I wanted my friends and family to be able to attend so I bought ten tickets for $1000.”

Two months later Kargar arrived at the pageant rehearsals. It was the first time she met Ben Kalasho. Shortly after arriving, Kalasho told the contestants he wanted to meet them for one-on-one interviews.

Kargar remembers getting called into the room. “I walked in and it was just him with a camera in a dark room. It made me uncomfortable. I thought how strange the whole thing was. Before he turned on the camera he circled me and asked if I had a boyfriend. He got closer to me and whispered in my ear that I was so hot. He asked where I was going after the rehearsal. I said home. He then said that he couldn’t take his eyes off of me. I felt really small and couldn’t believe what was happening.”

Rehearsals began shortly thereafter. Kalasho asked the women to walk up and down the stage. While the women walked, Kargar says, Kalasho made rude comments about the women’s bodies. Kargar waited for someone to quit. She would have followed, except, “I had already bought the tickets for $1000 and paid for my dress, which was $15,000. So, by that point I was just too invested. I do remember thinking during the rehearsal, as he was standing there looking us up and down and making demeaning comments about our bodies, someone was going to walk out and if they did I would do the same. But no one left and no one said anything.”

Then it was Kargar’s turn to walk the stage. She remembers Kalasho commenting that her breasts were jiggling too much. He made her walk up and down four times, each time making additional comments. “I was embarrassed and ashamed, but I felt as if I had no choice.”

Kargar arrived late to the final day of rehearsals. She says Kalasho pulled her aside. “He said, ‘You wanna win tomorrow?’” Kargar recalls. “Then he said, ‘You stay here at the hotel tonight, with me, and you win.’

“I was shocked. I said no. He looked like he couldn’t believe I turned him down. I knew then that I wasn’t going to get a fair shot.”

Kargar finished fourth.

“Immediately after the competition he came up to me and sarcastically said, ‘Oh, you didn’t win? Well, maybe next year.’ I knew that he meant that I had lost because I wouldn’t hook up with him. He has this competition and says it’s to empower Middle Eastern women, and instead he treated us like we were his slaves.”

Kalasho’s advances didn’t stop there, says Kargar. She says he would often text her or contact her through social media. He sent half-naked selfies, she says.

The 2017 Miss Middle East Pageant was held at the Marriott in La Jolla on June 29. According to pageant volunteer Josh Parker, news of Tawfiq’s lawsuit “was this cloud over everyone. I noticed volunteers stopped showing up. It was obvious people did not want to participate. The girls started to feel more uncomfortable. [Kalasho] would curse all the time — ‘fuck this and fuck that.’ I texted him one night that he should stop, that some of the women were still teenagers. The next day I showed up and he’s cussing even more. At one point he told the girls that he controlled them and they should refer to him as god.”

On the fourth day of rehearsals, the contestants and workers learned of Tawfiq’s lawsuit through media reports.

“[That day], I remember he started yelling at everyone, cussing nonstop, forbidding anyone from talking to the media. I stayed because I want this to succeed. But now that I know what actually happened to [Tawfiq] and [Kargar], and putting together some of the other rumors, it all makes sense. As much as I believe in the mission, I have no faith that he is in it for the right reasons.”

Kalasho declined to comment on the allegations that he created the fake profiles and propositioned Kargar. In a June 7 statement, when the Reader broke the news that Tawfiq was suing, Kalasho had the following to say: “While it is an unfortunate circumstance, Tawfiq’s allegations are easily disproved and we too look forward to exposing her allegations to the bright light of proof at trial. As the founder and president of the largest ethnic pageant in the world, The Miss Middle East Beauty Pageant USA, we take pride in following all the legal necessary steps of executing binding contracts, of which we have in fact in the case at bar. We will protect our brand and reputation at all costs and will not yield to publicity stunts and erroneous allegations whereby ulterior motives and a chance for fame or hunger for money are the clear and evident reasons for such dispute.”

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


He served in the California House of Representatives from 1967 to 1983, and in the California State Senate from 1983 to 1993. He is the first Iraqi-American elected official in the United States.

He planted the seed in El Cajon to which is why the city has the second largest population of Chaldeans after Detroit. Most get shipped to Detroit and then enter a lottery to grant relocation to San Diego. (El Cajon)

The government settles Muslims in the same communities because of their shared diets, language, and other cultural similarities. However, those in power have not learned, or will not admit, the laissez-faire attitude America collectively has serious consequences. We are creating American "West Banks" and the results of terror are of a much higher possibility than any other immigrant segment. "Christian!" Who cares?

Chaldeans. Do they all go to church? It seems they all open liquor stores and sell booze, tobacco and lottery tickets. Next are pizza, car washes and other CASH businesses.

By way of lobbyists like Mark Arabo and immigration and settlement parasites we have let this scenario play out. Come here as a "refugee" and then immediately find ways to climb whether it involved abusing our generous social benefits or saying "It's time!" to take over the political power.

Diversity is derived from divided in Latin. Diversity eventually destroys it's target or host from within. Diversity means "divide." And as we can see, and as why Trump was elected, the Americans... the ones who fought TWO world wars, are concerned about the direction the country is going.

And f--k political correctness. These scumbags want to take a shortcut to the American Dream. Theses bastards want us to give them the American Dream while they replicate their barbaric and stone-age culture overtakes our traditional communities. They come here and bleed our benefits, pocket cash without paying taxes while they simultaneously work under the table for Uncle Deddah. Americans need to wake up. It's not a "Mexican" immigration "problem." Mexicans are a scapegoat. It's the unbridled out-of-control immigration that is enabled by numerous lobbies and scumbags like Mark Arabo.

