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Social engineering and the contradictions of modernization in Khuzestan's oil company towns, Abadan and Masjed-Soleyman
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Kaveh Ehsani
February 15, 2005

This essay is a comparative study of the design and social impact of Abadan and Masjed-Soleyman, the first and most important oil towns built in Khuzestan by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC). The construction of these company towns almost a century ago forms an important chapter in the history of modernization and urbanization in Iran. As a result of this experience a new model of social engineering and hierarchic modernization was introduced into Iranian social life by powerful actors that included transnational capital, the central state, and professional elites.

Company town, a term coined in turn of the century United States where this urban form proliferated more than elsewhere, refers to a town owned, designed, maintained, and managed by a single company - state owned or private [1]. This distinction by exclusive ownership is meant to set company towns apart from other industrial or mining urban areas. Industrial cities, such as Detroit or Manchester, despite the predominance of a major industry, could not be exactly labeled company towns because the presence of a number of competing employer firms undermined the ability of any one of them to impose its singular will on the urban space in the way that that monopoly ownership affords the unique proprietor of a company town, such as Pullman-Illinois, or Lakewood-California [2].

Of the two major aims pursued in the course of the establishment of company towns the first, which is concerned with housing the labor force, is transparent and self-evident. But the second, which is to use the carefully designed urban space for training, monitoring, controlling, and in short socializing this labor force according to the demands of the company, is less explicitly attended to [3].

In Iran the history of modern urbanization has been inextricably tied to the activities of the Anglo Persian Oil Company (APOC). The oil cities of Abadan, Masjed-Soleyman, and at least 6 other sister towns [4]) designed and constructed by APOC in the first quarter of the 2oth Century in Khuzestan, were the first modern and industrial towns in Iran and the Middle East. Overtime, these cities came to occupy a special place as a model and inspiration for this type of urbanization in the country as other large industrial conglomerates (mostly state owned) replicated this segregated and hierarchic urban design in the company towns they built, a practice that continues to this day [5].

In this chapter I will discuss the history and experience of the oil company towns of Khuzestan, focusing on Masjed-Soleyman and Abadan, the first, largest, and most complex of these cities. Aside from the inherent fascination of looking closely at this formative experience this study can also allow us to pose several other related concerns, the importance of which may well transcend the mere study of an historical urban form in Iran:

First, if it is true as I claimed earlier that some of the main features and practices of this type of urban design have become 'nativized' overtime and tend to be utilized and referred to on a routine basis then we must conclude that the important changes that have taken place in the political sphere in the course of this past century have not seriously affected the norms, outlooks, and approaches to development and modernization.

It goes without saying that this experience has not been unique to Khuzestan and Iran since most post-colonial states have tended to adopt models and institutions of the previous era, legitimated by being labeled 'national', and subsequently used as instruments of governance and rule by the new state [6]. In addition, this reference to the period of direct European hegemony is also repeated on numerous occasions in the process of planning new developmental policies, which use similar methods, approaches and even criteria [7].

What can be deducted from this experience is that even profound changes in the political sphere do not automatically bring the subjectivity and the outlook that shapes social engineering to critical questioning [8]. The root of this subjectivity cannot be discovered in the political sphere alone, but rather in the more opaque and impersonal layers of the technocracy and bureaucracy that together form the state machinery, and in the weltanschauung of educated and professional elites [9].

Second, the continuity of the relevance of these models of social engineering should logically lead to a closer look at their original formation, or the colonial period. Modern colonialism involves the coercive domination of an alien power whose primary aim is the unaccounted extraction of material and human resources of a subjugated society. Although Iran has not been a modern colony at any time nevertheless the humiliating influence and hegemonic domination of APOC has always been locally interpreted as a colonial experience [10].

