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)”
Reza Khan concluded his important military campaign against Skeikh Khaz’al in 1924 with a formal visit to Abadan and the Fields. During the visit APOC officials asked the Prime Minister for his assistance for the reconstruction of sections of Abadan. The Company pointed out a neighborhood adjacent to the refinery, called “Sheikh” as a desirable site for building a modern sanitary bazaar for the growing boomtown. They highlighted the accomplishments of the oil industry in turning “a desolate wasteland” into a hive of modern industry that was employing 25 thousand “native” workers. The need for improving general sanitary conditions in the teaming boomtown was highlighted to the Prime Minister. The Company had recently asked Sheikh Khaz’al to sell them the land for the purpose, and he had agreed also to oversee the eviction of the current residents. Now Khaz’al was effectively out of the picture, and the Company was becoming concerned about dealing with the increasingly sensitive issue of property transfers in a manner that would avoid alienating the central government. The designated land was adjacent to the refinery and by then it had become a densely populated maze of shops, teahouses, hovels, and shanties where workers and migrants were renting rooms or had found a place to live. The issue seemed straightforward. Abadan was a filthy boomtown, overflowing with destitute migrants and devoid of the most elementary public infrastructure such as latrines, cleans water, safe and sufficient food supplies, and a minimum of decent housing for the general population. Two major epidemics of cholera and plague had devastated the twin towns of Mohammareh and Abadan, adjacent to each other across the river Karun, and other epidemics and diseases were also a recurring scourge in the region (more on this below). The closely packed population, and the dreadful living conditions as good as guaranteed the fast spread of contagious diseases, with potentially devastating effects on oil operations. Since the War, recurring famines had weakened the population considerably, as had endemic poverty caused by the endless warfare and the demise of existing social structures. The massive movement of military recruits and soldiers from India, Europe, and the Persian Gulf region through Mesopotamia and Southern Iran had significantly increased the dangers of epidemics. Pilgrims on their road to Hajj, or to and from the holy cities of Iraq and Iran were another major carrier of epidemics, as were the practice of transferring corpses cross borders for burial in these holy cities. Dr. A.R. Neligan, the influential British physician working at the legation in Tehran and serving on Iran’s Sanitary Council said of the situation in Abadan : “In the early days of the rush of native labor and shopkeepers to the island huts and bazaars sprang up on no definite plan on land outside the Company’s control, and on which it was not allowed to interfere. When, therefore, plague was imported into Mohammerah in 1923 and thence spread to Abadan there was a sharp epidemic. The Company has taken most energetic measures since then.”
Displacing the population did not appear to be a major obstacle. The residents of Abadan hardly had any political influence to oppose their eviction since, by and large, they were poor migrants from the Persian Gulf Coast, indigenous Arabs, or Bakhtiyaris and Arab tribesmen from the province; scarcely the political constituency of Reza Khan or the nationalist modernizers in Tehran who were intent on patching together a uniform and modern nation out of the heterogeneous population of the country. Furthermore, few issues were more commonly shared among Company officials and Iranian modernizers and politicians as public health and sanitation. The topic embodied everything that was positive about ‘modernity’ and progress, and highlighted all that was abhorrent in unscientific and superstitious ‘tradition’. In addition, collaboration between Britain and Iran over sanitary policies and disease prevention had a long precedence from the early 19th Century.
Therefore, Reza Khan’s approval of sanitary improvements in Abadan and Masjed Soleyman by the Company seemed a foregone conclusion and was readily given. However, the issue proved more controversial than appeared initially. First, urban residents put up significant resistance against their eviction and demanded better compensation than the Company was willing to provide. Without Sheikh Khaz’al there to crush the resistance, the army keeping its presence to a minimum near the Company areas (see chapters 2, 3, 5), and with the Company itself threading cautiously, the neighborhood defiance had a chance to solidify. Soon the intensifying urban resistance prompted local bureaucrats and politicians in Tehran to question the unanticipated political implications of the proposed spatial measures, to evaluate the emerging role of municipal policies, and to come to terms with facing an unprecedented political demand by a newly emerging social actor, the urban citizens of Abadan who were insisting on their “right to the city”. This collective urban resistance and negotiation by residents over their forced displacement and the terms and conditions of their reallocation became part of the repertoire of the ongoing urban politics in Abadan. The provision of sanitary urban infrastructure was accompanied by the re-engineering of the built environment of the city. This spatial re-organization gave rise to a number of fundamental questions: whom should it serve? (European expatriates? the more skilled echelons of Company employees? all Company employees? all urban residents?) How should it be paid for and managed? The question of who would be entitled to what amenities of urban living, and how the responsibly should be distributed and decisions made, became part of the abrasive dynamics of municipal and urban negotiations that lasted until mid century and the oil nationalization movement, and in the process shaped the built environment of Abadan.
