Creating Enclaves; Setting Boundaries

The Map of Abadan 1920's
The Map of Abadan 1920’s



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)” ]


The Oil Company, in particular, tried to carve out exclusive geographies by effectively denationalizing territories over which it could exercise its own rules, without government intrusion[8]. By mid 1920s, as the central government institutions began to be set up in Abadan and throughout Khuzestan, APOC reacted by beginning to create exclusive company areas, or company towns, where it would create a built environment according to its own requirements and commands. These exclusive geographic enclaves encompassed the refinery and its associated facilities, but soon the Company also began to develop, build, and expand a range of social amenities and urban infrastructure in response to mounting social pressure. However, these social commitments always sat uneasily within the Company’s corporate culture and its financial calculations as a private enterprise. It accepted its social role with great reluctance, and at every step it tried to negotiate with the Iranian state to convince it to shoulder a greater share of the burden, while at the same time it strove jealously to maintain absolute control over its own built environment. But in the turbulent postwar era this ideal arrangement was no longer a possibility. Neither would the state accept it, nor did the sheer scale of a fast growing Abadan allow it. Abadan never became a typical company town, simply because it was already too large by the end of the war, and once Sheikh Khaz’al was overthrown and the central government had stepped in to stake its claim it was not willing to cede back total sovereignty over municipal matters and spatial control back to the Company. Meanwhile, the new Abadanis, the heterogeneous population who had settled in the boomtown, had begun to stake their own claims to this growing and novel urban space[9]. The Company’s housing projects for its employees was a case in point: Initially, prior to 1920s, when there were less than a hundred Europeans in Abadan (see table 2), the Company had only built a permanent bungalow in the Braim area for the Abadan manager Mr. Thompson. This bungalow was mostly made of tin, but was later rebuilt with stone, and a few other Spartan temporary shelters were added for the other Europeans. By mid 1920s a number of permanent barracks and lanes were constructed to house skilled and semi skilled artisans and workers, mostly Europeans and Indians. These were called appropriately the Sikh Lane, Indian Quarters, and Bungalow Area. After the extended crisis with the central government over royalties and the “Persianization” of the labor force that eventually led to the renegotiated 1933 agreement (see chapters 1 and 7), more extensive urban development and housing projects were funded for semi skilled workers, the staff, and artisans, including Iranians[10]. However, mounting urban tensions, industrial necessities, and political realities eventually forced the Company to begin a commitment to far more extensive labor housing projects by late 1930s[11]. This trend accelerated after the end of WW2, in the 1940s, when rising labor militancy and deep-set social resentment over the hardships suffered during the occupation led to the vast expansion of urban housing projects in Company areas of Abadan and Khuzestan, this time for manual workers[12]. Last, the local population of Abadan gradually moved toward forging new webs of solidarity and place-defined identities in part as a negotiating mechanism with the larger forces that had altered their lives and brought them to this place. The population of Abadan in the 1920s consisted of a growing hodgepodge of indigenous Arabs, small merchants, casual workers, artisans, and shopkeepers from Bushehr, Isfahan, Shushtar, Behbahan, Ramhormoz, Shiraz; oil wageworkers from India, Azarbaijan, and the Bakhtiyari; women sex workers from we don’t know where; along with many other as yet anonymous migrants who had made the boomtown their abode. In Abadan they encountered soldiers, household servants, clerks, and skilled industrial workers from the Indian subcontinent, British Company staff, Canadian and Polish technicians and mariners, and many others itinerants from other unfamiliar places. In collective labor actions that led to strikes and open confrontations in 1920, 1922, 1924,and 1929; but also through daily acts of resistance and negotiation on occasions like the Bazaar incident, company employees as well as urban residents tried to consolidate and improve their harsh working and living conditions. These quiet and not-so ‘quiet encroachments of the ordinary’, as Asef Bayat has called the gradual formation of collective urban acts of claiming a growing share in social rights over space[13], came to a head during 1924-1927 with the unexpected resistance of local residents of the Sheikh neighborhood of Abadan against their forced relocation in order to build a sanitary bazaar (chapter 6). This was a novel form of collective struggle to claim “the right to the city”[14], in a place that was not in any sense ‘a city’, yet, but a sprawling boomtown of industrial filth and teaming poverty[15]. It was through the experience of industrial wage labor, but also through these collective, place-based struggles, that new bonds of solidarity and identity were forged by new urban neighbors who were migrants and settlers, but now gradually had begun to identify with this new geography and social settings, and started referring to themselves as “Abadani”[16]. In the rest of this chapter we will investigate the frictions and interactions between these social actors in order to reproduce a social and geographic history of oil during this pivotal period, as a set of social relations.


Notes :
8. Dara Orenstein, “Foreign-Trade Zones and the Cultural Logic of Frictionless Production,” Radical History Review 2011, no. 109 (2010): 36–61.

9. Kaveh Ehsani, “Social Engineering and the Contradictions of Modernization in Khuzestan’s Company Towns: A Look at Abadan and Masjed-Soleyman,” International Review of Social History 48, no. 3 (2003): 361–99.

10. Crinson, “Abadan: Planning and Architecture under the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.”

11. For Company housing in Abadan prior to 1920s see BP 70146. For housing skilled artisans and staff in the 1920s and 1930s see BP 49690. For the start of workers’ housing projects in 1940 see BP 49688

12.Lindsey-Smith, “J.M. The Story of an Architect”; Ehsani, “Social Engineering and Modernization in Khuzestan’s Company Towns”; Crinson, “Abadan: Planning and Architecture under the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.”

13. Asef Bayat, Street Politics: Poor People’s Movements in Iran (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

14. I am thinking this juncture through the work of Henri Lefebvre. See Henri Lefebvre, La Production de l’Espace (Paris: Anthropos, 1983); Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996).

15. I have discussed extensively the struggle over urban space and its political resonance in Kaveh Ehsani, “The Politics of Public Space in Tehran,” City and Society, under review 2015.
16. Ehsani, “Social Engineering and Modernization in Khuzestan’s Company Towns.”

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