In the morning Hossein Afshar conducted a tour of Abadan, and there is no one who knows more about the city.
We crossed Breim, pausing briefly at his old house, and reached the northern shore of the island, passing the AIOC artisans’ dwellings. Built back from the coast they were denied the cooling breezes from the Gulf, but received the refinery fumes in compensation. Like the houses in Breim some were empty and decaying. A little further on the bridge to Khorramshahr was closed. The surrounding area had grown up more recently and was little more than a shanty town with a tatty fly-blown market. We followed the coast westwards to a bridge under construction and then headed down the other side of Breim.
Here we would have seen the biggest and most imposing houses, but this area was within easy range of Iraqi artillery. During the Imposed War (or the Iran-Iraq War as we usually call it) the Iraqis invaded and occupied Khorramshahr, but never came onto Abadan Island, contenting themselves with lobbing shells across the Shatt-al-Arab. Most of the buildings still lay in ruins, the house of AIOC’s top man in Abadan, later a residence of the Shah, was a burnt-out shell.
The road ended in a bank two metres high. Beyond was the river and beyond that Iraq, a land the authorities did not want us to see or even think about. Police stations and army posts were much in evidence and I had to take great care how I used my camera.
Nearby, the Gymkhana Club was once the watering hole of the Abadan elite. During the 1951 riots much was made of the sign outside saying ‘No Dogs, No Iranians.’ ‘It never existed,’ Mr Afshar said. ‘It was invented for propaganda purposes.’ Despite its once well-stocked bar, the club looks like a village hall which should be somewhere else, but is held hostage in Abadan by a high fence and formidable iron gates.
The Church of England chapel had been destroyed long ago, though whether by neglect or malice was uncertain, and the gravestones in the expatriate graveyard were largely illegible. N hurriedly stopped me taking photographs as the church backed onto a police station and I was being watched by suspicious eyes.
We left Breim and passed the refinery. Here the road came to the water’s edge so the authorities could not prevent views of Iraq. Across the river was a green land fringed with palm trees, it hardly looked a threat to world security.
Planning their leave in 1951, my parents felt that their infant son should be gently acclimatised to the rigours of the north European climate. My mother and I left early, taking the slow route aboard the BP tanker ‘British Patriot’; my father flew out later. The jetty from which I embarked on the tanker is still there, if unused and unloved.
The refinery bristled with ‘No Photographing’ signs and watchful guards, so I held my camera by my knees, raising it for an instant as we passed the jetty. Then we turned round and I did it again in case the first one missed. ‘Once more,’ I thought ‘and we’ll be arrested as spies.’ I did not dare photograph the refinery itself, once the biggest in the world but now running at only two thirds capacity.
As I had expected, the AIOC hospital was indeed opposite the AK[Keyvan] Hotel although I had failed to notice it yesterday. At the entrance, despite Hossein Afshar’s eloquent pleading, the gatekeeper would not let us into the grounds and told me not to take photographs. I ignored him.
Once a company nursing home, it is has grown into a large modern hospital. […]
Round the back of Abadan town Mr Afshar continued his commentary on the island’s development. He had been educated by the British and worked with them for many years and remained a (not-uncritical) anglophile.
Probably unaware of the ‘what have the Romans ever done for us’ sketch he described how the British had organised a piped water supply in Abadan years before Tehran had such a luxury, and built a reservoir of untreated water feeding a separate set of mains for irrigating the city’s parks and green spaces. The British built hospital had originally been British staffed but, he said, trained Iranian nurses who went on to work all over the country. The houses of Breim and Bawarda were British built (by Costains using bricks imported from Bahrain) so they did not fall down during the war – unless they took a direct hit – and Abadan had its own television station, the second in Iran (after Tehran, this time) long before there was a national network.
The British also provided Abadan with Iran’s first football pitch. Football has since become big, to say the least, and the rejoicing when Iran beat the USA in the 1998 World Cup Finals united the whole country. That original pitch now has a stadium round it, four neat little concrete grandstands that I estimated would seat some fifteen thousand spectators (update: the ground’s official capacity is now 25,000). Inside is the brightest, greenest grass in all of southern Iran. Sadly Sanat Naft, the Abadan team, were relegated from the top division of the national league last year and must spend next season in the second tier (update: they have been up and down several times since and are currently back in the second tier).
We continued to the distinctive buildings of the British built Abadan Technical Institute and then to the more recent Abadan Museum, which was closed.
Disappointed, we left the museum and almost immediately arrived at the Taj cinema …
…and the entrance to Bawarda.
In 1950 access was restricted to residents and, of course, their servants. We drove in unchallenged and after only fifty metres I saw the house. ‘There it is,’ I said confidently pointing to a building on our left. Mr Afshar instructed N to take the next right. As we passed I looked for a number; I saw a board with ‘SQ something’ on it, but the paint had peeled beyond legibility. We drove slowly round the block whilst Mr Afshar examined the numbers, but we saw no houses of the right design. After a complete circuit we were back to the house I had first identified and this time I saw, written on the plasterwork of the bay, the number 1495.
“That is it.” I said, this time with complete confidence.
“So it is,” said Mr Afshar. “You know I lived next door for three years, but that is 1553 so I always assumed this house was 1552 or 1554.” There was little he did not know about Abadan, but we had taught him something.
The residents of 1495 were away, but there were servants in the house; they were expecting us and invited us in.
The bay contained a large living room, unfurnished except for a Persian carpet. I immediately recognised the fireplace and mantelpiece from old photographs but the picture hung above was purely Iranian. Behind the bay was the bathroom. “That must be the original bath.” Mr Afshar sounded quite excited,.“It’s got no mixer taps. It must be British.”