The control and ownership of oil resources was, from the onset, a national concern for Iran. At every major related historical juncture when negotiations and conflict redrew the balance of power over the possession and control of petroleum resources - from the D'Arcy Concession of 1908, to the 1919 and 1930 agreements, the oil nationalization movement of 1950's, the post coup d'etat Consortium, the OPEC Cartel formation and the price hikes of 1970's, and eventually the Islamic revolution of 1978 - we have been witnessing a greater share of the control and possession of oil resources gradually pass onto the hands of the Iranian State [11].

Nevertheless, if we were to shift our perspective from the 'national' vintage point, i.e., from the point of view of the central state, and look at the institution of the 'Oil Company' from the point of view of the local society, i.e., Khuzestan, then it would be legitimate to ask how much in fact the relation of power that has existed between these two over the past century has actually changed overtime?

For the local society in Khuzestan the powerful institution that controls the petroleum resources of this province may have undergone many metamorphoses, from the Anglo Persian to the Anglo Iranian to the National Iranian Oil Companies and eventually to the Petroleum Ministry, but it has always remained an awesome, forbidding, mysterious, and secretive presence which has been beyond local reach and control.

For local society this institution continues to appear as a mysterious and alien empire which miraculously extracts local resources and riches and transports them elsewhere without benefiting the local society in any way aside from the wages paid to its employees. The resulting wealth ends up being accumulated in other locations, i.e. in the distant and alien places where decisions about this local society are also made, be it London or Tehran!

In other words, the relationship of power that has taken shape between the local society and the political system in power, whether a central national state or an occupying foreign power, has not been fundamentally altered despite the significant political changes that have taken place. This relationship of power demands separate and autonomous analysis if for no other reason than the relationship between an independent and centralized 'national' state and its own internal communities can be as exploitative and 'colonialist' as the domination by an alien power [12].

Third, an analysis of oil towns would inevitably require closer attention to their raison d'être: the oil industry and economy, and their role in both shaping and creating these cities as well as in the larger national trends and events. Some thirty years ago Hossein Mahdavi published an essay titled “The patterns and problems of economic development in rentier states”, which is still referred to as a classic intervention in the field of comparative political economy. In this essay, using David Ricardo's theory of rent, Mahdavi analyzed the impact of oil revenues on the economic as well as the political sectors of Iran and other oil producing nations [13].

Undoubtedly the 'rentier state' theory has played an important role in the clarification and the political economic analysis of oil producing societies. On the other hand, like any theory, it is in need of further modifications and critical reassessment [14]. Here I will briefly pose two criticisms, which are related to our present topic: first, the relation between state and society is far more complex and involved than the financial interdependence. The primarily functionalist approach of the 'rentier state' theory has difficulty in both explaining exceptions, such as democratic Norway [15], or the popular democratic reform movement currently taking place in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

It would be also difficult to explain why despite generous distribution of rent, some passive societies suddenly produce sustained social protest movements, unless such political upheavals are explained away as a sudden fiscal and financial crisis, brought about by either drastic falls in oil revenues, or in the pattern of rent distribution by the state [16]. Neither of these explanations has been convincing in explaining the occurrence of the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

But the second criticism I will level at this theory is perhaps more pertinent to the topic at hand: The focus of this theory on the state's sources of revenue has limited its analytical scope to the macro economy, thus preventing it from taking a more serious empirical look at the role of oil industry itself, and the crucial role it has played in Iran's social history. The claim that despite its enormous weight in the national political economy the oil industry has employed only a tiny fraction of the national labor force should not automatically lead to neglecting the important role that this labor force has played in the social, economic, and political history of labor in Iran.

In 1951, when the oil nationalization movement was taking shape, the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (AIOC, the renamed APOC) had nearly 80 thousand Iranian workers, employees, and contractors on its payroll [17], which was a very substantial portion of the national industrial labor force at the time. I do not currently have comparable figures for this year, but we know that five years later in 1956, i.e. after the fall of the Mossadegh government following the American-British Coup d'Etat of 1953, and the establishment of the oil consortium, and the subsequent downsizing and rationalization of the employment structure of the newly established National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) employment in the oil sector had dropped to 25 thousand, while total national employment in 'modern' large industries (defined as those firms employing more than 12 workers) totaled 60 thousand [18].

