Memories of an American boy
>>> Photo essay: Abadan in the '50s
April 27, 2007
This essay aims to provide some background for the photos taken in Abadan in the late '50s taken by my father, Charles Schroeder. Some general features of the expatriate experience in Abadan will be given here along with some more personal reminiscences. My father is now a robust 96 and lives in the suburbs of Chicago, the city where he grew up and which is still home base for our extended family – though I live in Maine now. My sister Ellen, who lived a year in Abadan, also lives near Chicago. My mother Lois passed away about 10 years ago. [Also see part 2 of this phot essay: Khuzestan 1958-1960]
My father has given the ok for publication of the photos and for me to write about our time there. His slides were taken with an Argus C3 camera, bought specially for the trip. He has about 450 slides taken in various parts of Iran. Of these, about half are from Abadan. The photos posted here are about 2/3 of the Abadan group. We appreciate Mr. Javid's interest in publishing these materials. Readers are invited to let me know where my memory has gone astray.
In 1957 my father applied for an assignment within his company, Socony Vacuum (since then Mobil, now Exxon Mobil) to work in Iran. He got it, and in February, 1958 he traveled to Abadan, where he was head of the refinery's payroll department for two years. My mother, sister and I joined him there after the spring school term, in June. I stayed there until he left in February 1960. My mother was there most of that time except for a couple of months when she traveled back to the US with my sister, who finished her senior year of high school at home. My 12th birthday was a couple of months after we arrived in Abadan.
Socony owned about 1/7 of the “consortium” that had secured the rights to refine and market Iran's oil. As one of the operating companies, Socony had the obligation to send some of the managers and engineers who staffed the Abadan refinery. The consortium's official name was Iranian Oil Refining Company, IORC. The other major entity involved in the Iranian oil industry was the oil producing company, which was owned by the Iranian government. It was called the NIOC, the National Iranian Oil Company. The NIOC pumped oil out of the ground and sold it to the IORC, which refined and distributed it via the partner companies. These were the successors to the earlier AIOC, Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which controlled Iran's oil economy between its discovery there in 1908 and the post-WWII period. All of the earlier arrangements changed when the US and UK outsted Iran's elected Prime Minister Mossadegh and reasserted western control of Iran's oil resources. The new agreements began in 1954.
My father's origin in Chicago was unusual for Americans in Abadan. It seemed most of my schoolmates were from Texas or New York, the centers of oil production and finance. This was his only assignment overseas. Some of my friends had lived in other oil localities such as Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. My father had been an accountant throughout his working life. In the late '30s he worked in Chicago for a printing firm, a meat packing firm, and an electrical appliance manufacturer, before getting the job in in Socony's Chicago office, eventually becoming its “paymaster,” in charge of payroll for that office. My impression of my father is that he is a person of complete integrity and personal decency, qualities perhaps somewhat missing from corporate echelons today.
Among the “expatriates” in Abadan at that time were people from several countries besides the US, mainly the UK and the Netherlands. The community of foreigners linked to the refinery numbered about 300. The refinery at that time was known as “the world's largest.” It had an incredible 30,000 employees, mostly laborers. I have no idea what they all did. Over 100 employees worked in the payroll department. Their main task was to fill weekly pay envelopes with cash, since there was no checking system. They counted the money by weight. A photo of the payroll department is among the slides.
Our family's personal community was made up of neighbors, a few associates from my father's work including Iranians who were among the managers in his department, families of my school friends, and the members of St. Christopher's Church. The church served overseas families who were Protestant, and was in the Anglican tradition. Its ministers rotated like the refinery staff. The kids my age who were part of the church had a group of sorts, who mostly played games outdoors during and after church events. There was an Iranian family who tended after the buildings and grounds of the church. Their outdoor charcoal brazier was one of hundreds in the yards and on the corners that gave Abadan its particular flavor.
