by Paul Schroeder
Originally published in ABADAN RETOLD
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Editor’s note: Paul Schroeder lived in Abadan from June, 1958 to February, 1960. His father Charles, worked for the refinery whose main task was to coordinate an update of financial controls and administration of the refinery’s payroll deparment. In 2007, Paul published many of the photographs taken by his father in Abadan and Iran at the online site The Iranian along with three essays about his family’s experience living in Iran, including “Memories of an American Boy“. Special thanks are extended by the author to Jahanshah Javid, publisher of The Iranian at the time, for original publication of the photos and essays. Since then Charles Schroeder’s photographs have been republished in many online sites, video sources and academic articles. Their role in the growth of the Abadani diaspora is discussed in Shireen Walton’s article to be published soon here on Abadan:Retold. All 450 of Charles Schroeder’s original slides are now held by the Fine Arts Library, Harvard University, and are available through Harvard’s VIA (Visual Information Access) database as high resolution scans (access here and search “Schroeder and Abadan”). Finally, an interview with Paul Schroeder by Elmira Jafari of CCTV Americaabout his family’s experience in Iran was broadcast in April, 2016 and can be viewed here.
I was invited to write an essay for Abadan:Retold about what life was like for me as a boy in Abadan, in the 1950s, and about the experience of returning there, which my wife Mazie Hough and I did last summer. My life has taken numerous twists and turns in the more than 50 years between departure and return, some of which were directly influenced by the two formative years I spent in Abadan. I have written an earlier essay called “Memories of an American Boy” (see link in editor’s note above) that attempted to share the particular qualities and flavor of life that I experienced there.
The first part of this essay presents some of the context within which my family’s experience of Abadan was embedded, along with some reflections on what that experience has meant for me. The second part of this essay brings our story up to date, outlining the background of our return visit to Abadan and Khorramshahr in the summer of 2015. The essay concludes by raising questions about where experience of Abadan may be leading us into the future.
Two themes emerged as the main threads in what I’ve tried to say here. The first involves the modern history of Abadan at an important geo-political boundary and crossroad that also involves centuries and even millennia of intercultural interchange and conflict. The precarious encounter between Iran and Iraq was salient for our family, especially in that our arrival in Abadan coincided with the revolution in Iraq in 1958. Echoes of a boundary dispute involving the Arvand / Shatt al-Arab river going back to Ottoman times were reflected in military tensions during our stay there, and that eventually consumed the region 20 years after we left in the form of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).
The second theme at the heart of this essay relates to the many people who have been in touch with me over the past eight years since publication of my father Charles Schroeder’s photos of Abadan and Iran as photo-essays at The Iranian online. Responses have been overwhelming in their appreciation for images that have contributed to the historical record of Abadan and to renewing personal memories of many people. All of Charles Schroeder’s original slides are available at Harvard University’s Visual Information Access database [see editor’s note] The messages I have received confirm that my own deep, almost unexplainable connection to Abadan is shared by many people around the world including many who live in Abadan and Iran today. Shireen Walton’s contribution to Abadan:Retold (soon to be published) provides further details about the photos and their role in Abadan’s global social network.
The flavor of these heart-felt messages is reflected in such statements as “my son is nine years old, and you are helping me to explain what my life was like in Abadan,” or “I am with my grandmother who is 84, and she is in tears looking at these photos of places from her youth.” When I traveled back to Iran this year, it was a privilege to meet in person some of the people who had been in touch from there. Their warmth is very meaningful to us. Many of these messages were shared with my father before his death in 2011, at age 100.
Three main motives were involved in sharing my father’s photos with a wider public. First, I wanted to honor him and his work, and to thank him in some way for what he did as a person for me and for our family. I wanted to say ‘thank you’ to him for many things, but especially for bringing us to Iran, and giving me the seeds of a global perspective at such an open moment in my life. Also, I wanted to say ‘thank you’ to Abadan and Iran, for being the unique setting where many seminal experiences and perspectives began to color my life.
