Nostalgia and the oil city | Rasmus Christian Elling explores oil as the stuff of imagination in Abadan, south-western Iran

by Rasmus Christian Elling

Published in «The Middle East in London»

Abadan was Iran’s leading entry point for Western products and consumerism. Here two expat children pose with a Pepsi Cola truck near the newly opened Pepsi bottling plant in Khorramshahr, neighbouring city to Abadan (1958) — © Charles Schroeder Image / Courtesy of Special Collections / Fine Arts Library, Harvard University

Nostalgia is a thriving business in the bazaars of Abadan. In its heyday, the city was home to the world’s biggest oil refinery and one of the Middle East’s most modern, cosmopolitan societies. Today, Abadan is a mere shadow of its former self, and Abadanis yearn for bygone times. Pride in the past and embarrassment over the present becomes palpable when locals present their city to the now only occasional foreign visitor. The popular nostalgia is expressed in memoirs and fiction, in urban myths and local historiography, in online and exile communities.

This culture of nostalgia is a product of oil’s transformative, creative and destructive powers, and it illustrates how oil modernity can shape societies but also animate their imaginaries.

In order to understand this, we must appreciate Abadan’s dramatic trajectory from a sleepy village of a couple of hundred Arab date farmers when oil was struck in 1909 to a complex cultural and political city of over 220,000 inhabitants in the 1950s. During the Anglo–Persian (later Anglo–Iranian) Oil Company’s four decades of presence in Iran, Abadan developed into a multi-cultural if segregated city with a progressive if unequal society. It had middle class suburban houses with all mod-cons alongside impoverished shantytowns. It saw both ruthless suppression of labour activists as well as gradually increasing social mobility and welfare. Abadan was then populated by Europeans, Jews, Armenians, Arabs, Indians and Iranians who had flocked from all over the country to Abadan in search of work. As they settled, they forged a new culture, distinctly global in its orientation. As a key entrepôt of new technology,
fashion and consumerism, Abadan’s image as a liberal, even hedonistic haven and left ist hotspot was cemented in the years after World War II. In July 1946, the oil labour movement staged a strike at Abadan refinery, which foreshadowed the ousting of British imperialism during the 1951 oil nationalisation movement. The latter movement was headed by the popular Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, who in turn was overthrown by a CIA engineered coup in 1953. As American ideals replaced British influence, Abadan entered a golden age of cultural production and consumption that spawned some of Iran’s most famous artists, novelists, cinematographers and musicians.

Political dissent remained strong, and one of the key events that took the anti-Shah movement into its revolutionary phase was a disastrous fire, set by unknown perpetrators, in one of Abadan’s cinemas in August 1978. The Islamic Revolution was followed by Iraq’s bloody 1980 invasion of Iran, during which Abadan was evacuated. Although it is today repopulated, it has never regained its pre-revolutionary status and glory. It is on this background that nostalgia flourishes. During my most recent trip to Abadan, my host took me on a tour of the places that to him symbolised the past. To each location, he attached a personal memory or popular anecdote. There was, for example, the roundabout on which Iran’s best stocked shopping store, Alfi e, used to be, and where newspapers would arrive the same morning they were published in London; the place where the Greek photographer had his fancy atelier; and the area that was once inhabited by Indians, the only traces of whom can be found in Hindi loanwords and a fondness for curries and pakora. Some of the material frames of these spaces are still standing but seem eerily abandoned, rusting or in the process of being reclaimed by nature: the former holiday residence of the Shah; the university, which used to be one of the world’s finest academies for petroleum engineering; or the airport, which – locals are keen to stress – used to have direct flights to London but now appears dilapidated and provincial. Other buildings still stand in all their might, reminding Abadanis that their city was once the recipient of the finest in architecture and engineering: the Cinema Taj, a colossus of imported red bricks, which used to showcase the best from Hollywood, Bollywood and Egypt; and even the refinery itself, insisting on its presence right in the city centre, but seemingly archaic. The tour ends with a surprise gift . In a little shop in the bazaar that develops film and sells sunglasses, the vendor has prepared his signature speciality: a thick, faux leather-bound photo album stuffed with pictures from old Abadan. The vendor, a young man with a knack for the nostalgia business, has meticulously gathered hundreds of pictures from the internet and local sources. He tells me the photo album is a best-selling product, and as I flip through the pages, a crowd of young onlookers gather around me. Nostalgia even thrives amongst those too young to possibly remember. In the album, we see pictures of picnics in parks, parties in backyards and poolside recreation; we see smiling nurses, football teams, shiny cars on orderly streets, boat races, fire brigades and nightclubs. We do see poor neighbourhoods, but the idyllic white fenced suburbs are overrepresented. There is a series of depressing sceneries of Abadan as a ghost town during the war, but most pictures are from before the revolution. Women are dressed like the American and Italian movie starlets of the day, fancy hair styles, chic skirts, short pants; men sport jeans, Clark’s shoes, smart shirts and Ray-Ban sunglasses. In the colour photos, trumpet pants, batik t-shirts, longer hair and bigger mustachios enter the picture. One photo catches my attention: it shows Dizzy Gillespie, standing next to Mohammad-Reza Shah’s sister, Princess Shams. It turns out the picture was taken during Gillespie’s US government-funded 1956 tour of the Middle East as a goodwill ambassador. Today, only some Abadanis know that their city was once graced by visits from the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington.


They do however routinely re-invoke the image of a city that was once the epitome of industrial progress, aspiring for a place in the world and symbolising the possibilities of the future.


National music competition organised by the Khane Javanan (‘House of Youth’) in 1977. Abadani bands often won first place in these competitions. Photo courtesy of Shahriar Tashnizi

Abadanis are not indenial that the promises of modernity remain largely unfulfilled, and they are conscious of the tormented chapters of their city’s history. They are aware – and proud – of Abadan’s role in Iran’s bloody national struggles, with holes in the walls and streets, erratic power cuts and horrendous water quality reminding them daily of the price their city has paid. Yet while oil brought social injustice, political oppression, ethnic tensions and environmental degradation, it also broadened horizons and enlivened imaginaries. Abadani nostalgia, then, is the embodiment of the contradictory experience of oil modernity as perceived by a city that refuses to forget.

Rasmus Christian Elling is PhD in Iranian Studies and Associate Professor at the Institute for Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, Copenhagen University. He has published on identity politics in postrevolutionary Iran and is currently writing a book on the history of Abadan.

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