Employment in the oil sector increased gradually with the rise in production, but as a result of technological improvements and higher efficiency the figures did not exceed 55 thousand, in 1977 at the time of the revolution, while employment in large industries during this period experienced a rapid growth reaching 415 thousand people [19].

Despite the relative decline of the share of oil sector workers in the total industrial labor force we can still see that employment in this industry has always been a significant and considerable segment of the modern, and skilled working class employed in heavy industries. Our aim here is not to simply stress the numbers, but to also draw attention to the importance of the culture, organizational ability and experience, and the complex work ethic that the labor force of this modern, well-established, and highly competitive industry had accumulated over a long time. In other words, despite its relative decline in numbers, the oil sector continues to be, to date, probably the most advanced and competitive large industry in the country, thanks to its long history and experience!

This maturity and ability is not limited to organizational and productive abilities, but at many junctures has also had political manifestations. In other words, despite the fact that high wages and salaries, as well as relative job security by 1970's had turned the oil industry's labor force into something of a labor aristocracy [20], nevertheless this affluence and security did not prevent it from being rapidly attracted to national protests and political goals that transcended its limited guild interests.

In 1977-8 the industrial working class, which occupied a strategic place in the national economy despite its numerically small size, played a key role through its mass strikes in the success of the Revolution. Among this class the workers and employees of the oil industry played the key role by first shutting off the pipelines and suspending all production and exports. After the collapse of the monarchy they succeeded in restarting production and exports without the help of foreign experts, an unprecedented and quite significant event in the Third World [21].

In his study of the labor syndicates during the revolution Assef Bayat points out that what set the workers' committees in the oil industry apart was their sustained autonomy and self-confidence, which allowed them to resist the encroaching 'islamization' which co-opted the other labor organizations. This independence led to increasing conflicts with the fledgling Provisional Government in Tehran.

In November 1979 the US embassy was seized in Tehran, just as a new wave of labor, ethnic, and student unrest was escalating. A violent wave of islamization of educational and workplaces, dubbed as 'Cultural Revolution', was launched in April of 1980. In this tempestuous atmosphere the Iraqi invasion of September 1980 suddenly overshadowed other internal contradictions. More pertinent to our subject here, the Iraqi invasion led to the immediate physical destruction of Abadan and the neighboring port city of Khorramshahr, and the forced dispersal of their populations across the country as refugees.

This forced and violent break in the history of these cities leads us to ask the legitimate question that if such a total destruction had not taken place in a major, strategic industrial city like Abadan would the course of Iran's history in the following two decades have taken another shape? The population of Abadan had a strong sense of identity, as we shall see later, rooted in a rich and somewhat unique history. Despite the repressive nature of the post 1953 nonarchic regime, this ability was manifested in the ability of Abadanis to form the nuclei of autonomous civil institutions, primarily trade unions, as soon as the opportunity presented itself again in late 1970s.

The struggle for establishing popular and independent institutions of civil society is what the Iranian society is striving for even today. Had the oil workers' attempts to defend their independent institutions against co-optation not been disrupted by war, not such an unlikely possibility given their strategic role and symbolic weight in the economy, would they have been able to set an example and create a center of gravity inspiring the emergence of similar institutions in other civil and public arenas, subsequently limiting the expanding sphere of state's hegemony? [22] These are speculative, but not unfounded questions, meant to point out the range of missed historical possibilities, but also the potentialities that a large company town like Abadan had opened up at a certain point in time.

Fourth, it is likely that the above questions may sound surprising, but I think that if they do, it is because the role of 'space' and 'place' are by and large neglected in most social studies. Social movements, relations, and developments do not take place in a void, but are shaped in specific locales and material and physical places. This 'space' of social interaction is a product of social relationships, but at the same time it becomes an inseparable organic component of their process of development.

