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Abadan’s digital afterlife: past images and present pasts in Abadani virtual communities | Shireen Walton — ABADAN RETOLD


by Shireen Walton

Originally published in ABADAN RETOLD

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
L.P Hartley, The Go-between, 1953

Conjuring Abadan online: the magic of technology
However one attempts to understand the history of Abadan, images and nostalgia are clearly entry points. Whilst images were the stuff upon which much of the oil city’s identity was made, nostalgia shapes a great deal of how it has been/is evoked.

Today, social media plays a significant role in keeping the memory of Abadan alive, on- and offline. Virtual platforms are prominent contemporary sites of transnational and inter-generational digital storytelling, shaping memories and collectivising nostalgia on a global scale. At the same time, narrative strategies for remembering Abadan clearly pre-date the Internet era. Traditional semantic forms such as letters, diaries and photographs, and family storytelling practices have all been instrumental in making sense of individual and collective Abadani pasts. Here, dramatic narratives are often relayed of times gone by, and of people and things – objects houses, lifestyles – lost.

Due to a sense of disjuncture between the city’s past and present realities, coupled with its entrenchment in layers of symbolic construction, the old Abadan, for many ex-Abadanis (Iranian and non-Iranian) scattered across the world, feels like a ‘foreign country’, to quote from L.P Hartley’s novel, where things were indeed done ‘differently’. Depending on who is telling the story, a Gone With the Wind-type narrative is even evoked; a world of prosperous families, dance halls, beaus and barbecues, which gives way almost overnight to war, mass migration, and physical and symbolic destruction. Nonetheless, historical images of Abadan, both mental and photographic, are today routinely compared to its present physical reality: a city in a post-war landscape steadily rebuilding itself in a new century, under changing political frameworks and socio-economic conditions.

The Internet, as I argue in this essay, plays a significant role in Abadan’s contemporaneity, including its wider sense of being ‘born again’. Over the past decade, members of the city-community, past and present, have afforded Abadan a prominent virtual afterlife online. Group pages on social media platforms dedicated to Abadan, as well as specific platforms for Abadani social networking, are reconfiguring collective processes of engaging with the city, namely by conjuring up the past.[1] Many of these psycho-social processes of (re-)connecting virtually are decidedly visual, even cinematic. They rely, for the most part, on the presenting and viewing of digitised old photographs from private collections, and other material shared digitally from a combination of on- and offline sources. This presents an intriguing contemporary phenomenon, which forms the analytical locus of this essay: the popular social media archive. As I will discuss, this plays host to an intriguing sociological process, by which the Abadani past is being kept (a)live in the present.

The ‘presentness’ of Abadan that I am partially suggesting is a product of online engagements with the city is also a product of wider offline socio-economic developments that have been steadily taking place in the physical city of Abadan, though fully accounting for these falls beyond the scope of this essay. One example of this local effort to reaffirm the city’s historical identity can be seen in the government’s investment in a new oil museum in Abadan. This forms part of a broader contemporary initiative to raise national awareness of Iran’s oil history by developing a series of oil museums across the country, including in Masjid-e Suleiman and Tehran. At the same time, the work of local historians, novelists, photographers and artists also continue to render the city as was,is, and could be.

Nevertheless, segments of the contemporary picture of Abadan have been building up in the digital landscape in recent years. These collective amateur archiving processes, I suggest, warrant scholarly attention on their own terms. Here, local and global renderings of the city combine and evolve in networked, interrelated processes of remembering and forgetting. It is the digital contemporaneity of Abadan, formed by its many virtual communities that I therefore seek to examine in this essay. To frame the discussion, I introduce a relevant theoretical concept: ‘digitally-networked memory’ (Hoskins 2009:92); a ‘living archival memory’ that keeps aspects of the past in the digital present. This emphasis on the living nature of the archive helps us understand how Abadani digital engagements, particularly with photographs, move beyond definitions of memory and nostalgia that mainly emphasise loss and/or the past (Sontag 1977)[2]. As such, this essay asks how and to what effect is the bygone Abadan – particularly of the 1950s through to the late 1970s – afforded a digital ‘afterlife’ online in social terms, virtually and visually? But first, we need to account for Abadan’s specific aesthetic identity, since this explains much of why and how the city as wasis remembered, understood, and digitally kept (a)live today.

