The Politics of Food


The Abadan Central Restaurant in Early Launch 1920's
The Abadan Central Restaurant in Early Launch 1920’s
Credit: 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 Company’s claim about food supplies being of vital importance, on an equal par with clean water, housing, and sanitation were not off the mark. As long as Mohammareh had been a “dirty little village”[111] and Abadan, its rural island hinterland, food supplies were not yet a vital concern. As the oil industry was taking shape food supplies of Europeans were imported in tin cans by the sea, or as grain purchased locally or from Iraq. However, by mid 1920s, with post war conflicts, droughts, epidemics, famines, and the substantial growth of the population, the quantitative supply of basic foodstuff, as well as its quality, had become of vital and strategic importance. Khuzestan had been the historical grain basket of Iran and Mesopotamia until the 9th and 10th centuries (see chapter 1), but land degradation, water-logging due to lack of proper drainage, and political crises had drastically reduced the region’s agricultural production, making it prone to recurring famines (see Chapters 2, 3, 5, 7). The problem of famine did not affect the Europeans as much as workers and the local population who were unable to afford market prices. Since the opening of Karun to commercial shipping in late 19th century, much of the local food crops were exported to more lucrative markets. Ella Sykes in 1901 recorded 15 prominent merchants in Basra who controlled the date trade, and exported wool and wheat from Ahvaz. She also noted the drastic ecological changes that had taken place all along Karun, comparing Henry Layard’s description of the thickly wooded banks of Karun with the “totally deforested” landscape she saw in her visit: “no gazelle, or even a hyena, let alone a lion”[112]. No shooting for Lady Ella! The combination of the voracious requirements of the oil industry for brick kilns and energy prior to the completion of the refinery, and the growing needs of the local population for cooking fuels had put great pressure on the already fragile ecology of the region[113].
Arnold Wilson during his military service in Khuzestan had been very active in identifying potential irrigation schemes for large-scale food production in southwest Khuzestan[114]. The logistical awareness that the growing oil industry, as well as the British military, would require a secure, substantial, and sufficient, supply of food was already evident prior to WWI. Even the Qajar state had become aware of the commercial agrarian potential of the region after the noticeable interests of European prospectors in the late 19th Century[115], and sent Najm al-Molk, an able engineer, to Khuzestan in the 1880s, to assess the possibility of rebuilding broken irrigation dykes and waterworks on Karkheh and lower Karun (see Chapter 5). In 1904 a Major Morton was dispatched by the Government of India to investigate the feasibility of establishing a commercial irrigation scheme around Ahvaz[116]. In 1909 alarms rang when the British Legation learned that a Dutch syndicate had obtained an option for developing an irrigation scheme on the Karun, and warned off the Iranian government from considering the scheme because “A project of the character above stated is evidently calculated to produce a very considerable change, both commercial and political, in the existing situation on the Karun”[117]. Sheikh Khaz’al became interested in soliciting British help to develop such a scheme himself, and in March 1909 Sir Wiliam Willcocks, “a great engineer from Egypt”[118] arrived to assess the regional potential for irrigated agriculture on a large scale. Willcocks was impressed and claimed that rebuilding the dam at Nahr-e Hashem on the Karkheh that had fallen into disrepair in mid 19th century would unleash the agricultural potential of 1.5 million acres, especially in northern Khuzestan, but would cost an estimated £500 thousand to develop. While Willcocks felt that better natural drainage and soil quality made Khuzestan’s commercial agricultural potential greater than Mesopotamia’s, he also warned that any such scheme would adversely affect date gardens downstream, around Mohammareh, which relied on siltation and downstream water flow[119]. What the European prospectors, as well as the engineer Najm al-Molk who had made similar assessments four decades before, all shared was the conviction that the land was a wasted resource, left negligently underdeveloped by ‘the natives’: “[Karkheh] is the finest site for a dam I have ever seen. It has of course been used in the long distance past and was unsuccessfully repaired some 50 years ago. Now a great vested interest has grown up in the marshes [reference to the Arab tribes inhabiting the wetlands] in which the river wastes itself. A little rice, a little maize, and thousands of miles of reed beds are all that the river serves. It might water 50,000 acres of wheat, and still leave plenty for rice fields.”[120]

