Social engineering and the contradictions of modernization in Khuzestan’s oil company towns, Abadan and Masjed-Soleyman
The Iranian, February 15, 2005
This essay is a comparative study of the design and social impact of Abadan and Masjed-Soleyman, the first and most important oil towns built in Khuzestan by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC). The construction of these company towns almost a century ago forms an important chapter in the history of modernization and urbanization in Iran. As a result of this experience a new model of social engineering and hierarchic modernization was introduced into Iranian social life by powerful actors that included transnational capital, the central state, and professional elites.
Company town, a term coined in turn of the century United States where this urban form proliferated more than elsewhere, refers to a town owned, designed, maintained, and managed by a single company – state owned or private . This distinction by exclusive ownership is meant to set company towns apart from other industrial or mining urban areas. Industrial cities, such as Detroit or Manchester, despite the predominance of a major industry, could not be exactly labeled company towns because the presence of a number of competing employer firms undermined the ability of any one of them to impose its singular will on the urban space in the way that that monopoly ownership affords the unique proprietor of a company town, such as Pullman-Illinois, or Lakewood-California .
Of the two major aims pursued in the course of the establishment of company towns the first, which is concerned with housing the labor force, is transparent and self-evident. But the second, which is to use the carefully designed urban space for training, monitoring, controlling, and in short socializing this labor force according to the demands of the company, is less explicitly attended to .
In Iran the history of modern urbanization has been inextricably tied to the activities of the Anglo Persian Oil Company (APOC). The oil cities of Abadan, Masjed-Soleyman, and at least 6 other sister towns ) designed and constructed by APOC in the first quarter of the 2oth Century in Khuzestan, were the first modern and industrial towns in Iran and the Middle East. Overtime, these cities came to occupy a special place as a model and inspiration for this type of urbanization in the country as other large industrial conglomerates (mostly state owned) replicated this segregated and hierarchic urban design in the company towns they built, a practice that continues to this day .
In this chapter I will discuss the history and experience of the oil company towns of Khuzestan, focusing on Masjed-Soleyman and Abadan, the first, largest, and most complex of these cities. Aside from the inherent fascination of looking closely at this formative experience this study can also allow us to pose several other related concerns, the importance of which may well transcend the mere study of an historical urban form in Iran:
First, if it is true as I claimed earlier that some of the main features and practices of this type of urban design have become ‘nativized’ overtime and tend to be utilized and referred to on a routine basis then we must conclude that the important changes that have taken place in the political sphere in the course of this past century have not seriously affected the norms, outlooks, and approaches to development and modernization.
It goes without saying that this experience has not been unique to Khuzestan and Iran since most post-colonial states have tended to adopt models and institutions of the previous era, legitimated by being labeled ‘national’, and subsequently used as instruments of governance and rule by the new state . In addition, this reference to the period of direct European hegemony is also repeated on numerous occasions in the process of planning new developmental policies, which use similar methods, approaches and even criteria .
What can be deducted from this experience is that even profound changes in the political sphere do not automatically bring the subjectivity and the outlook that shapes social engineering to critical questioning . The root of this subjectivity cannot be discovered in the political sphere alone, but rather in the more opaque and impersonal layers of the technocracy and bureaucracy that together form the state machinery, and in the weltanschauung of educated and professional elites .
Second, the continuity of the relevance of these models of social engineering should logically lead to a closer look at their original formation, or the colonial period. Modern colonialism involves the coercive domination of an alien power whose primary aim is the unaccounted extraction of material and human resources of a subjugated society. Although Iran has not been a modern colony at any time nevertheless the humiliating influence and hegemonic domination of APOC has always been locally interpreted as a colonial experience .
The control and ownership of oil resources was, from the onset, a national concern for Iran. At every major related historical juncture when negotiations and conflict redrew the balance of power over the possession and control of petroleum resources – from the D’Arcy Concession of 1908, to the 1919 and 1930 agreements, the oil nationalization movement of 1950’s, the post coup d’etat Consortium, the OPEC Cartel formation and the price hikes of 1970’s, and eventually the Islamic revolution of 1978 – we have been witnessing a greater share of the control and possession of oil resources gradually pass onto the hands of the Iranian State .
Nevertheless, if we were to shift our perspective from the ‘national’ vintage point, i.e., from the point of view of the central state, and look at the institution of the ‘Oil Company’ from the point of view of the local society, i.e., Khuzestan, then it would be legitimate to ask how much in fact the relation of power that has existed between these two over the past century has actually changed overtime?
For the local society in Khuzestan the powerful institution that controls the petroleum resources of this province may have undergone many metamorphoses, from the Anglo Persian to the Anglo Iranian to the National Iranian Oil Companies and eventually to the Petroleum Ministry, but it has always remained an awesome, forbidding, mysterious, and secretive presence which has been beyond local reach and control.
For local society this institution continues to appear as a mysterious and alien empire which miraculously extracts local resources and riches and transports them elsewhere without benefiting the local society in any way aside from the wages paid to its employees. The resulting wealth ends up being accumulated in other locations, i.e. in the distant and alien places where decisions about this local society are also made, be it London or Tehran!
In other words, the relationship of power that has taken shape between the local society and the political system in power, whether a central national state or an occupying foreign power, has not been fundamentally altered despite the significant political changes that have taken place. This relationship of power demands separate and autonomous analysis if for no other reason than the relationship between an independent and centralized ‘national’ state and its own internal communities can be as exploitative and ‘colonialist’ as the domination by an alien power .
Third, an analysis of oil towns would inevitably require closer attention to their raison d’être: the oil industry and economy, and their role in both shaping and creating these cities as well as in the larger national trends and events. Some thirty years ago Hossein Mahdavi published an essay titled “The patterns and problems of economic development in rentier states”, which is still referred to as a classic intervention in the field of comparative political economy. In this essay, using David Ricardo’s theory of rent, Mahdavi analyzed the impact of oil revenues on the economic as well as the political sectors of Iran and other oil producing nations .
Undoubtedly the ‘rentier state’ theory has played an important role in the clarification and the political economic analysis of oil producing societies. On the other hand, like any theory, it is in need of further modifications and critical reassessment . Here I will briefly pose two criticisms, which are related to our present topic: first, the relation between state and society is far more complex and involved than the financial interdependence. The primarily functionalist approach of the ‘rentier state’ theory has difficulty in both explaining exceptions, such as democratic Norway , or the popular democratic reform movement currently taking place in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
It would be also difficult to explain why despite generous distribution of rent, some passive societies suddenly produce sustained social protest movements, unless such political upheavals are explained away as a sudden fiscal and financial crisis, brought about by either drastic falls in oil revenues, or in the pattern of rent distribution by the state . Neither of these explanations has been convincing in explaining the occurrence of the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
But the second criticism I will level at this theory is perhaps more pertinent to the topic at hand: The focus of this theory on the state’s sources of revenue has limited its analytical scope to the macro economy, thus preventing it from taking a more serious empirical look at the role of oil industry itself, and the crucial role it has played in Iran’s social history. The claim that despite its enormous weight in the national political economy the oil industry has employed only a tiny fraction of the national labor force should not automatically lead to neglecting the important role that this labor force has played in the social, economic, and political history of labor in Iran.
In 1951, when the oil nationalization movement was taking shape, the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (AIOC, the renamed APOC) had nearly 80 thousand Iranian workers, employees, and contractors on its payroll , which was a very substantial portion of the national industrial labor force at the time. I do not currently have comparable figures for this year, but we know that five years later in 1956, i.e. after the fall of the Mossadegh government following the American-British Coup d’Etat of 1953, and the establishment of the oil consortium, and the subsequent downsizing and rationalization of the employment structure of the newly established National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) employment in the oil sector had dropped to 25 thousand, while total national employment in ‘modern’ large industries (defined as those firms employing more than 12 workers) totaled 60 thousand .