Images and imaginings in/of Abadan
Visual culture has played a central role in establishing the ‘idea’ and ideal of Abadan. Following the discovery of oil in 1908 at Masjid-e Suleiman by a team of British geologists under the auspices of British entrepreneur William Knox D’Arcy, the city was built to accommodate the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). In the 1930s and 1940s, during the British era, purpose-built housing complexes were constructed in particular locations, such as the Braim, Bawarda and other residential neighbourhoods in Abadan and surrounding cities, in order to accommodate company employees and their families. Following these primary preoccupations, subsequent characteristics of the ‘Company town’[3] followed; namely a socialization process (Ehsani 2003), involving building a civic infrastructure. International residents of the city were provided with the relevant socio-economic and aesthetic frameworks – architecture, infrastructure, leisure pursuits, reading materials, street lighting, and commodities – for upholding the social (and political) order[4]. Consequently, the oil city featured widely in British propaganda from the 1920s through to the 50s, including publications, photographs and films produced before and in the wake of the nationalisation of the oil industry by the Iranian parliament in 1951. In these British, neo-colonial visions of modernity in the Middle East, Abadan was celebrated as a cosmopolitan ‘utopia’, boasting progressive social welfare programmes, abundant resources and sophisticated amenities. Select examples can be seen below. Figure 1 shows a feature on Abadan taken from the Review of Middle East Oil from 1948. The article documents the housing, transport systems, shops, cabarets, outdoor cinemas and swimming pools built by the British to cater for Company employees and their families (Figures 2 and 3a+b).

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Figure 1: Review of Middle East Oil – Iran, 1948. Source: Courtesy of BP archive.
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Figure 2: Review of Middle East Oil – Iran, 1948. Source: Courtesy of BP archive.

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Figure 3a and 3b: From an official Anglo-Iranian Oil Company booklet printed in England in May 1948. Source: Courtesy of BP archive.

Figure 4 from the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph (1951) gives a further sense of how Abadan was represented back home with pride, being termed ‘unique’ and progressive. The report particularly celebrates the social services available in Abadan, forming part of a broader British campaign to maintain influence in the wake of Iranian oil nationalisation.

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Figure 4: The Daily Telegraph, 1951. Source: Courtesy of the BP Archive

In Abadan itself, local media also celebrated the social achievements of the community and its distinctively cosmopolitan character. Figure 5 shows the local newspaper ‘Abadan Today’, a weekly paper published for the benefit of employees of the oil company, then known as the NIOC (National Iranian Oil Company).

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Figure 5: ‘Abadan Today’ (1959). Source: Scanned and uploaded online 20/03/11 by Paul Schroeder. Viewed online here (Accessed: 10/12/14).

The copy shown is from September 1959. Here we see numerous illustrated listings of popular goings on in the city, from film screenings to recreational activities, sports clubs and advertisements. In the background however, socio-economic tensions and a successive wave of labour strikes and protests across Khuzestan loomed large. This was part of a broader reality quashed and ‘left out of the frame’ by British propagandists.

These kinds of official sources of Abadani history are today mostly found in archives relating to the history of oil in Iran. In the UK, the most prominent of these include the BP archive at the University of Warwick and the National Archives at Kew in London. Moreover, the Iranian government has recently announced plans to make some historical material relating to oil history in Iran available to the public through a series of planned oil museum projects, as earlier mentioned.[5]

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Figure 6: Album cover of AIOC photograph album from the 1940s. Source: Courtesy of BP archive.

As purveyors of official portraits however, these archives can often lack the nuanced narrative details of lived experience. Popular photographs taken by Abadani residents, and the memories that they provoke, yields up more of this ethnographic detail. As I will later suggest, this explains much of the popularity of social media archives today. But first, let us consider the original context in which such amateur photographs were produced.

Private collections of photographs from Abadan in pre-revolution Iran largely stem from the post-British era, from the 1950s through to the 1970s. They belong to Iranians and foreigners alike, whose lifestyles centred around ‘Sherkat-e Naft’ (the Oil Company). During this period, technological developments in lighter and higher speed cameras were revolutionising popular photographic practices all over the world[6]. In Iran from the 1950s, following a more general global post-war consumer boom, camera shops, amateur photography clubs and local competitions in towns and cities sprung up across the country. These middle-class leisure activities were a socio-economic product of the country’s broader industrialisation and modernisation programme under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1941-1979). Photography and visual culture – from public advertisements to photo-identification cards, birth certificates and passports – all played a prominent role in the wider nationalising project. In Abadan, and other big cities, the emerging Iranian middle classes visited public photography studios for official family and wedding portraits, and began documenting family narratives in private photograph albums (Damandan 2004Khodadadi Motarjemzadeh 2013).

