The rise of Pakistan’s ‘burger’ generation

Burger Inc 2 - Dec 20 - SM.jpg

Al Jazeera: January 15, 2016

How a homegrown burger joint pioneered a food revolution and decades later gave a young, politicised class its identity.


Karachi, Pakistan – On the evening of April 24, 2015, Sabeen Mahmud, the director of The Second Floor, a beloved cafe and communal space in Karachi, was shot and killed.

Mahmud’s murder, and the resounding question of who was responsible, made news within and outside Pakistan. Less than a month later, the authorities announced that they had a culprit: a 27-year-old man named Saad Aziz.

For many, Aziz seemed to be the unlikeliest of suspects. Media reports painted him as a mild-mannered man who had graduated from a reputable Karachi business school with good grades, the father of a baby girl, and a restaurant owner who loved football.

He was “a burger kid”, explained one unnamed friend interviewed by the Pakistani newspaper The Express Tribune at the time of Aziz’s arrest. “He was funny, acted in plays and danced.”

In Pakistan, the label “burger kid” is a loaded one.

Being a ‘burger’

“The implications of being a ‘burger’ are that you are spoiled, and detached from what is going on in the country,” says Monis Rahman, 45, the founder of, Pakistan’s biggest online jobs portal.

“A burger lives in a cocoon and is enamoured by things outside of Pakistan – by the West,” Rahman explains. The word is often used to describe well-to-do Pakistanis who may have American or British-tinged accents after years spent studying or working outside Pakistan, he says.

“Fully dressed with matching accessories even for 8am classes at university, they always own the latest in fashion, cars and gadgets,” is another definition suggested by The Express Tribune. “Their ‘parties’ mimic nightclubs in foreign countries since the poor souls don’t have any clubs here and have to recreate the experience on their own.”

Despite the connotations, being a burger in Pakistan has value, Rahman says.

“People who have stronger English-speaking skills and more international exposure are valued higher in the jobs market.”

2013 elections: Imran Khan and his ‘burger’ supporters

Since 2013, there has been a slow but steady evolution of the term “burger” beyond its pejorative context.

That year, Pakistanis voted in the first general elections in which power was transferred from one democratically elected government to another.

Former cricketer Imran Khan, the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, was dismissed as a “baby boy or a burger boy” by older political leaders, while his supporters were called “burgers”.

“It’s the first time that the burger group will also come out to vote,” quipped politician Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed before the elections in May 2013.

“They’re going to join the chapati-and-salan [curry] folk. They might need to carry their laptops on their heads to protect them from the sun.”

While Rasheed hinted that PTI supporters were more suited to campaigning on social media from the comfort of their homes, he made one crucial point: “If they do come out to vote, they’ll do amazingly well.”

An estimated 46.2 million people voted in these elections, compared with the 36.6 million voters from the previous 2008 elections. The 2013 election saw the highest voter turnout in Pakistan’s history. Thirteen million were first-time voters and more than half the registered voters were aged 18-29.

Rasheed was proved right. Khan’s base of young, educated urban “burgers” helped the PTI to emerge from the elections as the second most powerful political party in the country. With 7.7 million votes, the PTI knocked President Asif Ali Zardari’s party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which garnered 6.9 million votes, from its perch and into third place.

PTI’s burgers began to wear the label with pride; literally, in some cases, as the party’s supporters turned up at rallies and on election day wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Kaptaan’s Burger Army” (“Kaptaan” is a moniker that pays tribute to Khan’s time as captain of the Pakistani cricket team).

That an American fast food has become a catchall phrase for a generation of Pakistanis who flocked to a political party which promised change, including an end to the decades-old hold of the two ruling parties and the rooting out of corruption, has its origins in the story of how the food itself first came to Pakistan. This begins in 1953, a handful of years after the partition of India and Pakistan, when a man named Syed Musa Raza arrived in Karachi.

Full story here




Roads and Kingdoms: November 13, 2015


Brains Breakfast-Style in Karachi

My father liked to tell us this story when we were children: a fellow doctor was visiting some exotic country (I forget where) and was invited to a dinner. His hosts placed a monkey’s head before him—brains, eyeballs and all—and told him, “It is our tradition to serve our guest of honor this delicacy.” The young doctor’s stomach quaked. All eyes—including the monkey’s—were on him. “Where I am from, it is a tradition to honor your hosts by asking them to eat such a delicacy first,” he replied. As the story goes, the hosts were overjoyed, everyone felt suitably honored, and the dinner was a success.