The pressing issue of the provision of social amenities, especially housing and public health measures, fit within a larger political picture: that of the effective disappearance from the scene of Sheikh Khaz’al and the political and social order he had embodied. The new political context meant that the Oil Company and the newly arriving central government bureaucrats faced a social and political vacuum which had to be filled by new institutions of municipal governance and social services that in most cases existed only in name and now had to be assembled from scratch. While initially the topic of urban planning, municipal services, public health and the general improvement of sanitary conditions, appeared as straightforward and mutually acceptable to all parties as universally lauded progressive and scientific measures benefiting the general welfare, in practice they proved to be controversial and imbued with significant consequences for the changing relations of power in the oil complex. The reasons were simple: These measures directly affected the intimate everyday lives of residents and individuals, and imposed on them changes that were drastic, highly personal, and often very costly. They lay at the core of a new regime of disciplinary power that sought to re-engineer in minute details the spatial arrangements, collective lives, the bodily behaviors, and the mentalities of the inhabitants, in order to transform them into safe and productive extensions of the oil complex, as well as docile and contented subjects of a modern nation state. The rest of this chapter will investigate the micro history of the emergence of the social question in Abadan during the interwar period, and how the issues of public health and sanitation, urban planning, and property relations shaped the built environment of the city, the working population, and of the oil complex.
It is safe to say that few issues concerned the APOC management as much as the sanitary conditions in Khuzestan. As we saw in the previous chapter, horrid living conditions, and the poor reputation of Iran, Khuzestan, and APOC were a major deterrence when it came to recruiting skilled employees and even unskilled workmen in the early post war era. The Oil Company took the matter very seriously and had invested heavily in the construction and maintenance of two major hospitals in Masjed Soleyman and Abadan, and 12 dispensaries throughout the Fields. The hospitals were the best equipped in the country, in particular the one in Masjed Soleyman managed by Dr M. Young, was reputed to be “better equipped than are the majority of hospitals of a like size in India”. The 1924 APOC report to the Sanitary Council showed:
“What a large amount of free medical treatment the company was giving to the natives, but also showed that a very excellent sanitary service had been built up…the fact which, however, impressed the Sanitary Council above all others, was that the Company in spending £40,000 in a single year on its medical services, as opposed to its sanitary section) had considerably exceeded the total sanitary budget for the whole of Persia”.
The claim was no exaggeration. The Sanitary Council (Showra-ye Sehhi), initially a consultative body set up in 1874, was made into a permanent body in 1904, and had been assigned the task of overseeing medical affairs and public health in Iran. However, given its restricted financial and institutional resources, most of its reform policies were concentrated in Tehran, and its annual budget for the entire country was no more than £27,000, which was still a marked improvement from the annual £5,000 it used to receive prior to WWI for combating epidemics. Furthermore, given the state of the national economy, and the fact that the lion’s share of the state finances were regularly being funneled to the new army, even this meager annual budget was constantly in arrears for months. The Majles had tried to impose a tax on transport vehicles in order to fund vaccinations and public health measures, but the tax collection was a practical nightmare and did not produce many results. The provision of medical services in Khuzestan was a pressing necessity, but also of great value in terms of public relations. From the 19th century western medicine had been a less politicized and more successful avenue of western penetration into Iran. Aside from American missionaries, and highly influential court physicians like the famous Frenchman Dr Tholozan who had been instrumental in establishing a medical school in Tehran and organizing the Sanitary Council at the end of the 19th century as the first serious efforts toward western medical practices, the British legations were also known to provide medical care and medicine to the public. The Ahvaz Legation, for example, on average treated a hundred patients per day. The APOC physician, Dr M. Young in particular, had amassed great credit among Iranian politicians, Bakhtiyari Khans, his colleagues at APOC, as well as
among the general public, for the medical services he had been rendering as well as his outstanding administrative skills. But, as we have seen (Chapters 3, 5) his medical position also had placed him in a situation of acting as a skilled political negotiator at the highest level, and one who had exercised great influence on behalf of Britain and APOC on the course of events in Khuzestan since 1910. However, the tremendous resources that were being spent on medical treatment were a significant burden for the ever financially prudent Company, and it was clear that the prevention of diseases and epidemics had to take priority as the means of reducing risks, as well as cutting costs.
