Anatomy of Oral History

By: Mr. Gholam Reza Azizi
Translator: Mr. Mohammad Bagher Khoshnevisan

In a situation where the materialism world was developing and boosting more than ever through modernism, it was hardly possible to persuade a great nation to disobey from its principles and charms. But this happened when the Islamic Revolution took place and except the Iranians, it astonished all the world nations and governments. It was from here that sticking to history for getting out of this astonishment became widespread in scientific circles and on the other hand, staying away of the dignitaries of Pahlavi era and those who separated from the center of the community as well as their lack of access to historic documents caused them to turn to writing memoirs and reviewing the past. Both this issue and the serious efforts by the Revolution's elite and the cultural agencies of the Islamic Republic to register and record the history of the Revolution with all possible ways created a strong sparkle in the minds of the historians of the Islamic Revolution in order to compile the Revolution's oral history in the best way by using the concurrency between the participation of active figures in the scenes and the opening of documentary centers to researchers. But this was new, and maybe the theoretical, methodological principles and the external methods of this new branch of history have yet to be calculated and compiled correctly. But the ongoing efforts are hope-giving and it is expected that the theoretical researches and methodological studies would flourish better than ever.

Although the familiarity of Iranians with oral history in its new conception dates back to the initial years of post-Islamic Revolution and the efforts by individuals, agencies and institutions inside the country as well as some organizations abroad, it is some time that the process of collection and publishing collections and articles under the title of oral history has expedited so that collections like the Oral History of Iran's Contemporary Literature (1), the Oral History of Dubbing…(2), the Oral History of Iranian Architecture(3), History of Iranian Architecture(4), Gilan Oral History (5), the Oral History of Cities (6), Cinema Oral History (7), Oral History of Cinema and Comedian Theater (8), the Oral History of the Scene Designing of Cinema and Theatre(9) are in the stage of beginning, collection or publishing. By reviewing the brief list presented, it seems that we should wait for emerging new titles in the near future. So, before we go through the reasons for the importance of oral history, we should refer to this point that unfortunately the theoretical debates of oral history have yet to be studied in a proper way. This is while not only the oral history associations have been established in other countries (10), but also non-academic areas and private institutions are involved in this issue and even in some countries private institutions which collect information through oral history by the order of state organizations or private orders, instruct the school children the method of conducting an oral history interview (11). On the other hand, even the workshops of oral history in internet are engaged in the teaching of the debates of oral history especially the methods of collecting interviews and its delicacies (12).

What has been and being done in Iran is more in the form of interviews with individuals and colleting these interviews, and only a few cases of such efforts are published.

Debates regarding oral history

Oral history debates can be divided into three following groups in general:

Theoretical debates: Definition of oral history, nature of oral history and its theories, intellectual and theoretical structures of oral history, emergence of oral history and determining the relation of oral history with writing biographies, writing memories, oral tradition, oral literature, narrative history, public culture and …

Methodological debates: The features of oral history interviews, collecting methods, recreating and editing the interviews as well as the role of memory in history and determining the relationship between oral history, social psychology, historical sociology, methods and techniques of measuring interview, job responsibilities, the role of time and environmental elements on interview, writing the list of oral history resources, preserving and keeping the materials of oral history and …

Dissemination of information: The issue can be done through one of the five following forms:

1- Duplicating tapes (audio or audio-visual) without any lessening and in the same primary form or on other forms or materials (like CD, VCD) sometimes along with a preface and a guiding list.

2- Publishing the full text of interview/interviews, sometimes along with a preface or an opening article.

3- Releasing an edited text (whether in printed form and in audio or audio-visual forms) along with a preface and a research essay and a detailed explanation.

4- In the form of an analytical or research article which has been used from the interviews of oral history as one of the original sources.

5- In the form of a research book whose main information has been extracted from the interviews of oral history.

Definition of oral history in foreign and domestic sources

Iranian sources:

As it was referred, the theoretical debates of oral history have yet to be discussed - except a few cases – in a broad, extensive and available method. But we can refer to the following definitions:

1- "Oral history is not a new phenomenon in the history of science but it is applied to some methods of historical research which have been paid attention by sociologists in their sociological and anthropological researches, sooner than the historians. Sometimes this possibility comes to man's mind that the root of this method is hidden in stories and tales which have been quoted for years and have so far been left for us as a memorial. In recent years, oral history is the result of interview with those who have been the origin of a work or have observations in related fields…." (13)

2- Elsewhere in explaining the goal of establishing the Oral Archive Department of the Organization of Documents and National Library of Management of Iran's Central Area (Isfahan), we read: "Its goal is to collect historical information through conducting interviews with cultural, political, scientific and artistic figures of the contemporary history and providing services to researchers. The term of Oral history is applied to the information obtained through this way." (14)

3- In the descriptive dictionary of Iranian Center of Information and Scientific Documents, oral history has been defined as the following:" Audio recording – or rewriting – of an interview with a person who has memories from historical events which are valuable as a record of oral history for future researches. Oral history is also applied to a historical work based on information collected orally – often kept in archives or special collections." (15)

