War of Clubs: Struggle for Space in Abadan and the 1946 Oil Strike

Rasmus Christian Elling, University of Copenhagen

Published in: Violence and the City in the Modern Middle East


[W]e cannot be over-nice about legality and fair play where it is a question of vital oil interests.
The British ambassador in Tehran to the consul in Ahwaz, May 1946[1]
In its mid-twentieth-century heyday, the city of Abadan in southwestern Iran boasted the world’s biggest oil refinery, and one of the Middle East’s most modern cities. The 1980–88 war with Iraq turned the city into a mere shadow of its former self, and many locals and former residents today yearn nostalgically for the Abadan of the past, with its harmonious, cosmopolitan society. Yet this romantic popular recollection sometimes glosses over the fact that Abadan’s trajectory from a mostly Arab village to a complex multicultural city was interrupted by moments of inter-ethnic violence. Conversely, the nationalist Iranian historiography—which hails the city’s fight to oust British imperialism, nationalize oil, overthrow the shah, and resist the Iraqi invasion—also tends to reduce inter-ethnic conflict to the mere result of foreign enemy conspiracies.[2] In this chapter, I will attempt to counterbalance neglect, omissions and
distortions by bringing to light a particular event in Abadan’s history of violence, and placing it within its spatial context. On 14 July 1946, during a strike by oil workers, clashes broke out in Abadan between socialist labor activists and members of a so-called Arab Tribal Union. Using oil company archives, accounts by labor activists, and local memoirs, I will investigate this under-examined event[3] that stands at the contentious intersection of local, national and global politics, imperialism, ethnicity, and industrial urbanism. In this investigation, one unit stands out in Abadan’s geography: the club. As a key site of change and strife in Abadan’s urban life, the club encapsulates certain important dynamics in the trajectory of the modern Iranian nationstate, its history of anti-imperialist struggle, and the place of its marginalized minorities.

Note: Author’s pre-print version. reference should be made to the published version in Nelida Fuccaro (Ed.) : Violence and the City in the Modern Middle East  (Stanford,    2016).

Citation for published version (APA):

Elling, R. C. (2016). War of Clubs: Struggle for Space in Abadan and the 1946 Oil Strike. In N. Fuccaro (Ed.),

Violence and the City in the Modern Middle East (pp. 189-210). Stanford University Press.

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