Behind the bathroom was a kitchen or, more properly, a pantry because the real kitchen was in the servants’ quarters which were just across the courtyard. My mother had often spoken of ‘Ali and Nanny’ sitting in this courtyard in the evening, leaning against the wall sharing a hookah. My imagination had seen a larger courtyard – here, a tall man would hardly be able to stretch out his legs – but I mentally propped them over by the door, their hookah glowing brightly as dusk fell. The arrival of a child, particularly a boy, had discomforted this apparently contented childless couple. Much to his wife’s distress my birth prompted Ali to spend time in the bazaar trying to acquire a younger wife who could bear him boy children. Polygamy was not, and still is not, illegal in Iran though the practice has all but died out. Ali never carried through on his threat.
There was a dining room opposite the bay and two bedrooms behind, but there was no furniture in the house other than three fridges, two of them in the back bedroom waiting to be unpacked.
There were several children, a youngish man and an older woman who were milling round smiling. The older woman produced glasses of iced cherry juice and we stood around, sipping and smiling lamely at each other. The cooling system was not switched on and the house was over-warm and smelled of damp. It was tatty and run down, inside and out. Mr Afshar apologised for the state of the building, he could not understand the lack of furniture and seemed a little embarrassed.
Lunch was offered, which is the Persian way, and declined on our behalf by Mr Afshar, which is also the Persian way – you must offer three times if you really mean it (and decline three times, if necessary). Hands were shaken and we went outside for more photographs. There was still a eucalyptus on the front lawn, not the same one as in 1950 and not in quite the same place but close enough to approximately recreate the photograph on which my mother had written ‘My baby, my Eucalyptus’. Here I am standing, as close as I can to the very sod on which my father stood.
Bawarda was designed by James Mollison Wilson as a garden suburb, a direct descendant of Hampstead by way of New Delhi where he had been an assistant to Lutyens. My first home was a house with no architectural parallel anywhere I know, in an Anglo-Indian style village tacked onto the end of an Arab town itself tacked on to a Persian country. No wonder I was confused about where I came from.
After what seemed only a few minutes it was time to move on. I wanted to linger but I could think of nothing to justify extending our stay; I could not just stand and stare at the house. As we drove away I turned in my seat, watched SQ 1495 slip into the distance and helplessly grasped at the sands of time as they slipped through my fingers.
I was sad to see so much decay and dereliction in both Bawarda and Breim. Bawarda was built to house both Iranian and European staff, but this innovative experiment in racial mixing failed, partly because Iranians did not want to live in Bawarda and partly because the Europeans did not want them there.
James Mollison Wilson had assumed that Iranians living in Bawarda would ‘desire British conventions of domestic life,’ and the houses were designed ‘along the lines of a European house with such modifications as climatic conditions impose.’ Northern Europeans live inside their houses; people in the much warmer Middle East tend to live in enclosed courtyards around their houses. Where Wilson went wrong was to build houses to live inside, and as the damp in SQ 1495 proved, he badly underestimated ‘the modifications that climatic differences impose.’ Building goes on apace across Abadan while houses in Breim and Bawarda remain empty, and no attempt has been made to repair the war-damaged dwellings. European style houses clearly fail to meet local needs.
We returned to our hotel via the centre of Abadan town which in contrast to Breim and Bawarda looked prosperous in an Arabic sort of way. A mosque and the Armenian Church were companionably semi-detached – a model that could usefully be followed elsewhere – and there were large well-maintained banks and shops selling heavy gold jewellery as well as the more usual stalls.
In the evening Mr Afshar took us for a brief tour of Khorramshahr . Saddam Hussein invaded Iran on the 22nd of September 1980 and Khorramshahr was in Iraqi hands by the end of the year. They swept on round the north of Abadan Island, but for reasons which are unclear they made no assault on Abadan and no attempt to cut the last bridge. Abadan remained in Iranian hands and connected to the mainland throughout the occupation. The Iraqis fought street by street to take Khorramshahr and in 1982 the Iranians regained it the same way. There was not a building that was not damaged or destroyed. I had been impressed by the smart new buildings as we drove through yesterday. Now I realised that had been the new section of town, the rest looked dishevelled with splatterings of bullet holes over the face of any building that was not new.
Hossein Afshar might have once been the mayor of Khorramshahr but after so much enforced rebuilding he had difficulty finding his way around. After some circling we reach the corniche beside the Karun that was built when he was mayor.
On the far side was Abadan island and on its shore old ships had been brought to die. Rusting hulks by the dozen, launches, fishing boats, coasters were tied up by the jetties or hauled onto the land where they sat and rotted. If we looked right to where the Karun met the Shatt-al-Arab there was the coast of Iraq, its date palms green against the sky.
My father learned only just in time that if I was not registered with the British Consulate within three weeks of my birth I would automatically become an Iranian citizen and they would have difficulty taking me home. He hurried up from Abadan with Abed, his driver, and presented himself at the now long-vanished building. They gave him the birth certificate I still have, half a yard long and covered with enough official stamps to convince any observer that I was a subject of the British King George VI, not of Muhammad Reza Shah.
I photographed Mr Afshar on the corniche pointing at the empty lot where the consulate had been. There this story ends, in the very same place that it officially started in September 1950
We took Mr Afshar back to the airport.
I had set out to find SQ 1495, or at least the site where it once stood. Thanks to BP-Amoco and the generosity of Hossein Afshar I had accomplished that and much more besides.
I had also wanted to find out something about my father who died during the initial planning. We had never found it easy to talk and in some ways I hardly knew him. I could not put into words exactly what I had learned, but it felt significant.
As we parked I tried to find the right words to bid farewell to Hossein Afshar, but as I searched my voice thickened and my final “thank you” sounded lame.
We shook hands. He turned and walked off towards the terminal.