The Oil City: “A Persian Story”

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Abbreviations inside brackets indicate sources which can be seen in the web/bibliography.

Abadan [refinery] employed 30,000 workers. Most were hired locally, although there were still 3,000 imported Palestinians and Indian laborers working there [in 1941]. Only 16 Iranians with British degrees had been inducted into middle management. Abadan’s upper administration was all British: 2,000 expatriates filling jobs that later [was discovered] only required about 150. Had so many come to Abadan to escape the war? [MF P87]

The division between the British and the rest of us was black and white. My first lesson in total segregation came as I waited to catch the bus back from the refinery to the Tabas’ house that evening. As the bus approached I flashed the pass I’d been given at the driver. “Not this bus, mate,” he shouted. “Mine’s a British bus. No Persians allowed.” Even though I was a VIP visitor, I had to wait. He shut the door in my face and moved on. What a bitter insult – and in my own country. [MF P87]

Abadan was like that: parallel worlds side by side on a salty, inhospitable island of barely over ten square miles. One world was closed off by law from the other; one rarely breached the other out of prejudice. Just as in India a British mercantile enterprise had developed into a colonial system so rigid and severe that no conquest of arms could ever match it. [MF P87]

Living conditions for most of AIOC’s non-British oil workers were extremely poor. The majority did not receive formal housing provisions and were left to live in “slum”-like environments on the periphery of the refinery…. The experience of Iranian laborers differed entirely from that of the British administrative personnel and technicians, and of a minority of Iranians hired for more technical positions or married to British staff. This latter group lived in a planned garden suburb pictured in Persian Story and known as Barwada. AIOC’s chief architect planned and built this neighborhood in the late 1940s as an experimental integrated residential area in the otherwise spatially and socially segregated oil city. In this garden suburb, selected non-European staff could live side-by-side in the same bungalow-style homes that Europeans had occupied in specially planned and isolated neighborhoods since the 1920s…. [F]rom early settlement until the 1950s, European staff lived in isolated bungalow areas mainly to the west of the refinery with their own system of buses, markets, cinemas, clubs, and so forth. To the east of the refinery, Iranian AIOC laborers were left to settle informally in a densely populated town with little services and infrastructure. Although some company housing was provided for Iranian staff, the great majority of company resources was poured into European staff housing. By 1951, when Abadan had more than 200,000 inhabitants (of which 65,000 were company employees), less than 20 percent lived in the planned residential districts where the AIOC provided housing. [MJ]

Wages were fifty cents a day. There was no vacation pay, no sick leave, no disability compensation. The workers lived in a shanty town called Kaghazabad, or Paper City, without running water or electricity, let alone such luxuries as iceboxes or fans. In winter, the earth flooded and became a flat, perspiring lake. The mud in town was knee-deep, and canoes ran alongside the roadways for transport. When the rains subsided, clouds of nipping, small-winged flies rose from the stagnant waters to fill the nostrils, collecting in black mounds along the rims of cooking pots and jamming the fans at the refinery with an unctuous glue. [MF pp184-5]

Summer was worse. It descended suddenly without a hint of spring. The heat was torrid, the worst I’ve ever known – sticky and unrelenting – while the wind and sandstorms whipped off the desert hot as a blower. The dwellings of Kaghazabad, cobbled from rusted oil drums hammered flat, turned into sweltering ovens. The temperature climbed to 130 degree F in the shade. At the refinery the boilers and open flares stoked the already sizzling air another 20 or 30 degrees; at the wells the exposed piping literally boiled. In every crevice hung the foul, sulfurous stench of burning oil – a pungent reminder that every day twenty thousand barrels, or one million tons a year, were being consumed indiscriminately for the functioning of the refinery, and AIOC never paid the government a cent for it. [MF p185]

To the management of AIOC in their pressed ecru shirts and air-conditioned offices, the workers were faceless drones – just as they were in the meatpacking plants outside Chicago, the coal mines of Wales and the sweatshops of Hong Kong. The habits of the “natives” – eating food with their hands, for example – disgusted the British officials. Not only were the British blissfully unaware that their own customs – eating with a fork that had at one point been in someone else’s mouth – were in turn considered unclean and uncouth by the Persians, but they failed to see that fresh water for the workers to wash their hands before and after their meals was therefore critical. Piping water to Kaghazabad so that it could be wasted on foolish ablutions was not in the company plans. And so the workers were reduced to getting their water from pumps that ran only a few hours a day, and their lives became a constant fight against the very filth that their superiors so witheringly condemned. [MF p185]

In the British section of Abadan there were lawns, rose beds, tennis courts, swimming pools and clubs; in Kaghazabad there was nothing – not a tea shop, not a bath, not a single tree. The tiled reflecting pool and shaded central square that were part of every Iranian town, no matter how poor or dry, were missing here. The unpaved alleyways were emporiums for rats. The man at the grocery shop sold his wares while sitting in a barrel of water to avoid the heat. Only the shriveled, mud-brik mosque in the old quarter offered hope in the form of divine redemption. Even British forign secretary Ernest Bevin felt compelled to remark in 1946 that “although we have a Socialist Government in this country, there is no reflection of that fact in the social conditions [of] this great oil production in Persia.” [MF p185]

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  1. […] exclusively for them while the Iranian oil labourers and other natives lived in abject poverty in shanty towns built on toxic land devoid of clean water which the British considered a luxury not necessary for […]

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