Abadan however was a particular vanguard of technological modernity in Iran. Camera shops in the city sold the latest photographic equipment from Europe, as well as from places like Japan. Close oil ties between Iran and Japan, namely in the form of the Iran-Japan Petrochemical Company (IJPC), saw many Iranian employees of the Company and their families spending periods of time working in Japan, bringing back the latest technological equipment with them to Abadan (Enayat 1994). Figure 7 below, from ‘Abadan Today’ (1959) relays information about the Abadan ‘photographic society’ in the paper’s ‘Out and About’ section. The listing shows a report from the first Annual General Meeting from March of that year. Here we learn about the society’s activities, competitions and committee appointments (including Iranian and international members), as well as the state-of-the art dark rooms available at the Clubhouse, which, as it reports, produced the highest quality images.

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Figure 7: ‘Abadan Today’ Vol. 3, No.39, 1 April 1959. Source: Scanned and uploaded online 20/03/11 by Paul Schroeder. Viewed online here (Accessed: 10/12/14).

Another issue, from July of the same year (Figure 8) shows a photograph of members of the photographic society on a ‘photographic trip’ to prominent site-seeing attractions around Iran, listed in this case as the ‘Sheikh’s palace’, referring to one of the palaces of the Arab Sheikh Khaz’al – either the palace of Feilieh (built 1917) near Khorramshahr, or the Hamidiya palace near Ahwaz[7]. The ‘camera enthusiasts’ that the caption refers to are foreigners (mostly American in this case) living in Abadan at the time. Such trips were not uncommon: middle-class residents from Abadan, Ahvaz, M.I.S and related oil towns often made such ‘Grand Tour’ style visits to Iran’s major cities and ancient attractions, by bus as well as via the Trans-Iranian railway (completed in 1938), which linked Tehran to the Persian Gulf.

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Figure 8: ‘Abadan Today’ newspaper, Vol.2 No.89 July 29, 1959. Source: Viewed online here (Accessed: 10/12/14).

These kinds of popular photographic activities give an indication of the dual exposure of official and popular lenses capturing various visions of Abadan during the city’s mid-twentieth century ‘heyday’, admittedly amongst those empowered with the necessary means of (visual) production. Many of the kind of family photographs referred to above, dating from the 1950s to the 1970s, have been digitally scanned, and are today widely shared online on Abadani websites and social networks. For this reason, in the next part of the essay I make a chronological leap over the turbulent war years during the 1980s, and its aftermath during the 1990s, turning to the contemporary online archive/scrapbook as a locus of understanding, re-producing and performing some of the more romanticised aspects of Abadan’s cosmopolitan social history from the decades prior to the revolution.

Picturing Abadan online: a digital genealogy
Online engagements with Abadani history and identity have changed form and morphed over the past decade. Although social media is a primary contemporary locus of engagement, the practice of re-connecting with Abadan online largely began through a particular platform: the online magazine The Iranian(www.iranian.com). Established in 1995 by Jahanshah Javid, an Iranian American journalist who ran it at the time from San Francisco, the site features a plethora of news articles, photographs, videos, poetry, fiction-writing, letters and features relating to Iran. The Iranian remains a major source of Iranian diasporic cultural engagement. In an earlier ethnographic account of the site, social anthropologist Shahram Khosravi (2000) found a section dedicated to Abadan to be a particularly prominent space of nostalgia:

‘Old pictures from pre-revolution time as well as pictures of postwar Abadan are displayed. There are pictures of streets, squares, hotels and clubs, but also photos of the Abadan football team, a student group in the 1970s, and a ‘typical house.’ Throughout the section, the visitor is struck by anguish and a nostalgic mourning for a beloved city, which no longer exists, but has gained a new virtual life.’ (Khosravi 2000:13)

An indication of how this nostalgia is activated by and within the online social environment can be considered in the specific case of one American family – the Schroeders’, whose collection of images has since acquired fame on the Abadani social web. The case study reveals many relevant insights into the overall theme of my essay.