4- In introducing a book by Mohammad Motevasseli, it seems that oral history and writing memoirs have been regarded as equal: "Writing memories and writing reports from what have been heard and seen and deeds in our country, whose people highly tend to oral culture, were not common. However, editing and publishing memoirs have become more common in recent years, and numerous valuable memories have been written including from that of the late Dr. Mohammad Mosaddeq, … Oral History has been introduced as a well-known scientific method in developed countries, and as a reliable and documented source, is provided to those who are willing to write the real history…" (16)

5- About oral history, Dr. Saeedi says, "Scientifically, oral history is one of the methods for studying the history that can be considered among the first grade documents in research. Oral history has been oppressed in Iran. At first it should be determined whether this field is related to history or all of the sciences…Oral history is not in fact a historic debate but it is a theoretical one which deals with all the sciences and all use it." (17)

6- Elsewhere, he also says: "collections of oral history are one of the methods of historical review based on qualitative methodology in social sciences which are being used as a first grade scientific source in analyses and studies. These kinds of collections are being established permanently in many western countries in the form of national plans. The existence of memoir writing in continuous research collections based on regular collection of information from artists, academics, political activists and other sections of the community provide the possibility of various usages." (18)

7- In another definition of oral history, mental or narrative sources have been meant with oral history as the same:" Mental or narrative sources (oral archive): Oral history is a science by which the shortages and vacuums existing in historical researches are filled through interview, speech or written demand from experts and well-informed individuals…Also there are sources that exist in the oral culture of the society like religious rituals or games… They can be considered valuable sources in social and historical studies of a society and need to be collected and disseminated." (19)

8- "Oral history is a modern method for collecting, keeping and preserving various information form said and unregistered memoirs which is provided through conducting interviews with experts in various political, cultural and economic fields and are kept in archives in recorded tapes or videotapes." (20)

Non-Iranian sources:

1-According to David J. Wood, oral history is not about the kings and queens or what happened in 1066. Oral history of is local history of people like you and me, how they lived, worked and spend their money.(21)

2- In the dictionary of Yahoo website, two definitions have been mentioned for oral history: A: Historical information, usually tape-recorded or videotaped, obtained in interviews with persons having firsthand knowledge. B: An audiotape, videotape, or written account of such an interview or interviews.(22)

3- Oral history is a method for collecting and keeping historical information through recorded interviews with participants of the past events. Oral history is also regarded both as the oldest method for reviewing and researching (before writing stage) and as the most modern of these methods (after 1940s and the involvement of tape recorder in research).(23)

4- Oral history is an interview during which experiences, thoughts and feelings of a person about an event or a period of time is reminded by him or her. This shows us how national and international events influence the people's life. Oral history adds the personal aspect of the observer's experiences to our studies about the past.(24)

5- G. Canon writes: "The phrase of oral history is not applied to a new kind of history but it describes a special source of information about the past which is different from documented sources used generally by the historians. However, the two are not separate from each other completely."(25)

6- Oral history can be defined as recording, keeping and commenting the historical information based on personal experiences and the opinions of narrator. Also it is possible that oral history takes place as a testimony of an eyewitness about the past, but at the same time it can cover public culture, myths, songs and stories which have been transferred via vocabulary through years. Moreover, oral history is a precious way for keeping the knowledge of elders which can also be included in interviews with younger generations.(26)

7- Oral history is the collection of historical data through interview – usually in the form of audio recording and sometimes video recording –with the individuals who participate or observe an important event or period. (27)

8- The website of Canadian Oral History Association says: "For centuries, the historical information was exclusively communicated orally. With the advent of writing, however, people came to rely almost entirely on written documents for information about the past, but the approach of oral communication was almost lost. The advent of sound recording technology has once more enabled students of the past to collect and use information communicated by speech.

Oral history, therefore, refers to recorded interviews with individuals about the past or first-person reminiscences. The primary form of the oral history document is the recorded human voice. This document, in turn, may be applied as informational source material or directly in sound or transcribed form.

Among those who create and use oral history are professional historians, family and local historians, journalists, broadcasters, archivists, educators, folklorists and sociologists."(28)

9- The expression of oral history is used in two meanings: 1- A kind of qualitative research process based on interviews with individuals and is suitable for understanding the meanings, commentaries, relations and individual experiences. 2- A recorded product on audio or audio-visual tapes which plays the role of a genuine, historical, important and first-hand in next researches.(29)

10- When many people think of history, they remember dusted books, documents and archives, remote castles and luxurious houses. Indeed, history is all of what have surrounded us in the family environment, community and in live memories and the elders' experiences. It is just enough to ask them. They can tell us stories as many books as a large library. This kind of history, which all of us collect during our life, is called oral history. Everyone can tell a story about life which is unique because just some people have taken part in important historical events - like World War II – and some others are inevitably deprived of the direct experience of this event.