Third, I was moved to make a personal counter-statement to the ongoing hostility that has become almost unquestioned between Iran and the United States. It was an attempt to say that there are at least some Americans who have affection for Iran and its people, in spite of real differences, and to provide some evidence in words and pictures to back up that claim. There was disturbing rhetoric in the lead-up to the 2008 US elections that reached its low point, for me, when John McCain wrapped belligerence in an attempt at humor by singing “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” (April 17, 2007). By then I had begun digitizing the photos, and the first set was posted a few days later, on April 27.
Background of our two years in Abadan
My father had two main motivations for accepting a temporary assignment to work in Abadan from his position as paymaster at the Chicago office of Socony (Standard Oil Company of New York) Mobil. The first was purely economic, a chance to be paid a bonus for overseas work and a chance for advancement within his company. Self-advancement wasn’t his personality, and he always worked at pretty basic accounting and auditing jobs for Mobil. But he and my mother were extremely thrifty, a personal trait that went well with his profession as an accountant. Letters they wrote home and their personal notes detailed nearly every Rial spent. In one letter home, my father even included an uncancelled stamp, with the suggestion it might be used again.
His second motivation was to give our family an opportunity to open its horizons culturally. For me this involved the experience of living in a context of absolute difference from everything I had seen through age 11 in the suburbs of Chicago. My overall take-away at the time was: There are ways of living that had been unimaginable to me, and that the American ‘way of life’ was itself as culture-bound as I saw in the multi-cultural milieu that surrounded me there. Living within the protective confines of the Company’s neighborhoods, schools, pools and churches, I was strangely untouched by surroundings that I observed on a daily basis.
I was interested to read recently that the would-be Presidential candidate Carly Fiorina traveled widely in her younger years, and for a time attended the Ghana International School in Accra. For her, the meaning of these experiences was tied in some way to American exceptionalism: “I saw at a young age, as well as all of the other decades where I’ve traveled, that things are possible here that really aren’t possible anywhere else in the world.” For myself the conclusions were different: The world does not have to be the way it is, and the way it is may largely depend on social assumptions and conventions that are largely unquestioned or unseen.
The late 1950s were an era of nearly unquestioned American global ascendance, as also framed by the Cold War legacy of the 1940s. Iran’s strategic importance was shown in Abadan’s supply of oil to the allies in World War II, in the supply of materials via rail from Khorramshahr to the eastern front, in the Azerbaijan crisis of 1945-46, and in the nationalization of the oil industry in 1951. All of these had Cold War overtones.
My father rarely discussed political topics. His focus was on family, work and church, and his personal manner was to be friendly to anyone he encountered along his life’s path. Late in his life I asked him about his political leanings, and found out that he had been a ‘lifelong Democrat.’ He also probably could be termed a Cold War democrat in his acceptance of some basic American assumptions about the Soviet Union and the perceived communist threat. I’m sure this basic orientation fit well enough with his work assignments in Abadan. I also gained insight into his basic survival strategy within corporate culture when he once told me: “I have never expressed my personal opinions at work.”
His work in Abadan mainly involved an efficiency and modernization effort within the refinery’s accounting and payroll departments, at the beginning of a transition from cash-only operations to more modern financial control. From his letters home I learned that his assignment to be the head of the payroll department was added after he started working there. He did see the Consortium as being a corrective to the years of nationalization. He noted privately that to his mind the payroll department had many unproductive employees left over from that era. Part of his job was to arrange transfers to other Company locations, such as the growing operation at Kharg Island, which he and I visited once together. In a letter to a former co-worker in Chicago he wrote: “There were 278 employees in the Payroll Department when I started here and when the reorganization is complete I hope to have 121. Not all of the reduction is caused by mechanization of the payroll. Much of it is transferring out the employees who are just on the staff but not doing any work.” (letter of Dec. 9, 1958)
Another geopolitical factor that was part of our daily awareness was the tension between Iraq and Iran over the Arvand / Shatt al Arab waterway. The 1958 revolution in Iraq, part of a larger ‘Middle East crisis’ that saw 5000 US Marines landing in Lebanon, happened nearly simultaneously with our family’s arrival in Abadan. Letters home and desk diary notes mention these events throughout our time there:
“The main topic of conversation here right now is the trouble in Iraq, right across the river from us. Naturally any difficulty like this is a matter of concern to everyone throughout the world and we are right next door to it but because of inadequate communication, we are probably less informed about the situation than you at home. We heard this afternoon that 5,000 U. S. Marines landed in Lebanon. Things are reaching a climax.” (C.R. Schroeder letter to his parents, July 15, 1958)
“Iraq revolution a year ago. Saw lights of celebration from Open Air Cinema. Flags on opposite shore.” (C.R. Schroeder, desk diary entry, July 14, 1959)
“Understand that there have been several skirmishes between the Iraqis and Iranian troops the other side of Khorramshahr. [An Iranian work colleague] says that Iran will soon take over south Iraq to Baghdad and Turkey will take the northern part. I want to be out of here when that happens! But I think it might be the other way around. Iraq will take over Khuzistan. I don’t want to be around when that happens, either!” (C.R. Schroeder letter to family at home, January 2, 1960)
I remember seeing Iranian soldiers in position behind sandbags by the river in Braim. Every month or two an American destroyer escort or British frigate would dock in the river at Abadan, showing the flag.
