Photo: Javeria Ali.
Javeria Ali, a twenty-six-year-old photographer, was on a walk in an Islamabad market when she spotted a man ladling out cups of milky tea. He was wearing a turquoise shalwar kameez with a white scalloped trim. His hair was slightly tousled, with a few stray locks falling above his dark eyebrows, and his cheeks were peppered with stubble. He wore a black thread looped around his wrist to protect him from the evil eye.
She took three or four pictures of the chaiwala, or tea seller, while his head was bowed, then he looked up for a split second and stared right at her. She got the shot. Ali uploaded the photograph (captioned “Hot-Tea”) to her Instagram and Facebook pages on October 14, 2016. It was soon shared on various blogs and social media pages, with users commenting on the tea boy’s looks.
By 2016, there were more than forty-four million social media users in Pakistan. Facebook had the biggest slice of the pie, with thirty-three million users, followed by Twitter with five million and Instagram with nearly four million. Arshad Khan, the blue-eyed chaiwala, had joined the ranks of a handful of viral stars in Pakistan: men and women who become household names, their images or videos spilling over from social media sites into millions of conversations on apps like WhatsApp, shared and forwarded on a loop until mainstream media outlets take notice and feature them on the news or on talk shows.
At the time his photograph was first taken, Arshad did know about these viral stars. He had never had a Facebook account. He could not read or write. His family and neighbors lived without electricity and did not watch TV.
In just five days, the photograph raked in more than fifty thousand likes and thousands of comments. His fame spread not just in Pakistan but around the world. His “good looks” were featured on CNN, the BBC noted that his “piercing eyes” have “thousands” of Twitter users “lovestruck,” and BuzzFeed described him as “damn HOT” with “effortless high-fashion model looks.”
Arshad had not seen his photograph on the news, and he didn’t think of the girl with the camera until she came back to the market, this time with reporters and camera crews. He found out they were looking for him. His memories of the day are hazy. He remembers Ali telling him she had uploaded his photograph to social media and it had gone viral. He panicked. His first instinct was to bolt.
The next day, Arshad went to work in the market as usual, but the area around the café was crammed with people who had flocked there to meet him. He was whisked away to a television station for an interview and made to wear a suit. Before he went on air, he heard a member of the crew speaking Pashto, the language Arshad and his parents spoke at home. He pulled the man to one side and pleaded: “Can you tell me what is going on? How is everyone in the world looking at my picture?”
On a cold evening four months after that day, I met Arshad in an apartment—a makeshift office, said his manager Fahim, a place to “do deals and whatnot”—in a residential area in Islamabad. Fahim wore a tight black T-shirt, purple velour tracksuit bottoms, and slippers that squelched with each step on the tiled floor. Everything in the apartment was brand new. Someone had thrown the box for a thirty-inch LCD TV onto the small balcony outside one of the bedrooms.
Arshad was skinny, and his black suit and shirt looked a little too big for him. The trousers were baggy, and a pair of pointed black shoes with silver buckles peeked out from under them. He was tired and not feeling well that day. His whole body ached. His doctor said he was “mentally weak.” His only task that day was to record a video: a congratulatory message for Kismat Connection, a TV show that had just aired its hundredth episode. Arshad was a celebrity now, and the producers of the show had requested a short video that they could air during the episode.
We went into the bedroom with the best natural light. The room was empty save for a folding table in the corner stacked with rolls of bedding and blankets. Arshad’s social media adviser, Rizwan, works in real estate and rents out apartments just like this one. He darted in and out of our meeting while he tended to a group of prospective clients in the apartment’s second bedroom. Arshad relies on Fahim and Rizwan to read his contracts. When a TV anchor had asked him how he would give fans his autograph, he gave her what he thought was a perfectly logical answer for an illiterate person—“I’ll use my thumbprint”—but the audience hooted with laughter and clapped, and Rizwan had to spend hours teaching Arshad how to scribble out a signature. Arshad’s team now included a personal groomer, a photographer, a speech therapist, and a psychologist who, Fahim explained, taught Arshad “daily life things” and “does therapy on how to live your life.”
Fahim fed Arshad the lines for the video. “Hi, friends!” he said. “No, wait—say, ‘Hi, doston!’ ”
“Hi, doston,” Arshad repeated.
“It’s me, Arshad Khan,” Fahim said.
“This is my Arshad Khan.”
The more emotionless Arshad sounded, the peppier Fahim tried to make his lines.
Fahim gushed, “I want to congratulate Taher Ali Shah and the whole team of Kismat Connection that they have completed a hundred episodes!”
“I congratulate Taher Ali Shah sahib and the whole Kismat Connection team for completing one hundreh episondh,” Arshad said.
“The whole team!” Fahim exclaimed. “You need to sound excited. And say ‘hundred.’ Hund-rid. And epi-sote.” When Fahim enunciated “sote,” it sounded like someone had popped open a can of some fizzy drink. “Sote. Not ‘sondh.’ Sote.”
“Hund-reh,” Arshad said. “Epee-sondh.”
They did one take and then another. Sometimes Arshad forgot the name of the man he was congratulating. Other times he forgot to sound happy. He repeatedly stumbled over the words “hundred” and “episode.” He sounded morose.
“You need to sound happy,” Fahim explained. “Imagine if you bought a new car. I would congratulate you, right? Now imagine that I’m not near you. Maybe I would send you a video, right? That’s what we are doing here for Taher Ali Shah. He’s done something really big. Something we are happy about.”