Disregarding the age of the individual or the importance of the event, all of us have interesting experiences which we can share with others. Moreover, historical documents and books cannot tell us everything about the past. Most of them have focused on famous people and great events. This would result in forgetting and leaving ordinary people who talk about daily events. On the other hand, historical documents and books have ignored those who live in margin in a community. Oral history fills such gaps and presents us a history which includes all the people.(30)

Comparing Iranian and non-Iranian viewpoints about oral history

We recognize the existence of differences in previous definitions by comparing the mentioned examples. For instance, the Iranians in some cases have considered oral history and memoir writing as the same or sometimes have used the phrase of oral history exactly in the meaning of conversation (about the background of an art or a technique) and actually instead of the word interview. In other words, oral history, from their viewpoint, is applied to a kind of close memoir writing while oral history and memoir writing are two separate categories. However, despite these two almost the same meaning, the difference between memoir writing and oral history can be seen well in terms of the performance and methods of interview on one hand and in terms of the active role of interviewee during reminding and recording the past events and incidents and cases like these on the other hand.

Furthermore, Iranian sources in some cases have also considered oral history as expressing the history orally, while oral history is not the oral expression of history. If this was correct, all the historical speeches delivered in conferences and seminars, radio and TV historical shows (for example Calendar of Events), the narration of narrators and other such cases should be considered oral history (which is not correct). The importance of oral history has nothing to do with its oral aspect but it is important because the interviewer has been present in an event or a period of history directly or has seen and influenced the events. In this case, the interviewer is put in the position of a first hand source for historical researches. On the other hand, we should regard oral history as a category related to history and should not summarize history in oral history. History is the main basis, and oral history by the side of history plays almost the same role that hadith books play in the Islamic religious law.(31)

Thus, we should consider several points in defining oral history: 1- The role of interviewer in oral history projects as a first-hand source which observe historical events or a point of history, 2- the method of collecting the items, 3- and oral history is not a new type of history (or for example main history(32)) but it is a method in historic researches or collecting sources in studying contemporary history, 4- we should remember that this method especially in the studies of writing history form lower part is very important and efficient.

However, since the meaning of "oral history" is new (in its new and modern meaning), it has had impacts in some mentioned discrepancies, as we read in "The Past Meets the Present" by David Stricklin and Rebecca Sharpless:" When historians gather, they spend most of their time on discussing around this question: what oral history is".(33)

With whom are oral history interviews being conducted?

A-By studying non-Iranian sources - referred to some of them – it seems what has happened in oral history projects in Iran have less difference with other countries' projects.

The main approach of interview in Iran has been conversation with figures who have had important political, cultural, religious, economic and artistic positions. In other words, individuals who have played a role in Iran's political history are much paid attention to. For example, we refer to some following examples:

The aim of Iran's oral history project (The center of Middle East Studies, Harvard University) "was to collect and preserve the personal memoirs of those who played important roles in important events and decision makings in 1920s and 1930s. This plan started knowingly around political history". It is worth mentioning that the managers of this project were planning to conduct interviews with all political groups, parties and agencies, the members of Pahlavi Family, all former prime ministers, key members of cabinet, legislative and judiciary branches, mass media and private section media, leaders of tribes, groups and figures opposed to former regime (including those who were present in the government of Islamic Republic of Iran), the senior commanders of Armed Forces, senior agents of SAVAK, and foreign diplomats and leaders who had played roles in Iranian political events."(34)

This last sentence – those who had played important roles in Iran's political events – shows the nature of the interviewers and in fact stresses the existence of this nature in the approach toward historicism in Harvard University.

Also the interviews which have compiled under the title "The Oral History Plan of Iran's Left Movement" and several collections of such interviews have so far been published, have traced those who "have had or have 24 years of political activity averagely and some years of their life have been spent in prison, immigration, political or underground activity or some of them".(35)

The institute of Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies has considered conducting interviews with the survivors of pre-revolution system(36). However, it has described the area of its interviews larger than what it was said. The Institute in its first call have invited all the elite and experts who have been the origin of a work or have had observations in the fields of political, social, economic, cultural,... developments in Iran's contemporary history to have interviews.(37)

Iran's Documents and National Library Organization have also traced special figures. According to reports, "former Iranian National Documents Organization started officially its activity in oral history field since 1372, and during the past eleven years, it has conducted oral history interviews close to one thousand hours with three hundred scientific, cultural, political and artistic figures."(38)

5- T
he Foundation of Iranian Studies - established in 1981 in America – is also another institute which is active in collecting interviews from the politicians, diplomats, scientists, senior workers, artists, chief editors and other decision makers who have observed the events. This group has put on the agenda interviewing with those who have had political or executive positions or have been in charge of artistic-cultural affairs.(39)

6- A
nother project implemented by the above Foundation is the oral history plan of Iranian women started since 1982. According to the existing reports, "the Foundation has totally conducted 46 interviews, 20 of which have been with famous women in former regime like the first female ambassador, lawmaker, the head of the City Association, and journalist, and 26 others with ordinary women."(40) However, it is claimed that in this project, 26 of the women interviewed were among ordinary ones, but no more information was obtained about the reason why they considered as "ordinary". It is worth mentioning that at least one of the common features of these women is most probably their residence in the US and Europe. Also it was referred that the interviewees have been selected among high educated people.(41)