These are not Christians! They sell liquor. In Detroit they have huge drug gangs that operate as U.S. distribution channels for drugs, opiates. These "Christians" don't care who they kill... alcohol in their liquor stores or illegal street drugs that kill Americans every 18 minutes.

F--k Chaldeans. We should not buy into their sad stories and give them anymore priority to immigrant than any other HUMAN. I thought there was "separation of church and state." So why should we give an ear to Mark Arabo or any other mouthpiece for this farce of an invasion. Screw the Mexico Wall. Let's end this sob-story about so-called Christians from the middle-east. They are not special or endangered. They can leave their homeland for any land, why America? Why does America, built by Europeans, owe these stone-age living folks a place to go because of their civil wars?

Lastly, why are we settling these uneducated, unskilled people into a community within a metro that has one of the 3rd highest living costs in our nation? In a metro with such a high cost of living and few jobs for low-value labor, why are we on-board with letting them settle, and convert, an entire community?

It's time alright. It's time to put our foot down and stop this insanity. Don't vote for these bastards and don't give Mark Arabo the political platform he is cultivating.

underscore the cash businesses part, ( read undeclared income)

Ponzi Scheme, misnamed Chaldeans. They ARE Iraqi. A major reason for today's problems in Iraq is the factinalism, regionalism, triablism and clanism. They try to distance themselves from their Muslim countrymen, at least in the eyes of the West. Why? Because they see themselves as stigmatized by the prejudices of the West. They lack unity in Iraq.

Ponzi, This saddens me. I have read and followed your comments for some time now and generally regarded you as well spoken and educated. I must tell you that your rant above has lead me to question this. To label a whole community and culture with a blanket statement as you have is irresponsible and hateful to say the least. I am married to a Chaldean and she has a Master's degree and is a contributing member to society. My father-in-law came to the U.S. with 3 young children and $600 in his pocket because he was looking for an opportunity to raise his children in a place where they would not be persecuted or murdered for practicing their Catholic religion. His pride and work ethic prevented him from applying for public assistance . He worked very hard to finish his PHD and is currently the head of the English department for a local community college. Yes, he owns some businesses as well but I can tell you he pays his share of taxes and doesn't engage in illegal business. Fact, there is a segment of the Chaldean community that behaves and operates as you described above. Another fact, just about every ethnicity in our society, including Caucasian, has a segment that tries to work the system and engages in illegal dealings. My point is that your parochial view as demonstrated by your rant should not entitle you to label a whole culture in such an ugly and hateful manner.

It saddens me too. I have lived in diverse communities in San Diego for over 50 years. I used to operate a business in El Cajon as well. Over the years there have been waves of immigrants from; Vietnam, Cambodia, Central America, Russia, and more. Each with distinct cultures and attitudes. But the Iraqi Chaldeans stand apart in their arrogance and rudeness. I don’t feel they are assimilating like Asians have in Linda Vista, Kearny Mesa and City Heights. The Chaldeans seem to think they are better, and they seem to want to push out the rest of the population (as they have also done in Dearborn, MI.

When they have taken over car washes, restaurants and other local business they fire the existing staff and bring in, almost exclusively, Chaldeans. That has been a disappointing observation. Millions of people are persecuted in their homelands. Nonetheless, we can't continue to have millions of economic refugees settled here. It is no secret why Trump was elected as many Americans supported his campaign rhetoric about clamping down. (I did not vote for Trump, just pointing out that glaring fact.)

In El Cajon they may be making “their lives better” but it is at the expense of the legacy American population. The sons and daughters, of those who fought in World Wars, not fled them. There are wars going on in countries all over the world and they have been raging for decades. That does not mean that one group is special and should get a front-of-the-line pass in the refugee line. To me people like Mark Arabo use the “Christian-card” like there is something supremely special about his pet cause. US Citizens have to compete with refugees for social services, healthcare, Section 8 housing and other services. You are proud of your wife and father-in-law, but most of the refugees do not have skills or educations to offer, they are mostly needy.

I’m not going to argue with you, some of the things I said are mean. I have been totally put off by most interactions with Chaldeans. I now avoid all of their businesses because I can go anywhere and be treated rudely. Why invite it?

Many folks see things quite differently than you. You are married to one and an in-law in the family. Your father in-law (who most likely works at Cuyamaca College) is an exception, not the rule. When the Chaldeans begin behaving like Christians, showing some humility, being grateful instead of demanding, treating their women with respect and equality, assimilating instead of taking over neighborhoods, buying up businesses and canning the existing staff, trying to get political power by calling their cynics “racist”, I might warm up to them.

UPDATE: On August 5, Kalasho filed a cross complaint against Tawfiq, Kargar, and two other parties who accuse Kalasho of defamation. Here is an excerpt from Kalasho's response to the complaint:

"Plaintiffs’ Complaint is grounded in fabrication, tenuous circumstantial evidence, at best, and reeks of bad-faith, vindictiveness and vengeance; not to mention it is a personal and unjustified petty attack on these Answering Defendants. A supposed beauty queen is stripped of her crown for failing to fulfill her contractual obligations to the pageant, and these Answering Defendants are served with a 19-page First-Amended Complaint, with new Plaintiffs and incredible allegations?!? Yes, the words “vindictiveness” and “vengeance” aptly describe the motive behind the filing of Plaintiffs’ Complaint."

Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader