Abadan, a Triple City

Credit: Touraj Atabaki
from “Studies in History: Far from Home, But at Home: Indian Migrant Workers in the Iranian Oil Industry”
source: Jawaharlal Nehru University.


In her seminal study of colonial urbanization in Morocco, Janet Lughod refers to Rabat as a dual city, with sharply segregated urban spaces of the colonizer and the colonized.[48] However, there is often another urban space in the colonial cities, between the colonial settlers and the colonized indigenous population— a buffer zone occupied by intermediary groups. For example, in Calcutta, ‘British colonists deliberately cultivated a segment of the indigenous elite, who served as intermediaries between the colonizers and the colonized.’[49] When the first stone of the refinery was laid in 1910, the island of Abadan (or ‘Abbadan, as it was spelled back then) was thinly populated by the Nassar Arabs. Their leader was the local Sheikh Khaz‘al, who lived in the nearby village Mohammareh. The inward migration to Abadan of people seeking employment in the oil industry, or providing services to the employees of the oil industry, soon grew beyond all expectations—especially after the First World War when the global dependency on fuel oil greatly increased. APOC’s Indian employees in Abadan numbered only 80 in 1910, but gradually rose to 1028 in 1914, and then grew sharply to 3816 in 1922.[50] Thus, in two decades Abadan grew from a modest sheikh’s village to a large company town, which by 1930 had around 30,000 to 40,000 inhabitants,[51] of which about half—17,370 men—worked at the oil refinery.[52]
In the warm climate of southern Persia, long working hours were normal. In the early years of the oil company, no standard working day for employees existed at all. Workers were often expected to work seven days a week, from sunrise to sunset. Some years later, however, on the eve of the First World War, a new workday regime was implemented: six working days per week, from nine to twelve hours per day, depending on the season. Work typically started at six o’clock in the morning and ended at six o’clock in the evening during the winter, and continued from six o’clock in the morning until three o’clock in the afternoon during the summer. It was only after the several labour protests in the 1920s that APOC eventually adopted standard working hours throughout the year, commencing at 6 in the morning and finishing officially at 5.30 in the afternoon, with an hour and a half for breakfast and one hour for lunch.[53] In the early days, the oil company designated Sunday as an off day. In later years, the rest period started at noon on Thursday, and included Friday.
At first, APOC offered temporary housing exclusively to its European staff. Two years later, in August 1912—when the construction of the refinery was sufficiently near completion to allow a trial run to be made[54]—APOC’s European employees were accommodated in brick villas and bungalows surrounded by gardens. These houses were built at the north-western site of the refinery known as Braim, where the Sheikh Khaz‘al also had his residence. On the opposite side of the refinery, to the southeast and north of the old village, a new neighbourhood was constructed for Indian clerks and artisans. The refinery was in fact a ‘buffer

zone’ between the Braim and the new neighbourhood. During the early years this new neighbourhood was called Coolie Lane. Its name later changed to Sikh-Lane, when the majority of Indians working at the refinery were Sikhs, and finally to Indian Lane. Indian employees in the Coolie/Sikh/Indian Lane were housed in parallel long and round barracks (Figure 6). Each barrack was divided by wall portions into a number of units. Each unit could accommodate several employees or an entire family, if by exception family members were permitted by the company to join the employee. Figure 7 shows New Suburbs built in the 1920s and 1930s in a map of Abadan.
In the early days, Persian recruits either lived in sun-baked mud houses in the old village, around sheikh-bazar, or around the old town, in shelters made of loosely lashed sticks or bamboo, roofed with palm leaves.[55] However, during the later period, they moved to Ahmadabad, Bahmanshir and Kofeysheh, often on their own initiative. In the early 1920s, APOC added two new neighbourhoods to Abadan: the Bowardeh area and the Indian Quarter (kuarter-e hendi-ha). Bowardeh was constructed to accommodate Persian clerks and skilled

workers. The Indian Quarter was intended for Indian semi-skilled workers and security agents. Between the two new labour neighbourhoods of Bahmanshir and Ahmadabad, the Indian Quarter featured row houses and a public toilet (new to Iranian architecture), and had its own Sunni and Shi’ite mosques as well as a home-based Hindu temple.[56] The old Indian Lane, well-maintained, was for the use of Indian clerks and artisans.
As a tripartite city, Abadan was spatially divided according to the social stratification principles imposed by British colonialism. A highly stratified racial hierarchy existed, which APOC’s British employees brought with them from home and from India. The city was divided between Europeans at the top, Indians in the middle and native Persians at the bottom. This racial partition was consistently observed, even when new neighbourhoods were added to the city, as the oil industry expanded, the refinery was extended, and the employment policy was altered.[57] Figure 8 shows an APOC Official Admissions Ceremony for Highranking Indian Employees in Abadan, 1925.