Paul Schroeder lived in Abadan in the 1950s, when his father, Charles, worked for The Company. I first corresponded with Paul during my PhD research in 2013, and was intrigued by his connections to Abadan through a range of virtual networks. Paul relayed his experience posting a selection of digitised original Kodachrome slides from 1958 from his father’s collection of 450 slides of Abadan, Khuzestan and other parts of Iran in the 1950s, to The Iranian in 2007. The selection of images Paul had posted on the website formed part of a photo-essay he wrote for the site entitled ‘Memories of an American boy’[8]. What both Paul, and in turn I, were struck by, was the emotive power of the photographs as a means of connecting people variously linked to Abadan across time and space, and in very real ways. Paul shared the following remarks with me recounting his experience of posting the images online:

Since posting my father’s photographs via The Iranian [in 2007], I’ve heard from about 300-500 people from all over the world directly via email and other online groups about the photos, so I’ve learned a lot about the whole Abadani idea and ideal. There is no doubt that just these photos have made a contribution to people who lived in Abadan at that time, completely unexpected by me when I posted them. My goal was pretty simple: create a personal bridge where it seemed needed… It did hit me not long after posting the photos that there is a sort of ‘Global Village’ of Abadan that had to wait for various network technologies etc. to develop in order to emerge. (Email correspondence with Paul Schroeder, [23/08/13]).

Here Paul acknowledges the transnational reach of his father’s slides, which were shared and viewed in digital form online from a multitude of locations across the globe. His remarks attest to the ability of photography in the digital landscape to connect people to local history, to biographical experience, and to each other. On this theme, Paul further acknowledged how ‘photos elicit memories as basis for conversation and learning.’ These capacities are something we see at work in abundance in the case of images of Abadan exhibited online, as I will illustrate. What is interesting to note here, is how the digital environment enhances existing needs for community-based storytelling, memory-sharing and the affirming of identities in relation to Abadan. As Paul suggests, it was as if Abadanis were in some sense ‘waiting in the wings’ for digital networks to come into being, in order to facilitate the rebuilding of their virtual global village – both the idea and ideal– online. Going a step further, as we shall see in the following section of this essay, the social-media environment even has the power to render memory a present ‘experience’ (Van Dijck 2007).

In 2011, Paul arranged for the Schroeder photographs to be added to the Visual Arts Library of Harvard University, where they have been made available to the public.[9]Wherever they are viewed, these photographs appear to have a significant impact on Iranians (as well as non-Iranians such as himself) who have personal memories of Abadan. In a particularly notable instance, one man, Arash Abkhoo from and still living in Abadan, used his photoblog to pay tribute to Paul’s father, Charles Schroeder, following his passing away. Figure 9 below shows a section of Arash’s photoblog dedicated as a tribute to Charles Schroeder.

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Figure 9: Photoblog tribute to Charles Schroeder by Arash Abkhoo, posted November 30th 2011. Source: http://www.arashpix.com/weblog/2011/11/post_5.php. (Accessed: 03/12/14).

Arash writes a moving personal post describing what Charles’ photographs have done, not just for the visual cultural heritage of Iran, but also for future generations, showing them what life was like in this unique place in south-west Iran, before the revolution of 1979 and Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988):

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Figure 10: Screen shot excerpts from online tribute to Charles Schroeder by Abadan-born photoblogger Arash Abkhoo[10]. Source: Arash Abkhoo.
In the above tribute, Arash conveys the importance of Charles’ photographs. He suggests that through his images, the photographer has ‘defeated death’. This figurative state of ‘immortality’ becomes literally enhanced by the images’ new virtual life, which digitally preserves the slides online. The photographs appear to have become an important ‘reality’ for Arash and many others like him, structuring his processes of remembering. Social anthropologist Paul Connerton (1989) in his seminal work How Societies Remember once argued that communications between successive generations are often impeded by the mental and emotional isolation experienced by each and their specific memories. What I suggest here in light of the above example, and in relation to the broader Abadani virtual context, is an emerging take on inter-generational relationships, rooted in digital flows of communication. Popular photographs of Abadan shown and viewed online here connect pre- and post-revolutionary generations of ex-Abadanis, through collective practices of meaning-making. This blending of inter-generational memory recalls Hirsch’s (2012) theoretical concept of ‘postmemory’, which I find particularly relevant here. Hirsch describes how individuals can come to ‘know’ certain events through the various cultural and semantic forms (such as photographs, diaries and letters) in which actual memories become manifest. Postmemories are passed on to those who did not experience them first hand, forming simulated versions of memories. Arash, having lived in Abadan as a child, has no actual memories of pre-war Abadan. Taking the place of actual memory, these digitised photographs – on a par with his grandparents’ stories – have become just as ‘real’ to him as any lived experience. Hence, the photographs have provided a virtual portal of connection to Abadan, for which he appears to be very grateful.