The fear of disease and contamination was one of the major concerns deterring European recruits from accepting employment in Khuzestan in the post war period (Chapter 5). The apprehension was well grounded. The 1918 Spanish Flue pandemic had cut a global swath of death, and southern Iran had been badly affected. In Fars, Percy Sykes estimated that a third of the population of the Qashqai pastoralists perished in 1918, as did a tenth of the urban population of Shiraz. Afkhami, who has studied the trajectory of the pandemic, estimated that up to 22 percent of the total population of the country perished by 1920. The deadly effect of the pandemic was exacerbated by the endemic warfare of marauding armies and warlords (chapters 2, 5), famine, drought, and debilitating poverty especially in the west and the south of the country. Nor had British troops been spared (especially the Indian infantries). In southern Iran, especially, the overall casualties were devastating; in Mohammareh alone 6,000 had been afflicted out of an estimated population of 20 thousand, with 240 officially recorded deaths.
If the influenza pandemic had been a global phenomenon, there were other widespread maladies in Iran that made living conditions in a congested place like Abadan equally hazardous. Although plague rarely originated in Iran and was often brought in from India and Mesopotamian through the ports of the Persian Gulf, Shatt al-Arab, and the long border with Ottoman Mesopotamia (Iraq), nevertheless it had deadly effects when it struck. From the 19th century seven major deadly plague pandemics had struck Iran with devastating results. Since the outbreak of WWI plague had been recurring yet again in southern Khuzestan, erupting into a particularly bad outbreak during 1923-1924, when it afflicted approximately 1000 reported cases in Abadan and Mohammareh, with more than half fatalities. Discussing the period of 1914-1924, Dr Neligan, the British representative on Iran’s Sanitary Council and physician to the British Legation, reported: “…In spite of the regular appearance of plague on her frontiers the name of only one place in Persia recurs with any frequency (Mohammerah)…It used to be said that plague was always imported from Basra only 25 miles higher up the river Shatt al Arab, with communications by land as well as by water. It has been suggested that plague by now is endemic in Mohammerah town, but the facts are, on the whole, against this supposition. Abadan town, on the island of that name, six miles down the stream from Mohammerah, has, however, come to cause anxiety. The name appears in the years 1923 and 1924 only, and yet some 700 cases have occurred there. The explanation is that between 1909 and 1912 the APOC set up a refinery on the island, and that, instead of a few huts, there is now a considerable town and several villages, with a total population of some 50,000 souls [my italics]”.
Persian Gulf and the Iraqi border were particularly vulnerable areas, more so than the inland plateau that was hard to reach over the Zagros Mountains. Percy Loraine, the Minister in Tehran reported: “next to the littoral of the Gulf, the Perso-Iraqi frontier is the greatest cause of anxiety to the Persian authorities”. Indeed, since the opening of Suez Canal in 1869, with its fast and direct route linking the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, “the health of the Persian Gulf had become a matter of concern to the shipping of the world”. Britain controlled most of Iran’s border quarantine stations along the Gulf and the Iraqi borders until 1927, when the notion of British and Indian officers regulating and controlling the bodies of Iranians on the national borders became intolerable to nationalists. In fact, the border stations’ quarantine system were the first instances of the kind of racial segregation that began to color preventive practices and create great resentment at the visible inequality. Floor’s description of the British controlled quarantines stations on the Gulf and Khuzestan makes clear that these not always operated rigorously, and sometimes they were highly discriminatory, letting Europeans pass without serious inspection while interring Asians, including Iranians, in a ‘purgatory’ state, under poor conditions, for extended periods, which caused great resentment among the travelers. The failure of the British run quarantine system in the south to prevent the devastating plague and cholera epidemics of 1923-1924 contributed to the resentment. The 1923 Annual Report of the British Minister in Tehran was as always defensive in tone, but could not fully justify why the epidemics had come from a British colony, via ships flying the British flag or regulated by the Government of India, to territories under the effective command of the British military (Khuzestan and Iraq), through British operated quarantine systems.
