The Oil City in an Age of Jazz: Nostalgia and Modernity in Abadan

Rasmus Christian Elling, associated professor at University of Copenhagen, Denmark
Rasmus Christian Elling, associated professor at University of Copenhagen, Denmark

A lecture in Persian by Rasmus Christian Elling, Copenhagen University. Part of the UCLA CNES and Program of Iranian Studies Bilingual Lecture Series.

Sunday, June 01, 2014
4:00 PM – 6:00 PM
121 Dodd Hall


The Oil City in an Age of Jazz: Nostalgia and Modernity in Abadan, Iran

We often hear how oil is both a blessing and a curse that engenders wealth for the select few and misery for many: black gold for the elites and ‘the devil’s excrement’ for the masses. The discovery and extraction of oil entails environmental pollution, political violence and economic corruption, it feeds dictatorships and smothers democratic forces. To nuance this common narrative on oil, the present paper instead focuses on the generative and creative powers of oil, and its intersection with culture and memory in oil-producing societies. The discovery of oil in south-western Iran in 1908 brought about not only the world’s biggest refinery in the city of Abadan near the Persian Gulf, but also a unique urban society and culture under the aegis of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Corporation. Around the refinery, one of the Middle East’s most modern and cosmopolitan cities took shape. Today however, Abadan is a mere shadow of its former self: the turmoil of the 1978-9 revolution was quickly followed by the devastating Iran-Iraq War, and the city has never fully recovered. Abadanis today remember and romanticize the city’s Golden Age through the publication of memoirs and local histories, through websites and popular societies, and through the collection of visual material and memorabilia by amateur historians and enthusiasts. In this paper, I will explore how this nostalgia is connected to ideas of modernization and modernity in Iran more broadly.

Rasmus Christian Elling is Associated Professor at the Institute for Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies (TORS) at Copenhagen University, Denmark. He holds a PhD in Iranian Studies and has studied and lived in Iran, Istanbul and New York. His PhD has been published as ‘Minorities in Iran: Nationalism and Ethnicity after… ‘ (Palgrave Macmillan 2013), and he has published several articles on ethnicity, nationalism and identity politics in post-revolutionary Iran. In 2011-2012, he worked as a Research Associate at The School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, and he is associated with the Anglo-German research project ‘Urban Violence in the Middle East’. His current research focus is on the urban history of Abadan, a topic on which he is writing a book. Rasmus Christian Elling teaches Middle Eastern and Iranian history, politics and sociology at Copenhagen University, and is fluent in Persian.


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