Employment in the oil sector increased gradually with the rise in production, but as a result of technological improvements and higher efficiency the figures did not exceed 55 thousand, in 1977 at the time of the revolution, while employment in large industries during this period experienced a rapid growth reaching 415 thousand people .
Despite the relative decline of the share of oil sector workers in the total industrial labor force we can still see that employment in this industry has always been a significant and considerable segment of the modern, and skilled working class employed in heavy industries. Our aim here is not to simply stress the numbers, but to also draw attention to the importance of the culture, organizational ability and experience, and the complex work ethic that the labor force of this modern, well-established, and highly competitive industry had accumulated over a long time. In other words, despite its relative decline in numbers, the oil sector continues to be, to date, probably the most advanced and competitive large industry in the country, thanks to its long history and experience!
This maturity and ability is not limited to organizational and productive abilities, but at many junctures has also had political manifestations. In other words, despite the fact that high wages and salaries, as well as relative job security by 1970’s had turned the oil industry’s labor force into something of a labor aristocracy , nevertheless this affluence and security did not prevent it from being rapidly attracted to national protests and political goals that transcended its limited guild interests.
In 1977-8 the industrial working class, which occupied a strategic place in the national economy despite its numerically small size, played a key role through its mass strikes in the success of the Revolution. Among this class the workers and employees of the oil industry played the key role by first shutting off the pipelines and suspending all production and exports. After the collapse of the monarchy they succeeded in restarting production and exports without the help of foreign experts, an unprecedented and quite significant event in the Third World .
In his study of the labor syndicates during the revolution Assef Bayat points out that what set the workers’ committees in the oil industry apart was their sustained autonomy and self-confidence, which allowed them to resist the encroaching ‘islamization’ which co-opted the other labor organizations. This independence led to increasing conflicts with the fledgling Provisional Government in Tehran.
In November 1979 the US embassy was seized in Tehran, just as a new wave of labor, ethnic, and student unrest was escalating. A violent wave of islamization of educational and workplaces, dubbed as ‘Cultural Revolution’, was launched in April of 1980. In this tempestuous atmosphere the Iraqi invasion of September 1980 suddenly overshadowed other internal contradictions. More pertinent to our subject here, the Iraqi invasion led to the immediate physical destruction of Abadan and the neighboring port city of Khorramshahr, and the forced dispersal of their populations across the country as refugees.
This forced and violent break in the history of these cities leads us to ask the legitimate question that if such a total destruction had not taken place in a major, strategic industrial city like Abadan would the course of Iran’s history in the following two decades have taken another shape? The population of Abadan had a strong sense of identity, as we shall see later, rooted in a rich and somewhat unique history. Despite the repressive nature of the post 1953 nonarchic regime, this ability was manifested in the ability of Abadanis to form the nuclei of autonomous civil institutions, primarily trade unions, as soon as the opportunity presented itself again in late 1970s.
The struggle for establishing popular and independent institutions of civil society is what the Iranian society is striving for even today. Had the oil workers’ attempts to defend their independent institutions against co-optation not been disrupted by war, not such an unlikely possibility given their strategic role and symbolic weight in the economy, would they have been able to set an example and create a center of gravity inspiring the emergence of similar institutions in other civil and public arenas, subsequently limiting the expanding sphere of state’s hegemony?  These are speculative, but not unfounded questions, meant to point out the range of missed historical possibilities, but also the potentialities that a large company town like Abadan had opened up at a certain point in time.
Fourth, it is likely that the above questions may sound surprising, but I think that if they do, it is because the role of ‘space’ and ‘place’ are by and large neglected in most social studies. Social movements, relations, and developments do not take place in a void, but are shaped in specific locales and material and physical places. This ‘space’ of social interaction is a product of social relationships, but at the same time it becomes an inseparable organic component of their process of development.
Two decades ago the urban population of Iran, for the first time in history, surpassed 50% of the total population. In a coincidence this symbolic passage to a predominantly urban society happened at the same time that the Iranian Revolution took place. This urbanized society is the product of a contradictory modernity, which has also brought about fundamental changes in the political structures of the country.
To better understand and analyze this modernity and the many forces that had shaped it one needs also to look at the spaces that this modernity has created. In other words, we need to ask what types of cities has this urbanized society produced? What types of urbanization? And what forms of citizenships?
The modernity that has shaped the contemporary Iranian society, like modernity elsewhere, and modernity itself, has not been a uniform and homogeneous process. It has been continuously contested, struggled over, seduced and enticed, forced and resisted by an array of social actors. We can capture the reflection and embodiment of this conflicted modernity, its momentary congealment, in the spaces it has produced.
The rest of this chapter is an attempt to analyze a specific type of place, the oil company towns of Khuzestan, which happen to have played a significant role in modern urbanization in Iran.
Archeology of company towns in Iran
From a historical and geographic standpoint, the cities of Abadan and Masjed-Soleyman have been the center and heart of the oil industry in Iran. In many ways the history and experience of their creations is unique and fascinating.
In the first place, these were the first thoroughly modern cities in Iran. After the discovery of oil in Masjed Soleyman by employees of the D’Arcy Concession in 1908 the Anglo Persian Oil Company (APOC) was incorporated in London. Within four years the foundations of the cities of Abadan and Masjed Soleyman were laid in practically unpopulated regions of Khuzestan.
Abadan was a large mud flat island, situated in the estuary of Tigris-Euphrates-Karun rivers, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. The island had an estimated population of some twenty four thousand Bani-Kaab Arab tribesmen, tending sheep and cultivating date palms. This population was dispersed throughout the island in a number of villages . Similarly, Masjed Soleyman was a mountainous region in the northeast of the province, and the site of seasonal grazing by Bakhtiari nomads.
In a pattern established two centuries earlier by the East India Company in South Asia, APOC initially leased limited amount of land in both locations from the Bakhtiari Khans and the Sheykh of Mohammarah (later Khorramshahr). It then began building these cities with the sole purpose of exploration, extraction, transport, refining, storage, and export of oil. Soon, these towns became the focal centers of a new geography that transformed the landscape of Khuzestan and became the site of the concentration of people and labor power employed in this rising global industry.
In a short time, the newly founded city of Abadan became the country’s fifth largest city, and its population of 225,000 surpassed that of Shiraz by the end of the Second World War in 1945. For several decades APOC ranked as the largest employer in the country, and its workforce exceeded the total number of those employed in all the private manufacturing establishments .
APOC did not invent the company town. At least from the first quarter of nineteenth century large capitalist firms in industrial countries – especially in the US, but also in Britain, France, Germany, and even Russia – had been involved in providing residence and some amenities, but also building whole towns in isolated and distant locations to house their labor force . But this urban form began to undergo significant modifications in the last quarter of nineteenth century.
The historic period of 1870’s to 1914 augured something of a paradigm shift in modern history. The political, economic, social, and geographic organization of the capitalist world and its dependencies, its mode of regulation and regime of accumulation, underwent significant shifts following a series of interrelated crises and reorganizations and adjustments, setting the stage for the next phase that dramatically ended with the Second World War .
Western World and its dominions were entering a new phase of progress and complexity.