This approach is also seen in what was broadcast by BBC under the title of oral history. Most interviewees were introduced as "those who have made one part of Iranian contemporary history and played a role in that context."(42)

8- I
n another project performed by London School of Oriental and African Studies in the last years of 1990s, Iran's economic and political situation (between the years 1941 and 1979) has been studied. The project has tried to study about "the middle managers of state and private sectors in Pahlavi era… In this plan financed by British Academy, seven Iranian economic managers who played roles in shaping Iran's economy after Reza Shah were interviewed."(43) Also in the introduction section of this project entitled "The collection of development and growth in Iran", we read: "This collection mainly constitutes hundreds of hours interviews with those who were in charge of economic, social, and cultural policies during Pahalavi era which have been recorded in the oral history archive of Iran's Studies Foundation."(44)

As it is obvious from the above sentences, this collection is also seeking to collect information from "those in charge."

9- t
he Foundation of Islamic Revolution History is another institute which follows the projects of oral history. The head of the Foundation, Hojatolislam Ma'adikhah says: "As far as I remember, the oral history of the Islamic Revolution was first published in a column titled "Revolution narrated by memoir" in "Yad" magazine published by the Foundation of Islamic Revolution. The preliminaries of this plan were provided in 1981." This Foundation has focused on "those clergymen who were playing role in opposition to Shah Regime after 1956 coup."(45)  Thus, this Foundation has resorted to collect interviews from religious figures and combatants.

Another institute which has made an effort to compile the projects of oral history is the Center for Islamic Revolution Documents. Collecting the oral history interviews is among the activities of this Center for compiling the history of Islamic Revolution. Most of the Center's interviews have been conducted with the individuals who have been among the followers of Imam Khomeini (May his soul rest in peace) and active in Islamic Revolution. However, some interviews have been conducted with ordinary people.(46)

The Political Office of Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) established a department to register the memoirs of the war in the beginning the Iraqi imposed war. According to reports, one of the actions carried out by the Department by the end of 1991 is the conduction of more than 21000 hours of interview with Basij (voluntary), IRGC and army forces.(47)

The Artistic Section of Islamic Propaganda Organization has also conducted oral history interviews with both methods so that the interviewees have been chosen among the combatants and the POWs (48) and in some cases with well-known people.(49)

In the three final items (10, 11, 12), an important feature is that in addition to influential and well-known individuals, the reason of interviews with others in oral history projects has not been that they have had important positions or active presence in political currents, etc. The war combatants are the individuals who have stand from the mainstay of the society and have understood and participated in an event or a historic incident (the imposed war (50)), an event which has been one of the great and influential events of the century in the region and the world and an event which from the viewpoint of "Current History" theory, it was clear from the very beginning that it would be registered in the history. A group of these combatants have experienced another event. They were in a situation during their captivity that understanding it and its impacts are not seen in state documents and official reports and maybe many of those considerable moments spent on them at that period (like torture and …) have not been reported by the jailers and kept far from the eyes of the world intentionally.

B) Apart from the institutes, agencies and organizations, there are individuals who have resorted to compile oral history projects including:

In the book "Press Oral History", we read, "The press people are the history makers of this section (journalism) and the eyewitnesses of many events. They have been "either the factor of a press event or are considered among well-informed people. So we should find them and register their memoirs."(51)

The producers of "The Oral History of Iranian Publication" in their note on the book have written:" The Oral History of Iranian Publication is a title proposed by the publisher of the book instead of other titles. However, the title can find its real meaning when at least all the leading book publishers in Iran cooperate and apart from introducing their publication in a real manner, they should discuss their knowing about Iran's publication, its past and developments with researchers and readers who are interested in the fate of book in the country".(52)

In the two above mentioned groups, interviewees have been somehow picked up from the elite, leaders and well-informed people of above fields.

The Oral History of Contemporary Literature is another project which is different with above examples from the viewpoint of selecting the interviewee. A historic event or a point of time is not studied in this project, but the main point of the discussion is the biography of special persons. In fact, this method is a kind of writing the biographies of people using the method of interviewing with the close friends and colleagues of a person and in some cases with the person himself.

Oral history, an Iranian tradition?

What have been described in the theories of oral history is a little different from the way which has gone in Iran (except a few cases). It's correct that in western projects of oral history, we can seek the interviewees who are among the elite or influential individuals in the history of their country – like Trotesky's interviews (53)-  but the main or at least theoretic approach is a tendency toward conducting interviews with large masses of the community. Gary Okihiro in "Oral History and the Writing of Ethnic History” writes: "Oral History is not only a tool or method for recovering history; it is also a theory of history which maintains that the common folk and the dispossessed have a history and that this history must be written."(54) The issue is clearly seen in the writings of theorists and historians of other countries – referred to in some of the definitions used here.

