The Urban Life of Oil: The Urban Process, the Built Environment, and Everyday Life in Abadan

Easter Egg hunt for the children of AIT. Abadan 1960 Provided by : Gail VanWinkle Lydon
Easter Egg hunt for the children of AIT. Abadan 1960
Provided by : Gail VanWinkle Lydon
Author: Kaveh Ehsani, Leiden University 
[ From “The social history of labor in the Iranian oil industry : the built environment and the making of the industrial working class (1908-1941)” ]

The human experiences surrounding the production of oil in Khuzestan took place in numerous distinct but interconnected spaces: There were the extractive places of oil wells and fields as in Masjed Soleyman; the link nodes of transportation routes and security zones surrounding them; the administrative centers that coordinated operations in Ahvaz and Mohammareh (later renamed Khorramshahr); and the industrial processing, storage, and shipping center that was the heart of the operations in Abadan. During the period under study there were other strategic nodes influencing local events in Tehran, London, Delhi, Basra, and Baghdad. Thus, the oil complex in Khuzestan was always part of a larger national and transnational web of interests and decision-making, while at the same time it began to take on a complicated dynamic of its own.
In Khuzestan, these different oil centers did not operate in a spatial and social vacuum. They spread out into the countryside to appropriate territory from existing local populations and land users, and to siphon off human labor power to carry out the work of mining, the industrial production of petroleum products, and their export. Thus, the landscape of oil connected together as never before the urban and the rural; and the local with the provincial, the national, and global spaces, to make possible the supply of petroleum to its expanding markets and the accumulation of capital in the oil business. The everyday experiences that were essential to making the contemporary “oil civilization” occurred in these material places, the oil boomtowns and company towns where the encounter between the heterogeneous populations occupying many social roles made the production of oil and its reliable, cheap, and expanding provision to the market, in a growing variety of forms, a reality. The following chapters will investigate the successive spatial reconfigurations produced by the advent of oil capitalism in Khuzestan, and analyze how they affected the oil encounters and shaped its new habitus. Conventional social histories of labor in the oil industry tend to focus on the workplace relations, wages and compensations structures, corporate management relations; or highlight workers struggles for collective bargaining, self-organization, and improvements in living conditions. This focus on the workplace can occlude what takes place outside and around the places of production; and thus only partially reveal the dynamics of the new oil habitus. It leaves unanswered equally important questions such as how workers maintained and negotiated ties to their places of origin, how those places of origin were transformed as they became tangled in these new sets of long distance relations, whether the social and geographic background played a role in helping, hindering, and shaping the manners of oil workers interactions with their neighbors in their new urban settings, and reveal the range of novel alliances and hybrid and cosmopolitan new collective cultures that shaped their outlook and informed their subsequent practices in the workplace and outside[20].