The new era called forth a new level and form of management, discipline, and regulation. This vast and highly integrated ‘system’ needed to be steered with appropriate competence and knowledge, through a course that would ensure both its expansion and survival, as well as the collective interest of both the ruling bourgeoisie and the general population. Insuring moderation, ‘equilibrium’, and general happiness and universal satisfaction increasingly become the acclaimed goals of the more farsighted segments of the elites (this would also include many leaders of social democratic movements).
The responsibility for this social engineering and management falls to an emerging layer of professional elites, produced by the newly reformed universities and professional training institutions. From this period onward, the design and conceptualization of company towns (called industrial towns in England) increasingly falls to these professionals. The results of their efforts drastically differ from the filthy and atrocious industrial towns of the previous era, which had led to continuous misery of workers and numerous revolts, in two major respects .
First, the idea and principles of general ‘welfare’ gained an important place in the design of the company towns of the 20th century . In other words, the urban space itself was designed as an instrument that allowed the company proprietor not only to house its workers but, through ‘scientific’ design and planning by professional specialists  in the field, and through continuous intervention in all aspects of the quotidian life of this labor force and their families, to mold them into a skilled and efficient, but also docile, ‘happy’, and modern ‘human capital’.
The second factor which shaped and reformed the design of new company towns was colonialism. As mentioned before, in the period under discussion (1870’s-1914) colonialism had also entered a new phase where, in addition to the extraction of cheap and abundant raw materials, the cheap labor of the colonies for producing semi-finished, or even industrial products, as well as the potential of colonial markets for absorbing mass produced products of the core countries in an increasingly integrated and competitive global market were being considered as key strategies.
An important advantage of the colonies was that it allowed technocrats and professional elites to experiment with new models of social engineering and spatial design which, for political reasons, would have been more difficult to implement in the home country. For that reason, the distinction between the ‘West’ and the rest that is routinely referred to in most social and political discourses must be taken with a grain of salt. After all, many of the experimentations in social engineering that paved the way for modernization in both western and third world societies were initially tried out in the colonies, and only after modification and proven results and safety, were replicated in the metropolitan countries .
In other words, the traffic of modernization efforts and experiments was dialectical and back and forth, albeit certainly not equal in terms of power and decision-making. As a result, the transnational corporate power who laid the foundations of the cities of Abadan and Masjed Soleyman in Khuzestan did not start from scratch as it had a tremendous wealth of complex and up to date historical and practical experience available to it from which it could freely draw. Consequently, the places that APOC produced in Khuzestan were the results of the latest experimentations of advanced industrial capitalism of the day in social engineering .
For this reason, Abadan and Masjed Soleyman, at least in their initial years, instead of sharing similarities with existing Iranian cities belonged to an international category of company towns that advanced industrial capitalism was producing in various locations on the globe. In these cities, or at least in the blueprints their designers had drawn, all unpredictable and spontaneous elements had been eliminated and, on the other hand, all details of collective as well as private life in the new urban space had been subjected to conscious planning and design. These designs were drawn at the corporations’ headquarters, or in the offices of the professional planners. In other words, in distant places foreign to the locales where the towns were to be constructed, and by planners and designers who rarely had an empathetic knowledge and insight into the needs and characteristics of these local societies.
In Khuzestan, as in most other similar developments, the locations of the company towns had little to do with favorable environmental considerations, economic factors, or existing local communities, but were rather dictated by the requirements of the oil industry. Masjed Soleyman was founded around a series of remarkably productive oil wells, in the middle of barren mountains (home to only seasonal Bakhtiari nomads grazing their sheep), and Abadan in a marshy island, populated by tribesmen and palm trees, but which could also provided port access for tankers and cargo ships.
From the onset Abadan, Masjed Soleyman and their smaller sister cities were frontier migrant towns. Their initial populations were mostly men who came from elsewhere, from diverse ethnic and regional backgrounds, in search of jobs and income. In this period Iran was taking its initial fledgling steps towards becoming a modern, centralized and integrated nation-state. The political atmosphere of the country was unstable and crisis ridden. The population was predominantly peasants and nomads.
Migrant workers in Khuzestan, which at the time was perhaps the most isolated, marginal, and also the wildest region in the country, hired themselves out to an advanced capitalist industrial corporation in exchange for money wages, selling their labor power in order to produce directly for the world market. Their continued settlement there, their occupation, the organization of their material and cultural lives, and the socialization of their households in these new places in a sense created a new ethnicity, a new sense of social identity: that of being an Abadani or a Masjed Soleymani.
This new sense of identity took shape as these towns were rapidly being constructed, with a steady stream of migrants feeding its labor demands. For the new migrants settling in the radically new and alien places also meant a break from their previous social and spatial settings. As a result, in the two and a half decades between 1912 and the occupation of Iran during the Second World War, when Abadan and Masjed Soleyman had already taken their mature shape, their diverse and heterogeneous populations had undergone a generation of being subjected to and shaped by new modes of organizing and ordering of their cultural and material lives, profound changes in their collective private and family lifestyles, and the education and molding of their young generations by the newly established educational, technical, and recreational institutions.
The modernity that laid the foundations of these company towns distinguished them, and especially Abadan, from the other historic Iranian cities, even Tehran the capital. From the Safavid period (16th century) to the fall of the Qajar dynasty (1926) the province of Khuzestan had come to be known as ‘Arabistan’, due to the increasing migration of various Arab Bedouin tribes there from the Arabian peninsula and Mesopotamia . Khuzestan was a frontier territory with virtual autonomy from the central government.
In the first two decades of the 20th century, following the Constitutional Revolution (1906-11), numerous centrifugal forces began to gather momentum, leading the moribund Qajar dynasty onto its last march towards disintegration. This period was the nadir of central power in a decaying and ineffective feudal-tribal state. Sheykh Khaz’al of Mohammerah (later renamed Khorramshahr), who was also the Vaali or governor of the province, had become the most powerful provincial governor in the country, and only paid nominal allegiance to the Court and rarely sent the agreed upon taxes and tributes to Tehran.
At the time, the plains of Khuzestan were a distant and forbidding territory to the rest of the country, separated from the central plateau by the bulk of the Zagros mountain range, itself populated by unruly and ‘wild’ Kurd, Lur, Bakhtiari, Qashqai, and Kuhgalu tribesmen. Traveling the 750km distance between Tehran and Dezful, the province’s northernmost and largest city at the time routinely took several weeks, and it was often safer to travel through Ottoman territory (Tehran-Kermanshah-Baqdad-Basrah), or sometimes through Russia and the sea route via Suez Canal (Tehran-Anzali-Baku-Black sea-Suez Canal-Persian Gulf-Mohammerah) to reach that destination! 
For Sheykh Khaz’al, the increasing presence of British merchants and officials in the Persian Gulf and his territory presented an opportunity for gaining protection and greater leverage from the central government. . Khaz’al saw the formal agreement between Britain and Sheykh Mubarak al Sabbah, the ruler of Kuwait, which put the latter under Britain’s protection against the Ottoman Empire, as an ideal model for his own relations with APOC and the British government .
Both Khaz’al and the Bakhtiari Khans were seeking similar agreements that would define and protect their autonomy as well perhaps their eventual independence. Meanwhile, in 1908, the D’Arcy concession discovered its first, phenomenally productive oil well in Masjed Soleyman, and event that dramatically changed the balance of forces throughout the region. Shortly afterwards, the industrial cities of Abadan and Masjed Soleyman rose like Phoenix out of the hills and mud flats of Khuzestan.
In contradistinction to ‘ordinary’ cities, which tend to gradually come together as diverse cultures and economic activities collect together and complement each other, company towns are primarily founded on a much more singular purpose: to satisfy the unavoidable needs of a labor force (for shelter and reproduction) near locations where productive or natural resources owned and exploited by the Company are situated.