Following their online connections through Charles’ photographs, Arash and Paul have become friends. When Paul visited Abadan last summer, after fifty-five years, Arash hosted Paul and his wife Mazie at the Abadan museum, where Paul was interviewed about his family’s story and his connection with the city[11]. Via Paul and the Schroeder photographs, I also became introduced to a number of Abadani Iranians during my PhD research, which led to a series of offline meet-ups in the UK between 2013-2014.[12] Here I learnt more about Abadan’s various virtual communities. Notable examples cited included (a) the ‘Children of the NIOC’ group on Facebook, founded in 2011 and liked by over 16,000, users and (b) the website ‘Abadan: Cool Under the Sun’: a more specific semi-private (password-protected) virtual community of almost 4,000 transnationally dispersed ex-Abadani members, created by Amirali Parstabar in Los Angeles, USA. I will briefly examine both of these sites below in order to further explore some of the psychosocial implications of virtually engaging with the Abadan.

Virtual communities
Beginning with the Facebook group, any brief scan of the page reveals it to be a major source of Abadani sociocultural engagement and nostalgia. In the ‘About’ section, the group states (in Persian) its aims to serve as a ‘virtual community’ for maintaining friendly relations amongst Abadanis worldwide (Figure 11). It is precisely this feature, of serving as a networking vehicle, which constitutes one of the site’s major appeals for ex-Abadanis. Users of the site told me how it provides occasions for ‘going back’, and enabling small acts of retrieval; locating old friends, colleagues, neighbours and school fellows – no longer ghostly figures of the past, but now appearing, ‘as if by magic’ on their computer screens, after years of separation and/or disconnection[13]. A main, literal activity of the site involves the sharing of scanned and digitised old photographs to the group’s administrator for posting. Sometimes images are accompanied with self-authored descriptions, captions and dates. As in the customary digital manner of social network activities, users comment on photographs, like each other’s comments, and tag others to the photographs (or in the comments stream) in order to draw their attention to the photograph, or to paste them virtually back into a real scene from the past.

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Figure 11:Screenshot of ‘Children of NIOC’ Facebook group. Source: Author.

Through these kinds of activities, users of the site perform the role of an amateur archivist, and/or historian, piecing together parts of a fragmented historical puzzle, through posted photographs, and the oral histories that they elicit in the form of posted comments and online discussions. Historical photographs from various decades intersperse here with more recent photographs of contemporary Abadan, encouraging users to make constant cognitive/temporal leaps between the past as a ‘foreign country’, and one much closer to home: on the screen. Other items featured on the page includes scanned newspaper/magazine cuttings and book covers, ID photographs, postage stamps and official oil company documents. These material cultural objects blend together, digitally, in the group’s overall archival layout, forming a personalised, non-linear visual bricolage of the story of Abadan, comprised of twentieth and twenty-first century visions.[14]

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Figure 12: Screen shot of Children of NIOC Facebook page photograph album Source: Author.

 

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Figure 13: Company store in Braim, probably 1960s. Source: NIOC Facebook group.

The comments section seen in relation to each photograph gives an indication of the breadth and scale of the social networking taking place on the site, amongst individuals of many ages, and nationalities from all over the world. Again, nostalgia comprises the pulse of the group. There is even an album of photographs entitled ‘nostalgic’, formally dedicated to objects, smells, places and tastes of old Abadan. Users respond to these images as if they were smelling the flowers and tasting the foods once experienced there for real, demonstrating in the digital context anthropologist Paul Stoller’s (1989) earlier argument that so strong are sensory engagements with (print) photographs, that they can, in fact, be ‘tasted’.

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Figure 14: Screenshot of ‘Nostalgic’ album on ‘Children of NIOC’ Facebook group. Source: Author.
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Figure. 15 NIOC Nursing students 1971-1974. Source: Unknown.
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Figure 16: School in Abadan. Source: Unknown.