Two decades ago the urban population of Iran, for the first time in history, surpassed 50% of the total population. In a coincidence this symbolic passage to a predominantly urban society happened at the same time that the Iranian Revolution took place. This urbanized society is the product of a contradictory modernity, which has also brought about fundamental changes in the political structures of the country.

To better understand and analyze this modernity and the many forces that had shaped it one needs also to look at the spaces that this modernity has created. In other words, we need to ask what types of cities has this urbanized society produced? What types of urbanization? And what forms of citizenships?

The modernity that has shaped the contemporary Iranian society, like modernity elsewhere, and modernity itself, has not been a uniform and homogeneous process. It has been continuously contested, struggled over, seduced and enticed, forced and resisted by an array of social actors. We can capture the reflection and embodiment of this conflicted modernity, its momentary congealment, in the spaces it has produced.

The rest of this chapter is an attempt to analyze a specific type of place, the oil company towns of Khuzestan, which happen to have played a significant role in modern urbanization in Iran.

Archeology of company towns in Iran
From a historical and geographic standpoint, the cities of Abadan and Masjed-Soleyman have been the center and heart of the oil industry in Iran. In many ways the history and experience of their creations is unique and fascinating.

In the first place, these were the first thoroughly modern cities in Iran. After the discovery of oil in Masjed Soleyman by employees of the D'Arcy Concession in 1908 the Anglo Persian Oil Company (APOC) was incorporated in London. Within four years the foundations of the cities of Abadan and Masjed Soleyman were laid in practically unpopulated regions of Khuzestan.

Abadan was a large mud flat island, situated in the estuary of Tigris-Euphrates-Karun rivers, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. The island had an estimated population of some twenty four thousand Bani-Kaab Arab tribesmen, tending sheep and cultivating date palms. This population was dispersed throughout the island in a number of villages [23]. Similarly, Masjed Soleyman was a mountainous region in the northeast of the province, and the site of seasonal grazing by Bakhtiari nomads.

In a pattern established two centuries earlier by the East India Company in South Asia, APOC initially leased limited amount of land in both locations from the Bakhtiari Khans and the Sheykh of Mohammarah (later Khorramshahr). It then began building these cities with the sole purpose of exploration, extraction, transport, refining, storage, and export of oil. Soon, these towns became the focal centers of a new geography that transformed the landscape of Khuzestan and became the site of the concentration of people and labor power employed in this rising global industry.

In a short time, the newly founded city of Abadan became the country's fifth largest city, and its population of 225,000 surpassed that of Shiraz by the end of the Second World War in 1945. For several decades APOC ranked as the largest employer in the country, and its workforce exceeded the total number of those employed in all the private manufacturing establishments [24].

APOC did not invent the company town. At least from the first quarter of nineteenth century large capitalist firms in industrial countries - especially in the US, but also in Britain, France, Germany, and even Russia - had been involved in providing residence and some amenities, but also building whole towns in isolated and distant locations to house their labor force [25]. But this urban form began to undergo significant modifications in the last quarter of nineteenth century.

The historic period of 1870's to 1914 augured something of a paradigm shift in modern history. The political, economic, social, and geographic organization of the capitalist world and its dependencies, its mode of regulation and regime of accumulation, underwent significant shifts following a series of interrelated crises and reorganizations and adjustments, setting the stage for the next phase that dramatically ended with the Second World War [26].
Western World and its dominions were entering a new phase of progress and complexity.

The new era called forth a new level and form of management, discipline, and regulation. This vast and highly integrated 'system' needed to be steered with appropriate competence and knowledge, through a course that would ensure both its expansion and survival, as well as the collective interest of both the ruling bourgeoisie and the general population. Insuring moderation, 'equilibrium', and general happiness and universal satisfaction increasingly become the acclaimed goals of the more farsighted segments of the elites (this would also include many leaders of social democratic movements).

