A Pakistani chai wala’s gaze creates a window into the nation’s soul

A Pakistani chai wala, with velvet eyes saw his life changed this week when his portrait spread around the world, sparking ardent debates on class, objectification, and the place of ethnic Pashtuns in society.

The viral photograph of Arshad Khan, a Pakistani tea merchant has sparked debates on class, objectification, and the place of ethnic Pashtuns in society. Courtesy @jiah_ali / jiahsphotography.com
Powered by automated translation

ISLAMABAD // It started as a random photograph of an unknown, strikingly good-looking young man. But the portrait of tea-seller Arshad Khan, his turquoise eyes piercing the camera, has sparked a heated debate on class, objectification and the place of ethnic Pashtuns in Pakistani society.

Photographer Javeria Ali took the snap of 18-year-old Arshad and posted the image on Instagram. It has been shared tens of thousands of times in the past week and by Tuesday, dozens of gawkers were swarming around the Islamabad market where Arshad plies his trade, all eager for a look at him.

Arshad had no idea he had become an internet sensation from Pakistan to India and beyond. He doesn’t have a phone and can’t read.

“It was a real surprise, ” said the young chai wala. “I was aware that I am handsome but you can’t do anything when you are poor.

However, the photograph has “changed the way I think,” he said.

Arshad Khan, centre, poses for a photo while others take a selfie. Farooq Naeem / AFP Photo

But in a country where women have long fought for rights and rarely express their feelings publicly, Arshad-fever soon morphed into an intense debate on the what it meant to reduce a poor man to a beautiful object.

“We are more used to seeing this happen to women, it is still creepy when it happens to a boy,” feminist columnist Bina Shah said. “Just because people are bored does not mean you can play with someone’s life.”

Columnist Maria Amir concluded that "reverse sexism is still a form of sexism" on the website of Pakistan's Dawn newspaper.

But she also echoed many in noting that the true “ick factor” was in social class rather than gender.

“The elite getting excited over a hot #ChaiWala reeks of class privilege and the objectification of working class men,” tweeted @nidkirm, who described herself as a sociologist based in Lahore.

And in a column in the Express Tribune Farahnaz Zahidi mocked the "surprise" that someone poor could be good-looking.

“(T) he upper tier bourgeois of Pakistan have come to believe that even looks and God-gifted attributes are co-dependent on money and affluence?” she wrote.

Indeed, in his first appearance on television, viewers laughed at Mr Khan’s awkward speech and his apparent discomfort at wearing a western suit.

“No girl would agree to marry him,” wrote Twitter user @ItsMahah.

Even the colour of Mr Khan’s cool gaze provoked discomfort in some like columnist Amir, who wrote “apparently there is no expiry date on our colonial baggage”.

Light skin and eyes are common among Pashtuns, tribal inhabitants of north-west Pakistan and southern Afghanistan, and much romanticised as warriors by the British.

Others expressed concern about the potential exploitation of a young man so ill-equipped for success. A local brand was quick to publish pictures of him, but Mr Khan said he has not signed any modelling contract.

“I was aware that I am handsome but you can’t do anything when you are poor,” says Arshad Khan. Faisal Mahmood / Reuters

The third of 17 children, Khan has never been to school. He said he hoped his newfound fame would allow him to “move forward”.

Vegetable seller Saeed Ahmed worked in the market alongside Mr Khan. “His eyes were so beautiful that we used to make fun of him and call him ‘cat eyes’,” he said. “But we never even thought that he would one day become famous like this.”

Indian newspapers were the first to seize on the “Cinderella story”, bringing frivolity to recent tensions between the rival neighbours with tweets calling Mr Khan a “nuclear bomb”.

“I send a message of peace to my Indian fans,” Mr Khan said.

* Agence France-Presse