“It’s not like he’s done some umrah [pilgrimage to Mecca],” Arshad quipped.
Ten minutes later, Fahim got a phone call.
“Ep-pee-sone,” Arshad mumbled to himself. “Ep-ee-sone.”
Fahim left the room, asking me to try my luck. The door closed, and Arshad turned to me. “What is this ‘episondh?’ ” he asked. “Is it the fashion shows? Or those programs that people do?”
Without a camera pointed at him, Arshad was a fast learner. Between takes, he whispered the words in English to himself over and over again. When Fahim praised him for almost getting it right, he asked, “But what were the bits I got wrong?” After twenty-five takes, Fahim decided that he could splice together sentences from the recordings and create one seamless video. Arshad clapped his hands with relief. “We’re done? What a nuisance.”
Once the video had been wrapped up, Arshad slumped on a couch in the living room and stared at the new TV. A show on animals in the wild was on. “When Fahim has to teach me what to say and how to say it, I wonder how I’ll ever do all of this,” he explained, never turning his gaze away from a lion prowling on the screen. “I feel bad that he has to spend so much time trying to get me to do it right.”
“Okay, I’ll explain to you what he means,” Fahim interjected. “He is confident. He’s not shy. He picks things up fast. But you have to remember the background he has. He didn’t watch TV for even a day in his life. He didn’t know who the people in the newspaper were. For him, words are just black-colored lines. Now for someone like this to come into this world and to do these things is not easy. This isn’t his language and he feels tension that why am I not getting it? Why can’t I do it? I understand him, you see. I have an idea … ” He snapped his fingers to get Arshad’s attention. “Don’t look there. Pay attention here.” He flicked a button on the remote and turned the TV off. “So, as I was saying, when he tries to do something and he can’t, then he feels shame. Right, Arshad?”
“Yes.” Arshad nodded. “Absolutely.”
Fahim said that in his ten years of managing artists, he’d never seen anything in Pakistan like Arshad’s rise to stardom. It usually takes years for people to get the kind of attention that Arshad had gained in a very short time. In the early days, when Arshad’s schedule had included up to a dozen interviews in a day and meetings with people throughout the day to work on deals, the team was sleeping only three or four hours a night, and he was mobbed by fans wherever he went. “This is a star’s goal,” Fahim explained. “Stars are used to this and it’s what they work for. But Arshad never had these goals. He was tired and he got sick a lot.”
Fahim and Rizwan stressed how important it was to them that Arshad think of himself as a star. “If he is a star with us, only then will he be a star in the market,” Fahim reasoned. “A star’s fans think that he is bigger and better than them. Their idea of you is what they want to see. That’s what you need to give them.” And where the fans go, he said, the industry follows. “If you’re a producer, why would you choose Arshad Khan for your movie over someone else? Star power. That’s why. The audience you can pull. The fans. If Arshad can guarantee that his movie will make two hundred crore rupees, that’s a safe bet for a producer.”
However, four months after he was discovered, work had all but dried up for Arshad. In the past two weeks, he had only appeared at a “meet and greet” breakfast and dinner in Lahore—an opportunity for fans to take selfies with him.
I asked Fahim if he felt the novelty was wearing thin. After dozens of interviews and appearances on almost all the popular talk shows and morning shows in the country, Arshad’s rags-to-riches story had been told so many times that it had lost one crucial element in a viral star’s ability to draw a crowd: it was no longer surprising or unique. If Arshad wished to forge a career on the strength of one viral photograph—if he wanted the modeling contracts, advertisement offers, and invitations to appear on talk shows—he had to continue to give Pakistanis something they had never seen before.
But Fahim insisted that Arshad wasn’t being talked about as much because he had become “exclusive.” “Actually, we have decreased his appearances ourselves,” he argued. He said that he had recently received inquiries from China, Malaysia, Greece, and Dubai. “We want him to rest and relax. People think his fame has decreased, but we are making him exclusive. We don’t just give interviews to everyone anymore.”
Fahim and Rizwan urged me to stay for dinner. They planned to have a big, traditional meal of grilled lamb. But it was late, and I refused. As Arshad saw me out, he grinned. “Forget this grilled stuff,” he said. “The next time you meet me, I’ll be a star. I’ll bring you a live lamb.”
Six months passed before Arshad was in the news once more. In July 2017, the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) stated that Arshad and his family had come from neighboring Afghanistan and were living in Pakistan illegally. The media contacted Arshad’s team for a comment. “Arshad Khan’s manager Malik Fahim … found the NADRA claim shocking,” an investigative story noted. “[Fahim] made it clear that he did not know Arshad prior to the Chaiwala becoming a celebrity.”
Nearly two years passed before Arshad appeared on television once more. In April 2019, he was interviewed on a morning talk show, and the hosts prompted him to make tea and asked him to say a few sentences in other languages he might speak. He confessed that he could speak Punjabi, but not very well. “Can you say, ‘This tea does not have enough sugar?’ ” the host asked. Arshad repeated the sentence. The hosts appeared delighted. “This is the kind of stuff that will go viral!” they said. “No one has ever heard him speak Punjabi before.” The interview failed to generate any buzz.
Sanam Maher is a journalist who writes about South Asian art and culture, business, politics, religious minorities, and women. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Al Jazeera, and Buzzfeed, among other places. A Woman Like Her is her first book.
Excerpted and adapted from A Woman Like Her: The Story behind the Honor Killing of a Social Media Star, by Sanam Maher, published by Melville House Books.