The responsibility for this social engineering and management falls to an emerging layer of professional elites, produced by the newly reformed universities and professional training institutions. From this period onward, the design and conceptualization of company towns (called industrial towns in England) increasingly falls to these professionals. The results of their efforts drastically differ from the filthy and atrocious industrial towns of the previous era, which had led to continuous misery of workers and numerous revolts, in two major respects [27].

First, the idea and principles of general 'welfare' gained an important place in the design of the company towns of the 20th century [28]. In other words, the urban space itself was designed as an instrument that allowed the company proprietor not only to house its workers but, through 'scientific' design and planning by professional specialists [29] in the field, and through continuous intervention in all aspects of the quotidian life of this labor force and their families, to mold them into a skilled and efficient, but also docile, 'happy', and modern 'human capital'.

The second factor which shaped and reformed the design of new company towns was colonialism. As mentioned before, in the period under discussion (1870's-1914) colonialism had also entered a new phase where, in addition to the extraction of cheap and abundant raw materials, the cheap labor of the colonies for producing semi-finished, or even industrial products, as well as the potential of colonial markets for absorbing mass produced products of the core countries in an increasingly integrated and competitive global market were being considered as key strategies.

An important advantage of the colonies was that it allowed technocrats and professional elites to experiment with new models of social engineering and spatial design which, for political reasons, would have been more difficult to implement in the home country. For that reason, the distinction between the 'West' and the rest that is routinely referred to in most social and political discourses must be taken with a grain of salt. After all, many of the experimentations in social engineering that paved the way for modernization in both western and third world societies were initially tried out in the colonies, and only after modification and proven results and safety, were replicated in the metropolitan countries [30].

In other words, the traffic of modernization efforts and experiments was dialectical and back and forth, albeit certainly not equal in terms of power and decision-making. As a result, the transnational corporate power who laid the foundations of the cities of Abadan and Masjed Soleyman in Khuzestan did not start from scratch as it had a tremendous wealth of complex and up to date historical and practical experience available to it from which it could freely draw. Consequently, the places that APOC produced in Khuzestan were the results of the latest experimentations of advanced industrial capitalism of the day in social engineering [31].

For this reason, Abadan and Masjed Soleyman, at least in their initial years, instead of sharing similarities with existing Iranian cities belonged to an international category of company towns that advanced industrial capitalism was producing in various locations on the globe. In these cities, or at least in the blueprints their designers had drawn, all unpredictable and spontaneous elements had been eliminated and, on the other hand, all details of collective as well as private life in the new urban space had been subjected to conscious planning and design. These designs were drawn at the corporations' headquarters, or in the offices of the professional planners. In other words, in distant places foreign to the locales where the towns were to be constructed, and by planners and designers who rarely had an empathetic knowledge and insight into the needs and characteristics of these local societies.

In Khuzestan, as in most other similar developments, the locations of the company towns had little to do with favorable environmental considerations, economic factors, or existing local communities, but were rather dictated by the requirements of the oil industry. Masjed Soleyman was founded around a series of remarkably productive oil wells, in the middle of barren mountains (home to only seasonal Bakhtiari nomads grazing their sheep), and Abadan in a marshy island, populated by tribesmen and palm trees, but which could also provided port access for tankers and cargo ships.

From the onset Abadan, Masjed Soleyman and their smaller sister cities were frontier migrant towns. Their initial populations were mostly men who came from elsewhere, from diverse ethnic and regional backgrounds, in search of jobs and income. In this period Iran was taking its initial fledgling steps towards becoming a modern, centralized and integrated nation-state. The political atmosphere of the country was unstable and crisis ridden. The population was predominantly peasants and nomads.

Migrant workers in Khuzestan, which at the time was perhaps the most isolated, marginal, and also the wildest region in the country, hired themselves out to an advanced capitalist industrial corporation in exchange for money wages, selling their labor power in order to produce directly for the world market. Their continued settlement there, their occupation, the organization of their material and cultural lives, and the socialization of their households in these new places in a sense created a new ethnicity, a new sense of social identity: that of being an Abadani or a Masjed Soleymani.

