Militant Particularism in Abadan

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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 plan to evict residents and merchants, paying compensation to those who had some form of official property title (it is unclear how many did, and from what authority) based on outdated property values, and then to charge them rent for re-admitting them as Company tenants, under its own strict supervision, did not sit well with the residents. These were the same “unscrupulous shopkeepers” that Eftekhari pointed out were fleecing workers with high interests. But the common struggle over threatened shared urban space was creating momentary common alliances, in what David Harvey calls “militant particularism”[130]. It was true that the
new bazaar would offer many new amenities, such as electricity, water, a clean and modern space; but it was doing so on Company terms, after it had dispossessed and evicted the people who lived there, and it was unclear who could afford the transition once they had lost what they already had. Some of the shopkeepers and merchants found an attorney in Bushehr to plead their case. They put together a petition and sent it not only to the Majles and the Cabinet, but also to the newspaper Iran, which published it:
“Once again the Company intends to demolish houses and evict the miserable population in the name of making a street. Two years ago they destroyed a major section of Abadan and despite numerous petitions and complaints they have not paid any compensation. Now they are at it again. We implore you to stop this injustice that is destroying Abadan’s urban fabric (shahriat-e Abadan) and preventing its development”[131].
The petition was signed by a score of residents and merchants, some of whom cited their trades as clockmakers, cloth makers, grocers, coffee shop owners, urban landlords, bakers, merchants, etc. Again, from the geographic and ethnic attributes of their names we can surmise many were immigrants from mostly southern parts of Iran adjacent to the province (Isfahan, Kazeroun, Shiraz); others came from nearby towns in the province itself (Behbahan, Ramhormoz). A number of them had explicitly Arabic names (Khezr-e Arab, Fahd Qawab Arab, Seyyed Abdollah Arab, etc.). Many simply cited their name, so it was unclear what they did, or where they came from; simply that they were part of the common cause of laying claim to their shared urban space. The struggle moved to the Cabinet and Reza Khan, in one of his last acts as Prime Minister before ascending the throne in December, signed the following cabinet ruling:
“The APOC’s plan to build a bazaar will subsequently improve Abadan. Therefore the Cabinet approves their plan under the following conditions: – The land belongs to the Government, who shall be party to the transactions. – The Company shall build the Bazaar at its own expense – The Government ought to approve the plans for the bazaar. To speed things up the Military Governor of Abadan can inspect the plans – The Company shall pay the property (Mostaqellat) taxes on shops leased by it
– To maintain price control rents shall not exceed 7% profit on capital expended together with expenditures on repairs, government charges, and water, electricity, and sanitation charges, which are to be borne by the Company
-Foreign subjects are forbidden to own property and real estate, yet as all Company’s institutions under the terms of Concession revert to the Government this permission is granted to the Company as an exception[132]
APOC management was unhappy that its intentions to take full control of a strategic section of the city had been frustrated again. The Company intended to clear out the undesirable elements in order to design the area according to its own specifications. It felt this was necessary to maintain exclusive control and impose discipline. The Company justified the venture in commercial terms, and calculated that the rents and fees it intended to charge would cover the costs. But these plans now seemed in tatters, since the Government wanted a piece of the action and intended to impose its own oversight over the whole process. Greenhouse wrote an exasperated letter to Teymourtash:
“Tardy correspondence has yet again delayed the completion of the bazaar until 1926. In view of the urgent need to provide accommodation for the poorer classes of shopkeepers – the sellers of meat, fish, and vegetables – our offer was made as generous as possible, and for this reason no mention was made of the heavy capital cost of the construction which will become the property of the government in a few years time [once the D’Arcy Concession expired, in 1961]. It is regrettable that our offer has been refused.”[133].
Greenhouse went on to make a detailed reply to the Cabinet decree, the main points of which were: first, a refusal to pay ground rent to the Government on the ground that “the charge of ground rent by government on wasteland is opposed to the terms of Concession”. Second, he accepted to pay commercial property (Mostaqellat) taxes, but, third, it wanted to know why no mention had been made in the Cabinet decree of how APOC should recoup their “capital costs of £50,000”? Last, he emphasized yet again the urgency of the situation and the vital need for the project to proceed as quickly as possible[134]. In order to show some flexibility, Greenhouse made a slightly more generous offer a week later: “At great sacrifice to Company, and in public interest, we agree to restrict the rent to be charged on bazaar shops to 8.5% of capital expended on construction, electricity, filtered water supply, sanitary & miscellaneous services supplied by Company at cost (from 10%)”[135]. Teymourtash tried to placate the Company, and informed the Foreign Minister that he was willing to support the idea of the government to mediate the conflict with the residents so long as the state became the sovereign authority over legal transactions, tax collections, and the ultimate landowner: “A meeting was held at my house to deal with the issue [with Greenhouse present]. It was decided that the Military Government of Khuzestan should look into this affair and, first, collect land rent from Iranians residing in the Company areas on behalf of the Company, after confirming that all the legal documents are in order. Second, the agents of the Ministry of Interior [the Municipality] will collect the public health/sanitation taxes from the residents, in order to reimburse the expenses that are currently being paid by the Company out of pocket.”[136]