My intellectual influences will become evident in the course of the text, but for the spatial entry point followed here I must highlight the influence of critical urban geography on my work, in particular the framework for the urban analysis of capitalism provided by Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, and Frederick Cooper[21]; as well as what I would generally label as the post-structuralist spatial analysis of colonial and industrial urban history and modes of governance[22]. My primary focus of investigation will be the refinery city of Abadan, initially a rural and sparsely populated river island in 1909, before multiple social actors converged there and transformed it by late 1920s into an oil and shipping boomtown with a rapidly growing population of over 60 thousand and the site of the largest refinery in the world. As a city built by and for oil, Abadan became the home of people in multiple roles – managers, workers, bureaucrats, merchants, servants, smugglers, indigenous date farmers, prostitutes, soldiers, etc. It was a polarized “quartered city”[23], a city shaped by conflicting and competing claims to space that did not harmonize or succumb to the hegemony of a single urban form, but left their imprint on the urban geography and social relations within. Thus, while the Anglo Persian Oil Company (APOC) attempted to carve out exclusive enclaves on the island to build living and working spaces that would fit its stringent criteria and be organized under its monopoly control, other residents fought to shape space according to their own needs and priorities. The indigenous population struggled to keep hold of its agrarian spaces, groves, pastures, fields, villages, and modes of tribal life. The huge inflow of migrants lived under appalling conditions in precarious shelters and slums, which they attempted to defend against evictions and speculative commodification by creating new networks of neighborly solidarities. And state agents, newly arrived in the city after the gradual consolidation of a military, authoritarian, and centralizing state worked hard to impose the new legal and administrative order of the nation-state over the Oil Company, the strategic national border region, the restless local population, and the expanding oil boomtown. Thus, the urban process in Abadan was hardly harmonious, even though it became increasingly channeled toward the social transformation of the population and the urban space for the purposes of the refinery and the oil industry.
Adam Przeworski argued in his essay Proletariat into a class, that the story of working class formation was the story of resistance to becoming wage laborers[24], an observation certainly true in the case of the population of southern Iran who eventually formed the core of the oil industry’s labor force. Thus, a main challenge is to find an explanation for why people came to work in the oil industry when alternative modes of social and political life were not a nostalgic and distant memory, but a living reality in the province: Why did people consent to becoming an extension of the industrial order and accepted its time discipline, its harsh regime of corporate management and punishing physical labor, and allowed their social relations and aspirations to be defined by what Polanyi calls the “Satanic Mill”[25]? The built environment of Abadan, its refinery, and the oil habitus that framed people’s viewpoints and practices there was a product of these frictions and the interactions of all these heterogeneous social actors. Its micro social history provides an answer (although not the only one) to the larger questions of how this consent was obtained, and how oil capitalism and the nation state were consolidated. Urbanization is a process that is celebrated normatively by a range of modernization theories as inherently progressive, modern, and inevitable [26]. The critical approach I adopt here sees the urban history of Abadan not as a celebrated byproduct of the forward movement of history toward an ideal type modernity, but as a site of ongoing political and social tensions, struggles, and negotiations, over how alternative modes of life and heterogeneous populations are first fragmented, before being integrated into the new social order of capitalism and the nation state. Thus the questions I pose here are not only about employment, municipal services, food, housing, sanitation, property laws, and police; but also about culture, ideology, and new forms of solidarity and resistance, in forming a new spatial order. These issues form the basis of the production and reproduction of the social and political economic order; they are not abstract and discursive, but concern the concrete experiences that are framed by and rooted in material space[27]. The Oil industry produced many urban spaces in Khuzestan, the largest of which were Masjed Soleyman and Abadan, with significant differences between them. The first was a strictly mining town, built around oil wells and designed functionally and under the strict coercive control of APOC to extract crude oil. Its location was dictated by geology. It remained an enclave with the typical characteristics of a company town. Once oil began to run out, the city and its residents were discarded unceremoniously, gradually turning into a de-industrialized shell[28]. While I do discuss the urban and regional history of Masjed Soleyman, my focus is on the much more variegated and cosmopolitan Abadan. By contrast, Abadan’s choice of location was down to a political decision and not dictated by geology (chapters 2, 3, 5). It was a river port city, a border town, a major chemical industrial center that became the converging ground for tens of thousands of deracinated rural populations of diverse origin who formed the core of the oil working class and a new urban citizenry. The Oil Company never managed to cast a monopoly control over its development, and nor did the central government. Its vast slums and condensed neighborhoods were home to heterogeneous populations of different kinds of oil workers, ranging from temporary and casual to more skilled workers and artisans, as well as many others who were not directly employed by the Oil Company, but made a living there on its margins. Its urban space became a combination of organized company enclaves, industrial spaces, indigenous settlements, and a frontier boomtown, making it an ideal case study for analyzing the web of relationships that created this unique oil habitus and became the heart of the oil complex.
Marx argued that the basic reality of capitalism boiled down to the circulation and flow of capital requiring the simultaneous separation and concentration of capital and labor in one place. This dual movement becomes possible through the initial moment of the primitive accumulation of capital and the dispossession of existing communities whose economy and society are not based on money relations, commodity exchange, and private property[29](see chapter 3). David Harvey adds that this transition is essentially an urban phenomenon, which involves a revolutionary
urban process to dissolve community by money, state coercion, and wage labor, “A built environment has to be created before capital accumulation can start. The urban process is all about how this new landscape is produced and used”[30]. In an industrial oil city like Abadan, this urban process meant that casual workers and migrants had to be controlled and co-opted, before being absorbed and integrated. Markets for land, labor, and living necessities had to be created where they did not exist at all, or did so on a limited scale. Customary relations of work had to be transformed, and the impact of social, technical, and political change had to be managed. As a result, from the 1920s onward, the Oil Company had to engage into a set of social policies, which I have called “reluctant paternalism” (chapter 5), that involved propaganda and public relations, educational and vocational training, municipal improvement, sanitary and public health measures, organized leisure activities (chapters 5 and 6). These social measures were in part a response to existing conditions in southern Iran, and partly a byproduct of the momentous changes taking place in the wider global habitus of industrial capitalism in the inter war era when welfare social policies promoted by professional experts, under pressure by working people, were being considered as credible alternatives to placate the rise of mass politics and class strife in the revolutionary circumstances following the end of WWI.