This new sense of identity took shape as these towns were rapidly being constructed, with a steady stream of migrants feeding its labor demands. For the new migrants settling in the radically new and alien places also meant a break from their previous social and spatial settings. As a result, in the two and a half decades between 1912 and the occupation of Iran during the Second World War, when Abadan and Masjed Soleyman had already taken their mature shape, their diverse and heterogeneous populations had undergone a generation of being subjected to and shaped by new modes of organizing and ordering of their cultural and material lives, profound changes in their collective private and family lifestyles, and the education and molding of their young generations by the newly established educational, technical, and recreational institutions.

The modernity that laid the foundations of these company towns distinguished them, and especially Abadan, from the other historic Iranian cities, even Tehran the capital. From the Safavid period (16th century) to the fall of the Qajar dynasty (1926) the province of Khuzestan had come to be known as 'Arabistan', due to the increasing migration of various Arab Bedouin tribes there from the Arabian peninsula and Mesopotamia [33]. Khuzestan was a frontier territory with virtual autonomy from the central government.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, following the Constitutional Revolution (1906-11), numerous centrifugal forces began to gather momentum, leading the moribund Qajar dynasty onto its last march towards disintegration. This period was the nadir of central power in a decaying and ineffective feudal-tribal state. Sheykh Khaz'al of Mohammerah (later renamed Khorramshahr), who was also the Vaali or governor of the province, had become the most powerful provincial governor in the country, and only paid nominal allegiance to the Court and rarely sent the agreed upon taxes and tributes to Tehran.

At the time, the plains of Khuzestan were a distant and forbidding territory to the rest of the country, separated from the central plateau by the bulk of the Zagros mountain range, itself populated by unruly and 'wild' Kurd, Lur, Bakhtiari, Qashqai, and Kuhgalu tribesmen. Traveling the 750km distance between Tehran and Dezful, the province's northernmost and largest city at the time routinely took several weeks, and it was often safer to travel through Ottoman territory (Tehran-Kermanshah-Baqdad-Basrah), or sometimes through Russia and the sea route via Suez Canal (Tehran-Anzali-Baku-Black sea-Suez Canal-Persian Gulf-Mohammerah) to reach that destination! [33]

For Sheykh Khaz'al, the increasing presence of British merchants and officials in the Persian Gulf and his territory presented an opportunity for gaining protection and greater leverage from the central government. . Khaz'al saw the formal agreement between Britain and Sheykh Mubarak al Sabbah, the ruler of Kuwait, which put the latter under Britain's protection against the Ottoman Empire, as an ideal model for his own relations with APOC and the British government [34].

Both Khaz'al and the Bakhtiari Khans were seeking similar agreements that would define and protect their autonomy as well perhaps their eventual independence. Meanwhile, in 1908, the D'Arcy concession discovered its first, phenomenally productive oil well in Masjed Soleyman, and event that dramatically changed the balance of forces throughout the region. Shortly afterwards, the industrial cities of Abadan and Masjed Soleyman rose like Phoenix out of the hills and mud flats of Khuzestan.

In contradistinction to 'ordinary' cities, which tend to gradually come together as diverse cultures and economic activities collect together and complement each other, company towns are primarily founded on a much more singular purpose: to satisfy the unavoidable needs of a labor force (for shelter and reproduction) near locations where productive or natural resources owned and exploited by the Company are situated.

Consequently, the role of workers and the labor force in company towns is vital, both as agents of production of surplus value and accumulation as well as the very raison d'être for the construction of a company town in the first place. In Khuzestan, the Oil Company needed to attract its labor force to the region from the very onset. Skilled personnel and managers came from Europe, semi skilled and security staff from India and the Caucasus, and the unskilled from neighboring regions.