Dr. Nooraei has also referred to the issues and writes:" The point is that the oral history projects from the very beginning of its new life did not rely on registering, recording and interviewing with the elite and prominent figures. Because it was a long time that social history had found its way influenced by various schools of historicism including Annals and in fact, the history of social lower layers and its very different titles became an issue of looking at the past. Thus, such look i.e. reconstructing the daily life experience of ordinary people in industry, business, war and peace, etc. was not something expected from the elite. Therefore, the experience of ordinary men regained its way from the past into history.(55) The most important movement of oral history occurred in the late 1970s when the historians and social writers granted a special role for this method as registering humanistic enterprise from live experiences. Oral history provided the opportunity for those who did not have necessary trainings and any opportunity or influence for writing to register and write about the live experiences.

He also points out that oral history began in Europe for expanding historical information and knowledge in the fields that rare documented evidences and documents were one-sided and exceptional. So, this method led to research about the less-literate of the society, i.e. those who were never taken into consideration.(56) But an almost different way was put forward in Iran and moved toward a kind of eliticism and interviewing with special individuals ( and in some cases with their close friends and relatives). For example, if the dominant tendency in Europe was toward registering information about those who had experienced the results and impacts of the special policies of the government,(57) in Iran, the politicians were taken into consideration more than any other group. Also what was noticed more in the British oral historicism was the collection of "the experiences of oral history narrators of the working class in small towns and villages",(58) but in Iran, the experiences of former ministers, connected to labor or economic affairs or influential persons in theses sections, were collected and registered.(59)

Reasons of elitist approach in Iranian oral history

Tendency toward eliticism in Iran (except a few cases) and interviewing with influential persons or those who were engaged in the events of Iran's contemporary history especially in second Pahlavi period should be searched in three important factors:

1- Shortage of firsthand sources which may be connected to Iran's events and conditions before the Islamic Revolution. We should not forget that at that time most strategic and great decisions were made behind-the-scene and there is no sign of the process of the decision-makings in state documents. The issue shows the importance of the memories of those who have had key positions.

2- The attractiveness of oral history projects for the audience (readers or listeners of the collections) is not one-sided due to a kind of relation between the interviewer and interviewee (narrator).  Here, there is another factor (interviewer) who sometimes asks questions form the interviewee which may be brought up in the mind of the reader. As Michael Stanford has said, "The interviewer can persuade the interviewee to answer the questions than cannot be asked from other sources (written historic works)."(60)

3- Another reason of eliticism in Iranian oral history may be found in the close relation between oral history in the above attitude – and writing biography especially "writing self-biography" and memoir-writing. From this viewpoint, the reader is interested to know how has been the life of so and so minister or influential person or effective in historical events (both from the viewpoint of political, economic, social and … perspective and personal life).

So, it seems that the main approach of Iran's oral history projects has tended toward influential individuals in the incidents or those who have been informed of the events. This point neither means impugning nor downplaying the efforts, but represents a method that the researchers and compilers of oral history projects have selected it according to historical circumstances of the community and government in Iran.

The background of oral history

About the beginning of the formation of oral history, we should notice that oral history is an old method which has emerged with a different use in a new frame. From this viewpoint, the emergence of oral history may be divided into two periods, before and after 1940s.

1- Before 1940s. In a general division, the period can also be divided into two stages: A) Pre-history period (before the invention of script) and B) Historical period.

A) Pre-history period: For centuries, the transfer of information especially what was related to the past events and incidents was exclusively carried out in an oral method.

B) Historical period: Changes were made in this method with the invention of script. But still some information was transferred orally. Moreover, another kind of method for registering historical events was also appeared in a way that the information of those who had witnessed or participated in an event, was used in writing the history. It has been said that during Zhou dynasty in China (256-1122 BC), the emperor had assigned people form the court to go among people and collect their words for more information as well as for the use of court historians.(61) The initial chapters of Bible were also transferred from a generation to other one through oral history.(62)

In earlier periods, Herodotus (in his history of the Persian Wars) and Thucydides (in his History of the Peloponnesian War(63)) in their writings – considered as Narrative Histories - made extensive use of oral reports from witnesses.(64)

Later, Venerable Bede in the introduction section of his book referred to the point that he did not rely on any writer in writing his book, but he had relied on many eyewitnesses and faithful witnesses who either knew the realities or remembered them.(65) After Renaissance and using new methods by the history and its reliance on new documents and sources, the importance of the method of using witnesses was lessened.

2- The second period is in fact included the times after World War II. In fact, what is considered as the new interpretation of oral history goes back to the activities of Professor Aggan Nevins – in Columbia University, USA – and his colleagues about recording the memoirs of "key people in the American life" which in terms of entering the conversation was very different than interviews conducted with ordinary people.(66) However, the first users of the technology of recording the sound were the anthropologists who recorded the sound on phonograph cylinders. Also the Congress library in 1930s started the project of oral history for recording popular traditional music, eyewitnesses' reports from the US Civil Wars, the events related to slavery and other important historical events on Acetate discs.(67)

3- William W. Moss considers three major factors in the attention to oral history in the twentieth century: 1- The democratization of human society following some changes like European Renaissance and Reformation, British Revolution, French Revolution, the later parliamentary reforms in Britain, the Russian Revolution, two world wars, the liberation of former imperial colonies after World War II and all the other attendant revolutions, 2- The industrial and technological revolution that paralleled the democratizing change and brought about changes in transportations and communications that have made possible high-fidelity, lightweight sound recorders and the means to travel overlong distances rapidly and relatively inexpensively. 3- The earnest faith and hard work of Allan Nevins and his successors.(68)

Record of oral history in Iranian and Islamic sources

What has been disregarded about the record of oral history in western well-know sources are the record of oral history in Iran and Islamic period.