Turning to the Abadan site ‘Abadan: Cool Under the Sun’, individuals here are similarly engaged in socio-technological processes of reacquainting themselves and others with past memories and identities.

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Figure 17a and 17b: Abadan: Cool Under the Sun. Source: http://abadan.ning.com

However, a main characteristic feature of this website – which partly distinguishes it from the Facebook group – is how it aims to move beyond a browsable archive to form a fully-fledged Abadani social network. In order to join this site, individuals have to undergo a brief memory test in order to validate their membership in the virtual community. They must answer questions relating to facets of life and times in pre-revolution Abadan, such as the names of certain places. Protecting the site in this manner sets it apart from other more public pages dedicated to Abadan, though in reality, members of the Abadan site routinely encounter one another on a range of associated sites. In line with its wider regulations, the Abadan site notably declares itself to be strict on avoiding political discussions (see Figure 18).

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Figure 18: Keeping (hard) politics at bay. Source: ‘Abadan: Cool Under the Sun’ website

Hoping to keep (hard) politics at bay, it consciously isolates itself from broader contemporary political events in Iran, and on the wider Internet. As a result, the Abadani dream is effectively preserved as an ideal entity online, and one whose ‘purity’ can be to a certain extent be experienced again through the virtual community and its collective desires.

A main feature of the site aims to facilitate meet-ups amongst members in major cities across Iran and all over the world (see Figure 19).

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Figure 19: Annual Abadani meet-ups in Tehran Source: ‘Abadan: Cool Under the Sun’ website.

Photographs and videos shared on the site map the entire visual-historical landscape of Abadan; as it was before the revolution, during the period of devastation during the Iran-Iraq war, and since the 1990s and 2000s based on images, films and anecdotes shared from other platforms, and from personal visits to the city from the 1990s to the present. Videos uploaded to the site under the ‘videos’ section also include pop music relating to Khuzestan, as well as more general, classic Iranian pop songs by stars of the 1960s such as Hayedeh and Googoosh that evoke more general sentiments of Iranian cultural belonging from the pre-revolutionary era.

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Figure 20: How it used to be. Source: ‘Abadan: Cool Under the Sun’ website.

The more contemporary memories and scenes from Abadan today shared on the site bear witness to the ‘presentness’ of Abadan ‘as is’, and not just ‘as was’. The more recent perspective is one mostly shared by those who have returned to Iran or live in Abadan today, whose photographs and comments interject an element of contemporary (documentary) realism to the view, while also contributing to a collectively imagined sense of the city’s ‘as could be’.

Although the Abadan site is technically a single virtual community, it is not a uniform social body. It involves different groups of people with distinct claims to the city, and their own identities within it. This is a useful historical indication of how there was never any single ‘Abadani community’, but rather the city, particularly given its geographical location close to the border with Iraq and the Persian Gulf, had consisted of a spectrum of variously networked cultures and ethnicities, tied to specific socio-economic activities and lifestyles. The section on the site entitled ‘groups’ presents an intriguing anthropological data set in this regard, illustrating how community-linked identity- making also takes place online, as it has always done, offline. The group pages enable users to assign themselves to collectives they feel they belong to, either now (based on where they live), or then (where they worked, in which neighbourhoods they used to live…). Notably, these groups are referred to on the site as ‘chapters’, the specific choice of words indicating a wider sense of the ‘story’ of Abadan that I am suggesting is being pieced together online in virtual communities. To take on example, the ‘Abadan Bakhtiari Chapter’, shows descendants of the Bakhtiari tribe from southwest Iran forming a sub-network based on people’s various personal and/or ancestral connections with the tribe.

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Figure 21: ‘Abadan Bakhtiari Chapter’ Source: ‘Abadan: Cool Under the Sun’ website.

The profile image for this chapter shows a young boy dressed in the black and white dress and cap typically worn by Bakhtiari men. To visually mark the Abadani connection, he is shown ‘wearing’ Ray Ban sunglasses – an item of modern material culture that has come to be popularly associated with Abadanis (see Figure 22). The Rayban meme is a humorous digital-visual leitmotif used throughout the site to signify the broader Abadani collective identity (Figure 23)

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Figure 22: Ray Ban motif Source: ‘Abadan: Cool Under the Sun’ website.
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Figure 23: Ray Bans featured across the Abadan site Source: ‘Abadan: Cool Under the Sun’ website.