“The [quarantine] service has continued to perform its important duties in its quietly efficient way, and has successfully prevented the introduction of plague and cholera, except at Mohammerah, where – it must be understood – the quarantine officer is responsible for the Port only. A good deal of criticism has, however, been leveled at our administration, most of it uninformed…The local Kargozars apparently under orders from Tehran, have begun to report on sanitary matters, and indeed criticize medical officers. There have been difficulties too in the way of getting the Persian authorities to pay their share of the expenses…On the whole, the impression left by the events of the past two years [1921-1923] is that of a purposeful mobilization for an attack on the service, and its replacement by a Persian service”.
There were other equally deadly contagious diseases that plagued Iran. Cholera was “a much more anxious problem for Persia than the plague”, especially in port cities like Abadan and Mohammareh. The particularly deadly epidemics of 1850 and 1852 devastated Mohammareh. Earlier in 1822 and 1833 Dezful had been equally devastated by cholera and the plague. These towns were again hit by successive epidemics over the course of the 19th century. Mohammareh was again struck hard by a major cholera epidemic in 1910-1911, just as the oil industry was getting off the ground. Initially 23 cases of cholera were detected in Mohammareh in December 1910; by the following year this had turned into a severe epidemic, killing several Europeans as well as uncounted indigenous people. This was in spite of the efforts of Arnold Wilson, acting consul in Mohammareh at the time, whose “main concern was to ensure it did not spread to Ahvaz or get among the Company’s imported labor at Abadan”. The town was hit by another wave of cholera in 1917, but the 1923 epidemic was on another scale, especially as it was accompanied by the killer plague (see above). It came, as usual, via ships from India: “Cholera broke out at Abadan on the 3rd of August. At Basra on the 6th of August, and at Mohammerah on the 21st… The epidemic at Abadan quickly assumed big proportions. There were, for instance, 553 cases with 528 deaths between the 10th-16th August. The Oil Company and the Sheikh of Mohammerah did all that was possible to prevent the epidemic extending. From Basra, however it spread up the Tigris and reached Baghdad at the end of August.”
The previous month the plague had already affected 481 people, killing 409 in Abadan; highlighting the critical state of the sanitary situation there: “The question of Abadan is a new and serious one. It appears that there is overcrowding in the considerable native town which has sprung up, and that sanitation is indifferent. The Oil Company’s representatives were closely questioned as to the measures adopted when the epidemics broke out, and were able to report favorably. The town, however, and Iraq generally, are a menace to Persia.”
Cholera and the plague recurred in Abadan and Khorramshahr over the following years prior to WW2, in 1927, 1930, 1931, 1932, 1939; but by then more rigorous preventive measures were being put in place and the outbreaks although worrisome and deadly, were not causing as many fatalities. Malaria was “the chief cause of death and ill health in Persia”, infecting nearly all the rural population according to most contemporary reports. Neligan believed it not to be very prevalent in Abadan, Khorramshahr, or Ahvaz; but surveys conducted in 1925 revealed that both Khuzestan and the northern provinces of Azarbaijan and Gilan were hyper endemic foci for malaria. Smallpox, typhus, typhoid, anemia, tuberculosis, were some of the other rampant diseases prevalent at the time. Skin diseases, trachoma, and other afflictions caused by contamination and poor hygiene were widespread, and afflicted some of the more established historical towns in Khuzestan, especially Shushtar and Dezful. According to one estimate, between 20 to 40 percent of the country’s urban population in 1925 suffered from some form of venereal diseases.