Consequently, the role of workers and the labor force in company towns is vital, both as agents of production of surplus value and accumulation as well as the very raison d’être for the construction of a company town in the first place. In Khuzestan, the Oil Company needed to attract its labor force to the region from the very onset. Skilled personnel and managers came from Europe, semi skilled and security staff from India and the Caucasus, and the unskilled from neighboring regions.
Industrial production demands a constellation of behaviors and disciplines, which are not limited to mere familiarity with modern machinery. In the first place, the industrial labor force must become familiar and incorporate time discipline in its body and soul. As E.P.Thompson persuasively argued in his classic essay on time discipline, the conception of time in an agrarian and pre-industrial society, as Khuzestan certainly was in that period, is the tempo of nature and agriculture. The rise and setting of the Sun, seasons’ changing, and even fluctuations in climate dictate the tempo of pre-industrial life. Industrial time discipline, on the other hand, is imposed by two factors: first, the units of a clock, each of which is equal to the next and remains unaffected by natural fluctuations. Second, the penetration of markets and commercial relations, and the increasing calculation of social interactions and human needs by money .
The imposition of this industrial order of work and time discipline were among the very first and most critical tasks of the Oil Company in Khuzestan. According to Arnold Wilson, the British government’s representative in the region at the time, “Food is so cheap that the Oil Company must, paradoxically, pay higher wages to get people to work at all. Men’s needs are few and they are ‘lazy’. In other words, their standard of living includes a large element of leisure, and who shall blame them?” .
Machine driven time discipline is the necessary basis of a complex division of labor and cooperation upon which the modern industrial order has been founded. The other leg of this productive system stands on the hierarchy that distinguishes its various interrelated components from one another – such as laborers, supervisors, managers, engineers, white collar staff, and the unemployed – assigning to each its specific place. The industrial system, coupled with a market economy is fundamentally a class-based system. Consequently, in the tribal and non-industrial society of Khuzestan at the time the oil company had to, de facto, forge these class relations and identities to replace the only hierarchies that were in place, between Khans, Sheykhs, peasants, and white beards .
In order to mold a raw and unskilled labor force into proper ‘human capital’ fit to function in a modern advanced industry, it is necessary to first separate it from its existing social and physical environment and then to reshape it like clay in the hands of a skilled sculptor, through various mechanisms ranging from training, encouragement, seduction, to imposed new material conditions, disciplining, enforced insecurity and alienation . In other words, in a process similar to the formation of any other form of capital, raw and unskilled labor power needs a primary accumulation and investment of capital, followed by continuous circulation, use, and maintenance, and reinvestment.
The ironic paradox of the capitalist industrial order is, on the one hand, in its need for a skilled and cheap labor force capable of operating the expensive and complex manufacturing machinery, which requires the coordination and simultaneous collaboration of many, juxtaposed on the other hand to the fact that the production and maintenance of this cheap labor force itself is an expensive undertaking, and requires heavy and continuous investments . Consequently, the company town, from the point of view of the company itself, is like a second factory, built next to the main plant (oil wells and refineries in our specific case here), for the production of the other essential component of the production process, namely labor power. The physical spaces of company towns, as we shall see later, are specifically designed with these goals in mind and, therefore, are highly charged symbolically and ideologically.
After the 1857 Indian uprising against the East India Company, the British government took charge of the Subcontinent and its colonial rule entered a new phase of direct rule. One of the important instruments of British colonial rule in India was the design, renovation, or outright founding of colonial cities, such as Calcutta, Bombay, Simla, Madras, and New Delhi . At roughly the same period in the British Isles urban reforms and experimentations, together with innovative housing provisions had come to rank among the highest priorities for philanthropies and social reformers, socialist politicians, and farsighted industrialists. Suburbanization, blockhouse buildings, new industrial towns, and half implemented visionary schemes like Garden Cities were changing the urban landscape of Britain.
Across the Atlantic American industrialists as well as social engineers (architects, urban planners, social scientists, public health officials, concerned politicians, and other technocrats) were also impressed by the bold and paternalistic design of Pullman Illinois and other such experiments in top-down socio-spatial reforms. Across the Channel, after the unsettling experiences of Haussmann’s reshaping of Paris in the 1850’s and 60’s, followed by the trauma of the Commune in the 1870’s, French social engineers had a more constricted field for implementing their reformist and experimental designs at home. Their most talented and ambitious members were compelled to flock to the colonies to give free rein to their ideas .
By 1914 innovations in urban design had become an accepted and crucial instrument of urban reform and social engineering in the capitalist world and its dominions. But APOC, a rather sober and tight fisted private commercial outfit, partly owned by the Scotsmen of the Burma Oil Company, had little inclinations for such ambitious undertakings. What it was first and foremost interested in was to ensure and maintain its profit margins.
APOC has often been accused of entertaining colonialist designs, especially after its dispute with the nationalist government of Mossadegh led to its direct confrontation with the government of Iran and the oil nationalization disputes, the embargo imposed on Iran by the government of Britain, and finally the 1953 Coup d’Etat. But the truth of matter seems to be that APOC harbored little political appetite, and that it at no point was, wanted, nor could be another East India Company. In Khuzestan APOC had discovered a goose that was generously laying golden eggs for it. The dilemma was to keep the goose going, by preventing it from getting more restless or demanding. The awkward and heavy handed actions of APOC over the four decades it maintained a monopoly over the oil resources of Khuzestan should be seen in that light.
Nevertheless, the company had no choice but to house its workers. The choice of location for the founding of Abadan and Masjed Soleyman was dictated by the logistics of technical needs of the industry – meaning the extraction, transport, storage, refining, distribution, and export of oil and its derivatives – and not the social and environmental requirements of the staff and the workforce. These cities were built in isolated and rugged locales, but eventually this geographic isolation itself became an important instrument for separating the workforce from their previous physical and social environments, and for molding and shaping them through mechanisms we shall describe later .
After the initial historical experience of constructing these cities the practice of isolating company towns from existing centers of population became a common and regular feature of this type of urban design everywhere in Iran.
As mentioned before, the practice of designing industrial and company towns had, by the first quarter of the 20th century, become an international professional occupation. Urban design specialists had access to and used their colleagues and predecessors’ experiences and theories through university education, specialized journals and publications, multinational conferences, and competitive international projects and commissions.
In the initial plans of Abadan and Masjed Soleyman one can detect the traces of two different, but complementary influences, i.e., industrial urban design in Europe and America as well as in the colonies. Consequently, from the onset Khuzestan’s company towns were ‘dual cities’ , in the sense that their original geographies were designed so as to divide the city into several segregated spaces.
To begin with, there were the ‘formal’ and the ‘informal’ cities, the former designed and constructed by the company and remained under its maintenance and management, the latter growing side by side with the formal town, and in spite of the company’s desires, by migrants, workers, and dwellers attracted to the new city. The ‘formal’ company town was further subdivided into strictly hierarchic and segregated spaces, while the ‘informal’ city was an amalgam of styles, cultures, and social groups.
This glaring contradiction within and between these spaces -between the formal and informal spaces, the legal and subversive, the ordered and disciplined and the chaotic and lively, rich and poor, modern and hybrid, controlled and repressed and anarchic and spontaneous – overtime came to define the character of these company towns…
The formal space of Abadan, as I mentioned before, consisted of several segregated neighborhoods, the residents of which were carefully assigned housing according to their job, rank in the company roster, and even race, nationality, and ethnicity. A rigid and inflexible hierarchy defined the neighborhood, street, alley, and specific house of each individual employee according to his rank, work record, skill, and even ethnicity, and assigned a house to his family (the employees being all male).
