The year on TikTok — stories from Pakistan’s most rapidly growing video sharing app
There are some things on Pakistani TikTok that are only meant to be seen and not understood, like Land Cruisers with bull’s horns attached to the bonnet. Or gold-plated iPhones with Arabic inscriptions. Or dining rooms with purple tables and strobe lights on the ceiling.
Other things are readily understood but were rarely seen, at least before this digital avenue came along: people on the fringes — economically, socially, largely excluded from mainstream echo chambers. Working-class people, queer people, men who dress as women, women who dress as men and professional bodybuilders who scarcely dress at all. People with hundreds of thousands, and often millions, of followers.
There’s Mehak Malik who’s a transgender celebrity from Punjabi theatre. She does lip-syncs of famous comedians like Sohail Ahmed and sings duets with Deedar, an older stage icon now supporting newer talent.
There’s Arsalan Ali who identifies as ‘musalli’ and is trying to re-appropiate this word conceived as a slur for ‘lower caste’ converts to Islam. His videos are orations on how musallis are forced to do things differently, but end up doing them better anyway.
He intones his ‘fellow musallis’ not to change their original caste surnames to Bhatti, Raja or Malik out of social stigma. He calls himself prime minister of the dispossessed. TikTok will perhaps, some day, answer Gayatri Spivak’s age-old question.
There are the Interrachawals, two African immigrants living in Islamabad. One of them, Abiola, came from Nigeria to study 10 years ago, but decided to stay here and make a career in theatre and skits on social media. One of those skits starts with ‘how Africans meet’, which has two people coolly, detachedly doing fist bumps and hand slaps; then it shifts to how Pakistanis meet and has two men happily killing each other in a bear hug.
There’s a young man from Quetta, Sami Khan Khilji, who posts rich people versus ‘us poor people’ content, concerning everyday occurrences that differentiate the wealthy, in their fancy houses and English-medium lives.
One video starts with how rich people throw away their trash, showing someone neatly, smilingly, placing it in waste containers. Then it jumps to ‘this is how we do it’ and the man grumpily flings the trash over someone else’s wall.
Then there’s the legendary Jam Safdar, who can be seen stopping trains with a kick of his heel, or standing in the skies with each foot on the wings of an airplane. Sometimes he’s on a tripwire in front of a skyscraper, sometimes on the open seas, riding a motorbike over water. He shoots himself on his phone camera then uses TikTok’s green screen additions to turn the gust of his pedestal fan into the wind shear on his clothes while flying. It’s sheer genius.
This is not to say TikTok is only promoting the new and radically different. It promotes the conventional, too. There’s elite TikTok that features foreign airports and driveways full of glaringly painted cars; middle class TikTok that has first-person shooters with Jatt Life playing in the background; and less urban TikTok with villages, biting humour and roosters showing off their wattles and feathers.
None of us really make the rules. All I know is that TikTok remains riotously popular despite one ban and several regulatory notices. An October report by Bloomberg had the number of times the app was downloaded during 2020, at 14.7 million. Possibly even facilitated by lockdown measures interfering with normalcy, TikTok provides the ease of interacting with other people through the immediacy of video sharing.
What stood out most this year, however, were the city rivalries that have been trending. A trend still largely referencing one user: Silntgirl0 (Silent Girl).
It’s an anonymous handle, but there is nothing anonymous about her content. It is loud, unapologetic and is tilting at hundreds of other regulars on the app. TikTok functions so well because it functions on trends — one user creates short videos that catches people’s attention and they either imitate it, parody it or just add something of their own in the end.
Here’s how Silent Girl’s videos go. She says something boastful, lays down a not-so-humble brag with considerable aplomb, then signs off with a smile, a victory sign and name-dropping her own city. “Bawa ji Sialkot” [bawa is another word for baba] is her ending refrain, and the focus of all the replies she gets.
The verses she drops have as much poetic idiom as thuggish taunts — “pharrein” [over-the-top boasts] — and the city she represents is largely outnumbered on the platform.
“Tussi kehnde o tuaada tabbar hoshyaar ai, Sialkot de ik magazine di maar ai [You say your gang is really clever/ But it’ll fall to just one firearm burst from Sialkot],” she says in one video, while brandishing an imaginary gun in her hands.
“Order, order, order, Kyun ni mande ke Sialkot tuaada father [Why won’t you admit Sialkot is your father],” she says, while pretending to lower down a gavel, in another one.
Do these taunts seem churlish? Infantile? TikTok doesn’t seem to care. She has 4.2 million followers and probably as many haters. Notoriety works just as well when your aim is outreach.
“Kya Pindi, Pindi, Pindi lagaya huwa hai, aur kissi sabzi ka naam nahin aata? [What is this constant refrain of Pindi, Pindi, Pindi? Don’t you know the name of any other vegetable?],” was her put-down that triggered most of Rawalpindi. The taunt is playing on the fact that bhindi when enunciated in Punjabi, drops the ‘b’ sound for a softer one that’s similar to ‘p’. Behen becomes pehn. Pindiwals become the butt of a joke.
They’re not the only ones up in arms, however. People everywhere from Hyderabad, Multan, Faisalabad, Jhelum and Peshawar have sent out open challenges to Silent Girl and, through her, Sialkot. They say they’ve seen water dispensers more intimidating than her. ‘Yours is the city of utensils, not lights’. ‘Make footballs, not videos’.