We were taught to eat—and loudly appreciate—whatever a host put on our plates. There were two rules we had to abide by. The first was simple: don’t insult someone by refusing the food or drink they offer you. The second was trickier: eat the food, yes. Finish it? Certainly not. For instance, if you were given a glass of juice at someone’s house, you were to make sure you drank all but the last few gulps, leaving an inch or so of juice in the glass. “Gobble everything down and people will think you don’t get good food in your own home,” we were warned. “You don’t want people to think you are a bhooki (perpetually hungry or just plain greedy).”

Full story here

The Great Indian Peninsula Railway

The Express Tribune’s T Magazine: August 4, 2013

Head down Northampton Road in London’s east end and you’ll find yourself in the waiting room of a train station from the 1920s in India, where a bejeweled lady in a mint green and gold shalwar kameez fans herself while cautiously keeping an eye on a leery ticket inspector. A woman in a safari suit, her hair a mass of pin-curls, clutches a glass of port as she scans the crowd on the platform for her son, Dickie, who ran away from their home in England to head to India. Her husband, a colonel, is laid up in their train compartment with a terrible case of dyspepsia.

The destination is Srinagar. The train journey begins in Rangoon and winds through Chittagong, Patna, Lucknow, Delhi and Jullundur before its final stop.

Link to full article in T Magazine

Io Sono L’Amore (I Am Love)

The Herald: January 2011

Link to PDF

Io Sono L’Amore (I Am Love)

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Alba Rohrwacher, Edoardo Gabbriellini, Maria Paiato, Pippo Delbono, Diane Fleri, Waris Ahluwalia

A stand-out cinematic moment this year has to be between Tilda Swinton and a plate of prawns and ratatouille. In a scene from Luca Guadagnino’s Io Sono L’Amore (I Am Love), Swinton is suffused in an amber glow with each mouthful, the din of the restaurant fades out and John Adams’ lush score swells as the tines of the fork pierce the crimson shell of the glistening prawns – Julia Roberts’ marathon pasta-and-pizza sessions in Eat, Pray, Love are paltry in comparison.

Written by Guadagnino, Io Sono L’Amore spent eleven years in development before coming to fruition. It is the story of Emma Recchi (Swinton), a Russian expatriate living in turn-of-the-century Milan, and married into the powerful and moneyed Recchi family. As her children, Edoardo (Flavio Parenti) and Betta (Alba Rohrwacher), explore their own lives and loves, Emma is left isolated in the rambling Recchi mansion. She meets and falls in love with Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a young chef intent on breaking free from his father’s business and opening his own restaurant where he can ply customers with his delightful concoctions. Emma discovers a letter from Betta to Edoardo detailing Betta’s love for another woman – Betta’s acceptance of her homosexual desires is the impetus Emma needs to break free of the neatly delineated confines of her life.

It is only with Antonio that Emma is able to give voice to her feelings of being an outsider – she was plucked from pre-Gorbachev Russia by her Italian husband who was in search of art treasures, given a new name, language and home. The affair, when it is inevitably and heartbreakingly discovered, has disastrous consequences for the Recchi family. Despite this narrative trajectory, however, Io Sono L’Amore steers clear of any hectoring or didactic tone, choosing instead to focus on and celebrate Emma’s discovery of her true self.

In a throwback to classic Hollywood glamour and the relationships fostered between fashion houses and actors – such as between Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn or Yves Saint Laurent and Catherine Deneuve – the film credits Silvia Venturini Fendi (of the Fendi fashion house) as a producer. While Swinton’s character is dressed entirely in Jil Sander and Raf Simons, the Recchi family’s matriarch (Marisa Berenson) sports beautiful vintage furs from the 1970s and the male characters are impeccably turned out in Fendi suits. Fashion aficionados will swoon over scenes of dinner parties at the Recchi house featuring an eclectic mix of vintage and contemporary Italian fashion.

Discussing her character, Swinton says, ‘She came from so many books we discussed, and she came from films we discussed, and she came from people that we knew…’ The rich amalgamation of ideas that brings Emma’s character together makes her a pleasure to watch, as Guadagnino carefully details her cool, collected persona – and then proceeds to shatter the façade. This is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen to truly appreciate Guadagnino’s masterful visual exploration of pleasure and fulfillment.