Kaveh Ehsani and Rasmus Christian Elling
Originally published in MERIP
Kaveh Ehsani is assistant professor at DePaul University and a contributing editor of this[MERIP] magazine; Rasmus Christian Elling is associate professor at University of Copenhagen.
[ Part IV ]
To many Iranians, and particularly those in the diaspora, Abadan is remembered through nostalgic narratives that gloss over the gross inequalities, injustices and discrimination that marred the city under British influence and Pahlavi rule. In these romanticized narratives, Abadan’s past is framed as a near utopia of peaceful conviviality. Its former status as a symbol of material progress and affluence reemerges in online communities where past and current residents share pictures, postcards and memories associated with the heyday of the oil city. In this postwar “utopia lost” narrative, Abadan’s history seems to stop sometime around the revolution and the Iraqi invasion; everything later is a story of loss, displacement, repression and abandonment.
Conversely, the post-revolution state’s official narrative about Abadan begins at that historical moment: the heroic uprising of oil workers during the revolution, the epic resistance of local volunteer militias and, later, the organized forces of the Islamic Republic fighting foreign aggressors. In this official narrative, the loss of the city is a saga of the forces of good, besieged and embattled but ultimately emerging victorious from the flames of war. Yet given the intense discontent of the local population, there are signs that the state is searching for a more constructive and mollifying narrative than its official discourse of a heroic city victimized by an unjust war.
In 2016, the state opened its first Petroleum Museum, a collection of commemorative sites across Abadan’s industrial landscape including the country’s first gas station and a restored art deco masterpiece that has been turned into an open air exhibition. The museum runs an online project to document the cultural, social and technical history of oil in Iran. Several other landmark buildings have come under national heritage protection, and the local tourist office has rebranded the city.
These official projects aim to reclaim the paradoxical heritage of a turbulent past that has otherwise been kept alive by amateurs and ordinary citizens through documents, oral histories of Abadan and crowdsourced visual materials shared on social media, weblogs and other online forums.
The rebranding of Abadan is part of a broader attempt to close the ideological gap between official rhetoric in the Islamic Republic and the nationalist nostalgia of a younger generation longing for a mythologized pre-revolutionary past.
That rebranding is a symbolic (and hardly adequate)response to Abadanis widespread sense of betrayal and abandonment regarding the failed promises of reconstruction. Abadan is, in other words, an important front in the battle of clashing public visions about the past, present and future of Iran.
In the global North, the degradations of post-industrialurban environments can provide unexpected opportunities. In Detroit, some vacant spaces have been repurposed for artist collectives and urban gardens. These grassroots initiatives may do little for legacy residents abandoned by the wholesale collapse of the industrial economy, but they do provide some green shoots of revitalization. Opportunistic politicians appropriate popular nostalgia for a lost golden 32 era to legitimize neoliberal exploitation in the guise of righteous, resentful patriotism. Former Indiana Governor Mike Pence, for example, rode a policy of law-and-order political backlash against the impoverished, minority population in the city of Gary to the position of vice president of the United States. But in the more precarious national environments of the global South, post-industrial urban residents and policymakers face even greater systemic challenges, both local and international. Despite appearing to embrace a brighter version of Abadan’s past, the Iranian state has yet to create substantial change in the life of the city today. Chronic unemployment, environmental crises, widespread poverty, meager economic activity and perceptions of official corruption are everyday realities for Abadanis. The government’s acknowledgment in its recent cultural policies that the city’s heyday was in the past has only highlighted Abadan’s miserable present. At the same time, the traumatic decline of a cosmopolitan industrial city that once embodied the promises and perils of oil-fueled modernity has altered the perceptions of what collective futures can be built on a lost and idealized past. The major challenge facing the new generation of Abadanis and other Iranians is whether the nostalgic memories of Abadan’s social and political past can again inspire grassroots movements and hopeful possibilities for the city as well as the nation.
Author’s Note: We are grateful to Norma Claire Moruzzi and MER editors for their critical feedback. This essay is dedicated to our many Abadani friends and comrades who continue the difficult struggle to keep alive the dream of the city, its past but also its future.
Part IV’ Notes:
11. Rasmus Christian Elling, “Abadan: Oil City Dreams and the Nostalgia for Past Futures in Iran,” Ajam Media Collective, February 16, 2015, reprinted and updated at Abadan:Retold (2017): http://www.abadan.wiki.
12. Aghil Daghaleh and Zakia Salime, “A ‘Blue’ Generation and Protests in Iran,” Middle East Report Online, January 22, 2018.