The following year a Russian national also obtained an irrigation concession on the Karun, this time prompting the British Foreign Office to step in directly and apply pressure on the Shah to put aside, once and for all, the idea of granting any foreign concessions for irrigation works in Khuzestan[121].Wilson felt frustrated and blamed the mistrust between Tehran and Sheikh Khaz’al for the failure of any attempt to develop the full agricultural and food potential of the wasted land and water. However, his insightful comments demonstrate the awareness that this was not simply an issue to be resolved among political elites and governments. Wilson already foresaw in 1911 that local people and collective social structures would resist their dispossession if drastic changes in landownership, irrigation systems, and agricultural development, were implemented at their expense instead of for them: “This country is evidently easy to irrigate and would be extremely fertile, but the obstacles are many. The land is in communal ownership, and a redesigned system of agriculture would benefit one tribe and community at the expense of another. It is harder to deal with communities than individuals. The government is an alien government, i.e. of Tehrani Persians. If their authority was supreme here they would get all the revenue and spend it elsewhere.
Irrigation works need organization, honesty, and steady outgoings on maintenance. None of these are to be expected in Persia”[122]
However, none of these modernizing agrarian and irrigation schemes for commercial food production on a large scale came to fruition, and the quantity as well as the safe quality of food in Khuzestan remained primary concerns, and directly linked to political stability. In 1926 Arnold Wilson urged APOC to approach the Iranian Government and ask it to entrust the Company with building irrigation schemes and large scale food production projects, by offering the added incentive of funding the project with a loan, to the tune of £100-£150 thousand, at a “low interest rate of 6%, as long as the construction is entrusted to us. This would benefit the Company by reducing food prices, and increase tranquility of the area, and create a steadier labor market”[123].
The inevitable reliance of Abadanis on the market for food supplies was a double-edged sword. On the one hand the dispossessed peasants, pastoralists, and migrants became a reserve army of cheap and interchangeable labor, congregated in town, and eager to get hired for low wages to feed themselves by purchasing all their necessities in the market. On the other hand, food insecurity, coupled with epidemics, chronic poverty, and social dislocations, created a cauldron of resentment and potential insurgency. Yousef Eftekhari, who managed to get hired at the Technical Workshop in Abadan, one of the pet educational schemes of the Company for training skilled Iranian workers (chapter 5) recalls his wages, and his living and working conditions as permanently precarious:
“My wages were 8 Touman, which eventually increased to 10T. Rahim Hamdad [his comrade] also received 8T. Together we rented a house for ourselves [as a safe house] for 4T. The two of us had to live on the remaining 14T for the whole month. We were truly under duress… Back then a bag of flour alone cost 5T in Abadan. Workers couldn’t pay in cash and had to get credit; and the unscrupulous shopkeepers charged them 6T for a bag of flour… Casual workers couldn’t afford anything besides bread. Most of them never had warm food, tea, fruits, let alone any meat…Life in Khuzestan was nearly impossible without ice and water, especially in summertime, and for those who had to work more than eight hours under the blazing sun. The Company did not provide any water; let alone ice…the luckier workers managed to get hold of a clay pot or a canvas bag. This helped filtrate the murky water a little bit, and also to keep it cooler. If you weren’t so lucky as to have a clay jar or a canvas bag you ended up having to drink water that tasted like oil and was hot”[124].