Other group categories include those who went to specific schools, or belonged to football teams and clubs, and those now living in various locations of the Abadani diaspora, across Europe, America and Canada (see Figure 24 below). There is also a group for veterans of the Iran-Iraq war, which includes actual veterans as well as their families and friends who wish to pay tribute to those who served in the war.

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Figure 24: Abadan ‘chapters’ Source: ‘Abadan: Cool Under the Sun’ website.

Of course whom we encounter on these sites are those who have decided to engage in these digital ways. For other ex-Abadanis, such easy-to-access history is not something they are technologically adept at, nor emotionally ready for. For some individuals, the doors to the past have been shut tight due to the complex psycho-social impact – developed over many years and passed down through respective generations – of mourning a lost home, and integrating into new ones abroad. Some more senior former Company employees and their families I spoke with living in Europe and America relayed the impression that Abadan (or rather, their Abadani past) was so far removed from their present realities – diasporic ones, often tinged with a latent sense of loss and rupture – that it is perceived to have little place in the day-to-day business of their contemporary lives abroad. The ‘foreign country’ of the past here is too painful to be revisited in any shape or form. For these individuals, reviewing such photographs online, as with a physical photograph album, at best felt like a pseudo-cinematic experience, of playing back a story once witnessed as ‘real’ in a dream. In these cases, it seems that digital technologies, though they can go along way towards magic[15], cannot ultimately bring forth the material reality of pasts and peoples lost.

For the many thousands who are engaging with Abadan online, the interrelated senses of catharsis and community offered by these digital networks is reason enough. Members of these sites befriend and interact with one another in ways that globalise their existing networks, and ‘landscape’ (DeNicola 2012) the Internet with a particularly local cartography of identity[16]. This idea demonstrates, in concrete ways, the often bounded, and culturally conservative spaces of the Internet at large (Miller and Slater 2000Horst and Miller 2012). A more general advantage of these kinds of digital archives relates to their capacity for community repatriation of historical material. As discussed, individuals bring back ‘lost’ artefacts from their own private albums, and/or from libraries, archives and the Internet, to their wider community, who may never have had quite the same levels of ‘fingertip access’ to this – or aspects of their – history. Along these lines, the digital archive has broader socio-political implications than that which can be accounted for within the scope of this essay. What we may contend from this discussion however, is that re-creating Abadan online in these virtual arenas occupies a prominent contemporary place in the broader history of the city, and amongst the many thousands of dispersed peoples whose collective memories such media are able to mobilise.

Conclusion: virtual Abadan – a phoenix from the ashes
Abadan has entered a new historical chapter. Having undergone physical and symbolic destruction during and since the revolution and war with Iraq, it has today retrieved a historical sense of its cosmopolitan community online. In Abadani virtual communities residents of the city, past and present, meet each other in virtual oases of cosmopolitanism, internationalism and idealism carved out from within the digital landscape, based on acute self-perceptions of identity, forms of sociability and aesthetics that had once defined their physical environment decades ago.

Abadani virtual communities (and their associated activities) thus contribute to our overall understanding of what Abadan ‘is’ today: a combination of actual and virtual cities – one in – and one notably out of the (physical) place of Abadan; the latter having been the focus of this essay. However, although digitally connected, members of these communities speak from and to very different realities of ‘Abadan’. Indeed, some Abadanis, particularly those in the diaspora, are sufficiently out of sync with the actual Abadan of today, (consciously or as a matter of consequence). This has the effect of making room for the romanticism and nostalgia for Abadan from the 1960s and 70s to ‘live’ in the highly symbolic space between photographic image, memory/trauma and imagination. As part of this process, digital media attend to and help navigate widely shared experiences of loss; suggesting people to connect with, images to view, and places/emotions to virtually ‘(re-)visit’. Individual memory is hereby drawn into discursive fields of collective negotiation, and in these spaces, a kind of transnational healing is performed, however consciously.

This merges the ‘as is/‘as was’ with the ‘as could be’ of Abadan, recalling what Aleida Assmann, a prominent cultural theorist of social memory, calls a ‘contract between the living, the dead and the not yet living’ (Assmann 2008:97). In sum, there is an intriguing, psychosocial relationship between symbolic notions of ‘life’ and ‘death’ occurring in the Abadani digital landscape that I have only hinted at in this essay. Understanding this further requires looking further at the more general ability of the digital medium to impact upon the (offline) passing of time and on individual and social memory.

