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In Pakistan, No One Admits to Being a ‘Burger’

Where it all began: Mr. Burger in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)

Where it all began: Mr. Burger in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)


Here’s a guest post from Karachi-based reporter Fahad Desmukh, who often files stories for the Big Show

It may be hard to imagine, given the pervasiveness of McDonald’s these days, but hamburgers were virtually unknown in Pakistan before 1981.

Arshad Jawad is the manager of Mr. Burger, the first fast-food chain in Pakistan.

“Believe it or not, a lot of people didn’t know what cheese was. When we were putting a slice of cheese on the patty, they were looking at us asking like ‘Is is this plastic, is it rubber?’” Jawad said.

When Mr. Burger opened in Karachi, it initially got mixed reactions. It wasn’t a big deal for people who had visited the West. But many would-be customers didn’t know what hamburgers were, or how to eat them.

“After we made the burger people were asking, ‘How do you eat this? We need a spoon, we need a plate.’ So we had to educate them. We said ‘Look, this is a wrapper. Grab the wrapper, open it gingerly and use that,’” he said, chuckling.

Back then, going out for a hamburger was a big deal, and many people can still recall their first, clandestine, date at a Mr. Burger.

It was only a matter of time before the fad caught on, and Mr. Burger was hot.

For some.

Mr. Burger in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)

Mr. Burger in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)

For many years, the average working or middle class Pakistani was unable to afford Mr. Burger. So the word “burgers” came to describe young, westernized urban elite, who studied at expensive schools, spoke English rather than Urdu and preferred eating burgers rather than local cuisine. They were derided for being, out of touch with mainstream Pakistani society.

By some accounts, the term was first coined in a TV comedy called “Burger Family”, about a rich Westernized family in Pakistan.”

Today, there are lots of fast-food burger chains – local and international. But the word is still associated with the elite class in the local lingo.

And there’s a rap song called “The Burgers of Karachi” recently put out by local group “Young Stunners”.

They describe a typical Burger as someone who wears skinny jeans and Nikes, uses a smartphone, and holds a US Green Card.

One of the high school-age rappers, Talha Anjum, says a Burger is someone who wants to be someone they aren’t.

“If you listen to Burger-e-Karachi, we’re not making fun of people,” Anjum said. “It’s just a message that you should be real to yourself and real to the people around you. You shouldn’t judge someone if they don’t have a branded T-shirt.”

Burgers may be ridiculed for trying to be something that they are not, but they have mobilized recently.

A Typical Bun Kebab Shop in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)

A Typical Bun Kebab Shop in Karachi (Photo: Fahad Desmukh)

The urban elite have generally shunned politics in the past. But in last month’s elections, they rallied around former cricket hero Imran Khan, using their access to wealth and the media to help his PTI party. It won the second highest number votes. Misbah Khalid, a member of the party’s campaign team, says its not such a bad thing to have “burgers” on their side.

“Because now they are taking ownership of the country. Now people in every class as you say own Karachi, own Pakistan. So I think that’s a great achievement, because you need people who have exposure to the outside world, who are maybe – what you say – the ‘intellectuals,’” she said.

The spread of the term “burger” has sparked a counter-term: the “bun kebabs.” Bun kebabs are cheap home-grown versions of hamburgers made with lentils. So a “bun kebabs” is a person who’s a bumpkin compared to a burger.

Burger e Karachi



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A Persian insult, a northern dialect, and Urdu directions

Iran’s leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Photo: Daniella Zalcman) is known for his fruity prose. This month he outdid himself with a new anti-American insult . In a speech to Iranian expats, he  used the expression the bogeyman snatched the boob. It’s old Persian saying that mothers use when they’re trying to wean their babies off breast milk. But what’s acceptable for mothers to say in the privacy of their homes is considered über-coarse in a public setting. Some Iranians are astonished that their President would use the phrase. Their President, though, is a man who likes to show he has the common touch, especially when dissing the United States.  He appeared quite full of himself  too, in a recent interview with John Lee Anderson of the New Yorker.

Also, we hear from Cambridge University linguistic anthropologist Stephen Leonard who’s spending a year in Northwest Greenland, documenting the planet’s northernmost dialect. That dialect, or language — it’s been classified both ways — is called Inuktun, and it’s spoken by the Polar Inuit, or Inughuit of Northwest Greenland. Leonard doesn’t have much to go on. He speaks Danish and has been learning Standard West Greenlandic, both of which are understood by many of the Polar Inuit. But he only has a word list for Inuktun. The Inughuit’s way of life is severely threatened by global warming: the giant block of ice that recently broke off a glacier is close to their hunting grounds. As for cameraderie, this photo of a groups of Inuits near Cape Dorset, Canada (photo credit: Ansgar Walk) may paint too rosy a picture; also, people generally use snowmobiles these days, not dogsleds. Not many people. Not many dogs. Not much warmth. It may be a very long year.

Also in this week’s podcast, we have a report on how foreign language movies in the United States are seeking new ways of finding their audiences.  And World in Words listener and self-professed language nerd Sofia Javed tells us about the difficulties of getting from Point A to Point B in Urdu, a language that has the same word for go straight and turn right.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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