The following piece is a summary of a conversation between Saad Khan of Khajistan and Farhad Qashqai of Kharabaat.
In a Khajistan podcast episode published on 29th May 2020, Saad Khan of Khajistan talks to Farhad Qashqai, a Tehran-based tattoo artist and archivist who archives Looti men on their Instagram page “Kharabaat.” In the episode, Farhad speaks about male sexual cultures, their nuanced expressions in Iran, and the impact of media and the internet on working-class life in Iran, among other things. You can listen to the full episode in the player below or click the player to read the transcript of the conversation.
You can also hear the audio version of the text below:
Conversations around sexuality in Iran, and generally in our parts of the world, are often seen through the western lens, which is to say we have a tendency to import western labels around sexuality, and the way it is expressed, even though sexuality here has its own nuanced expressions. As Saad says: "Because it's, as how I understand, it's a very Western concept and masculinity in our societies work in a different way where it's more fluid or label less or if even if it has labels, it has labels in our own languages. So it's not like necessarily LGBT or queer or you know, it's a thing of its own." For our people, mostly those who come from working or lower-class backgrounds, having a specific sexual identity isn’t that important. It isn’t something they have to think deeply about and intellectualize and, thus, in a way, pigeonhole it. It is just there; it exists as a normal part of life, which isn’t to say having a sexual identity is unimportant. It is important to discover your sexual identity, as it makes us whole and expresses who we are, but affording it labels and seeing it in black and white isn’t a part of how we find things to be in our histories; it's not how sexuality works in our "indigenous" cultures.
When it comes to sexual identity, having a rigid definition is quite reductive. It isn’t something static and fixed. In the west, there is perhaps a much more studied understanding of sexuality and queer culture, and one’s sexual identity influences their whole lifestyle. Because they can express it much more freely as compared to people in our parts of the world, their expressions have become a global phenomenon and are naturally copied by queer people in upper-class circles in our countries. As Farhad adds: "The labels about sexuality is more common in upper middle part of the society, the working class man that you the working class men that you mentioned, and they don't have any special kind of sexual identity." In globalized cultures, it is hard to avoid western labels and expressions of sexuality. That happens because our own indigenous queer culture is kept a secret, hidden underneath the surface, tabooed and stigmatized.
There is an indigenous queer culture in the Middle East and South Asia which is casually dismissed and chastised, as it doesn’t align with cultures and identities set out by the state. Kharabaat is interested in archiving ‘Looti men,’ who don’t necessarily identify as queer or heterosexual because they don’t have the vocabulary to define their sexual orientation and also because they don’t necessarily believe in having rigid sexual identities.
Kharabaat is a word from Hafez’s poem. It is a place where people go to indulge in forbidden activities (kharaab - ruin in Farsi), like drinking wine or having forbidden sex. Looti men are cognizant of the fact that we are sinful people, and that we can’t have our way around it. They know that we were sent to earth from heaven because of the original sin, which in a way makes sinning an unavoidable part of our fate and destiny. They don’t shy away from it. They also know that it is not fair that we are here on this earth, and that we have to deal with so much despair and suffering. Describing the concept of Kharabaat and why it archives Looti men, Farhad says: "It's a metaphor actually, because Kharaaabaat is our world. And, you know, because we were ruined when we came down to earth from Paradise. Yeah. Yeah these men know that they are sinners; they know that their life is fucked up, the life on the earth is not equal to…… that it's not fair to live in on the earth, because they believe that they're coming from Paradise."
Looti men are more often than not criminals, wrestlers, or truck-drivers. They have masculine features as well as a masculine mindset, but they are quite friendly too. Masculinity is an important part of their identity because that is something that gives them power and control. Friendships among Looti men are based on exchange of power between them. They love to worship each other and encourage that expression of masculinity. They are often quite homophobic and sexist but they are not familiar with these concepts; their upbringing in a certain class and social structure defines their viewpoint of gender and sexuality, among other things. They love to befriend effeminate men but friendship with women is prohibited among the Lootis. In fact, most of them have Instagram bios that explicitly prohibit women from sending them a follow request. For them, their power and masculinity is everything. Gay sex for most of them, or at least how they show it, isn’t even that real a thing. It is mostly just an exchange of power, which needs to be understood in a nuanced fashion. We take from others what we don’t have, whether it’s power, masculinity, rage, anger, softness, femininity, or violence, among a myriad of other emotional traits and markers. When a Looti man has sex with an effeminate man, they are both taking something from each other. One takes the other’s power and rage, while the other takes softness and love in return.