This method has a long history in Iran. If we set aside cases like the tradition of oral transfer and chest to chest of myths and holy texts, we find that in Parthian period, the Gosans described stories and narrations about the past heroes and history through singing, as in a Manichean Parthian text we read "Like Gosan who regards the value of kings and ancient heroes as renowned and he himself never obtains anything."(69)

More clear and stricter referring can be found in the books of Islamic historians. The current evidences show that these historians not only used the method of oral history (in its initial meaning) in writing their books, but also knew the method accurately and reminded it as a method in historicism. Beihaghi says:" The ancients' stories are told just by two forms, either they should be heard from somebody or read in a book." (70)

Tabari is also among well-known historians who used the testimony of narrators in his works. About the reason to do so, he writes," Coming to know of the past events and the current news and incidents does not happen for those who have not realized the events time or didn’t observe themselves, but through the information of informers and narration of narrators. They should not involve intellectual deduction or subjective inference."(71)

However, Tabari's method – not to criticize the used resources – has been intentional.

Pre-Mas'oudi historians relied on narrating the documents at the time of narrating information and would write "x has heard that from y and he heard that from …" in order to narrate the historical event. Masoudi avoided this and used the imitative method of these historians. He brought the news without mentioning the document and referred to the sources of his writing just in the book introduction. Except this, he also founded the method of criticizing sources and historical materials…"(72)

It has also been stated that the history of the advent of Islam is one of the main examples of Islamic historians concerning oral history which is completely based on the narrations of followers from the companions or followers of followers so that we regularly face with the word "Ghal"(says) followed by the name of the news source."(73)

Meqrizi in the introduction of the "al-khotat" has preferred the written materials to the oral narrations and has mentioned the eye witnessed sources, such as he writes: "I used 3 sources in writing this book: 1-reference to a written book, 2-Narration from the great men of knowledge and others, 3- What I saw by my own eyes." (74)


In short, we should say that Islamic historians not only knew this method but also have studied the changes of it and have discussed and analyzed it. Talking about this matter needs more time and I think it is enough for this article and I only mention some poems by Ferdowsi, in which he narrates the history of Parthian Empire- as a sample of oral history usage: (75)


     As they were defeated,

            no body in the world told their history

     I have not heard anything about them other than their names,

            even in the books of kings

Future horizon

As mentioned above, oral history in its new conception due to historical requirements and conditions in Iran has tended or tends to interviewing with the individuals who have had key positions or in other words interviewing with influential people in historical events and currents or the leaders special fields.

Main activity in the field of oral history is done by the agencies which somehow deal with archive. The archivists naturally tend much to conduct interviews and create oral archive collections, from this viewpoint, precious treasures of interviews have been collected and even several oral history projects have been published through by using these collections.(76) But since 2004, a new wave in recognizing the theoretical principles of oral history has begun. Several articles have been published in this field (77) and introductory meetings have been held in the Center of Islamic Revolution Documents regarding oral history.(78)

The most important work done in this regard is the holding of two meetings with regard to oral history in Isfahan University which were held in the form of workshops on May 13 and 14, 2994 and December 1, 2004. (79)

The main achievement of the first meeting was that "the Association of Iran's Oral History was established in order to systemize and theorize and determine the intellectual and theoretical structures of oral history and arrange such activities."(80)

Also it was announced last year that the writing of the statute of registering oral history came to an end in Astan-e Qods RAzavi." The statute has been written through studying the working method of four Iranian and four non-Iranian agencies which are involved in the Iranian's oral history and was supposed to be release last year.(81)

The titles of speeches delivered in two oral history meetings in Isfahan University are also interesting:" "Oral Tradition and Oral History", "The Main Chapters of Oral History", "Main Applications of Oral History", World Standards, Iranian Standards in Criticizing Iranian Oral History", Methodology of Oral History and the Types of War Historicism", "Oral History: Definitions, Theoretical Principles and Interfield Nature", "Empirical Practices, Self-trust and Research Applications of Oral History", "The Stages of Oral Tradition and Its Replacement to Historicism in Islam", and "Discourse or Writing".

Recently the call for sending articles for the first meeting of oral history by the Organization of Iran's Documents and National Library has made the future horizon clearer.


