After the Honeymoon was Over: Urban Strife and the Social Question in post 1926 Abadan


Credit: 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)”

Most histories of this period have depicted the reasons behind the increasingly turbulent relationships between APOC and the Iranian Government between 1928-1933 as caused by the disputes over the royalties and terms of the concession that came to a head following the Great Depression of 1929 and culminated in the highly contested 1933 oil agreement[162]. However, both global circumstances, as well as urban tensions in Abadan, and the continued resistance of workers, residents, and local population also played an important role in exacerbating frictions and forcing adjustments by the state and the Company.
In the proceeding years certain patterns were set, with the Company constantly demanding and expecting more from the government to shoulder the social responsibilities of expanding and maintaining the urban infrastructure and to suppress local resistance; while the state felt it was the Company’s responsibility to maintain and develop the built environment of oil, and felt aggravated by the heavy handed actions that were alienating the local population. At the same time, on the international scale, labor strife and mass politics were casting a heavy shadow over corporate perceptions about the vital importance of “the social question” for political stability and more smooth labor relations. The 1926 General Strike of miners and transport workers in Britain was a watershed in enforcing a rethinking of industrial relations among the employers (see chapter 4). In Iran the brutal program of the disarmament and the forceful settlement of tribes, coupled with compulsory universal conscription, and intrusive cultural laws enforcing a universal national dress, created a major backlash that resulted in the general tribal uprising of 1929[163]. In the spring of the same year a major labor strike occurred among the oil workers of Abadan, organized and led by Yousef Eftekhari. The turbulent political situation would prove that the restlessness and discontent of the subalterns, the working classes, and the urban populations, could neither be ignored permanently, nor simply fenced in behind gates, barbed wires, and fortified enclaves.
As Company plans to develop new parts of the city began to be implemented after the summer of 1926 more local complaints kept flooding the Ministries in the fall and winter of the following year. People being evicted to make room for boulevards, ditches, and streets, were told that their complaints were pointless because, “The Provincial Government of Khuzestan has been ordered to allow street making in Abadan only after it has been discussed in the Provincial Administrative Council and after owners have been satisfied with the just compensation they have received for the buildings being demolished”[164]. However, when the Company began digging canals and ditches all over the island the government agents were highly alarmed and the Kargozar asked, “The Company is digging canals around Abadan. The cost is paid out of oil revenues, where the government is a shareholder. Has the government permitted this? Is the Company’s intention to stifle the expansion of the city?” The response of the head of Abadan Municipality was highly interesting and worthy of being quoted in detail:
“The ditches and canals were dug before I came here; on the east side in 1923, and in 1925 on the west side, both without the government’s permission. Most of the population in Abadan work for the company, and the city has a population of 60,000. The ditches have curtailed the city’s expansion and the high density has made the population miserable. There is conflict and even murder over each zar’ [Dehkhoda: zar’ = 2m2] of land, and families of 20 live in utter misery huddled in a 50 zar’ [100 m2] patch of land. Now the Company has also taken over this side of Haffar (name of canal), which used to be part of Abadan, where they have occupied acres of space, and are preventing people from building shelter, housing, or shops. Something has to be done for the welfare of this miserable population. Either they should be relocated and compensated so they can build something for themselves, or the Company’s expansion should be curtailed, and the open side of Abadan adjoining Khorramshahr [to the north] should be allowed to expand and allow people to build houses for themselves.[165]
Once an agreement with the government was put in place in 1926 the Company had moved energetically to launch a program of urban development for the expanding areas under its control. Its sanitary projects of sewerage and drainage ditches were at the same time acting as new fences and fortified barricades to contain the displaced population in an increasingly carceral landscape, that was designed by professional experts in urban and municipal planning and sanitation.