In all these cases the main culprit in the tremendous vulnerability to epidemics and diseases was poverty and political disarray; and not an inherent cultural defect or racial deficiency, as many European observers maintained at the time. The answer must be sought in the turbulent political and economic history of Iran since the 17th century, riddled with recurring drought and famine, political insecurity, endemic poverty and destitution, inept and inadequate political leaders, and deficient knowledge of preventive hygienic and medical practices, which disproportionally affected the working population and the poor. The appalling state of the general standards of hygiene and public health, and the decrepit and undeveloped social infrastructure of waste treatment, food safety standards, decent housing, and basic health care were a result of this poverty and insecurity, not the cause of it.
NOTES & REFERENCES
1. Ronald Ferrier, History of the British Petroleum Company, vol. 1 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 394–396; Michael E. Dobe, “A Long Slow Tutelage in Western Ways of Work: Industrial Education and the Constainement of Nationalism in Anglo- Iranian and ARAMCO, 1923-1963” (PhD Dissertation, Rutgers, 2008), 33–34.
2. Floor, Public Health in Qajar Iran.
3. Neligan, “Public Health in Persia, Part2,” 690.
4. Schayegh, Who Is Knowledgeable Is Strong; Afkhami, “The Sick Men of Persia: The Importance of Illness as a Factor in the Interpretation of Modern Iranian Diplomatic History.”
5. Laurence-Donia Kotobi, “L’émergence d’une Politique de Santé Publique en Perse Qajar; un Aperçu Historique de la Vaccinattion,” Studia Iranica, no. 24 (1995): 261–84; Cyril Elgood, A Medical History of Persia and the Eastern Caliphate. The Development of Persian and Arabic Medical Sciences from the Earliest Times until the Year A.D. 1932 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951), 437–537; Afkhami, “The Sick Men of Persia: The Importance of Illness as a Factor in the Interpretation of Modern Iranian Diplomatic History”; Neligan, “Public Health in Persia, Part 1”; Floor, Public Health in Qajar Iran, 202–204, 210–212.
6. John W. Williamson, In a Persian Oilfield (New York: Arno Press, 1977), 132.
7. Persia, Annual Report 1924, R. M. Burrell, ed., Iran Political Diaries 1881-1965 (London: Archive Editions Ltd, 1997), Vol.7, 239.
8. Neligan, “Public Health in Persia, Part 1,” 635–636.
9. Persia, Annual Report 1923, Burrell, IPD, 723.
10. Kotobi, “L’émergence D’une Politique de Santé Publique En Perse Qajar; Un Aperçu Historique de La Vaccinattion,” 280–283.
11. Afkhami, “The Sick Men of Persia: The Importance of Illness as a Factor in the Interpretation of Modern Iranian Diplomatic History.”; Elgood, A Medical History of Persia and the Eastern Caliphate. The Development of Persian and Arabic Medical Sciences from the Earliest Times until the Year A.D. 1932, 494–537.
12. Dennis Wright, The English Among the Persians: Imperial Lives in 19th Century Iran (London: I.B. Tauris, 2001), 126.
13. Dr. Elizabeth MacBean Ross had spent a year prior to WWI among the Bakhtiyaris as the physician to the Bibis (elite Bakhtiyari women). See her fascinating memoirs in Elizabeth Ness MacBean Ross, A Lady Doctor in Bakhtiyari Land (London: L. Parsons, 1921).
14. K D Patterson and G F Pyle, “The Geography and Mortality of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,”
Bulletin of the History of Medicine 65, no. 1 (1991): 4–21. It is highly interesting that the authors of this insightful research completely neglect the Persian Gulf and the Middle East (with the exception of Jordan) from their analysis, a strange omission given that the region was a major theater of WWI, with the Ottoman Empire as one of the primary belligerents, and troops from India forming the core of the fighting men under the British flag. On the latter point see Roger Adelson, London and the Invention of the Middle East: Money, Power, and War, 1902-1922 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).