Senior European staff was housed in ‘Braim’, [see: Summer of 1978] which consisted of large villas and bungalows set on green lawns, surrounded by parks and gardens and lined with English hedges, and built on lots averaging 1000 sqm, and 4.5 units per hectare. Workers’ neighborhoods, such as Bahmanshir, Bahar, etc., were row houses with high walls and tiny courtyards, built in straight lines and wall to wall, averaging 120 sqm, with a density of 26 to 31 units per hectare. In between these extremes poles laid the middle and lower staff neighborhoods, such as Bawardeh, which were combinations of these two forms in terms of architecture, design, and scale. [see: Bird’s eye]
The spatial discipline that laid out Abadan’s urban design like a chessboard was not as spectacularly successful in subjugating the rugged hills and mountains of Masjed Soleyman to its rational blueprints. Consequently, the design of Masjed Soleyman appears to be fragmented and unplanned. Nevertheless, as formal company neighborhoods were laid out in the vicinity of workshops, oil wells, and industrial installations closer scrutiny will show the same segregationist and segmentationist approach as in Abadan, but on a more spread out and disconnected pattern.
With the passage of time and successive political developments, such as the ongoing haggling between the government of Iran and the company over the composition of the labor force and the distribution of profits from the operations, the share of Iranian employees began to rise considerably. Gradually, the racial segregation that separated the spaces of routine interaction and daily life between Iranians and the English became less marked, in comparison to the occupational and class distinctions that served as the norms of segmenting city spaces.
Despite all this, what truly set Masjed Soleyman and Abadan apart was the cities’ glaring modernity, reflected in their unique architecture and design, but also in most other details of urban space and life. These cities were the sites of the first airports, motor vehicles, cinemas, technical schools, mixed schools (boys and girls, foreign and Iranian) [See: Back then], leisure clubs, sports clubs, bus services, mass transports, luxury inns, well equipped hospitals, etc. in Iran and the region. At the same time, all these amenities were segregated for different social layers and classes, to the extent that Masjed Soleyman even had separate cemeteries for workers and staff .
This system allowed the social position and status of each individual employed by the company to be public knowledge through his residential address, the means of transportation and the medical facilities he and his family were allowed to use, the country and sports clubs he was allowed to join, and the schools his children could attend. At the same time, because the company’s internal organization was also to a large extend a meritocracy, and as each step up the career ladder translated into greater material privileges and social status, the workers were encouraged both to feel envious and to compete against each other, and to pursue individual and personal rather than collective benefits . Transforming urban amenities and city spaces into symbolic capital is one of the most effective instruments of controlling the population in these cities .
Modernizing the household
The authoritarian spatial design of company towns both reflected the social relations that prevailed within this industry, as well as reinforcing and reproducing them. The Company had to not only house its workers (initially there were no housing available in these barren locales), but it also had to adapt this raw labor force to the rigorous and special demands of modern industry. It had to retain them, to keep them relatively satisfied or at least dependent on wage labor, but also and at the same time docile.
We can witness the reflection of all these goals in details of the urban design, from the architecture of the houses to the types of materials used in their construction, in the different designed and organized spaces of entertainment and leisure, the types of walls surrounding the residences and their heights, the length and width of streets and alleys, the morphology of planned formal neighborhoods, the types of kitchens and bathrooms implemented in individual units, etc.
The French geographer Xavier de Planhol has argued that the walled-in row houses of the workers were designed to duplicate native architecture and a sense of privacy, rooted in ‘Islamic values’ . There is a striking similarity between this argument and rationalization of the demolition of old neighborhoods of Algiers under French colonial rule, at about the same time, in the inter war period . These neighborhoods were replaced with modern apartment blocks, designed by French architects and urban planners, who also tried to incorporate ‘native’ and ‘Islamic’ values and norms in their constructions.
In fact, far from reflecting the domestic architecture of the rural and tribal origins of the migrant laborers, these row houses were designed with two apparent purposes in mind: first, the mass production of a great number of cheap and durable houses and second, to directly intervene in the domestic space of the family and to modernize it . The tiny courtyards and high walls prevented air circulation, especially in the atrociously humid and hot summer months.
The widespread use of new or modern construction materials, such as bricks, stones, and metal frames, instead of adobe and wood, were faster, standardized, and cheaper but unlike traditional materials, did not have the ability to modify extreme seasonal and climatic fluctuations. As a result, these new houses depended on modern amenities, such as electricity, fans, some form of air conditioning, and heaters (gas and electricity, provided by the Company, overtime became common features in Company housing). The provision of these modern amenities, as well as sewerage, piped water, and medical facilities helped to augur in new notions of personal hygiene and public health.
The monopoly ownership by the Company of the means of production, as well as reproduction is the main instrument of social control in company towns. In other words, both occupation and the source of income are in the monopoly of the company, as well as real estate, housing, and social services. The household unit, aside from being the smallest, collective social unit, plays a key role in many societies in shaping the ‘individual’, and in placing him/her within larger networks of social relations. For this reason macro social institutions and powers, such as capital and the state, consistently attempt to penetrate the household, and to shape and regulate it according to their norms and interests. This intervention often requires the imposition of radical change upon existing household organizations, and sometimes even the prevention of the survival of these older forms.
The rigidly fixed residential architecture of Abadan and Masjed Soleyman, enforced by the Company who owned the real estate and housing stock, prevented the accommodation of large extended families, the basic unit of social life in the region. Nor did it allow the use of the domestic space for economic and productive activities, through the maintenance of livestock and chicken, the production of meat, dairy, and eggs, and vegetable garden plots. The small, one or two roomed houses were not even practical for traditional handcrafts, such as kilim weaving.
All these activities, quite widespread in the region up to this day, are crucial for making the household into an economic unit, despite their small scale, by providing income and food supplements. They also bestow status and a sense of identity upon the household, and provide it with relative economic autonomy and self-reliance. As importantly, these activities also happen to be the realm of the economic agency of children and especially women.
Overall, this domestic architecture promoted the nuclear family as its privileged unit, but it also altered gender roles within the household, as well as the other major division of labor between different generations. In this setting the adult male becomes the sole legitimate economic agent, in the sense of his productive activity being socially validated, through the labor market. The workplace is thus separated and set apart from the place of residence, and the result of his economic activity would return to the household in the form of a money wage or salary.
The other consequence of this spatial division of labor is that the house becomes the exclusive domain of the wife/woman, but deprived of the economic and productive activities it previously allowed. At the same time, domestic space also becomes a boundary, between the private and the public domains, and thus a physical constraint for women who no longer can easily and routinely cross the porous boundaries of the household space.
This spatial and gender division of labor, the new role assigned and imposed upon women which in many ways dramatically limited their social roles and, in short, this ‘modernization’ of the household which so characterized life in Abadan and Masjed Soleyman reflected directly the developments that were taking place in the capitalist West at about the same time. Contrary to the extended household, the ‘modern’ nuclear family, a form imposed by the domestic architecture of company towns, curtailed the number of children and other generations or relatives who could live under the same roof, primarily because of the shortage of space and the design of the house.
Ordinarily, the only other generation who could reside in these houses were the children who, instead of participating in collective household productive activities, were sent out of the home to schools (vocational and regular) in order to replace their parents eventually at home, workshop, refinery, and oil field after several years of disciplined training and socialization .
This modernization of the family, gender, and women has been a mainstay of ‘modernity’. However, its early imposition from above in Khuzestan’s company towns set the stage for its replication in later periods elsewhere in the country, long after AIOC had relegated its role to the oil Consortium and the Iranian State.