Understanding where this desire for being ultra-masculine in Looti men comes from is crucial. It would be easy to dismiss such masculinity as toxic, which by all means it is, but it is also important to know the underlying social structures and material conditions which are largely responsible for that. In our part of the world, working-class children are born as adults. At 9 or 10 years of age, they start working to support their families. And once they start working, the support expected from them isn’t merely financial but emotional support because they are treated as adults as soon as they take up a job. Circumnavigating such a demanding and laborious childhood, which isn’t really a childhood by any definition, can take its toll as they grow up. The desire to have that masculine power only comes natural to them in such circumstances. They grow up in hyper-aggressive and harsh working conditions, where they see and internalize that this world is not for the weak, and that to survive here one must have certain power.
Living in such disempowering and cruel material conditions can severely affect how children grasp life and whatever entails it, including sexuality and the institute of family. The softness of life is replaced by ruggedness; innocence evaporates into casual violence. Of course, our societies' firmly intact patriarchal structures also enable and encourage these children to acquire that masculine rage and power as they grow up. As Saad asks a very pertinent question: "What does that do to the mentality, like the psyche of especially I'm talking about men, like, you know, who grew up like this, like, who have this responsibility, who are always treated as adults. And that that means a lot of, like, sexual experiences happening maybe before time as well, pre puberty, before and being exposed to a lot of, you know, political stuff and other kind of stuff that kids maybe should not be exposed to. What does that do?" When you grow up poor and Looti, there’s this inherent realization that your whole life is illegal, because the society and government are against you. Everyone around you is constantly trying to overpower you. They are making sure that you never climb out of debilitating material conditions. To become a criminal then, to have a desire to have masculine rage, is a natural reaction and a source of catharsis for them. The anxieties of the working class, according to Saad, can be perfectly described in 3 Urdu/Arabic words: Taa’jub, Ro’b, Wehshat.
Living through difficult childhoods, where instead of getting love they were expected to work and provide for family, having the desire to be appreciated and loved for their masculinity among Lootis then makes perfect sense. The exchange of appreciation is also expressed on their Instagram profiles. It’s all one massive big-dick energy show. The comments among them are often like: I love you, brother. You are my oxygen. You are my life. I am your slave. So on and forth.
Looti men are mostly involved in criminal activities, the typical gang fights. They watch out for their close friends, whom they call brothers, and fight rival street gangs for power and autonomy. In the past years, there were Looti men in almost every neighborhood of Iran. They are known for their charisma and peculiar sense of style. They have hand tapped tattoos on their bodies, which range from Persian poetry to words of wisdom, and in some cases drawings of Persian women. Most families aren’t willing to marry off their daughter to Lootis, because they are too extroverted, always hanging out with their fellow men, to go along with their notorious gangsterism. The favorite animals of Lootis are dogs, wolves, and lions, because they want to emulate the wild inside those animals. They see a part of themselves inside them.
Male bonding in the Middle East and South Asia is also a complex phenomenon. Homosociality exists in abundance here. Homosocial relationships aren’t overtly sexual but aren’t totally free of sexual expressions either. Perhaps some people substitute homosociality for homosexuality because the former is more acceptable and a much more normalized form of bonding here. Just like friendship and brotherhood between Looti men, most other men in the Middle East and South Asia do not shy away from expressing their love and affection for each other. Such an expression comes in the form of hand-holding in public as well as private spaces, hugging each other tightly whenever these men meet each other, kissing each other as ‘friends,’ and general playfulness in each other’s presence. These kinds of candid expressions of love between men aren't common in the west, because everything is strictly defined and labeled there, as if human relationships are guided by a catalog of rules and nothing can be imagined outside that. Homosociality is deeply embedded in our cultures, and between friends, there are often literally no limits. Looti men follow the same culture of homosociality, albeit with an extra layer of gangster rage and masculine power.