In 1925 APOC hired the consulting engineering firm F.C.Temple to work on sewerage and drainage. The following year the experienced Scottish urban planner, J.M. Wilson, with extensive colonial experience in India and Iraq, was employed to oversea the city’s transformation over the coming years, and until nationalization in 1951[166]. In 1936 other prominent firms, N. Porteus and D.M. Watson, were brought on to further expand and develop sewage and water works. Richard Costain, the largest British home construction firm was contracted in 1938 to oversee the Company’s massive housing programs, under the planning direction of JM Wilson[167].
Until 1930s all housing and urban development programs were geared toward European staff, and the skilled artisans. After 1933 housing skilled workers and Iranianization of the labor force also became part of the agenda. It was only in the 1940s that the Company was confronted with the inevitability of accepting a role in assisting with the housing crisis and urban conditions of ordinary laborers. The political changes in the post WW2 era when labor mobilization, socialist activism, urban struggles, and nationalist sentiments were reaching an explosive point, finally prompted the Company to begin addressing the horrendous housing conditions of ordinary laborers: “Many of the labor houses built during wartime have no internal water, light or latrines. There are one water point for 16 quarters, and one communal latrine per block for 8 quarters. However, they are rapidly being updated to peacetime standards”[168].
While the Company did offer aid with important urban amenities for the Shahr area, it never committed to significantly improving conditions there; leaving the dilemma for the central government to handle. Meanwhile, the major land clearings across the island, and especially around the refinery and the Company areas, that had began in 1927 were intended to clear space for streets, housing estates, and large excavation works for the building of canals and sewerage and drainage ditches. As a result, all the vital Company areas — residential estates, the refinery, roads, tank farms, the port, the new bazaar, administrative offices, clubs, expanding port facilities, the airport, etc. – were surrounded by defensible open spaces that could be easily monitored, policed, and kept under surveillance. All these projects were displacing massive numbers of people, as the Municipal Director reported with dismay, and pushing those evicted into an ever more condensed Shahr area. The sewerage ditches, the sanitary canals excavated to carry the human refuse to the river were at the same time acting as new physical barriers to enforce spatial segregation, and to defend the new exclusive enclaves carved out by and for the Company with the consent of the state.
Almost immediately the new urban works created a strong backlash, especially as the demographic pressures were mounting in the increasingly congested city. The new government appointed municipal agents began to object. Hossein Sami’i, who had been placed in charge of Abadan’s municipal affairs, warned that, “Abadan’s population is annually increasing because of Company affairs. There is no justification for limiting the expansion of the city, and for the population to suffer because of a useless ditch”[169].
The latest dispute was over a major ditch for berthing large boats coming up the river: “The Company has dug a 300 zar’ canal in East of Abadan to allow ships to dock at high tide [zar’, it seems, indicated both a unit of length as well as surface, pending on the context]. A year and half ago (1925?) another canal was excavated that separated the Company from the west of the town. It appears the only intention [of these projects is to further] separate the two [Company areas from Shahr]… These actions curtail the expansion of the town since the areas beyond both canals are [also] occupied by the Company, and the town cannot spread in those directions, nor to the south where it borders the Shatt (al-Arab River). However, there are lands to the North as well as some unused land within the existing city [for the growing population to settle]”[170]
The popular resistance against increasing evictions continued and added to the pressure cooker of urban discontent. Petitions to the Majles and authorities, reports to newspapers, and complaints to local officials, continued and became more vocal, as evidenced by the following petition that reached newspapers and the Court, prompting the Monarch to look into the situation. The petition was penned by “Your humble servant Mehdi Reza, also known as Abdollah Atiq al Hossein, acting as attorney for the plaintiffs, “My clients, the residents of Abadan”, and giving his address as “Next to the Turks’ Mosque, by the Cloth Shoemakers’ Market [Bazaar-e Givehkesh-ha]”:
“Regarding the homes demolished in1924 by the Company in Abadan: We sent a telegram to the Majlis, all the ministries, and all well known newspapers. In Mohammareh we had meetings with the Kargozar, the Company representative, and the British Consul, and they all agreed and drew a tally of 24,000 Rps compensation to paid, but thus far my clients have received naught. Please clarify whether the Company has not paid, or have they paid the government (but not us), how do they intend to pay people?”[171]

