Milestone birthdays tend to make us look back. This is the first of three birthday posts which do just that.
My father was a civil engineer and in 1945 he left his home
in South Wales for the Iranian desert on a three-year contract with AIOC, the
Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later called British Petroleum, now BP-Amoco). There
he built the roads, culverts and bridges required for pipelines to bring oil
from the wellheads to the Abadan refinery on the northern tip of the Persian
In May 1948, after signing on for a further three years, he
went home on leave. In June he was introduced to his future wife – my mother -
by a mutual friend. She was swept off her feet by a young man she described in
2000 as lean, fit and brown. She neglected to add ‘balding’ as at thirty my
father had less hair than I had a fifty, but I should allow romance a little
discretion. After several weeks courtship they became engaged and three weeks
later they married.
Neither of my parents were impulsive people, indeed I doubt
my mother took another rash and impulsive decision in her life, but if you only
do something once, you might as well make it a biggie. Amid the inevitable ‘It’ll
never last’ and ‘Marry in haste, repent at leisure’, they embarked on a marriage
that would last until my father’s death fifty one years later.
In 1950 they ceased to be ‘up-country’
and moved to Abadan where I was born on the 2nd of September 1950 in the AIOC
In 1951 my father signed on again, but the storm clouds were
gathering. Shortly after we all arrived home on inter-contract leave the
Iranians nationalised their oil industry and told the British that their
services were no longer required. I left my place of birth in April 1951 with no memories.
I contacted BP on the off chance. They were magnificent.
They put me in touch with their office chief in Tehran and provided a day pass
and the services of a charming young librarian at the BP-Amoco archive,
conveniently situated at Warwick University only forty minutes from home. The
librarian had done her homework and when I arrived she presented me with my father’s work
record and copious maps and photographs of 1950s Abadan.
Lynne and I arrived in Tehran on 24th of July 2000. We were
met by a young man who would be our driver, guide and almost constant companion
for the next two weeks. I shall call him N, his father had been of some
importance under the Shah and they had problems with the new regime. I expect,
though do not know, that N has now joined his sister in California.
N knew we were not ordinary tourists as he was carrying a pass
for us to enter the restricted, and distinctly un-touristy, Abadan area. The
problem with Abadan was that it is almost on the Iraqi border, and the problem
with that was not the first Gulf War, then ten years in the past, nor the
forthcoming second Gulf War, but the Iran-Iraq conflict, which Iranians call
the Imposed War. It raged throughout the 1980s but is largely forgotten in the
west, conveniently so as the Americans were cheer leading, probably even
arming, Saddam Hussein. A million Iranians died so they cannot forget so
Ordinary tourists or not, N was taken aback when we
suggested that rather than starting with a visit to the former Shah’s Palace,
we would like to visit an office in north Tehran. AIOC once effectively ruled
the south and had great influence in the capital but by 2000 BP-Amoco had only one
small office in Tehran. The boss was away but we were warmly welcomed by his
She introduced us to Hossein Afshar who worked, she said, in an office elsewhere
in the building. Mr Afshar (he was an impressive elderly man, and a degree of
formality seems appropriate) had been accommodation manager in Abadan around
the time my parents and I left. He knew the city well and volunteered to fly
down to show us around; an offer of extraordinary generosity.
I gave Nadia several hundred thousand rials (which sounds
impressive but was little more than loose change) to buy his plane ticket and
we set off with N to be proper tourists.
Tomorrow I will be 65 years old and become an OAP. How I reached this state is a mystery; ignoring the odd ache and a tendency to nod off mid-afternoon I feel no different from when I was twenty five.
|My father, John Eric Williams, Iran 1948|
|Building bridges, Iran 1948|
|My parents at their wedding reception, 9th of September 1948|
Bess Jones (Matron of Honour), my Father, Mother and Bob Hinton (Best Man, and the 'mutual friend')
In November my father returned to Iran, taking his new wife with him. Up-country life had been rough, but became much easier when the company bungalows were completed in Mian Kuh.
|Anglo Iran Oil Company staff bugalows, Mian Kuh, Iran 1948|
|I am in one of those|
Anglo-Iranian Oil Company nursing home, Abadan, 1950
Like any migrant I always felt a desire to return and, in my case specifically, a need to find out where I came from. For many years it was unimaginably far away, then too expensive and then, in 1979 came the revolution and Britain was dubbed the ‘Little Satan’. When the reform minded Mohammad Khatami was elected president in 1997 a window of opportunity opened. I thought summer 2000, the year of my fiftieth birthday, would be a fitting time to return. I mentioned it to Lynne and she was up for it and then, in September 1999, my father died suddenly. I started making plans.
|Mohammad Khatami at the World Ecnomic Conference in Davis, 2007|
Photo stolen from Wikipedia
I had my own photographs of my parents distinctive-looking house and knew the ‘address’, SQ (Staff Quarters) 1495. With surprising ease we narrowed the search down to the Bawarda district and to one of two houses, but would it still be there?
|SQ1495, Bawarda, Abadan in 1950|
|'N', Tehran, 2000|
|Portraits of martyrs of the Imposed War|
Everywhere we went, portraits of young men who had died in the Imposed War lined the roads and covered the walls of buildings
|Lynne and me with Nadia, BP office Tehran, July 2000|
If I had know those clocks would turn me into a bad impression of Mickey Mouse I would have stood somewhere else,
|Hossein Afshar in Khorramshahr, July 2000|
We headed south via Hamadan, Kermanshah and Khorrambad, reaching Ahvaz on the 27th of July. The next day we set off on the last leg of our journey to Abadan.