We lived at SQ (Staff Quarters) 1098 in New Braim, which was an extension of Braim, an older mainly residential district. At the center of Braim was a maze of houses surrounded by high hedges known as Braim Square. Braim had several different sections, including social gathering places such as the Naft Club (with its outdoor cinema), the Golestan Club, the Central Annex, and apartment blocks for single people (such as my teacher, before he married, and my boy scout leader – I'm not sure what his job was). There was a doctor's office in Braim, and a small grocery store and bakery. Outside this store there were usually a couple of men begging who were amputees. Women gathered to nurse together at a crossroad near the store. I think it was there that I first noticed the way of sitting on flat feet and with legs folded. I'd never seen this before; it looked pretty comfortable to me.
Also in Braim were Alfi's Store on “Pickadilly Circus,” the river front including some of the docks, date groves and the boat club. There were also several villages, most prominently the mud houses of Braim Village. Some of the books I remember buying at Alfi's include a paperback Koran and two collections of journalism about WWII. We also got Time magazine there, required reading for the current events lessons at school.
I think “green” when I think of Braim, with its shaded streets, high hedges, nullahs, flowers. As for New Braim where we lived, all was dust and dirt around new houses of brick and concrete. It had a more American flavor than the rest of Braim. Other places were a mystery to me. I recall the name “Segush Braim” -- where was that?
The school and the Braim pool were where I spent most of my time. The pool was an environment unto itself. Two tennis courts were part of it, made of crushed sea shells rolled flat with heavy rollers. The lines were canvas tape nailed into the shell court surface. This was rough on shoes, balls and knees. I was a latecomer to swimming, and loved the pool especially. The swimming skills I got there led to lifeguarding jobs for summer work back home. Among the grounds keepers for the pool and tennis courts were two brothers who lived behind the pool, who were friends with the pool kids. There was also usually a coin toss game going on played by ball boys flipping rials. I wished I could play along.
Just behind the pool was a clay oven that produced endless piles of “nun,” or as we called it, chapatti. I would stand fascinated, watching the bakers flip the breads into the oven, sticking up on its inside dome, peeled off with broad paddles when done. I think the price was one or two rials each. I miss the taste of that bread. Beyond the bakery was the “Old House,” which may have actually been a house at one time, or an abandoned warehouse. It was literally filled with glass bottles, and there were holes in the roof through which we could climb in. A proof of daring, at least for a meek person like myself, was to take the leap from a nearby roof over a small walk to get into the Old House. We weren't supposed to be there, and once for no reason a group of us got into an exchange of rock throwing with a group of Iranian boys. We ended up in the police station near Alfi's, and our parents had to come and get us. All of this was within a few blocks of the school.
Sometimes I'd take the bus with friends beyond the bazaar to Bawarda, the other major neighborhood for overseas and Iranian management staff, to swim in the Bawarda pool, where they played Bill Haley's Rock Around the Clock on the PA. We'd also go to the Seamen's Club for a swim or a snack. I first had a “Coney Dog” there. And the Taj Cinema, of course, where I first had the thrill of holding hands.
At school I was in the 7th grade one year, and the 8th grade the next. Our unique “junior high” was Americans only. The school also had separate K-6 sections for Americans, Dutch and kids from the UK. Some families sent students to boarding schools in Beirut or Switzerland, or left them home. My experience was mostly with other American kids. A boy from Surrey lived a couple doors down from us, and I knew a couple other British kids, and went to a birthday party at the house of a cute Dutch girl. Generally the various national groups of kids didn't have much interaction with each other; at least that was my experience. I knew a few Iranian boys, one friend from the neighborhood just past New Braim, and a couple more from the pool and scouts. I remember that the only westerner who spoke Farsi was a German boy who had been there for about 15 years. His father was a doctor.