Although Looti men like to befriend effeminate men, they avoid friendships with women. They like expressing their masculinity in front of fellow men because they want to show how different and much more masculine they are to them. It’s a show of power. They love to keep pigeons because pigeons serve as a metaphor for the absence of women from their life. It’s a strange substitute, but perhaps it works for them. And even though they don’t befriend women, they love their own mothers a lot and try their best to be ideal sons.
Having pigeons, too, isn’t just a Looti men thing; It's a global south thing. Many men in South Asia, particularly Pakistan and Afghanistan fondly keep pigeons. They are kept on the rooftops of houses. Men’s relationship with pigeons can be endearing and sweet. They take care of them as if they are their own children. They kiss them, massage their bodies, give them human medicine, and dye their feathers with henna or chemical dyes. And when they make them fly out of their cage, the pigeons return to their masters to show their loyalty.
Moving on from the characteristics that define Looti men, their representation in the mainstream media is almost non-existent. They are often mocked and ridiculed when portrayed in the government’s official channels. Kharaabaat is a serious archival effort that represents Looti men as they are, without any judgment and ridicule, challenging people’s and the state’s understanding of their lifestyle. The reason they are misrepresented and joked about in the media has to do with Iranian state laws, which in essence, are an offshoot of Islamic law. Because Looti men are gangsters and criminals known for spreading terror (which is strictly forbidden in Islam), they are despised by the adherers of state and religious laws, hence becoming a source of mockery in the national media.
Having an archive like Kharaabaat then becomes exceedingly essential. In a society where narratives are built and controlled by the state, communities like Lootis become outcasts, those that exist somewhere at the peripheries of the national consciousness but are deeply undesired. Kharaabaat is an effort to bring their life and aesthetic to the center. Perhaps bringing them to the center is not that important, but archiving their lives for what they are, holds much more importance.
In Iran, the channels that come on TV are primarily state-run, and they are only invested in propagating the state's narrative. People used to get satellite receivers (similar to dish antennas in Pakistan) to access international channels in Persian. Having a receiver at that time was so revolutionary because it meant that people could watch and access information they wanted to, not the one approved by the state. Initially, the state did crackdown on the satellite receivers, but they gave up, because it is hard to monitor every house and its rooftop, where those receivers are placed. But as the internet became accessible and cheap, it changed the scope of access to information altogether. The state forgot about their crackdown on satellite receivers because internet was way more big a threat to them. The narrative was now somewhat out of the state’s hand. People started getting a lot more agency than they used to. With access to the internet, people could take ownership of their own lives and activities, which is why creating an archive like Kharaabaat became possible.
But before Kharaabaat, created only 5 or 6 years ago, Farhad made a Tumblr page called ‘Macho Persia,’ dedicated to showing how hot and sexy Iranian men were. 'In the global market, there was a lot of demand for Middle Eastern men, and Macho Persia solely served that purpose." says Farhad. "Perhaps not in these times, but a few years ago, men from the Middle East and South Asia were severely underrepresented on the internet," he adds. Macho Persia was an effort to bring hot Iranian men for global consumption. Kharaabaat, however, has a much larger purpose than Macho Persia. Kharaabaat is not only invested in portraying the sexiness of Looti men. Instead, it is an effort to capture their life and aesthetic as a whole. It captures their rage, violence, soft side, charisma and charm, tattoos, intangibles of their personality and culture, and the thing that matters most to the Lootis: their masculinity.
People from the outside, the Iranian diaspora, and the community of the region at large are often shocked by Kharabat. For some, It can also invoke a vague nostalgia and happiness in them. They remember the past years, the times when Looti men were found in most neighborhoods of Iran. They know it is a significant part of the culture that is never represented in the mainstream media.
When Saad asks why Farhad is interested in archiving men that are gangsters, their response was that they love them because those violent men make them whole. “I am calm,” says Farhad, “but sometimes I need their rage and violence.” People take from other people what they don’t have. One may not be violent by nature, but that doesn’t mean one doesn’t want it in any shape and form either. Life and the way it is lived and experienced is not a black-and-white phenomenon. There are a lot more underlying complexities that don’t make it to the surface. It is inside us to desire violence and rage, just as it is inside us to desire softness and love. To become and feel whole, we take from others what we lack. It is just that there’s a tendency among us to judge people like Looti men before really understanding them, before making sense of the material conditions they grow up in, perhaps because it is easy to judge and dismiss people like them and way harder to make an effort to understand them.