Reza Shah’s office made an inquest to the Company regarding the ongoing complaints, but the Company dismissed the whole affair as opportunism by the plaintiffs, and urged the government to move on and draw a line under the affair: “We did pay some compensation for the illegally built huts and cottages built on Company property [?!]. This demolition took place several years ago with the consent of government officials who acknowledged them to be the source of sanitary danger and epidemics and felt it necessary to demolish them. At the time government officials determined the amount of compensation, which was paid. You ought to inquire from Mohammareh officials about this. Of
course acknowledging claims years after they have been cleared will only cause further trouble”[172].

The post-WWI era was a pivotal period that shaped the oil complex globally, as well as in Iran, within the context of revolutionary transformations that were taking place at various scales (chapter 4). The transformation of the built environment of Abadan reflected these processes, but also was the spatial setting for making them a reality: Without places like Abadan and Masjed Soleyman there would not have been a transition to Fordism of mass consumer production and consumption that was built on the foundations of cheap and plentiful petroleum, nor the possibility of democratic mass politics based on notions of publicly provided social welfare.
This urban geography was shaped by a host of social and political relations that contributed to its taking shape: The sanitary ideas of public health, coupled with the apartheid practices of racial and class segregation justified on scientific grounds but implemented as exercises of power and domination, mediated and implemented by an emerging class of middle class professional experts. In this chapter we investigated the micro processes of “the state effect”, by analyzing how the nascent state institutions actually took shape on the ground, and came to define their governmental functions and jealously tried to carve out spheres of sovereignty over populations and territories for the exercise of their authority. To the extend that sources are available, we tried to excavate the social and historical agency of subaltern classes and urban denizens as they had to adjust to their new urban conditions after having been deracinated and dispossessed of their customary and collective modes of economic and social life. They carved out new urban solidarities, and founded new urban identities, in order to collectively resist their further dispossession and to struggle for their right to the city.
Our analysis of the urban transformation of Abadan showed how the coercive commodification of urban space and everyday life created the material basis for a labor market, as well as a market for the basic necessities of everyday life. This urban built environment was thus the setting for the creation of a permanent wage laboring class, where one did not exist before. The precarious conditions of life eventually made cheap casual labor too expensive, as the relentless resistance of the urban population to its living and working conditions, as well as their ongoing dispossession eventually culminated in open insurgencies such as those that occurred in 1925, 1929, culminating in a general tribal uprising and the oil workers’ strike, that drew some major concessions from the Oil Company and the Government (see Conclusion). The detailed micro history of the Bazaar of Abadan presented here encapsulates much larger global, national, and local dynamics that, I will argue, were paradigmatic in how the oil complex was shaped in Iran. I have tried to demonstrate through this thick description that the oil complex was shaped, in practice, by the constant frictions and struggles between social agents that were vastly unequal, but nonetheless had no choice but to contest and negotiate as they played their part in the assemblage of the oil industry. In the process of these contested relations, taking place in the urban setting of Abadan, these social agents – APOC, the Iranian state, and the local population of Abadan – strove to shape the city to fit their interest; and were in turn shaped and transformed by it.


Notes & References :

162. Peter J. Beck, “The Anglo-Persian Oil Dispute 1932-33,” Journal of Contemporary History 9, no. 4 (1974): 123–51; Mohammad Malek, “Oil in Iran between the Two World Wars,” in Anglo-Iranian Relations since 1800, ed. Vanessa Martin (London: Routledge, 2009), 128–36; Ferrier, History of the British Petroleum Company, 1:588–631; Elm, Oil, Power, and Principle; Fatemi, Oil Diplomacy;; Laurence Lockhart, The Record of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, Ltd. (London: Anglo Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), 1938), 38–77.

163. Persia, Annual Report 1929, Burrell, IPD, Vol.8, 442, 468–475; Stephanie Cronin, Tribal Politics in Iran: Rural Conflict and the New State 1921-41 (London: Routledge, 2007); Rudi Matthee, “Transforming Dangerous Nomads into Useful Artisans, Technicians, Agriculturalists: Education in the Reza Shah Period,” in The Making of Modern Iran, ed. Stephanie Cronin (London: Routledge, 2003), 123–45; Kaveh Bayat, Shuresh-e Ashayer-e Fars: 1307-1309 (Tehran: Noqreh, 1986); Pierre Oberling, The Qashqai Nomads of Fars (Hague: Mouton, 1974).

164. “Response of Ministry of Interior to Ministry of Agriculture, Trade, and Public Welfare regarding complaints against evictions for street making in Abadan”, No. 6494, 30 January 1927, INA 240009253

165. Kargozar to Ministry of Interior, No. 170, 9 March 1927; Municipal Director of Abadan to Ministry of Interior, No. 101, 19 May 1926, INA 240009253

166. C.H. Lindsey-Smith, “J.M. The Story of an Architect,” 1976.

167. “Terms and Conditions of Employment, 1946: Chapter 3, Housing and Sewerage”, BP 41516

168. Ibid.

169. Hossein Samii – Municipal Affairs of Ministry of Interior to Foreign Ministry, “Regarding No.101, No. 3006, 7 February 1927, INA 240009253

170. Finance Ministry/ Division of Crown Lands, to Foreign Ministry, “Explanation for the Ditch”, No. 12061, 17 July1927, INA 240009253

171. “Complaint: Aqa Mehdi Reza”, No. 18042, 1 January 1928, INA 240009253

172. “His Majesty’s Personal Office inquires from PM about No.18042, 11 January 1928 #11752; APOC Reply, 14 January 1928, No. 10564, INA 240009253

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