Industrial production demands a constellation of behaviors and disciplines, which are not limited to mere familiarity with modern machinery. In the first place, the industrial labor force must become familiar and incorporate time discipline in its body and soul. As E.P.Thompson persuasively argued in his classic essay on time discipline, the conception of time in an agrarian and pre-industrial society, as Khuzestan certainly was in that period, is the tempo of nature and agriculture. The rise and setting of the Sun, seasons' changing, and even fluctuations in climate dictate the tempo of pre-industrial life. Industrial time discipline, on the other hand, is imposed by two factors: first, the units of a clock, each of which is equal to the next and remains unaffected by natural fluctuations. Second, the penetration of markets and commercial relations, and the increasing calculation of social interactions and human needs by money [35].

The imposition of this industrial order of work and time discipline were among the very first and most critical tasks of the Oil Company in Khuzestan. According to Arnold Wilson, the British government's representative in the region at the time, “Food is so cheap that the Oil Company must, paradoxically, pay higher wages to get people to work at all. Men's needs are few and they are 'lazy'. In other words, their standard of living includes a large element of leisure, and who shall blame them?” [36].

Machine driven time discipline is the necessary basis of a complex division of labor and cooperation upon which the modern industrial order has been founded. The other leg of this productive system stands on the hierarchy that distinguishes its various interrelated components from one another - such as laborers, supervisors, managers, engineers, white collar staff, and the unemployed - assigning to each its specific place. The industrial system, coupled with a market economy is fundamentally a class-based system. Consequently, in the tribal and non-industrial society of Khuzestan at the time the oil company had to, de facto, forge these class relations and identities to replace the only hierarchies that were in place, between Khans, Sheykhs, peasants, and white beards [37].

In order to mold a raw and unskilled labor force into proper 'human capital' fit to function in a modern advanced industry, it is necessary to first separate it from its existing social and physical environment and then to reshape it like clay in the hands of a skilled sculptor, through various mechanisms ranging from training, encouragement, seduction, to imposed new material conditions, disciplining, enforced insecurity and alienation [38]. In other words, in a process similar to the formation of any other form of capital, raw and unskilled labor power needs a primary accumulation and investment of capital, followed by continuous circulation, use, and maintenance, and reinvestment.

The ironic paradox of the capitalist industrial order is, on the one hand, in its need for a skilled and cheap labor force capable of operating the expensive and complex manufacturing machinery, which requires the coordination and simultaneous collaboration of many, juxtaposed on the other hand to the fact that the production and maintenance of this cheap labor force itself is an expensive undertaking, and requires heavy and continuous investments [39]. Consequently, the company town, from the point of view of the company itself, is like a second factory, built next to the main plant (oil wells and refineries in our specific case here), for the production of the other essential component of the production process, namely labor power. The physical spaces of company towns, as we shall see later, are specifically designed with these goals in mind and, therefore, are highly charged symbolically and ideologically.

After the 1857 Indian uprising against the East India Company, the British government took charge of the Subcontinent and its colonial rule entered a new phase of direct rule. One of the important instruments of British colonial rule in India was the design, renovation, or outright founding of colonial cities, such as Calcutta, Bombay, Simla, Madras, and New Delhi [40]. At roughly the same period in the British Isles urban reforms and experimentations, together with innovative housing provisions had come to rank among the highest priorities for philanthropies and social reformers, socialist politicians, and farsighted industrialists. Suburbanization, blockhouse buildings, new industrial towns, and half implemented visionary schemes like Garden Cities were changing the urban landscape of Britain.

Across the Atlantic American industrialists as well as social engineers (architects, urban planners, social scientists, public health officials, concerned politicians, and other technocrats) were also impressed by the bold and paternalistic design of Pullman Illinois and other such experiments in top-down socio-spatial reforms. Across the Channel, after the unsettling experiences of Haussmann's reshaping of Paris in the 1850's and 60's, followed by the trauma of the Commune in the 1870's, French social engineers had a more constricted field for implementing their reformist and experimental designs at home. Their most talented and ambitious members were compelled to flock to the colonies to give free rein to their ideas [41].

