Taking Stock of the State of Knowledge, Evaluating Sources, and What Remains to be Done


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)”


The previous chapters have been heavily focused on the largely overlooked but formative early period of the assemblage of the oil complex and the industrial working class in oil, especially as far as the role of ordinary people has been concerned. The relative obscurity of the social history of this earlier period has been the result of two factors:
First, the dearth of primary and even secondary sources produced by subalterns and ordinary people themselves, who were pulled in one way or another into the historical drama of the oil encounter. This silence was due in part to the mediums of collective expression in Khuzestan, and the operative forms of knowledge and local historical record keeping. Literacy was of little practical utility and almost non-existent among ordinary pastoralists and agrarian and tribal populations; there were no newspapers or other forms of mass media in the province until the late 1920s, and even the slim urban intelligentsia of notaries, administrators, secretaries, and men of religion have not left behind much in the form of conventional written historical, personal, financial, and legal records, that can help to paint a thicker portrait of the social everyday life as oil capitalism was being assembled in the province[1]. To compensate for this dearth of primary materials, in addition to archival Oil Company documents and British and Iranian government records, I have made use of petitions, newspaper reports mostly published in Tehran, property transaction records, legal contracts and treaties whenever pertinent and available, ethnographic studies, and a geographical analysis of the built environment of oil and the rural, urban, regional, national, and global dynamics within which the oil complex was embedded. However, there is no way to deny that for the time being more direct voices expressing the lived experiences of ordinary local populations are by and large missing from the story. As a result, my aim has been to focus on fleshing out the social history of that earlier formative period as much as possible by using the scant available sources.
Aside from these scant primary sources we do have access to some histories written by the local political elite and prominent historians; and in recent years an increasing number of local histories are being published, which are greatly welcomed, but by and large they continue to remain within the realm of “folk history”, and all too often rely on already published secondary sources when it comes to delving deeper into the subject[2]. While I have made wide use of archival sources that provide invaluable primary sources for this period, as we have seen in the previous chapters even the extensive diplomatic, intelligence, and bureaucratic records of the governments of Britain and Iran, and of APOC remain at best sketchy about the more intimate details of the transformations of quotidian and individual and collective lives during this period. We know, for example, that life in Abadan was very hard in the 1910’s to 1930s, or that the Bakhtiyari rank and files were highly alienated during the enclosures of their pastoral territories, that tribal Arabs in Abadan were highly resentful of the encroachment of soldiers, migrants, and Oil Company men on their land, or that working conditions in the refinery and the oilfields were extremely difficult, but we know little about how these hardships, resentments, and alienations were actually experienced by people living through the experience.
The changeover in sources from the 1930s onward is noticeable, as local working people, intellectuals, political activists, government and Oil Company experts and functionaries, began to produce very different types of records and analyses ranging from reporting about living conditions, political aspirations, cultural changes, work habits, social ties, and power relations in the oil complex, as well as changing property relations, contracts, police records, economic and commercial activities, etc. The historical sources and available materials from roughly 1929 onward provide a very different picture and ample raw materials for pulling together a more complex portrait of the social life of oil in the region than the former era.
The second reason behind the relative obscurity of the earlier formative phase of the oil complex has to do with the perspective of those who have produced what historical records we have of this era. As we have seen throughout the text, British explorers and political agents, Oil Company officials, and Iranian statesmen, functionaries, and writers, did not deem the experiences of subaltern populations as significant enough to record, except from an instrumental perspective that served the priorities and interests that they found relevant. Thus, we have remarkably detailed primary as well as secondary sources produced over long decades by British political and intelligence agents, which provide invaluable knowledge about the region, even if they remain at best partial when it comes to gaining more intimate insight into how these revolutionary historical transformations were experienced from the perspective of the heterogeneous local populations[3]. Likewise, there is a growing body of contemporary political historiography of the province, the state, various local ethic groups, and the oil industry in Iran, but this important literature also favors the role of large institutions such as the national state and APOC, and tends to emphasize as as analytical framework macro processes such as industrial capitalism and nation state building in such a way that they are often presented as ready-made and all too powerful makers of history. As a result, in this literature the histories of subaltern populations are offered as mere case studies proving the general forward trend of history (see chapter 1).
To fill this void and reconstruct the social history of the oil encounter in Khuzestan we have focused on the built environment of oil in Khuzestan and the urban process in Abadan as an entry point into that formative period. Analyzing the built environment of oil allowed us to link together various geographies that are usually understood to be separate as part of an interlinked process and to nlyze the social agencies that built these environments. Most importantly, the rural, agrarian, and pastoral regions of Masjid Soleyman and Abadan were analyzed as part of the oil complex that also included their urban and industrial spaces. Thus, “the country and the city” have not been analyzed as two separate places, but as a unified but uneven space produced by the interconnected practices of the same set of social agents[4]. What connected them together were the enclosures of collective lands, pastures, and territories, to pave the way for the process of the initial accumulation of oil capitalism. Rather than treating this process as a fait accompli I have tried to show how it was a protracted and coercive process that led to great social dislocations, while it continued to be contested in various forms.
Chapter 4 brought in a transnational dimension, by historicizing the medical and social reform practices that began to be implemented during the formative period.


Notes & References:

1. This can be attested from the types of sources used in a number of outstanding social and political histories of the region, which have relied on a range of similar sources as the ones I have used. See for example Cronin, Tribal Politics in Iran: Rural Conflict and the New State 1921-41; Garthwaite, Khans and Shahs: A History of the Bakhtiari Tribe in Iran; Khazeni, Tribes and Empire on the Margins of 19th Century Iran; Ansari, “History of Khuzistan”; Lambton, Landlord and Peasant in Persia.

2. Lesan al Saltaneh Sepehr, Tarikh-e Bakhtiyari (Tehran: Yasavoli, 1982); Emam Shushtari, Tarikh-e Joghrafiyayi-e Khuzestan; Kasravi, Tarikh-e Pansad Saleh Khouzestan; Abbasi-Shahni, Tarikh-e Masjed Soleyman; Lahsaeizadeh, Jame’eh Shenasi-e Abadan; Shakiba, Negahi beh Tarikh-e Mahshahr; Yousefi, Tarikh-e Khorramshahr; Latifpour, Tarikh-e Dezful.

3. Lorimer, GPG; Adamec, Historical Gazetteer of Iran; Burrell, vols. 4-7, IPD; Lambton, Landlord and Peasant in Persia; Wilson, A Precis of the Relations of the British Government with the Tribes and Shaikhs of Arabistan; Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question; Lockhart, The Record of the AngloIranian Oil Company, Ltd.; Laurence Lockhart and Rose Greaves, The Record of the British Petroleum Limited (1918-1946) Relations with the Persian (Iranian) Government (London: British Petroleum Company, 1968).
4. Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973).


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