Khuzestan 1958-60

Photo essay: Close links of kinship made a deep impression, certainly expanding my sense of human possibilities


Khuzestan 1958-60
by Paul Schroeder

These photos, like the group that was posted here in April [see: Memories of an American boy], were taken by my father Charles Schroeder during the time we lived in
Abadan, 1958-60. Many of the background details about our stay there
were given with the first set. Since that posting we've received many
generous and heartfelt responses that encouraged us to bring this new
group forward >>> Photos

While the earlier selection focused mainly on Abadan as a particular place in time, this set has
more photos of individual people and family groups, giving perhaps a
more personal view. In addition, people and places outside Abadan are
shown, including scenes from Ahvaz and some villages near there; Shushtar and the ziggurat at Choga-Zambil; and Lali and Masjid-i-Suleiman
(MIS). The occasions for these visits were varied: day trips with
groups to the Shushtar region; with my father on a business trip to
MIS; and a scout camping trip to Lali. I was not along when he went to desert villages looking for a horse.
Several of these photos include the deputy head of the Payroll
Department, Mr. Nassim, who presented us with the “key to the city” upon our arrival and whose relatives in Ahvaz hosted us for a gracious dinner.

In addition to the photos, several other documents came to light as I burrowed through family papers: a bus map of Abadan with schedules given in “refinery time” [schedules (1) (2) (3) (4)] ; our refinery passes; a youth choir Christmas card; and a complete organization chart for the Payroll Department [Part (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9)], dated May 14, 1958, with note “Total 267.”Adding to the geographical image of Abadan is a wonderful map that was sent by Eli Alfi via Firoozeh Dumas, who have given the ok to post it here – many thanks.

One correspondent encouraged me to view Abadan via WikiMapia, which I now encourage others to do. This link will take you to a view centered on our house, SQ 1098, which is now gone. A photo of the house is included here, as it was accidentally left out of the first group.

One photo requires special mention, that of “little Mother." I was unsure about whether it would be appropriate to include it, and
asked my father for details about her. He told me that she was called
“little Mother,” and that she took care of a band of orphan boys who
all lived with her in a building across from his office, and they used
to hang out around his Department. I was surprised about this, thinking
that his office was inside the refinery's gates, but he said no, it was
on the edge of the refinery (toward Bawarda) and not inside the gates.
I asked my friend Ali Aghamoosa here in Orono, Maine about a magazine
article that we found among our papers. He said that it was about the
little Mother, and told me some of the details of her life as given in
the article. A scan of this article about her is given here [Page (1) (2) (3) (4)].

We learned that even the smallest details in the photos, such as the Company-issued furniture, were very evocative -- so some further views of the furniture are given
here. Staff was issued a set of basic household gear, including
industrial strength cooking pots stamped A.I.O.C., and good woolen
blankets, two of which I still own and use. Most families had cooks and
“houseboys.” Our cook Kazem and house cleaner Naim are pictured here. I think we employed Kazem for a month or less – my
mother was not one who could easily share her kitchen. I remember Naim
with great fondness. He had the habit of polishing the floors by
zipping around the house with cloths under his feet. Also pictured here
are a group of grooms from the Jockey Club, including Habib who cared
for my sister's horse. This photo was held back earlier because it is partly double-exposed.

For me, the most striking aspect of our trips into Khuzestan was the opportunity to see migrating tribes, who in this region were mostly Bakhtiaris. The earlier essay mentioned musicians who greeted us in the early morning at Lali. One person wrote that
these were called Toshmal, who were Bakhtiaris who “play traditional/
local music, especially dance music in weddings. Unfortunately, these
type of events aren't allowed any more.” Though I could not have put
words on this experience at the time, the vision of people who lived in
close harmony with the seasons and the earth, encumbered by few
possessions and tied by close links of kinship made a deep impression,
certainly expanding my sense of human possibilities.

Above and beyond the photos, my memory holds a collection that I
sometimes call “unphotographed moments.” For instance, we don't have
any pictures from Kharg Island, but my visit there is indelibly etched
in my memory. During the time when my mother was bringing my sister
back home, I travelled with my father to MIS as well as to Kharg
Island. We flew to both, I think by company Dove to MIS and by DC-3 to
Kharg. I loved the Doves that came swooping over our house as they
approached and departed from the airport.
Each plane had its own name: Agha Jari, Naft Safid, and the names of
other oilfield towns were printed on the planes, and I could read their
names from the ground. I think that my friend Martin Crane's father
piloted Doves.

When we visited Kharg Island, the crude oil terminal there was just
being planned. The island had a small mud-walled fishing village, and
the only Company presence was a couple of small buildings, one of which
was a large tent, which doubled as commissary and recreation hall. Mr. Utrecht gave me my
first ride on a motor scooter there, and I remember playing ping-pong
in the tent / mess hall. I was surprised to read in my father's desk
calendar that we were only there one day and one night – in my memory
we were there at least a week.

One person who wrote said “I hope we eventually see the day that
people are no longer racist and respect each other for what they are.”
A dimension that was only beginning to dawn for me during our stay in
Abadan was that of class and privilege. I seldom think of the often
negative views across our cultures as being “racist.” I can now see
more clearly the racism that is involved, though it is very different
from racism as we generally define it here in the US. We had the
privilege of crossing the Atlantic on our way home on the original
Queen Elizabeth. I clearly remember the ship's arrival in New York, and
thinking to myself how odd to see white men working as laborers on the
docks. So I'm more open now to see the racist aspect to relations that
are also defined by culture and class.

Most of all we want to say “Thank You” to the many people who have
sent generous responses to the photos. I've learned how unique and
loved Abadan is. The events of the past decades have placed Abadan at
the heart of the ongoing global tragedy, which is lived out daily in
the lives of those who have been displaced. Abadanis, no matter how far
removed, will not allow the spirit of that place to pass from their
lives >>> Photos