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 Rozee.pk, 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.
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