15. Percy Sykes, History of Persia (London: McMillan, 1915), Vol.2, 515.
16. Amir Afkhami, “Compromised Constitutions: The Iranian Experience with the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 77 (2003): 383.
17. Ibid., 390–392.
18. Ibid., 384. For estimated population of Mohammareh at the time see table 7 in chapter 7
19. Kotobi, “L’Emergence d’une Politique de Santé Publique en Perse Qajar; un Aperçu Historique de la Vaccinattion,” 264–265; Xavier de Planhol, “Cholera: 1. In Persia,” Encyclopeadia Iranica (Costa Mesa: Mazda, 1991); Homa Nateq, “Ta’sir-e Ejtema’i va Eqtesadi-ye Bimari-ye Vaba dar Dowreh-ye Qajar,” Tarikh 1, no. 2 (1977): 30–62.
20. A.R. Neligan, “Public Health in Persia; 1914-24. Part 2,” The Lancet 207, no. 5352 (March 27, 1926): 691; Persia Annual Report, 1924, Burrell, IPD, Vol.7, 236–237.
21. Neligan, “Public Health in Persia, Part2,” 690.
22. Persia, Annual Report 1924, Burrell, IPD, Vol.7, 238.
23. Elgood, A Medical History of Persia and the Eastern Caliphate. The Development of Persian and Arabic Medical Sciences from the Earliest Times until the Year A.D. 1932, 520–521.
24. Kotobi, “L’émergence d’une Politique de Santé Publique en Perse Qajar” 270.
25. See Floor, Public Health in Qajar Iran, 207, 210–211.
26. Persia, Annual Report 1923, Burrell, IPD, Vol.6, 725.
27. Neligan, “Public Health in Persia, Part2,” 691.
28. Mohammadi Yousefi, Tarikh-e Khorramshahr (Tehran: Nil, 1971), 134–136.
29. Latifpour, Tarikh-e Dezful, 121–123; Kasravi, Tarikh-e Pansad Saleh Khouzestan, 162.
30. FO, Summary Reports, Tehran to London, 19 December 1910; 2 November 1911, Burrell, IPD, Vol.5, 81, 342.
31. Arnold T Wilson, SW Persia; A Political Officer’s Diary 1907-1914 (London: Oxford University Press, 1941), 133.
32. Persia, Annual Report 1923, Burrell, IPD, Vol.6, 724.
33. Ibid; Neligan, “Public Health in Persia, Part2,” 691.
34. Persia, Annual Report 1923, Burrell, IPD, Vol.6, 725.
35. Persia/Iran Summary Reports, 26 September 1927; 7 April 1930; 13 September 1939, in Ibid., Vol.8, 48, 514; Vol.9, 61, 63; Vol.10 518, 354; Vol.11, 77.; Persia Annual Report 1927, Ibid., V.8, 153-4; “APOC to the Department of Industry, Tehran”, 6 March 1932, p.1, INA 240005548
36. Persia, Annual Report 1922, Burrell, IPD, Vol.6, 415.
37. Afkhami, “Compromised Constitutions: The Iranian Experience with the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” 388.
38. Neligan, “Public Health in Persia, Part2,” 693; Afkhami, “Compromised Constitutions: The Iranian Experience with the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” 386.
39. Daneshvar, Didani-ha va Shenidaniha-ye Iran.
40. Cyrus Schayegh, “Hygiene, Eugenics, Genetics, and the Perception of Demographic Crisis in Iran, 1910s-1940s.,” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 13, no. 3 (2004): 342–343. There may be a misconception that the prevalence of venereal diseases reflects certain patterns of sexual behavior. This is unlikely. Venereal diseases were equally prevelant among Russian peasants in the 19th century. In
their case, as most likely in the Iranian case, this was a syndrome of extreme poverty and poor hygiene, coupled with living habits that let to the proliferation of skin diseases that targeted human genitalia. See Laura Engelstein, “Morality and the Wooden Spoon; Russian Doctors View Syphilis, Social Class, and Sexual Behavior, 1890-1905,” in The Making of the Modern Body, ed. Chathryn Gallagher and Thomas Laqueur (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 169–208.