Crossing this very rigid racial partition was possible, when higher-ranking Indians (and later Persians) were invited to attend official ceremonies, congregations or worship services with the European community.[58] However, mixing across racial borders was ‘specifically discouraged, and segregation was held up as the best alternative’.[59] The APOC archive contains a 1926 memorandum signed by Mr Armstrong, an APOC executive in Abadan, which illustrates this segregation. According to the memorandum, when some Indian clerks at APOC approached Mr Armstrong in Abadan to get permission to use the library, he was reluctant to respond positively to their demands, because he was worried that if he granted access to Indian clerks, this might cause Europeans to avoid the library. Consequently, he advised Indians to create their own library with old and used books from the European library.[60]
In the colonial culture, racial segregation had a domino effect. In Abadan it was not just Indian employees who were supposed to have their own community library. The ‘native’ Persians were also barred from using the Indian Library, and encouraged to have their own. This ethnic partition extended to other services such as health and sports facilities. The Europeans had their own exclusive hospitals and sports clubs, separate from Indians and Persians, with different quality standards.[61] APOC justified its policy and actions by arguing that: Under European guidance Persians were learning to separate themselves from fellow Indian workers. Separate Persian clubs would serve the dual purpose of stilling complaints in Tehran and keeping labour divided in Khuzestan.[62]


Notes & References:
48. Janet Abu-Lughod Rabat, Urban Apartheid in Morocco (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 374. For more study on colonial urban development, see Anthony D. King, Colonial Urban Development: Culture, Social Power and Environment (London: Routledge, 2007); Mariam Dossal,
Imperial Designs and Indian Realities: The Planning of Bombay City, 1845–1875 (London: Oxford University Press, 1991).

49. Nezar Al Sayyad and Mrinalini Rajagopalan, ‘Colonial City’, in Encyclopaedia of Urban Studies, ed. Ray Hutchison (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2010), 166–71. See also Eva T. van Kempen, ‘The Dual City and the Poor: Social Polarisation, Social Segregation and Life Chances’, Urban Studies 31, no. 7 (1994): 995–105.

50. British National Archive, FO 371/7818.

51. H.A. [Due to political reasons, the author opted for H.A. for anonymity], ‘Angloprsian Oil Kompany va Joziyat an’, Setareh Sorkh 2, nos. 7–8 (April 1930): 87. Reidar Visser, The Gibraltar That Never Was (www.historiae.org), 6.

52. British Petroleum Archive, ARC 71879.

53. British Petroleum Archive, ARC 176326; Thomson, ‘Abadan in its Early Days’, 17.

54. Ibid., 16.

55. Williamson, In a Persian Oil Field, 14.

56. ‘Abdolali Lahsaiizadeh, Jameh‘shenasi Abadan (Tehran: Kiyan-Mehr, 2005), 289.
57. For the city planning of Abadan, see Mark Crinson, ‘Abadan: Architecture and Planning under the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’, Planning Perspectives, 12, no. 3 (1997): 341–60. See also Kaveh Ehsani, ‘Social Engineering and the Contradiction of Modernization in Khuzestan’s Company Towns: A Look at Abadan and Masjed Soleyman’, International Review of Social History 48, no. 3 (2003): 361–90.

58. APOC Magazine 4, no. 2, March 1928.
59. Reidar Visser, The Gibraltar That Never Was (www.historiae.org), 9.
60. British Petroleum Archive, ARC 71183. ‘Item 21; Social Activities’, 18 March 1926; ‘Item 5; Conference at Fields Manager’s Office’, 2 April 1926; ‘Dossier 12; Social Services Department- Fields’, 2 April 1926. Also Naft 2, no. 3 (1926). British Petroleum Archive, ARC 71183, 1926.

61 British Petroleum Archive, ARC 68723, M.Y. Young to Strick & Co., 3 March 1921.




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