Some of the disses have a taxi driver or bus conductor asking where the passenger wants to go, and refusing the ride if the answer is Sialkot. One of the clapbacks had someone randomly signing off with “Bawa ji Balakot” while sitting in Lahore. One lawyer signed off with “Bawa ji Pant Coat”.
A lesser person might have gotten discouraged by this amount of antagonism, but Silent Girl is positively flourishing off it. When a commenter asks her what her favourite colour is, she makes a TikTok to say, ‘the one that drains from the faces of my detractors when they hear my name’.
She’s tapped into pervasive ideas about geography and social status. Sialkot is rallying behind its TikTok star and others too have started referring to themselves by their places of origin: Ali Hyderabadi, Chacha Seraiki, Mehwish Haroonabadi.
Standing in front of fields of wheat, Chacha Seraiki holds out his hand to claim all that the camera can show, and tells Silent Girl that just because Multan doesn’t do numaaish [exhibition] doesn’t mean it has nothing. Faisalabad flaunts textile-funded malls and fashion shoots. Faisalabad’s neighbour tried too — “Pindi te Lahore nu ilm ai, Sargodha aini vaddi film ai” [Lahore and Pindi know, Sargodha is a big deal in itself] — but was told that nobody really cares about Sargodha.
Gujranwala jumped on to the scene just to say you can’t travel anywhere without paying our tolls. Silent Girl promised to give most of these upstarts a shoutout in her next videos, just as long as they accepted that they were smaller cities.
In the end, I’ll leave you with one of her most erudite verses:
“Mashooq PUBG kheden aala hona chahida, Dillan naal kheden aalay te boht ne” [A lover should be one who plays PUBG, Anyone can play with hearts].
Of all the important stories that broke this year, none had as much emotional impact on me as Ertugrul Ghazi apparently being swindled out of his money. The vanquisher of Crusader zealots, the conqueror of Mongol hordes, the founder of imperial Turkey, undone by a guy with a V-neck and golden highlights in Lahore.
His name is Mian Kashif Zameer and he’s famous on TikTok. He wears a gold watch and gold chains under his gold hair. On his bed with gold emblems sits a gold cat, a lion. I was following his TikTok travails long before his Turkish scandal erupted. I’d watched him smoke his blindingly blue sheesha and meet famous people and tell them that he wears four kilogrammes worth of gold.
I watched him visit Turkey. He shot videos in front of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Then he donned Ertugrul’s costume — brown brigandine armour and black leather boots — and sat down on Ertugrul’s throne (from the set). He exchanged his gold rings for the ones Ertugrul wore on his hands.
A week later, he was sitting next to Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar and that very Turkish actor, Engin Altan, in Lahore. People on his TikTok page had begged him to bring Ertugrul to Pakistan, and bring him he did, as they say, by hook or by crook.
Zameer allegedly promised Altan one million dollars to become brand ambassador to his Chaudhry Group of Companies, of which he claims to be Managing Director. But a Neo News journalist reported, after Altan’s departure, that the actor had been paid only half.
Zameer claims this was an incomplete story. The other half, he responded, will be paid after the photo shoots in the next visit. He went on to record more clarifications. “If Altan was swindled, why hasn’t he said a word on his own social media?” To be sure, he hasn’t. But while the jury was still out on the possibility of fraud, Zameer threatened the life of the journalist who made the claim. After which an FIR was registered and Zameer’s house was raided by Lahore police.
Farrukh Khokhar, son of fabled gangster Taji Kokhar, was in attendance at the time and was also picked up. Zameer brands his social media accounts with the ‘333’ mark of Farrukh Kokhar’s gang, of which habitual lawbreaker Zafar Supari is also a member. Both are prominent social media personalities with videos of SUVs, guns and gold going out to millions of followers.
This debacle follows the one from last year, when the actor Altan was invited to Pakistan to be part of a housing scheme that has since been languishing in the courts, over contested, perhaps illegally acquired, land. Zameer has since gotten out on bail but police casually discovered eight prior FIRs registered against him — one about an 800,000 rupee cheque that had bounced in Sialkot.
He later made a TikTok video saying he cleared it up with the journalist, that he knew what he did was wrong. That it was in response to a ‘slanderous campaign’ funded by his industrialist rivals — people who indulge in ‘side businesses’ that he explained only by tapping his nostrils.
He often talks to the camera while holding a chained lion, making enough wildlife licence violations to add a potential ninth FIR. He recently offered an auction of an unregistered Honda Civic. One of the police reports against him is of car theft.
His content is almost meticulously crafted to be outrageous, to stand out and, at times, be grossly unethical.
I found a video of his from earlier this year where he offered two lakh rupees to any Christian (later qualified with ‘any other minority’) who converts to Islam; 10 lakhs if the entire family converts. This not only outraged Christian groups in Pakistan, as it should, it was also covered in slightly offbeat international media. It found itself on a digital news outlet in Catholic Italy, one that described Zameer as a strange man with a maxi chain around his neck.
Their introduction to the less savoury side of Pakistan’s cultural hegemony had begun.
This piece was published in Dawn, EOS, December 27th, 2020