Though this atmosphere of international tension was present in the background of our lives there, my daily experience mostly involved the life of a boy who hung out with friends, rode his bike, honed his sports skills especially in swimming, went on outings with church and scouts, and attended school. Though old Braim has sometimes been termed a ‘gated community,’ I wasn’t aware of any actual gates at the time, just the common knowledge of who should be where and who did not belong, the social institutional barriers.
Social barriers applied to my own movements through the neighborhoods of Abadan. Though my friends and I rode the bus freely (ticket was 2 rials) and often went to Bawarda to swim at the company pool there or at the Seamen’s Club, I wasn’t allowed to go to the bazaar on my own or with friends. My visits to the bazaar and to the markets with my parents were always a welcome experience for me. There weren’t many cars in those days, and it was before the reign of neon. Pedestrians, bicyclists, mopeds, and vendor carts filled the streets. In the evenings the long road that formed the boundary between the bazaar and the refinery was lighted with gas lamps, filled with the aromas of kebabs cooking and the bustle of vegetable stands set up next to the road. The absence of this kind of vibrant street life was something I’ve missed here at home.
In my parents’ letters home there are occasional references to the poverty that was present in Abadan. Not long after our arrival, my mother wrote to her parents: “Life for the Americans and overseas staff is very pleasant. For the Iranian lower class it is miserable. … You just cannot imagine how many poor, sick people there are here. … There are so many blind people here. Evidently thru unsanitary conditions they got some dreadful eye disease which took their sight.” (Letter of July 2, 1958) I remember men without legs who asked for help in front of the small staff store in Braim, and small boys clamoring after us in the bazaar.
My parents and other overseas staff donated clothing and sometimes a place to sleep to Iranians, sometimes to those who worked for them as household staff. Next to my father’s office, in an abandoned building that was part of the refinery’s fire station, a girl named Fati lived with dozens of her ‘adopted’ orphan boys. She was called the Little Mother of Abadan, and a magazine story about her was given to my father. It has been translated and is available at The Iranian online.
The distinct social and economic hierarchies in Abadan also seemed to closely track ethnic identities. Though I was aware of many sub-communities of ethnic difference within Abadan, only recently have I heard those differences described in terms of ‘race.’ One person who commented on my father’s photos characterized the orientation of westerners who lived there as ‘racist’ and I had some trouble grasping the validity of this perspective, my notions of racism as being embedded in the American historical context.
However, I now see that racism can be seen as part of the mix in Abadan. I gained insight into this when we arrived back in the US. As we docked in New York City after crossing the Atlantic on the ocean liner Queen Elizabeth, I noticed that dock workers, tying up the ship, arranging the ramps, moving freight around the docks, were all white men. This came as a great surprise, as in the previous two years I had never seen any white men doing manual labor. Blindness to this condition can appropriately be called ‘racism.’ Other insights gained from our time in Iran have become slowly more salient to me in similar ways through the years.
What other glimpses can I offer from my own experience in Abadan, before moving along to more recent times? Buying flat breads (noon, we called it ‘chapatti’) from the open-air bakery behind the pool. The Ames Brothers on the PA at the Braim open-air cinema, singing “You, You, You” before the movie began. Falling off my bike while crossing a little bridge over a nullah (open drainage) and toppling in – fortunately it was dry and I wasn’t hurt. Trying to smoke a cigarette along with a friend, by the salt flats – I haven’t tried one since. Hopping on the back of one of the slow-moving refinery yard trains that came near to our school.
