Hot tea seller finds fame online

Mr Khan, a Pakistani tea seller, had no idea that his picture had gone viral as he has no phone and cannot read. He hopes his newfound fame will help him to "move forward".
Mr Khan, a Pakistani tea seller, had no idea that his picture had gone viral as he has no phone and cannot read. He hopes his newfound fame will help him to "move forward".PHOTO: JIAH ALI/ INSTAGRAM

Photo of Pakistani teen has many swooning and sparks debates on class, objectification

ISLAMABAD • A Pakistani tea seller with blue-green eyes saw his life change this week when his portrait spread around the Internet, sparking ardent debates on class, objectification and the place of ethnic Pashtuns in society.

Mr Arshad Khan had no idea he had set the Internet alight from Pakistan to India and beyond - he has no phone and cannot read.

"It was a real surprise," the young "chai wala", or tea seller, said.

"I was aware that I am handsome, but you can't do anything when you are poor," he said, adding that the image has "changed the way I think".

In the candid picture, snapped by a passing photographer and posted on Instagram, Mr Khan prepares Pakistan's ubiquitous milk tea, his blue-green eyes looking into the camera.

It set social media users swooning, with the 18-year-old's image shared tens of thousands of times since last Friday. By Tuesday, the Islamabad market, where photographer Javeria Ali took the shot, was swarmed by dozens of people eager to gawk at the young worker.

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

CAN'T DO ANYTHING

I was aware that I am handsome, but you can't do anything when you are poor.

MR ARSHAD KHAN

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

On the website of Pakistan's English-language newspaper Dawn, columnist Maria Amir concluded that "reverse sexism is still a form of sexism". 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.

In a column in the Express Tri- bune, writer Farahnaz Zahidi mocked the "surprise" that someone poor could be good-looking.

Indeed, in his first appearance on television, viewers laughed at Mr Khan's awkward speech and the Western suit which he appeared to be uncomfortable wearing. Twitter user @ItsMahah wrote: "No girl would agree to marry him."

Others have expressed concern about the risk of exploitation of a young man so ill equipped to deal with fame. A local brand was quick to publish pictures of him, but Mr Khan said he has not signed any modelling contract.

The third of 17 children, Mr Khan has never attended 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 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".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2016, with the headline 'Hot tea seller finds fame online'. Print Edition | Subscribe