To conclude, the Abadan shown and seen today online is connected to, but is not altogether of the historical past. Despite significant ontological, temporal and sociopolitical shifts, the Abadan ‘as was’ occupies a tangible material space in present lives – on laptops, mobile phones and social media feeds – through which it connects to an unfolding ‘as is/as could be’. These processes excavate Abadan from the vaults of the private mind, and of the historical archive, into an online, or rather an onlife engagement, brought about by real people and their collective investments of time, emotion and desire. As with any engagement with history, this revisiting of the past is of the here and now; it is funneled through and refracted by wider experiences of migration and rupture, as well as broader personal, familial and social aspirations. The past here is therefore not an entirely ‘foreign country’. The confluence of these virtual processes have rendered Abadan a ‘phoenix from the ashes’; amidst the embers of images and identities, an already very ‘virtual’ city – entombed in nostalgia and memory, and loaded with symbolic capital – materialises online digitally, in conversation with the wider renaissance of actual Abadan of today, if indeed it ever truly ‘died’.

References

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Assmann, A. (2008). Canon and Archive: The Dynamics of Cultural Memory between Remembering and Forgetting. In Erill, A. and Nünning, A. (eds.), Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook,97-108. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, W.

Boym, S. (2001). The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books.

Connerton, P. (1989). How Societies Remember. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Damandan, P. (2004). Portrait Photographs from Isfahan: Faces in Transition, 1920-1950. London and The Hague: Saqi and Prince Claus Fund Library.

Day Good, K. (2012). ‘From Scrapbook to Facebook: A History of Personal Media Assemblage and Archives’. New Media and Society, 0(0): 1-17.

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Ehsani, K. (2003). ‘Social Engineering and the Contradictions of Modernization in Khuzestan’s Company Towns: A Look at Abadan and Masjed-e Soleyman’.International Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, 28: 361-399.

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Garner, J. (1984). The Model Company Town. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

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  1. For a relevant discussion of the cultural significance of historical photographs in identity politics on Facebook (albeit in an entirely different ethnographic context of Filipino users), see McKay (2010). 
  2. On (anthropology and) nostalgia – whereby nostalgia is defined in relation to the past, present and future ontologies – see Boym (2001) and Angé and Berliner (2014). 
  3. Ehsani (2003) employs the term ‘Company town’ in his comparative study of Abadan and Masjed-Soleyman based on its original conception in America at the turn of the 20th century. The term denotes towns ‘owned, designed, maintained and managed by a single company, state owned or private’, Garner (1984):6-7, cited in Ehsani (2003):362 
  4. On these aspects, and further discussion on domesticity and consumer culture in Abadan, see Karimi (2013):73-81. 
  5. http://theiranproject.com/blog/2014/01/13/nematollahi-tasked-with-setting-up-oil-museums/ 
  6. For relevant social historical overviews of the global development of amateur photography, see Murray (2008), Zimmerman (1995), Slater (1995). 
  7. These palaces had belonged to Sheikh Khaz’al during semi-autonomous Arab rule in Khuzestan province before 1925. 
  8. http://iranian.com/Abadan/2007/April/1958/(Accessed: 03/12/14). 
  9. To view the Schroeder photographs online, visit: http://via.lib.harvard.edu/via/deliver/advancedsearch?_collection=via 
  10. For the full text see: www.commoncoordinates.com/AbadanInThe50s/AbkhooTranslation.pdf(Accessed: 03/12/14). 
  11. Email correspondence with Paul Schroeder (Dec, 2015). 
  12. I thank Paul for sharing his thoughtful insights and connections with me, in addition to his family’s stories and photographs, during my PhD research and writing of this essay. 
  13. Insights from interviews conducted with ex-Abadanis in London (2013). 
  14. For further reading on this idea of the popular digital scrapbook/archive of photographs and memories on Facebook, see Day Good (2012), and her notion of ‘personal media assemblage’. 
  15. On the relationship between technology and magic, see arguments by anthropologist Genevieve Bell: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5aKZwKFFDYw
  16. For further insights on the notion of media and digital technologies becoming ‘landscaped’ and ‘emplaced’ with physical locations, see Pink and Hjorth (2012). 

 

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