I became a reader in Abadan, and remember several of the paperback books that I bought at Alfi’s store. The Penguin edition of the Koran. Two volumes of collected reporting about World War II, called European Theater and Pacific Theater. A novel about a Japanese prisoner of war camp. The Ugly American, which was being read by some of the kids in Abadan at that time. Our ‘current events’ lessons at school involved reading Time Magazine every week – sometimes with covers or stories removed by the censors. I also took books out of the library in the Annex, books about aviation by Lindbergh and St. Exupery.
I also want to mention with appreciation some of the other places besides Abadan, in Iran and on our travels there and back, that I was privileged to visit. Among these were seeing nomads crossing a mountain stream on floats of inflated animal skins, while hiking on a boy scout trip near Lali. Again with the scouts, attending the Middle East Jamboree in Tehran, seeing lights from shepherds’ fires, we were told, at night in the surrounding hills. Isfahan. Persepolis. The Golestan Palace in Tehran, where I was fascinated by the old astrolabes and other astronomical instruments. Not to forget the Great Mosque in Damascus, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and the magic of ancient Delphi.
Just as abruptly as I had been transported from the suburbs of Chicago, I was picked up and dropped back there again. Though departures were usually filled with good cheer and some envy toward the people going home, I was in tears as our plane took off and I left Abadan ‘for good.’ Something deeply within me knew that this place and my experience of living there was a treasure, and that in some profound sense I was in the process of losing forever, or so it seemed.
Overall through the years, a general feeling of well-being and being-at-home has stayed with me when thinking about our years in Abadan.
Returning to Abadan
Though my circumstances were very different from the disasters that forced people to leave Abadan over the years, I had become a member of the Abadani diaspora, without imagining that such a thing existed. Trying to tell friends back home about the experience was difficult. There were few shared points of reference with Abadan’s unique order of things.
The deep desire some day to ‘go back’ along with an ongoing commitment to the idea of this unique place, undefined as it was, floated somewhere in the background of my imagination. My memories were awakened in the years following the revolution and war, when an unbridgeable obstacle of hostility emerged that has preoccupied the Iranian and American state systems ever since. I learned that what I thought were my own unique memories were shared with many others. Now and then images of Abadan and Isfahan, the shores of the Gulf and even of the war showed up in my dreams.
I began to re-create my mental landscape of Abadan. I looked for maps that might show places that I remembered: our house, Alfi’s, the school and pool, my father’s office, the Taj Cinema. The library at the University of Maine, which is a federal documents depository including maps, had a nautical chart showing marine hazards along the Arvand / Shatt al-Arab river. It also showed landmarks and some of the streets of Abadan.
I sent this map to my father, and asked him to please mark any places he might know – there were only a few. Not long after, I became aware of Wikimapia, where Abadan Island could be seen in detail through satellite photographs that could be annotated by public users. I found and marked the location of our house, SQ 1098, which had been destroyed during the war. The notion came to me that Abadanis far and wide could annotate this map, and through it could somehow re-inhabit the memory and actuality of this place online. We now know that something like this has been in many people’s minds, expressed now in the Abadan:Retold project as well as in many sites such as Karamoozan Abadan, Abadan va Hoomeh, the Overseas School on Facebook, and the blog-based online community of Abadan: Cool Under the Sun.
This virtual world began to merge for me with the lives of actual people, beginning with personal relationships with people who had written to me, some with direct personal ties from the past: relatives of people who had worked with my father, friends I had gone to school with or knew from scouts or the pool, correspondents from Abadan itself, from MIS (Masjid-i Suleiman), and even from mythic Isfahan. I learned about, and joined, the Abadan Society, which is mostly invisible online but is an active group in person that meets through reunions every other year in the UK and the US. There also is an active group of alumni and teachers from AIT (Abadan Institute of Technology) that recently met jointly with the Abadan Society. This group was the source for a map of Braim, including house numbers, that has helped to orient many people to their former lives in Iran.