However, even the powerful minister’s missive was difficult to accept for a fledgling bureaucracy that was suspicious of the extra territorial powers of the Company, and felt highly insecure during a time of transition under the arbitrary and authoritarian scrutiny of Reza Shah. The bewildered responses of various institutions showed that the deceptive appearance of what Tim Mitchell calls a “state effect”[137], concealed the reality that interconnected and institutionalized state machinery simply did not exist at that stage. The Ministry of Justice, in charge of redrawing property laws, sounded baffled and ignorant of what had transpired previously and inquired “what does the Company intend to do?” At the same time the Foreign Ministry was confronted with a continuing stream of ever more elaborate telegrams and messages from its local attachés and Abadan residents denouncing “the Company’s illegal plans to make streets and to demolish homes and buildings”[138]. Meanwhile, the new Kargozar seemed to be far more sympathetic to the Company’s position, and filed the following report:
“The Company is refusing to pay the 130 thousand Rps’ compensation demanded by the evicted and displaced population. There is a big difference between what the residents ask and what the Company is willing to consider. The demolished houses are of two types: Some have been demolished in the Company area [Braim, Refinery], others in the so called “Sheikh” neighborhood by the government of the time (Khaz’al) in order to build a bazaar for Sheykh Abdollah. At present both groups of population are mixed together. The Company’s dealings’ with the residents seems to be fair, but their demands are too high. Nevertheless the Company is willing to help.”[139]
It now appeared that people evicted from different areas – Braim, the Sheikh neighborhood, and the Shahr – were making common alliance to resist their dispossession, and to demand at least proper compensation. The central bone of contention was becoming the issue of the legal ownership of what, by now, had become urban land.

 

Notes & References

130. David Harvey, Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996).
334

131. Law attorney Tehranizadeh, Bushehr, to the Majles, Prime Minister, The Government Cabinet, IRAN Newspaper, 6 October 1925, INA 240009253

132. Cabinet Ruling; Signed by “Prime Minister Reza”, 5 October 1925, INA 24002909

133. Greenhouse to Minister of Agriculture, 7 October 1925, INA 240029099

134. Ibid.

135. Greenhouse/APOC to Minister of Agriculture, No. P/362, 14 October 1925, INA 240029099

136. Teymourtash, Minister of Agriculture to Minister of Foreign Affairs, No. 5753, 15 October 1925, INA 240009253

137. Timothy Mitchell, “Society, Economy, and the State Effect,” in State/Culture, ed. George Steinmetz (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), 76–97.

138. “Ministry of Justice to Teymourtash, Minister of Agriculture”, No. 9072, 25 October 1926; Series of telegraphs to Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 9 November 1926 to 25 January 1927, IA 240009253

139. “Kargozari: Follow up on report No. 199”, No. 25, 26 December 1925, INA 240009253

 

 

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