ON LINES AND FENCES: LABOUR, COMMUNITY AND VIOLENCE IN AN OIL CITY
Rasmus Christian Elling
Published in: Urban Violence in the Middle East
The horrible living conditions of most oil workers in the early days of the Concession are a well-known topic. Indeed, the Company’s unwillingness or inability to provide adequate housing for the rapidly growing population was a constant theme in Company-state relations. All urban planning in Abadan had the aim of facilitating the sole purpose of the city: oil refinement and export. These sensitive industrial processes required that particular security measures were embedded into the fabric of the city. As colonial experience from India had taught the planners, a constantly growing, heterogeneous and restive population was a key challenge to running an efficient business operation. To meet this challenge, the Company pursued a strategy of spatial coercion, which, I will argue, generated tensions and violence – including the Indian-Iranian animosity that resulted in the Bahmashir Incident. Before the expansion of Abadan in the 1930s, there was, on the one hand, the Company-built ‘bungalow area’, and on the other, Abadan Town. The latter, in the words of Crinson, ‘was not the Abadan [the British] knew but an overcrowded insalubrious area, the supplier of non-European labour, the ubiquitous ‘native city’ of colonial imagination’. Indeed, as Visser points out, Company planning was mostly focused on insulating the European-inhabited area from the real and imagined germs of the natives. New workers swarmed in, but Abadan city, located on a small island squeezed in between two rivers, was inhibited from expanding. This geographic confinement generated, to the Company’s concern, a tinderbox threat of social disorder. Urban planners recommended building a number of separate, small townships that, in the words of its architect, would be ‘more easily and efficiently controlled’. As Ehsani points out, the new plans for Abadan were marked by a ‘glaring contradiction’ between ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ space: in the blueprints, ‘all unpredictable and spontaneous elements had been eliminated’, and ‘all details of collective as well as private life in the new urban space had been subjected to conscious planning and design’.
Most importantly, the space was divided according to rank in the labour hierarchy: residential spaces were assigned to particular ethnic and social groups, and even the public spaces within and between the neighbourhoods were often segregated. There were, for example, separate drinking fountains for Iranians and non-Iranians, and the Company made sure that British employees did not have to share the library and hospital with the Indians. The refinery itself, as both Crinson and Ehsani point out, acted as a formidable metal barrier in the centre of Abadan Island. In its protective shadow, the British staff lived in the top-class Braim neighbourhood with its spacious villas, neatly manicured lawns, clean streets, full infrastructure of modern amenities and entertainment including billiard clubs, boat races, cricket matches, flower shows and cinemas. From this comfortable distance, the British could nurture what Ferrier calls an ‘enclave mentality’, fraternising with non-British only if necessary.
At the other socio-geographic extreme was Ahmadabad, which was legally outside Company-owned land but of great importance, since 60 per cent of its inhabitants were Company employees. Ahmadabad was originally built by Abadan municipality and later turned into what Ehsani calls a ‘workers’ squatter neighborhood’: it was marked by ‘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 city’s location on the border’. In the 1940s, most of Ahmadabad had paved roads and electricity, but drinking water was found only in public fountains, the sewage system was primitive, there were no parks or recreational facilities and the neighbourhood was infamous for diseases. However, there was, as already indicated, a third layer in between the two extremes of Braim and Ahmadabad: the Indian Lines in the Bahmashir neighbourhood, squeezed in between the refinery and Ahmadabad, consisting of lines of barrack-like huts, small but equipped with certain modern amenities. While this Company-built neighbourhood was nowhere near as posh and clean as Braim, in the 1940s it was still a far cry from the squalor of Ahmadabad. The Indian Lines had surfaced roads, electricity, piped drinking water and a sewage system. The Indians had an exclusive Artisans’ Club, sports facilities and access to a nearby park.
As compensation claims from the Bahmashir Incident tell us, some Indians even retained Iranian servants. The military-colonial etymology of ‘the Indian Lines’, I propose, had the psychological effect on Abadan’s British community of a defence line cordoning off the ever-increasing pressure of the Iranian masses in Ahmadabad and the shantytowns. More broadly, the Indian presence provided a sense of protection and familiarity to the British in Abadan: the servants catering for their familiar food; the loyal regiment ready to be mobilized for their defence; the drivers navigating them through the ‘native’ areas; and, indeed, the very spatial unit of the Lines itself to separate white/British Abadan from ‘dark’/non-British Abadan by a human-geographic layer of ‘semi-British’. All these were reassuring, convenient aspects in a daily life that many British in 1940s Abadan must have felt was increasingly threatened by disorder, violence, anti-colonial nationalism and war. Since the colonial legacy of social coercion was manifested physically in Abadan’s urban space, disruption of order in this space was a sign of resistance. As Gail Ching-Liang Low points out in her deconstruction of Kipling’s City of Dreadful Night, the quintessential Anglo-Indian town – and, I will argue, thus also Abadan – was based on a topos of linearity and geometry: These geometric lines are not only literal descriptions of the physical settlement patterns of the European community, but are also vivid testimonies to the culture’s persistent interest in demarcation, naming and segregation. The obsession with walls, detachment and spaces-in-between signals a fear, an imagined pressure from the native quarters, whose bodily secretions and metaphorical productivity threaten to run riot and spill over established boundaries. Lines of demarcation were also lines of defence. Whereas in the early days of oil extraction, Khuzestan was a lawless, isolated frontier, 1940s Abadan was a complex multi-cultural centre harbouring a diverse population, dissident movements and urban angst. By the time of World War II and the 1941 British-Soviet invasion of Iran, the socially engineered modus vivendi in Abadan, which rested on the Company’s spatial coercion, was challenged from multiple angles – and the Indians soon became targets.
NOTE: Author’s pre-print version. References should be made to the published version in U. Freitag, N. Fuccaro, C. Ghrawi & N. Lafi (Eds.): Urban Violence in the Middle East: Changing Cityscapes in the Transition from Empire to Nation-State (New York: Beghahn Books, 2015).
Publication date: 2015, Document Version, Early version, also known as pre-print Citation for published version (APA): Elling, R. C. (2015). On Lines and Fences: Labour, Community and Violence in an Oil City. In U. Freitag, N. Fuccaro, C. Ghrawi, & N. Lafi (Eds.), Urban Violence in the Middle East: Changing Cityscapes in the Transition from Empire to Nation-State (pp. 197-221). New York: Berghahn Books. Space and place, Vol.. 14