1. This collection is also called "the Oral History of Poem and Story in Iran" see




   Group/Article.asp?ID =24&p=15

4. See:   

5. In the website of Guilan University, the project of Guilan's oral history, it has been mentioned among the future projects of Guilanology Group. See:

6. See: Seyyed Farid Ghasemi, Khorramabadology(4), Khorramabad, Aflak 1378 (The collection of Khorramabad's Oral History)

7. For instance see:

8. This title is about a detailed interview by ISNA with Reza Arham Sadr:

9. This title is also about an interview:

10. The names and websites of some of these associations are as follow:

International Oral History Association

Oral History Association

Oral History Society(uk)

Canadian Oral History Association

Baylor University, oral history workshop

Indiana university, oral history research center

National Library of Australia oral History collection


11.Shafigheh Niknafs, "About Oral History", The Treasury of Documents. The Fourteenth Year, Third notebook, Issue no.55, Autumn 1383(2004), Page 5. Also see:

12.For instance see: History/workshop.html
http://www/ his/idx.htm

13.Quoted from:

Also see: Shafigheh Niknafs, "Acquaintance with the Office of Oral Archive", The Treasury of Documents, Fourth year, No.1 (Autumn 1372), Issue 15, page 92

14. See: http://www.isfahan-na

15. See:




19. Mohammad Saber Raee Sarbanoghli, "The Types of Archive Materials". The electronic magazine of The Center of Iran's Information and Scientific Documents", First issue, Fourth course, in:

20. "Oral History", Brochure, produced and arranged: The management of the Documents and Press Affairs of the Organization of Libraries and Museums and the Center of the Documents of Astan-e Qods Razavi, Winter 1382(2003)





25.Canon, G, "Oral History", translated by Shafigheh Niknafs, The Publication of the Public Relations and International Affairs of the Organization of Iran's National Documents, No.9, Esfand 1371 (January 1993)(polycopy) page 1


27. Http://




31. "The Oral History of Islamic Revolution: An Interview with Hojatolislam Abdolmajid Ma'adikhah", Hamshhri, Kheradnameh:


33. Stricklin, David, and Rebecca Sharpless (eds, the past meets the present(essays on oral history), university press of  America, lanham, New York, London, 1988, p.4)

34. Majid Yusefi, "Interview with Dr. Habib Lajevardi, Iran's Oral History, Harvard's Angle of Sight", The Week's Book, no.137 (26.02.87). page 20

35. http://www.iranian-l-o-history.Com/tarich8.htm

36. Yusef Majidi, "Narration of Revolution, a report form the situation of research institutions of the oral history of the revolution and Iran", the Week's Book, no.66 (18.11.1382), page 17.

37. "The call of the Department of Oral History of the Institute for Iran's Contemporary History Studies", Iran's Contemporary Studies, Second year, no. 5(Fall 1377), page 346

38. Niknafs, "About Oral History", Page 6


40. Majidi, "Narration of Revolution", Page 16, compare it with:


42. Majidi, "Narration of Revolution…", Page 17

43. Ibid.

44. Khodadad Farmanfarmaean, Development in Iran, 1320-1357, the memoirs of Khodadad Farmanfarmaea, Abdolmajid Majidi, Manouchehr Goudarzi [ed. Ghoalmreza Afkhami], Theran, Gam-e Now, 1380, page 11

45. Majidi, "Narration of Revolution…", Page 17

46. For instance see: Roza Nazem, The Oral History of Abouzar Group, Tehran, the Center for Islamic Revolution Documents

47. These interviews have also been conducted with Iraqi POWs, Iraqi Mujahedin, Iraqi refugees and the displaced. Quoted from Emadeddin Baghi, Iran's Student Movement (Since the beginning of Islamic Revolution), Tehran, The Iranian Society, 138, page 25

48. Including see: Hassan Azari Mowaffagh, Glass Look: the Oral Memories of Hassan Azari Mowafagh, Interview and compilation Mohsen Motlagh, Tehran: Sura Mehr (the Art institute (Hozeh Honari) of Islamic Propaganda Organization), 1381, Gholamreza Rezazadeh, Young Captive: The Oral Memoirs of Gholamreza Rezazadeh, Interview and compilation Hossein Nayyeri, Tehran, Islamic Propaganda Organization, Art Institute, Sura Mehr, 1382

49. For instance see: Ali Baghery, the Memoirs of 15 Khordad (Under Ali Bagheri), Theran, the Art institute (Hozeh Honari) of Islamic Propaganda Organization, 1374, first notebook.