In resurrecting the city of memory and its counterpart in the landscape of my dreams, I tended to situate Abadan as an unattainable goal rather than to recognize it as being an actual, living place. Its history is tied to, but separate from, the histories of those who have gone away, most of whom will never have the ability to return.
My first opportunity to return was in November 2011 when I attended a conference in Vienna and extended this to visit Iran, accepting a standing offer from an Iranian friend who offered to host me there for a visit. I flew to Tehran and traveled by car to Isfahan, where I was immersed in the city before a planned journey to Abadan. It turned out that my father, who had turned 100 the previous spring, passed away on Nov. 18, my fourth day in Isfahan, and I decided to return home without continuing to Abadan.
Finally this year Mazie and I were able to make the trip together. I’m glad we had the opportunity to share the journey. Besides Abadan and Khorramshahr we traveled to sites in Khuzestan (MIS, Shushtar and Shush) as well as to the spectacular must-visit sites in Isfahan, Shiraz, Persepolis and Pasargadae. It happened that the very day we were in Shush, visiting its archaeological sites and the Tomb of Daniel, it was officially declared to be a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The last segment of our route to Abadan by car was via Ahwaz over the highway that passed directly through the battle fronts of the southern region of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, a road that didn’t exist when we lived there in the 50s. The blistering mid-July heat, welcomed by me as a token of the Abadan I remembered best, accentuated the barren countryside we traveled through.
As we departed Ahwaz, our attention was captured by a series of large posters, displayed every hundred feet or so for at least a mile, showing photos of people who lost their lives in the conflict. Along the way there also were many monuments and other remnants to the legacy of the war, sometimes in the form of huge earthwork defenses, sometimes featuring burned out tanks and in one instance a burned out train.
Nearing Khorramshahr, the road was bounded by flooded plains and marshes, approaching the historically fertile regions where the great rivers converge. As we would see, in this perpetual conflict zone that includes the marsh regions of Iraq, the palm groves have been devastated. It is estimated that only 4 million acres remain, what is left from nearly 20 million acres of just a few years ago.
We drove through the streets of Khorramshahr, crossed the bridge to Abadan Island, and were met along the road by a friend who guided us to his family’s home. My excitement grew as we got closer to the streets that I also used to call home.
We were warmly welcomed throughout our visit by friends who invited us into their homes and who helped us to find our way around the cities. Establishing a personal connection with individuals and families was the most valued essence of our visit to Abadan. We drove and walked through the streets of Braim old and new, passed by the site of our family’s house (now gone), saw my school, drove around the circles where Alfis and the Sunshine Block once stood, and visited the pool now completely enclosed by high walls and not open at the time of our visit. I found a small hedged lane that I thought might take me to the ‘old house’ and the open air bakery, but I couldn’t find them.
In Braim we also located the house where a schoolmate from those earlier times had lived. It was under renovation, which seemed to be happening to many of the company houses. We also found the ‘foreigners’ cemetery,’ now a barren and untended patch of dry earth that has suffered both the revolution and the war. Many graves still had memorial stones, but few still could be identified, their plaques having been removed. Many of the inscribed stones are worn, broken, overturned or covered in dirt. Though there was no sign of any caretaker nor anyone who might be responsible for this site, I have learned from a recent visitor that there are plans to rebuild or renew this cemetery in some way.
Equally discouraging was the area along the channel separating Minoo and Abadan Islands. The channel no longer runs freely to its banks, and is now enclosed between steel pilings and concrete banks, with the hulk of a sunken ship apparently left as a monument to the battles that were fought here. Plans now include development of this area as a park, possibly as an extension of the ‘free zone’ that is underway in the Abadan and Khorramshahr region. On Minoo Island we also visited a small cemetery dedicated to the first residents from this community who lost their lives at the beginning of the war.
We also were able to visit the war museum in Khorramshahr, where the full fury of what happened here became clear. The man who guided us through the museum had been part of the conflict, as a teenager. He once spent three days doing surveillance behind Iraqi lines, and fortunately survived being mistakenly shot when returning to the Iranian side. He recounted for us a touching parable about the parallels between palm trees and human beings, and how the destruction of the palms is in essence the destruction of the people who live among them. Among the parallels: If you cut off their heads, they can’t breathe anymore.
