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
Despite the Company’s vigorous attempts to curb dissent, the success of the labor movement was nonetheless directly tied to the very spaces created by the oil industry. Khuzestan’s refineries, oil wells, and workshops afforded activists close proximity to their peers and to sites for communication, debate, and the organization of dissent. In the overcrowded urban sprawls, the control of movement was nearly impossible. Memoirs testify to the fact that resentment towards the Company was fuelled by the combination of slowly improving living conditions for Iranian workers and the rapidly rising but unfulfilled expectations of modernity that urbanization had generated. One urban space—the club—played a key role in the socialization and politicization of Abadan’s citizens. Its history throws light on Company social engineering, as well as on the spatial context of the 1946 clashes. In the 1910s, the Company opened the so-called Gymkhana Club in the exclusive Braim district, which catered to the British Senior Staff. The Gymkhana boasted billiard tables, a bar with a dance floor, a restaurant, and a hall for meetings and lectures. As the Western expatriate community grew, the city saw a proliferation of clubs for boating, cricket, football, gardening, and so on—all with annual fairs, shows, matches, and balls. There were various freemasonry lodges, amateur theater groups, scout organizations, and social clubs that would later be graced by jazz legends such as David Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington. The dancing saloons, swimming pools, tennis courts, cafeterias and bars presented a welcome alternative to the seedy speakeasies, opium dens, and brothels of the “native town.” The Company believed that clubs and social activities would not only cultivate Western urbanity, but also reduce alienation, restlessness, and disgruntlement among its senior employees.
The clubs remained exclusive to Europeans, while a couple of less well-equipped facilities were provided separately for Indians. Although a handful of Iranians managed to enroll in the latter, and while Iranian Armenians were able to open a club of their own, ordinary Iranian labor was generally barred from these social amenities.
The first organized demand for a club for Iranians was tied directly to the emergence of a nascent socialist movement. When Soviet-trained activists arrived in Abadan in 1927, their strategy to mobilize laborers was two-fold: on the one hand, they organized a clandestine network to function as a secret trade union; and on the other hand, they would establish the first athletic club for Iranians in Abadan. Prepared for Company opposition to such a club, the activists enlisted a number of non-Communist Iranian white-collar workers to persuade a government official to issue a permit, and then swiftly announced the opening of Kaveh Sports Club to the public. Masses attended the inauguration where they listened to representatives from various guilds giving “stirring speeches unheard of before in Khuzestan”–a dress rehearsal for the 1929 strike. Although Kaveh Club was frequented by many who were unaffiliated with the secret trade union, the Company could not tolerate its existence. With the help of Abadan Police, the Company had Kaveh Club shut down after two months of workers’ resistance. Indeed, mere membership in the club was later used as a justification for arrest during the clampdown following the 1929 strike.
Yet the Company eventually had to allow new professional and recreational spaces.
From 1931 onwards, the Company built clubs for clerks, seamen, artisans, and eventually the mid-ranking Iranian workers. To entertain the lower classes, the Company also established popular swimming pools and open-air cinemas. As sites of sociability and socialization, even athletic clubs were rightly feared to also function as sites of political activity, and Company managers allocated resources to have Abadan’s burgeoning club milieu monitored. By the mid-1940s the budding labor movement had turned many Company clubs into centers of resistance, even creating a parallel set of clubs for the various trade unions of taxi drivers, welders, and so forth, all considered illegal by the Company.
Whereas the Communist activists of the 1920s had to congregate secretly in private homes or in the palm groves outside of Abadan, the Tudeh activists of the 1940s would use clubs as venues for Party meetings, dissident activity, and speeches against British imperialism. The Company was aware that, in order to suppress discontent, the clubs had to be curbed, even if their sheer number made it nearly impossible.
In October 1945, the British consulate general in Ahwaz wrote to the ambassador in Tehran that the military governorship and martial law instituted in Khuzestan during the war should remain in effect because: (1) it is easier in that way to prohibit meetings and generally to interfere with the activities of parties and clubs liable to talk sedition— though as you say even a Military Governor can’t really suppress that sort of thing forever, and (2) malefactors are speedily punished (sometimes, I hear, even before they have done their foul deed) and that creates an excellent impression on other intending malefactors.
As hotbeds of “sedition talk”—the subversive practice of ungrateful subalterns (“malefactors”) who had to be punished for their insubordination (“foul deeds”)—the clubs had thus developed from Company-controlled spaces to nodal points in an urban network of anti-British activism. Within days after the British troop withdrawal from Abadan in March 1946, sedition talk gave way to a series of wildcat strikes, and then a huge show of the labor movement’s strength for the 1946 May Day demonstrations. The Iranian police first instructed Tudeh to celebrate the day inside the clubs but, realizing the sheer numbers of participants, local authorities allowed for “overflow orderly meetings outside in the vicinity” of the clubs.
In the end, tens of thousands of workers marched throughout Abadan, disregarding all instructions. In a very literal sense, labor activism had spilled over into the streets, transgressing the coercive logics of social control in the oil city. Abrahamian describes the power grab: By mid-June , the Tudeh organization in Khuzestan paralleled, rivaled, and, in many towns, overshadowed the provincial administration … Its branches determined food prices, enjoyed the support of the local fire brigades, and controlled communications, especially truck communications, between the main urban centers. Its unions represented workers’ grievances before management, collected funds for future emergencies, organized an elaborate shop-steward system, and opened forty-five club houses in Abadan alone. Moreover, its militias patrolled the streets, guarded the oil installations, and impressed foreign observers by quickly transporting 2,500 volunteers from Abadan to Khorramshahr to build an emergency flood wall.
The Company general manager in Abadan warned that, with over 25,000 members, local power was now effectively in the hands of “armed clubs” who were patrolling the streets wearing Tudeh armbands.
In the administrative language, club– and in the local vernacular, kolub –now signified a political actor rather than a material space. Despite a ban on public gatherings, Tudeh organized huge open-air meetings and took over Company buses, ending racially segregated public transport. In one incident, Indians, seen as lackeys of the British, were forced out of a football club by angry Iranians; and in another, labor activists climbed the walls of a club during a theater performance, inviting an outside crowd of between 4,000 and 5,000 to “take possession” of the premises, and demanding an end to discrimination between Iranian and Western staff.
Tudeh vigilantes also forced Arab merchants, accused of hoarding, to sell goods to trade union members at reduced prices. The labor movement, in short, had broken the lines of urban demarcation, appropriating formerly exclusive spaces and threatening the Western enclave and its Indian and Arab servants. “Violence,” a group of British MPs warned, “can occur at any moment.” The consul in Khorramshahr asked the Foreign Office in London to draw up a clandestine plan for a possible military intervention.
Such a move, however, would have been highly problematic, as Britain and the Soviet Union had just withdrawn from Iranian soil amid great controversy over Moscow-backed rebellions in Iranian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan. Indeed, the Tehran press was already claiming that the British army was in fact secretly using Company facilities as military bases. The Company and the British diplomats were particularly alarmed by reports of increased Soviet activity and overtures to Arab tribal leaders. In what appeared a blatant publicity campaign inside the British sphere of interest, the Soviet consul at Ahwaz was seen openly socializing and playing dice with commoners in the coffeehouses of Khorramshahr.
After a tour of Khuzestan in June 1946, the British ambassador concluded that the Company would soon be forced to defend itself against Tudeh. Looking for alternatives to an actual reinvasion of southern Iran, diplomats were contemplating a resort to an old Company strategy: using armed Arab tribes against labor activists. But there were more complex underlying dynamics in the July 1946 clashes.
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.