The New Bazaar of Abadan: Small Case, Big Story?

Western Residents of Abadan 1950's Credit: Dmitri Kessel
Western Residents of Abadan 1950’s
Credit: Dmitri Kessel
Author: Kaveh Ehsani, Leiden University 
[ From “The social history of labor in the Iranian oil industry : the built environment and the making of the industrial working class (1908-1941)” ]


In 1925-27 APOC decided to build a “properly planned, efficient, and sanitary” market place in a small area sandwiched between the refinery, the European residential quarters, and the indigenous Town. It was to be roofed, made of modern materials, concrete floors, with properly ventilated and well-lit stalls, to be leased out until Company investment had been repaid. As always, there were additional motives involved: the Company was interested in socializing the locals in what it considered reliable ways of money accounting and unambiguous legal contracts. Equally important were considerations over sanitary issues and food security. As Abadan had grown exponentially so had the threats of food shortages and epidemics during the tumultuous years of war, drought, and conflict, with each crisis threatening the fragile but vitally important oil export operations at critical times. With regard to the bazaar, APOC argued that a modern and sanitary commercial space designed and regulated by the Company would go some way in reducing potential food crises stemming from the risks of contamination or the panic caused by hoarded supplies and predatory price inflations.
APOC claimed it the initiative to take over the area and build a bazaar had come at the behest of local notables and it was only acting as a responsible corporate citizen and not a self-interested party. By the time it began preparations in 1925 the provincial ruler and British ally Sheikh Khaz’al had been deposed by the emergent central government under Reza Khan, and the position of the local elite associated with him had become shaky. Implementation of the bazaar scheme required the removal of area residents who had settled there in recent years – shopkeepers, peddlers, coffee shop owners, oil workers, company employees, and others who had made the place their home. However, in this case most of the residents refused to move and demanded proper compensation. Unexpectedly the affair dragged on, when earlier the evictions would have been considered a rather minor routine, and handled forcefully and without hesitation. Only a few years back, Company experts had characterized the small island of Abadan as “unpopulated” and “desolate” (see further below and chapter 3), but by now (1925) it was home to an estimated population of more than sixty thousand, coming from quite diverse backgrounds. After the eruption of initial protests in the neighborhood, local Iranian officials and company managers got involved. As protests and petitions escalated and resistance continued, senior managers in London, Cabinet Ministers, the Prime Minister, newspapers, and even the Royal Court in Tehran got tangled in an affair that was becoming surprisingly messy. Eventually, after two years of wrangling, a compromise was reached and the bazaar was built. In the process a new form of urban politics had begun to take shape that affected all the social actors involved and shaped their future actions, but also signaled a significant reconfiguration of the oil complex itself, and changed the oil habitus.
Why did APOC entangle itself with a controversial project that had little to do with oil? What prompted neighborhood residents who by all counts were poor if not destitute, had few resources, and shared little in terms of ethnic or communal ties except their common claim to a patch of (what had become urban) land, to band together and resist a giant corporation? How did the neophyte state bureaucrats see the situation and react once Sheikh Khaz’al’s rule was at an end and a new form of politics and administration was being assembled[54] around the oil complex and at the national level? How did the eruption of this new form of urban protest in the long run affect the oil encounter between workers, the Company, urban dwellers, and state officials? These much larger questions lie at the center of the deceptively minor tale of the bazaar of Abadan.



54. The new state institutions that began to be assembled from the mid-1920s, either from scratch or in radically reconfigured administrative form, included municipalities, property and legal documents’ registration, birth certifications, notary publics, mass education at various levels, including the first university, standardized taxation, public health, civil laws, etc. See Amin Banani, The Modernization of Iran, 1921-1941. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1961), 52–111; Hossein Mahboubi Ardakani,
Tarikh-e Moassesat-e Tamadoni-e Jadid dar Iran , 3 Vols. (Tehran: University of Tehran Press, 1975), especially volume 2; Stephanie Cronin, The Army and the Creation of the Pahlavi State in Iran, 19101926 (London: I.B.Tauris, 1997); David Menashri, Education and the Making of Modern Iran (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), 91–161; Jalil (Seyyed) Mohammadi, “Seyr-e Malekiyat dar Iran va Chegounegi-ye Sabt-e Asnad va Amlak (The patterns of property in Iran and the manners of registeration of documents and properties),” Kanoun (Nashriyeh-ye Kanoun-e Sar-Daftardaran va Daftaryaran) 41–45, no. 1–31 (1997- 2002); Cyrus Schayegh, Who is Knowledgeable is Strong; Science, Class, and the Formation of Modern Iranian Society, 1900-1950 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009)

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