I rode my bike or took the bus to school. The school was owned by the refinery, as was everything else, from roads to water system to bus line. In our room, the 7th graders were the two rows on the right side, and we moved over to the left for 8th. One teacher handled everything, the awesome Charles Libbert. Who will forget the first words he uttered to our class: “In this room I am absolute dictator.” Hmm. When everyone figured out what that meant, we began to have a great educational experience. He was a fully engaged teacher. Occasionally our class was visited by Mademoiselle Suzanne, a person Mr. Libbert recruited to give us lessons in French. We probably should have been learning Farsi. Mr. Libbert went on to become math coordinator for the Santa Barbara schools.
We took occasional day trips from Abadan. Groups went to the “Sheikh's castle” up the river in the company's launch, and also to Khosrowabad. Groups went to the ziggurat at Tchoga Zambil, and to Shush and Shushtar. The boy scouts went on a couple of camping trips, most memorably to Lali, where we camped in the hills and were entertained by a man who played a shawm and his son, probably, who played a drum. I also traveled by train to the Middle East scout “jamboree” in Manzariyeh, Tehran, as part of Abadan International Troop 1. I think the church group went to Ahwaz, and somehow I remember seeing an antique Bugatti on the street there. There was a deli there named Negro's where we could get cheeses not found in Abadan. Once my father was invited to visit the Ahwaz home of a relative of a colleague from his office. The gracious family, the courtyard home, the delicious meal are wonderful memories. While my mom was back home with my sister, I traveled with my father to MIS and to Kharg Island, when they were just beginning to plan for the port there.
I'll try to convey something of the uniqueness of Abadan, beyond these everyday arrangements. Foremost was the intensity of the physical environment. The blazing sun and baking pavements were most memorable. As a product of the frozen northlands, I truly loved the relentless heat -- but of course I had a home and the pool for retreat, and didn't have to work in it. Bluer skies than Abadan's are impossible. The ever-flowing river was a constant presence, and the canal-watered date groves and irrigated neighborhoods of Braim provided a striking contrast with the surrounding parched tan earth, on which as far as I could see nothing grew except prickly “camel thorns.” I'd go to the river to watch the freighters, tankers and dhows docked at the shore. There was a continuing conflict with Iraq over the river boundary (which still goes on), and there were usually army men behind sandbags at the shore. Now and then US destroyers and British frigates would sail up the river to show the flag, and we could visit the ships and have the sailors to home for a supper on shore.
Other elemental memories include the huge sulfur pile near the Taj, and its smell, and the piles of salt at salt flats somewhere near our house. Lizards scurried up and down the walls of our house, living under the eaves, sometimes finding their way inside. Once a massive cloud of locusts swept through town. These yellow and green giants were a tasty catch for drivers who raced down our street, then plucked freshly grilled snacks from their radiators. I remember seeing a young man reading under a street light outside our house. Was he there because he didn't have light at home, or just needing to get out of the house? In any case, I started to become aware of the particular privileges we had.
Through it all was the smell of the refinery. To this day I will occasionally flash on Abadan when filling my gas tank. The smell was bad, the memories are good.
All of this is to say that the opportunity to live in Abadan as a boy was a positive and life-changing experience. There was one moment from that time that I have been waiting for a chance to make an apology for, so I'll do it now. A few days after we arrived, in a display of my ignorance, I ordered a resting man away from the shade under the eaves of a neighbor's house. It's not possible anymore to say “I'm sorry” personally to this person, but perhaps this will help in a small way. In the grand scheme of things this was a small event, but the grand scheme is colored by thoughtless acts like this.
Probably the most lasting understanding that I gained from my time in Abadan was a sense that my everyday understanding and our own way of life is not the only way it can be. Whole universes of difference surrounded us, from the kids from Texas and England, to the people of the villages, markets and bazaar. Added to this was experience the wonders of Iran's cultural history such as Persepolis, Shiraz, the blue domes of Isfahan that merged with the blue Iranian sky, and the misty atmosphere of the Caspian's shores and hills. It was a privilege to be there, and I hope to visit Abadan again. It is also my hope that the unfortunate relations between the people and governments of the US and Iran will begin to find some way to be mended>>> Photo essay
[Also see part 2 of this phot essay: Khuzestan 1958-1960]
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