By 1914 innovations in urban design had become an accepted and crucial instrument of urban reform and social engineering in the capitalist world and its dominions. But APOC, a rather sober and tight fisted private commercial outfit, partly owned by the Scotsmen of the Burma Oil Company, had little inclinations for such ambitious undertakings. What it was first and foremost interested in was to ensure and maintain its profit margins.

APOC has often been accused of entertaining colonialist designs, especially after its dispute with the nationalist government of Mossadegh led to its direct confrontation with the government of Iran and the oil nationalization disputes, the embargo imposed on Iran by the government of Britain, and finally the 1953 Coup d'Etat. But the truth of matter seems to be that APOC harbored little political appetite, and that it at no point was, wanted, nor could be another East India Company. In Khuzestan APOC had discovered a goose that was generously laying golden eggs for it. The dilemma was to keep the goose going, by preventing it from getting more restless or demanding. The awkward and heavy handed actions of APOC over the four decades it maintained a monopoly over the oil resources of Khuzestan should be seen in that light.

Nevertheless, the company had no choice but to house its workers. The choice of location for the founding of Abadan and Masjed Soleyman was dictated by the logistics of technical needs of the industry - meaning the extraction, transport, storage, refining, distribution, and export of oil and its derivatives - and not the social and environmental requirements of the staff and the workforce. These cities were built in isolated and rugged locales, but eventually this geographic isolation itself became an important instrument for separating the workforce from their previous physical and social environments, and for molding and shaping them through mechanisms we shall describe later [42].

After the initial historical experience of constructing these cities the practice of isolating company towns from existing centers of population became a common and regular feature of this type of urban design everywhere in Iran.

As mentioned before, the practice of designing industrial and company towns had, by the first quarter of the 20th century, become an international professional occupation. Urban design specialists had access to and used their colleagues and predecessors' experiences and theories through university education, specialized journals and publications, multinational conferences, and competitive international projects and commissions.

In the initial plans of Abadan and Masjed Soleyman one can detect the traces of two different, but complementary influences, i.e., industrial urban design in Europe and America as well as in the colonies. Consequently, from the onset Khuzestan's company towns were 'dual cities' [43], in the sense that their original geographies were designed so as to divide the city into several segregated spaces.

To begin with, there were the 'formal' and the 'informal' cities, the former designed and constructed by the company and remained under its maintenance and management, the latter growing side by side with the formal town, and in spite of the company's desires, by migrants, workers, and dwellers attracted to the new city. The 'formal' company town was further subdivided into strictly hierarchic and segregated spaces, while the 'informal' city was an amalgam of styles, cultures, and social groups.

This glaring contradiction within and between these spaces -between the formal and informal spaces, the legal and subversive, the ordered and disciplined and the chaotic and lively, rich and poor, modern and hybrid, controlled and repressed and anarchic and spontaneous - overtime came to define the character of these company towns >>> Page 2
>>> Endnotes

Kaveh Ehsani is a member of the editorial board of Goft-o-Gu quarterly (Tehran). This paper first appeared in the International Review of Social History (IRSH 48:2003, pp.361-399). Earlier versions of this paper were presented to Middle East Studies Association, 1998, Chicago; and at the conference on 'Iran: Social History from Below', at the International Institute for Social History, Amsterdam, in 2001. A written version in Persian was first published in Goft-o-Gu (No.25, 1999). He would like to thank Touraj Atabaki, Norma Moruzzi, Setenyi Shami, Morad Saghafi, Ahmad Maydari, and Kaveh Bayat for their intellectual influence, comments, and friendship.

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Kaveh Ehsani

... qabaayel-e Arab dar Khuzestan
Arab settlements in Khuzestan
Amir-Hussain Khunji




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