The anomie and social problems mentioned have remained acute in newer and smaller company towns of Khuzestan and elsewhere, such as the agro-industrial model villages of Dezful, the sugar cane plantations of Haft-Tappeh, the steel town of Mobarakeh, the copper mining town of Sarcheshmeh, the industrial machinery town of Arak, etc. This is especially the case for women, where geographic isolation and their seclusion in the household is not relieved by the large scale of the urban setting and the diversity of city life, as it was in Abadan and Masjed Soleyman .
Possibly discontent in smaller company towns is caused by the smaller scale and the cultural poverty of these towns, whereas what distinguished Abadan and Masjed Soleyman, as we shall discuss later, was their exponential growth, in spite and against the wishes of the Company, and their maturation into large and multifaceted cities which did come to produce diverse, autonomous, and cosmopolitan spaces and a vibrant urban culture and life.
The wide boulevards and the grid pattern that characterized the formal space of Abadan distinguished it from other Iranian cities at the time. Khuzestan’s historical cities, Dezful and Shushtar , follow the local physical topography, primarily as the means of water allocation by gravity. They have narrow, winding alleys and cul de sacs, lined by high brick or adobe walls, intended to defend neighborhoods from wind and dust, extreme fluctuations in climate, and from physical and military attacks and molestation. In these cities an important part of social life and relations flows and is shaped in the public space of streets and bazaars.
The formal public space of company towns differs from this historical model in several important respects: In Abadan, instead of long and narrow winding alleys forming a maze, the front doors of the row houses open onto either short, narrow, and straight alleys which abut onto large streets at both ends, or directly onto large avenues. In this way each house is set up as distinct from its neighbors, and separated from the neighborhood, the intimate street life, and ultimately from the workers’ society. Any collective protest, or suspicious gatherings among neighborhood residents can be quickly detected, and each street, alley, and even neighborhood can be easily cordoned off from the others should the need arise.
The assignment of housing by the Company, based on occupation and rank (and race, in the early days of British ownership), and the constant displacement of the personnel within the company hierarchy, made the forging and maintenance of lasting spatial solidarities difficult. Because the independent ability to chose one’s residence is denied the workers seeking company housing, the formation of autonomous and spontaneous networks of solidarity in space by using common kinship, ethnic background, or geographic origins, are near impossible to form.
In Abadan, the obsession to use urban space as an instrument of controlling the population can be readily detected in the details of the design neighborhood and public spaces of the formal city. Forty years ago, the French sociologist Paul Vieille and his collaborators pointed out some of glaring examples of these coercive aspects of the urban design of Abadan in a study that is still one of the best published examples of spatial analysis in Iran .
The motives followed in the urban design of Abadan, they argued, were not the conventions of urban planning, nor the price of land and economic calculation, but the separation and distinction of different areas of the city from one another by a central authority. It is self evident that if different city neighborhoods were constructed adjacent to each other the provision of common services and infrastructure would have been far cheaper due to the economies of scale.
In fact, city neighborhoods were built apart and separated by wide stretches of empty terrain, wide roads, pipelines, administrative and industrial facilities and, of course, the enormous bulk of the refinery itself. This imposed separation prevents easy intermingling and routine pedestrian interaction, as well as potentially dangerous collective congregation between separate city sections.
Roads do not connect different city sections to traffic exchanges. Rather they end in several bottlenecks that allow the surveillance of all communication between different parts of the city. The boundaries of different neighborhoods are marked by guard posts, and there are regular police stations near or at the entrance of workers’ neighborhoods.
The Abadan Refinery was the monopoly owner of all land in the formal company town. It was responsible for organizing different sections of the city, as well as creating and maintaining the distinctions between its different parts. It was the force responsible for creating the segregated and hierarchic landscape of the city.
In Masjed Soleyman, the topography and physical setting had to a large extent aided and modified the process of social engineering. Houses and urban facilities were constructed, in a spread out fashion, around oil wells and industrial facilities. Specific neighborhoods were often called after these facilities -for example ‘Nomre-e Yek’ (Number One, referring to the first discovered oil well), ‘Nomre-e Chehel’ (Number 40), Naftak (Little Oil), Naftoun, etc.
The distance and area between neighborhoods was connected by narrow, company built roads, and rugged hills, left barren and undeveloped. Every action for building unauthorized hovels and houses was immediately confronted by the Company’s bulldozers. Like Abadan, official Company areas were built separately from one another, and had only one narrow access road in and out. Neighborhoods are designed either in circular pattern, or as parallel streets which are interconnected by perpendicular streets, but dead end on both sides cutting and isolating the neighborhood with the world beyond, except thorough the single, easily guarded access road.
Company neighborhoods are segregated according to rank and status, set in separate places with different amenities and characteristics. The senior managers live in ‘Shah Neshin’ (Seat of the King), senior staff in Naftak and Talkhab, junior and petty staff in Nomre-e Chehel, Camp Scotch, and Pansion-e Khayyam, and workers in Naftoun, Do Lane (Two Lanes) Seh Lane (Three Lanes), Bibian, etc.
The space of leisure and entertainment in Masjed Soleyman, as in Abadan, was differentiated according to rank and class. Senior staff and managers had membership to ‘Bashgah-e Markazi’ (the Central Club), junior staff had the ‘Bashgah-e Iran’, and workers Bashgah-e Kargari (Workers’ Club), located in Naftoun. Only members and their guests had access to each club. The rest of the city’s population, not employed by the Oil Company had no right to use company facilities, especially the clubs.
All these social clubs had more or less similar facilities, such as cinema, restaurant, cafeteria, swimming pool, ping pong, bingo, billiard, etc. The difference was not so much in the range of amenities as the quality and, more important, the prestige conferred by membership in each institution, which played an important role in bestowing symbolic status on individuals and their family. In Masjed Soleyman even the company stores and types of ‘ration’ assigned to each member was distinguished by rank and social class .
Production of place as a contested process
Place is a social construct which both constitutes and is constituted by social relations. The production of place and the interpretation of its meanings are equally contested processes. People and institutions struggle over defining, using, and shaping space and place according to their individual and collective interests. We have been discussing how APOC built Khuzestan’s oil towns and the architectural and design rational behind it. I have argued that this rational was both utilitarian, as well as a discursive exercise of power.
The Company wanted to attract and maintain a labor force that would be at the same time competent, efficient, modern, and submissive. However, there has always been a fragile balance between the power of the Company over place, and its own clear lack of autonomy from both global markets, as well as domestic and local dynamics. On closer scrutiny we can see that the structured coherence of this industrial landscape has always been shaky and open to contestation.
Company towns of the 20th century, as mentioned before, have been designed by using two contradictory as well as complimentary principles: The idea of general welfare and the assimilation of the labor force into the generic values of the ‘middle class’ and, on the other hand, the praxis of colonialism, both internal and external, in the form of a one sided domination over an alien and weaker region and people, for the main purpose of the extraction of their natural and human resources and abilities. Contrary to the first principle above, the aim of colonial social planning is not necessarily to integrate and standardize the subjugated region and people into a larger unit (national, for example), but rather to create and proliferate its internal divisions, differences, and distinctions in order to better control and dominate it.
The presence of both these principles can be detected in Abadan and Masjed Soleyman: These cities were built in isolated regions, away from any significant centers of population. Their designed physical and cultural space precipitated a break between the new and migrant population and their mostly tribal and rural background and surroundings. Various planned aspects of the city design and organization generated and maintained new norms, principles, and behaviors conforming to the needs of modern industry. In other words, even though the Oil Company was not a ‘colonial power’ per say, nevertheless it both made free use of colonial practices and mechanisms, as well as relying on principles of corporate welfare policies.