50. "Among those who were involved the war, sometimes we observe the people whose roles have been ignored or not being said, and by reading their memoirs we found that there are a lot of things about the war which we have not sill heard." Azari Mowafagh, Glass Look.., page 7

51. Seyyed Fardi Ghasemi, The Oral History of Iranian Press: Interviews with the veterans of journalism, Seyeyd Farid Ghasemi and Ali Dehbashi with the cooperation of Tooba Sateii, Tehran, Qoqnoos, 1382, Page 8

52. Abdolhaossein Azarang, The Oral History of Iran's Publication, done by Abdolhaossein Azarang and Ali Dehbashi with the cooperation of Tooba Sateii, Tehran, Qoqnoos, 1382, Page 8



55. Morteza Nooraee, "An Introduction to the Philosophy of Oral History", The Treasury of Documents, Thirteenth year, first and second notebook, nos. 49-50, page 67

56. Canon, "Oral History", page 1

57. Ibid.

58.Ibid, page 2

59. This case is especially seen in the projects of Iranian oral history which have been conducted abroad.

60. Nooraee, "An Introduction to the Philosophy of Oral History", page 68
Dr. Saeedi has considered the reason for the growth of the oral history connections as the increasing importance of qualitative methods on one hand and the decline of quantitative methods with the emergence of Post-modern theories on the other hand. See:

61. Moss, William W.,”ORAL HISTORY: What is it and where did it come from?”,in:the past meets the Present,(op.cit.),p.5

62. Ibid.


64. Moss," Oral history: what…”,p.5

65. Ibid. More evidences have been brought in the mentioned work


67. “Oral history" from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia(on net)

68. Moss,” Oral history: what…”, p.6

69. Mary Boyce, "The Parthian gosan and the Iranian minstrel tradition" in: two speeches about Iranian minstrelsy and music, translated by Behzadbashi, Tehran, Agah 1368, page 32

70. The History of Beihaghi, published by Dr. Fayyaz page 555, quoted from Jahangir Gha'em Maghami, An Introduction to Recognizing Historical Documents, The Association of National Works, 1350, page 7

71. The history of Tabari, Volume 2, page 8; quoted from Sadegh Aynehvand, The History of Science in Islam, Tehran, The Ministry of Islamic Guidance, 1360, pages 4-5

Hojatolislam MA'adikhaf in his interview in this regard has said, "The history of Tabari from the beginning to the end is nothing but oral history. Ibn Athir, Ibn Zahri and Zahabi have also such method in historicism. I don't found any valid source of Islamic history which is nothing but oral history. In fact, since the beginning of Islamic historicism, oral history has always been important." See: note no. 37

72.Quoted from Aynehvand, the History of Science in Islam, page 85

73. Shafigheh Niknafs, "Acquaintance with the Office of Oral Archive", The Treasury of Documents, Fourth year, no.1 (Autumn 1372), page 92

74. Mr. Sadegh Aynehvand, "the Science of History through the widespread Islamic civilization"; Tehran, the Islamic sciences and cultural studies Research Center, 1377, v1, p631.

75. About narration in the history of Islam and also the conditions for narrating historical events and Islamic methods in narrating history, please refer to Ibid, p 611-617.

Also for more information see: Ruh-ol-lah Bahrami, " the role of oral narration in creation of Islamic historiography" in: the Science of history and Islamic historiography, edited by: Hasan Hazrati, the higher education institute of Baqer-ol-olum, Qom, Bustan-e Ketab ( publications of the bureau for Islamic propaganda of the Islamic Seminary of Qom), 1382, p63-104; Nooraee, " an introduction to the Philosophy of Oral History", p66; Hasan Hazrati, the Science of history and Islamic historiography; Sayyed sadeq Sajjadi & Hadi Alam Zade, Historiography in Islam, Tehran, Samt, 1375

76. Among these works, we can refer to the following cases:

- Jalil Amjadi, The Oral History of the Muslim Combatant Septan Groups, Tehran, The Center for Islamic Revolution Documents, 1383
- Farshid Mehri, The Mosques of Tehran Bazaar in Imam Khomeini's Movement,, Seyyed Azizollah, The Azerbaijani Mosque, Tehran, The Center for Islamic Revolution Documents, 1383
- Gholamreza Karbaschi, The Oral History of Islamic Revolution, Tehran, The Center for Islamic Revolution Documents, (with the cooperation of Islamic Revolution Foundation),1380
- Abdolvahab Forati, The Oral History of Islamic Revolution, Tehran, The Center for Islamic Revolution Documents, 1379
- One of the features of the above works is that interview has been used as the main source and the text of interviews has not been published word by word..

77. Including: Nooraee, "An Introduction to the Philosophy of Oral History", Niknafs, "About Oral History", and Abolfazl Hassan Abadi (translator), the global Criteria of Oral History", The Treasury of Documents, Fourteenth year, third notebook, (Autumn 1383), pages 8-15

78. Mohsen Kazemi, "Oral History", Zamaneh, third year, no.28 (Day 1383), page 93

79 . Ibid

80. Quoted from Rahim Nikbakht, "A report from the first workshop of oral history in the ISfahan University" (polycopy).
According to the final statement of the Oral History Workshop, the members of the board of founders of The Association of Iranian Oral History are: 1- The History Group of Isfahan University, 2- The Center for Islamic Revolution Documents, 3- The management of the Documents and Press Affairs of the Organization of Libraries and Museums and the Center of the Documents of Astan-e Qods Razavi, 4- The Office of literature and Art of Resistance and the Center for Cultural Research and Studies and Resistance Politeness, 5-  Publishing & Arranging Institute of Imam Khomeini Works and the History Group of Imam Khomeini (may his soul rest in peace) Research Center.




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