However, food provision was not a problem only for the poor, but even affected Indians and Europeans. “The local community pays any price for high quality vegetables… [one of the main reasons why] the cost of living is increasing”[125]. In the days before container refrigeration or climate controlled railroad and truck transport made possible the transfer of large quantities of relatively fresh food[126], the absence of fresh produce, dairies, and normal food was a major issue affecting the quality of life, even for Europeans. In the late 1930s, long after a modern bazaar had been finally built in Abadan, the problem of safe and sufficient food supplies persisted. To assess the rising costs and mounting discontent a food and nutrition expert by the name of William Jardine was hired to provide an assessment of food conditions in Abadan and the Fields. His report concluded that one of the major and recurring complaints by “the staff” was about the quality and unpredictability of the supply of bacon, vegetables, and meat. “The complete lack of choice, combined with low quality and low standards of cooking affects the physical and mental condition of the staff…the lack of other amenities and the climate are badly enhanced by food problems” [127]
The Company had established a dairy farm “to supply the staff continuously with milk. Jardine was asked to evaluate the dairy farm and make suggestions for improving the situation, since “the irregularity of food quality and quantity enhances abnormality of life in Iran”. Jardine concluded that given the location of Abadan little could be imported from outside the province, “some fruits perhaps, but no vegetables. Meat is a problem that cannot be remedied locally, but frozen meat [packed in dry ice, before refrigerated containers] can be imported…butter can be produced locally, same with pigs”. Jardine’s suggestion was to solve the food problem by improving local supplies, by employing an agrarian specialist, and insuring the maintenance of “disease free areas…taking precautions against diseases… and the threats of contamination”. However, all this required an increase in the supply of local grains, maize and barley.
The logistic of food demand and consumption intertwined the Company areas and the indigenous communities, as did epidemic viruses, and work in the refinery. As it were, “the Company is obliged to operate for itself and its employees a comprehensive food supply scheme”[128]. The considerable expense and the practical difficulties entailed in these schemes were an irritating inconvenience for a commercial oil company. In 1937 APOC had to import some 32 tons of bacon, ham, butter, cheese, lard, cream, and jams; together with 36 thousand tins of canned milk[129], not a negligible expense during a period of economic stringency.


Notes & References
111. Ella Sykes, Through Persia on a Side Saddle (Piscataway, New Jersey: Georgias Press, 2008), 263– 264.

112. Ibid., 267–271.

113. Working class families in Abadan used charcoal for cooking well into the 1940s. Poor Rural villagers, to this day, use a mixture of cow patties and straw, fuel still being too costly for their subsistence lives. Given Eftekhari’s account of oil sludge being used as a cooking fuel in the 1920s we can surmise that the working population used whatever was available as cooking fuel. Nasim Khaksar, Oral Interview about everyday life in Abadan in the 1950s, Amersfoort, March 2014; Author’s fieldnotes, Khuzestan, 1988-1990.

114. Arnold T Wilson, A Precis of the Relations of the British Government with the Tribes and Shaikhs of Arabistan, 1911, Appendix A.

115. Curzon, “The Karun River and the Commercial Geography of Southwest Persia”; W.F. Ainsworth,
The River Karun (London, 1888); Lynch, “Notes on the Present State of the Karun River, between Shuster and the Shatel-Arab”; Shahnavaz, Britain and the Opening of South-West Persia 1880-1914.

116. A.T.Wilson to Cadman, 18 February 1926, BP 71183

117. Persia Annual Report 1909, Burrell, IPD, Vol.4, 423–424.

118. Wilson, SW Persia; A Political Officer’s Diary 1907-1914, 96–97.

119. Persia Annual Report 1909, Burrell, IPD, Vol.4, 423–424.

120. Wilson, SW Persia; A Political Officer’s Diary 1907-1914, 97.

121. Persia, Annual Report 1910, Burrell, IPD, Vol.5, 116–117; Wilson, SW Persia; A Political Officer’s Diary 1907-1914, 101

122. Ibid., 142. This power struggle over land, water, and agriculture has remained very much part of the present day dynamics of authoritarian development in Khuzestan. See Grace Goodell, Elementary Structures of Political Life: Rural Development in Pahlavi Iran (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986); Kaveh Ehsani, “Sweet Dreams; Sugarcane and the Politics of Development in Pre and Post- Revolution Iran” (Conference presented at the Development After Development, New York University, 2003); Kaveh Ehsani, “Rural Society and Agricultural Development in Post-Revolution Iran: The First Two Decades.,” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 15, no. 1 (2006); Kaveh Ehsani, “Urban Provincial Periphery in Iran: Revolution and War in Ramhormoz,” in Contemporary Iran, ed. Ali Gheissari (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 38–76.

123. A.T.Wilson to Cadman, 18 February 1926, BP 71183

124. Eftekhari, Khaterat-e Dowran-e Separi Shodeh, 35, 119–120.

125. BP 49700

126. David Nye, Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940 (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), 204–225.

127. “William D.D. Jardine: A report on the food facilities at Abadan and the Fields”, 1937/1938, BP 49700

128. Ibid.

129. Ibid.


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