A friend gave us a copy of a video documentary based on the memoir Da (Mother) that showed women’s contemporary reflections on their memories of war. This oral history of the experience of Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni, as written by Seyyedeh A’zam Hoseyni, was hugely popular in Iran after its publication in 2008. It has been translated into English by Paul Sprachman with the title One Woman’s War: Da (Mother). I recommend it if you would like to read the story of what the war was like on a daily basis.
Over 25 years since the end of the war, Abadan and Khorramshahr now are bustling cities again. The building boom is impressive, with many new apartment blocks completed and underway in the barren expanses between the refinery and Khorramshahr, and in areas such as along the Karun River. Streets are bustling in the bazaar, where I glimpsed an escalator through the windows of a modern storefront. This could not have been imagined in the sleepy former village that was Abadan Town during the years we were there. One evening we got take-out from the bazaar and went to share an evening picnic at the riverside park in Khorramshahr, while watching fishermen set their nets from small motorboats.
During our stay we also were fortunate to be invited to several informally organized gatherings. An oil museum has recently been established at the refinery under the direction of the public relations department. Its staff hosted us for an extended conversation at its current location in a converted bungalow in Braim. I was happy to respond to an extensive set of questions that were recorded for their oral history archive. We were honored to receive a gift from them, Iraj Valizadeh’s memoir of the refinery’s history, titled “Anglo and Bungalow at Abadan” (in Persian) which includes dozens of my father’s photos as part of its historical documentation. For my part, I gave the oil museum some documents from my father’s time there, including the organization chart of the payroll department and the handbook for overseas staff. I hope that others also will consider contributing to their collections. A similar gathering was held at the Abadan Museum, which had not yet been built when we lived there. Its collections include materials from the Khuzestan region as well as the social history of Abadan. We also gathered with others at the studio and teaching workshop of artists who have taken interest in my father’s photographs. In all respects we were deeply touched by the hospitality and interest that were shown to us.
After three full days (not nearly enough) we left Abadan, and completed our passage through the ‘triangle of heat’ (MIS – Abadan – Agha Jari) en route via Shiraz, Persepolis, and Pasargadae back to Isfahan where we settled for a few days before flying home.
It happened that our last day in Iran (July 14, 2015) was also the day that the nuclear agreement was signed between Iran and other world powers. The negotiations were on the news nonstop during our visit, and there seemed to be general relief that the agreement was achieved after several discouraging moments along the way. In a strangely satisfying way, it seemed to me that this outcome, arriving on the last day of our visit, was a satisfying bookend to those weeks in 2007 when I decided to make a personal statement of conciliation by sharing my father’s photographs online.
Where will we all go from here? How do we imagine Abadan’s future, as well as our own?
It’s tempting but not quite correct to suppose that we must disentangle the Abadan that exists from the city of our dreams. Our memories, realities and dreams will be tangled forever and irrevocably. When we’ve had a dream during sleep, and sense its being as we awake, we somehow know that it’s been a dream, and that we can’t go back and enter the dream again. But when we’ve lived in a place and time that have been irreparably taken away, we still somehow know that it’s not been a dream, and that there might be a thread that could lead us back, to be able to walk those same streets again.
I see Abadan as a microcosm of the forces that shaped the 20th century, a multi-faceted crystal in which our personal and social lives are refracted in a unique way. One of these facets is our growing awareness of how ‘fossil fuels,’ central to Abadan’s existence, have fueled the engines of modernity and have also provided the most real challenge facing us in terms of human survival, itself.
I think that Abadan’s position at the intersection of global cultures, marked by continuities and differences, extending for a thousand years and more into the past, will continue into the future. Through the continuous fog of open conflict that’s raging in the Middle East, cross-cultural mistrust and institutionalized bonds do hold us back from realizing our highest potentials.
Yet I sense there is a seed of hope in the vision known as Abadan. A phrase keeps coming to mind, ‘healing must begin in the most harmed places.’ As we’re looking for places and ways to begin to cool our warming world, why not look at one vertex of the triangle of heat, Abadan, where it’s ‘cool under the sun.’ If we’re looking to establish even one square meter for peace, why not mark it on the ground of Minoo Island, a harmed place where the fate of the palms is so closely tied to our own?