Rasmus Christian Elling

Published in: Urban Violence in the Middle East
Abadan refinery electrical shop foreman, Iran, 1945. Dmitri Kessel—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

In December 1942, unrest broke out in Abadan, arguably Iran’s first modern industrial city and home to the world’s biggest oil refinery. Two scuffles in the bazaar provoked Iranians from the Ahmadabad neighbourhood to attack Indian labourers in the ‘Indian Lines’ of the Bahmashir[1] neighbourhood. Although not as bloody or widespread as more well-studied occurrences of unrest in Abadan, I will argue that this ‘Bahmashir Incident’ is an important case that can aid in understanding the interconnectedness of oil, space and violence. This chapter has two aims.The first is to fill a gap in the existing literature on Abadan and the oil-producing province of Khuzestan in southwest Iran. This literature tends to focus on the struggles of the native Iranian labour movement against the Anglo-Persian, later Anglo-Iranian, Oil Company (A.I.O.C., henceforth ‘the Company’), and specifically on the great oil strikes of 1929 and 1946 and the oil nationalisation movement of 1951.[2]

In this literature, a crucial element is normally either mentioned only in passing or simply neglected: imported Indian labour. Using material from, among other places, the underexplored British Petroleum Company archives, I will investigate the context of the Bahmashir Incident synchronically and the history of a particular community (the Indians) diachronically. These investigations reveal an alternative labour history of Abadan, which, I will argue, can complement and challenge the existing literature.[3] Key Iranian leftist and nationalist accounts of Abadan’s history tend to cast all violence in the binary terms of a struggle between ‘the oppressor’ (the British) and ‘the oppressed’ (the native Iranians). This chapter will instead propose that since Abadan had multiple subaltern agencies, urban violence operated on several levels.

The presence of Indians in Abadan’s labour hierarchy and social fabric challenges the idea of Abadan as a ‘dual city’[4] and complicates simplistic interpretations of urban violence. Secondly, by disentangling the web of interests spun between the Company, the British military and the diplomatic machinery, this chapter will nuance the notion, so often reiterated uncritically in Middle East Studies, of ‘The British’ as a single, cohesive actor. The Company drew on the colonial legacy of British imperialism, was protected by the British military and was influenced by its major shareholder, the British government; yet, the Company was nonetheless an autonomous entity with a distinct mode of operation. In order to ‘see like an oil company’,[5] this chapter uses the Bahmashir Incident to examine how World War II affected the Company in Abadan on the eve of victorious nationalist movements and the dissolution of the British Empire – events that eventually drove companies born in colonial settings into the present globalized world of neo-liberal corporate capitalism.

To achieve these two aims, I situate the Bahmashir Incident simultaneously within various scales or ‘spaces’. On the macro-scale, nineteenth- and twentieth-century trade globalisation had brought venture capitalism to new heights, rapidly enriching and empowering corporations that were brought to life in a favourable colonial setting to extract resources from the Third World. New patterns in energy politics gave immense importance to oil in places like Iran and to enterprises such as the Company. On the mid-scale, most of the Company’s activities were harboured within the Iranian province of Khuzestan. In this remote south-western corner of Iran, I will argue, the Company created a space of exception[6]: the area known in official correspondence simply as ‘The Concession’, which also refers to the contract with the Iranian state under which the Company operated.

Here, the Company had negotiated and imposed its existence as an extraterritorial entity since 1908, operating within an existing nation-state that was never formally colonized but was clearly under strong foreign influence. Within the Concession, the Company maintained vital interconnections between the rural and tribal hinterland of ‘the Fields’, where oil was extracted, and the modern refinery city of Abadan, from where it was exported. Finally, on the micro-level, the Bahmashir Incident can be used to study the construction and contestation of urban space in Abadan. Kaveh Ehsani and Mark Crinson[7] pioneered the study of Abadan’s spatial politics, and it is with inspiration from their fascinating works that the present study focuses on one community and one event in the belief that the micro-scale of urban violence can be understood only within the macro-scale of power politics. This belief, in turn, mirrors another: that violence should be recognized as a fundamental aspect of everyday politics – not because human beings are innately violent, but because the very social processes and political structures that shape modernity were and are, more often than not, moulded and sustained by violence and coercion.[8]

This is especially true for processes and structures that bring about rapacious frontier capitalist enterprises such as an oil industry.[9] Abrupt, enclaval industrialisation and mass labour migrations under the Company caused fundamental societal changes in Khuzestan. When oil was struck in Masjed Soleyman in 1908, the Company initially recruited unskilled labour among the local inhabitants in the Concession, including Lor, Bakhtiyari and Arab tribesmen, while Europeans handled engineering tasks requiring technical skills. However, with the oil industry’s phenomenal expansion and insatiable appetite for labour, migrant workers flooded the region. In particular, the Company recruited labour from India and Ottoman Iraq, and then people from other parts of Khuzestan, from Iranian cities such as Tehran and Tabriz, as well as from Palestine and Europe. By the 1940s, local Khuzestanis only made up 40 per cent of the Company workforce.[10]

As early as 1910, however, worried British diplomats had presciently called for hiring, as far as possible, Iranian rather than Indian and Ottoman labour.[11] Indeed, the question of foreign labour soon became a key issue of contention between the Company and Iran – especially after the ascendancy of the assertive Reza Shah in 1925 and the concomitant wave of nationalist sentiment in the Iranian public. The Company claimed, in the beginning of operations with good reason, that it was impossible to find suitable replacements locally and in Iran. Company archives, however, also imply that recruitment was based on the Orientalist belief that particular ethnic groups were inherently predisposed to certain types of work. By institutionalising a labour hierarchy shaped by these essentialist stereotypes, the Company believed it could optimize productivity and oil output. This belief is echoed all the way up to 1982: in the British Petroleum Company’s official history, R.W. Ferrier argues that among Iranians, ‘there was little understanding of the discipline and expertise required for complex industrial operation and little opportunity to attain the necessary technical proficiency’.[12] A more truthful analysis would rather propose that the Company, particularly in the first two decades of operation, systematically denied Iranians this opportunity, and that the Company’s treatment of Iranians was in many ways racist.[13]

It was thus Iranians who comprised the general bulk of labour at the bottom of the hierarchy, toiling in the oppressive heat and dangerous conditions of the Fields and the refinery. For mid-level positions, the Company mainly recruited Indians, while for junior managerial and bureaucratic positions it relied on what Ferrier calls ‘more capable workers’ from among Iranian and Iraqi Christians (Armenians and Chaldeans) and Jews.[14] In short, the British and other white Europeans were at the top of the hierarchy, followed by non-Muslim minorities and Indians, and, at the bottom, Muslim Iranians – which included a diverse mass with numerous internal ethno-linguistic divisions.[15]


NOTE: Author’s pre-print version. References should be made to the published version in U. Freitag, N. Fuccaro, C. Ghrawi & N. Lafi (Eds.): Urban Violence in the Middle East: Changing Cityscapes in the Transition from Empire to Nation-State (New York: Beghahn Books, 2015).


Publication date: 2015, Document Version, Early version, also known as pre-print Citation for published version (APA): Elling, R. C. (2015). On Lines and Fences: Labour, Community and Violence in an Oil City. In U. Freitag, N. Fuccaro, C. Ghrawi, & N. Lafi (Eds.), Urban Violence in the Middle East: Changing Cityscapes in the Transition from Empire to Nation-State (pp. 197-221). New York: Berghahn Books. Space and place, Vol.. 14


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