The standard of living, services, level of education and technical training, and the overall urban culture of Masjed Soleyman and Abadan exceeded the rest of the country for a long period. In Khuzestan the Oil Company created a wholly new and modern society. However, the lasting legacy of this experiment was not embodied only in the physical structures it put together. Long after the political events of the oil nationalization movement and the 1953 coup détat brought about the end of AIOC and its total hegemony over the oil fields of Khuzestan, the social imaginary and the collective forces and institutional practices it had produced have continued to exert a significant influence. The cultural, geographic, and institutional legacy of AIOC influenced not only the industrial proletariat and management but also had a deep and lasting impact on Iran’s then and future ‘social engineers’, namely the planners, urban designers, professional elites of various kinds, industrial managers, and technocrats.
Abadan soon witnessed the growth of a spontaneous city, with a ‘native’ architecture, bazaars, ‘informal’ residential and commercial neighborhoods, illegal hovels and shanties, and especially forbidden places housing brothels, drug sellers, and smugglers who made the most of the location of the city on the international border. These subversive places grew across from the manicured lawns and hedges of fancy Company neighborhoods such as Braim and Bawardeh. Workers’ squatter neighborhoods like Abolhassan, Ahmadabad, and Karun, were rapidly constructed next to formal Company compounds with fancier literary names such as Pirouz, Bahar, and Farahabad.
The formal Company town’s ‘public’ space was confined to clubs, sports fields, stores, and amenities that only employees of the Company had access to. In contradistinction, the informal Abadan city with its anarchic streets and constant and never stopping urban confusion and hubbub, its colorful stores, streets teeming with pedestrians and people until the wee hours of the dawn, presented a lively, adventurous, exciting, untamed and unsupervised public arena to all citizens, whether employed by the Company or not. The two cities confronted each other with striking contrasts: the formal city was affluent, comfortable, ordered, and staid. It was shaped by disciplinary powers of separation, distinction, ranking, and surveillance that kept its residents under constant control. The spontaneous and informal city was a public place, in the more accurate sense of the word. It was open, integrated, public and, at the same time, quite hectic and anarchic .
In these ‘free zones’ which did not belong to the refinery and laid outside its control and surveillance all manners of people inevitably worked, cohabited, and mixed together: villagers and tribesmen, Arab, Lur, Bakhtiari, Turk, Esfahani, men and women, rich and poor, etc. A third of the population of the ‘Bazaar’ neighborhood and some 60% of residents of the notorious Ahmadabad were Company employees, who were forced to settle in these neighborhoods due to a chronic shortage of company housing.
In other words, the Company’s efforts to mold and create an ideal society, fit to satisfy its needs was consistently subverted and ran into crisis as a result of the formation of these adjoining, visible, and accessible free zones. As a result of these tensions and the co-presence of alternative places the tight and controlled cast of the planned company town was continuously broken, making Abadan and Masjed Soleyman lively, cosmopolitan places with a strong sense of identity and a sophisticated culture .
The point is that no matter how powerful the Oil Company and its economic resources and organizational means, it could not in the end manage to impose a full hegemony upon the place it had created. Spontaneous civil institutions, informal networks of trade, guild, political, religious, and ethnic activities were always prominent and exceptionally active in Abadan until the Iran Iraq war destroyed the city.
In Masjed Soleyman also an extended and bizarre informal and illicit space grew around the formal Company area. The grand buildings and geometrically aligned company structures contrast with squatter settlements that after nearly a century have become permanent fixtures of the city. As mentioned before, Masjed Soleyman’s topography is odd, as the city is constructed in a rugged mountainous region, around a series of seven hills.
To quote Kamal At’hari’s excellent study of Masjed Soleyman, “As the Company prevented the construction of housing units adjacent to its own residential areas migrants were forced to build their dwellings where the company bulldozers were unable to reach and destroy. As a result of this the social, class, and economic differences of the city are reflected in and defended by the sheer cliffs, and deep gorges and flood channels. The city is divided into neighborhoods with English names such as ‘Camp Scotch’, ‘Khayyam Pension’, and ‘Western Hostel’, as opposed to [rugged and informal areas with local names such as] ‘Kalgeh’, ‘Sar Koureh’ (‘By the Smokestack’), and ‘Mal Karim’, ‘Mal’ being the smallest social unit of the Bakhtiari .
In a classic study of the impact of French colonial rule on Algeria Pierre Bourdieu and Abdelmalek Sayad use the terms ‘acculturation’ and ‘deculturation’ to describe the different experiences of displacement among the mountain Berbers versus the forced resettlement of Arab population on the plains of Algeria.
The argument goes that the Berbers, among other reasons, due to the more rugged and inaccessible geography of their settlements, maintained a greater degree of internal autonomy than the more geographically vulnerable Arab population of the coasts and the plains. Although many cultural and economic tenets of French rule penetrated the Berber society, nevertheless Berber communities managed to maintain a sense of internal coherence and ethnic solidarity which allowed them to adapt and even use many of the material benefits accruing from this European encroachment.
The Arabs, on the other hand, were more vulnerable and, despite fierce resistance, were turned into an instrument for successive experiments in social engineering, which included the massive destruction of towns and villages, the forced resettlement of whole populations in concentration camps, military zones, and planned housing complexes and neighborhoods. The experience of Arabs was a brutal, alienating, and profound deculturation compared to the acculturation of the Berbers whom, despite the hardships they had to endure, at the same time managed to accumulate certain abilities and resist other encroachments .
In Khuzestan, the establishment of company towns and model villages in the agro-industries of Dezful in the 1970’s, and the semi-forced resettlement of tens of thousands of peasants, which has been the subject of a thorough study by Grace Goodell , was a deculturating experience. But it would be difficult to pass the same kind of judgement on Abadan and Masjed Soleyman, despite the fact that they were the first and by far the most massive such experiments in social engineering.
Despite the fact that life in these cities led to undeniable and fundamental changes in the social life and the culture of their population, nevertheless this migration was voluntary in the end, while in the cities themselves, thanks to the diverse and large population and the dynamic urban setting, the possibility of negotiation and enough room for individuals to maneuver was available. Consequently, Abadan and Masjed Soleyman had, on the one hand, a modern and authoritarian structure and organization, while on the other hand, thanks to the heterogeneity and energy of their population, as well as the forbidding scale the cities had reached despite the company’s wishes and attempts, this modernity always remained conditional. The result of these contradictions were cities and urban cultures that were energetic and dynamic, but also eclectic and hybrid.
As mentioned before, Abadan and its citizens played a significant role in the revolution of 1979 and its victory. Its physical destruction during the Iran Iraq war and the forced dispersal of its population not only eradicated an important city but also severed a unique industrial and urban culture, a mature and advanced urbanity, and a human capital that had been accumulated over seven decades, from the physical space where it had been engendered.
Today, after a decade of ‘reconstruction’, Abadan is only a shadow of its former self. Its population, which had reached 300 thousand on the eve of the Revolution, some six years after the War (1994), when the population country had almost doubled compared to two decades before, was only 213 thousand. The war severely damaged the refinery, urban infrastructure and facilities, neighborhoods, and palm groves around the city were severely damaged.
The process of post war reconstruction has been running into serious criticism by the residents . The activities of the refinery and oil industry are still limited and minimal. Many of the workers and staff are not native to the region. Many of the Abadanis who have returned because of their attachment to their city are dissatisfied and await retirement to settle elsewhere. The morphology and fabric of the city has been altered and its population, like the early years of its founding, contains many rural and tribal people, while the industrial labor market and the economic institutions no longer have the old ability and resources to shape and influence the population, or to employ them.