20. For valuable, but partial social histories of labor in the oil industry see Ervand Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982); Touraj Atabaki, “Sandicalizm dar Jombesh-e Kargari-e Iran dar Faseleh-e Salha-ye 1320-25,” Alefba Second Series, Paris, no. 6 (1985): 39–60; Habib Ladjevardi, Labor Unions and Autocracy in Iran (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1985); Willem M. Floor, Labor and Industry in Iran, 1850-1941 (Mage Publishers, 2009); Cosroe Chakeri, Origins of Social Democracy in Modern Iran (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001); Asef Bayat, Workers and Revolution in Iran (London: Zed Books, 1987); Sa’id Taeb, Az E’tesab-e Karkonan-e San’at-e Naft ta Pirouzi-e Enqelab-e Eslami (Tehran: Markaz-e Asnad-e Enqelab-e Eslami, 2003); Peyman Jafari, “Reasons to Revolt: Iranian Oil Workers in the 1970s,”

21. David Harvey, The Urban Experience (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989); David Harvey, Limits to Capital (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982); Frederick Cooper, “Urban Space, Industrial Time, and Wage Labor in Africa,” in Struggle for the City: Migrant Labor, Capital, and the State in Urban Africa, ed. Frederick Cooper (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1983), 7–50; Frederick Cooper, On the African Waterfront (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987); Henri Lefebvre, La Production de l’Espace (Paris: Anthropos, 1983).

22. Dolores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods and Cities (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982); Robert Home, Of Planting and Planning: The Making of British Colonial Cities (London: E & FN Spon, 1997); Gwendolyn Wright,
The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); Paul Rabinow, The French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991); Anthony D. King, Colonial Urban Development: Culture, Social Power and Environment (New York: Routledge, 2007); Brenda Yeoh, Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore: Power Relations and the Urban Built Environment (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003); Janet Abu-Lughod, Rabat, Urban Apartheid in Morocco (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).

23. The term “quartered city” is coined by Peter Marcuse as a critique of Janet Abu Lughod’s notion of a “Dual City”, as in colonial Rabat divided between a European sector and a native Qasba. Marcuse argues that neither the “traditional city” is ahistorical and unchanged, nor the European city is shaped exclusively and definitely by the will of colonial planners. He outlines multiple social and spatial dynamics that constantly muddy the urban and spatial boundaries, even in seemingly segregated and subdivided urban settings. See Peter Marcuse, “‘Dual City’: A Muddy Metaphor for a Quartered City,”
International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 13, no. 4 (1989): 697–708; Janet L. AbuLughod, Rabat, Urban Apartheid in Morocco (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).

24. Adam Przeworski, Capitalism and Social Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 47–97.

25 Polanyi, The Great Transformation. Of course, the issue of proletarianization under capitalism and the place of labor in the transition to capitalism is of general concern to radical social history; a topic that I will address in the next section.

26 W. W. Rostow, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960), is one of the classic articulations of this teleological approach in the post WW2 development literature. In the case of Iran see the example of Eckhart Ehlers and Willem Floor, “Urban Change in Iran, 1920-1941,” Iranian Studies 26, no. 3–4 (1993): 251–76; Jamshid Behnam, “Population,” in Cambridge History of Iran; the Land of Iran, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 468–88. My critical analysis of modernization theories and practices is sketched out in Kaveh Ehsani, “A Critique of Planning, Development and Progress” (MA Thesis in Regional Planning, University of Massachusetts- Amherst, 1986).

27. Harvey, The Urban Experience, 17–89.

28. Kaveh Ehsani, “Social Engineering and the Contradictions of Modernization in Khuzestan’s Company Towns: A Look at Abadan and Masjed-Soleyman,” International Review of Social History 48, no. 3 (2003): 361–99; Kamal Athari, “Masjed Soleyman; Sherkat Shahri Madaniyat Yafteh,”
Ettela’at-e Siasi-Eqtesadi, no. 47/48 (1991); Danesh Abbasi-Shahni, Tarikh-e Masjed Soleyman, (Tehran: Hirmand, 1995).

29. Marx, Capital, 1:873–941.

30 Harvey, The Urban Experience, 59-89


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s