Social problems, especially addiction and smuggling, primarily due to an economic depression, are rampant. But the worst problem is that of the young generation of Abadanis who, for a significant part of their lives, have lived and grown up as refugees and migrants elsewhere – in Tehran, Ahvaz, Esfahan, Shiraz, etc.- and find contemporary Abadan both alien and alienating. The cultural continuity and the accumulation of place identity which gave such a unique character to this city, was violently severed at one point, and little has been done to revive or save it from oblivion.
Masjed Soleyman has not been spared a troubled and uncertain faith either. After the decline of oil resources there in the late 1960’s, and the final shutting of its remaining oil wells in 1980-81, the city has been faced with a chronic decline. The government transferred most of oil facilities to the army on the theory that replacing one gargantuan institution with another will prevent the disintegration of the city, as it had happened in small oil towns like Naft-e Sefid and Haftgel. More than half of the 2600 Company housing units were transferred to the army .
But, according to all signs this strategy has been hardly successful, and Masjed Soleyman failed to become a military company town. Instead, the city found a special place in the regional life of the Bakhtiari tribes. In a twist of historical irony, the city that not so long ago was one of the most industrial cities of Iran and the Middle East, today limps along mostly thanks to the presence of nomadic tribesmen.
The gradual metamorphosis of the city, from a migrant, industrial and class based space into an ethnic and tribal one can be easily detected in the dominant dress code on the streets, made of the distinctive Bakhtiari tribal cloths, and in the proliferation of spontaneous housing constructions in hitherto forbidden and inaccessible areas. The absence of capital, like blood circulating in veins, can be easily noticed in the dilapidated conditions of the city, and especially in the company neighborhoods. Many of the skilled personnel and workers have migrated elsewhere and play an important role in the strategically important provincial industries, such as sugar cane, the Abadan refinery, ports, steel mills, and oil facilities.
The intellectually influential journal “Iran-e Farda”, which in its initial issues used to propagate an economy without oil, and considered the period of 1952-3 when Iran’s oil was boycotted by Britain during the oil nationalization crisis and movement as a model of independent and balanced national development dedicated a special recent issue to Masjed Soleyman . The basic theme of this issue was a grim and dire warning about the inevitability of the end of oil production and revenues as resources run out, and the subsequent social dislocations and pathologies that will result if appropriate care is not taken to deal with this eventuality. From this important journal’s viewpoint, delinquency, unemployment, addiction, and depression are the main characteristics of an abandoned and oil-less Masjed Soleyman, and by extension the future of Iran itself. Even in their decline Khuzestan’s oil towns continue to capture the collective national and intellectual imaginary in significant ways.
But perhaps the most important change in Masjed Soleyman has taken place in the local structure of land ownership. In 1956 more than half of city residents were renters and less than a tenth of the city’s housing stock was privately owned. Currently, these ratios have been almost reversed and most of city dwellings are owned privately. The turning point on this issue was the exhaustion of the local oil resources, as well as the 1979 Revolution. The collapse of the Monarchy led to important changes in property relations and land ownership in all urban, and to a lesser extent rural areas .
The populist-socialist and the conservative-traditionalist factions of the Islamic regime battled for years over their conflicting notions of property rights, with the former faction favoring widespread confiscation and distribution of rural and urban land among people, and the latter defending the sanctity of ownership under Islam. True to form Ayatollah Khomeini played the middle of the road on this sensitive topic.
The end result was the confiscation (often arbitrary) of the properties of the ‘direct associates of the former regime’, on the grounds of being illicit wealth, without affecting general property relations at all. These remained protected under Islamic law. At this level, the redistribution of land became a political process, rather than a universal legal one, and therefore remained a limited, coercive, and often arbitrary occurrence, subject to manipulation and abuse. On the other hand, due to the weakness of the new regime, in place strict zoning laws, defining public land, and permitted construction or cultivation areas were overstepped wholesale by a politicized population, hungry for land.
By 1980 the metropolitan area of Tehran and most other cities had expanded manifold, as hitherto public land was occupied and converted to housing on a massive scale. In rural areas a similar process happened to significant areas of state owned and public lands (nearly a million hectares altogether) which were occupied and de-facto expropriated. This appropriation was based on the Islamic stipulation that any barren land ‘revived’ and maintained for at least three years by labor shall become the possession (and not the ‘property’, that final status being the privilege of the Divine) of the laborer/cultivator.
In Masjed Soleyman most existing constructed areas were under the monopoly ownership or possession of the Oil Company in 1979. IN 1979-80, when this sudden takeover of the mostly unbuilt and barren areas of the city happened on a wide scale the landscape of the city radically altered. In Masjed Soleyman the shifts in ownership ratios were far more striking than other urban areas (see table 1). The barren spaces and empty areas that under Company dominion separated neighborhoods and inhabited places are today filled with densely built hovels and houses, and ad-hoc constructions which have transformed the hitherto fragmented and dispersed geography of the city. Masjed Soleyman has become an interconnected, very ‘long’ and spread out sprawl!
Sources: Ministry of Interior, National Census of Population and Housing (Tehran, various years); Kamal Athari, ”Masjed Soleyman; sherkat-shahri madaniat-yafteh”, Ettelaat-e Siasi Eqtesadi, No.47/48 (1991), pp. 65-69; “Ministry of Housing and Urbanism, Rahnamaye Jamiyat-e Shahrha-ye Iran, 1335-70 (Tehran, 1989)
The city’s population, which had a very rapid rate of annual growth of 3.7% in the waning years of maximum oil production, between 1956-66, witnessed a rapid decline to 1.8% in the next decade (1966-76). But the following decade, 1976-86, the years of war and revolution, of the end of oil production and related jobs, which were years of de-facto economic depression and accelerated emigration from the city, the city population’s growth rate reached 3.1%. One of the main causes of this expansion was the immigration from adjacent rural and tribal areas. A major motive for this movement of population was the opportunity to squat and permanently occupy urban land.
Struggle over possession of land and the housing question have always been strong motives in shaping the geography and identity of company towns. But the manner, content, and result of this struggle continuously underwent modification and reformulation in different historical junctures, according to the balance of power between the main actors involved, namely the Oil Company (whether owned by the British, made of a consortium of several multinationals together with the central state, or nationalized and wholly state owned), the central state, and the resident population. This ongoing struggle meant that the geography of the city, as well as its identity, its culture, and the social and political aspirations and abilities of its component parts were continuously changing and being overhauled.
The importance of Abadan and Masjed Soleyman in the history of modernization, contemporary urbanization, and modernity in Iran are undeniable, even if history has not been especially kind to these cities and their population. Perhaps there is some truth to the stark warning of the journal ‘Iran-e Farda’ that today’s Masjed Soleyman offers an image of the whole country’s future without oil.
But, precisely for the same reason, the story of these cities cannot and should not be limited to the fate and the narrative of oil revenues alone. Instead, the crisis-ridden and troubled history and geography of these company towns must be rescued from oblivion, as every detail of their story holds precious lessons for the society’s present dilemmas.
Kaveh Ehsani is a member of the editorial board of Goft-o-Gu quarterly (Tehran). This paper first appeared in the International Review of Social History (IRSH 48:2003, pp.361-399). Earlier versions of this paper were presented to Middle East Studies Association, 1998, Chicago; and at the conference on ‘Iran: Social History from Below’, at the International Institute for Social History, Amsterdam, in 2001.
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