Pathology of Oral History in Iran

Maryam Rajabi
Translated by M. B. Khoshnevisan


According to the website of Iranian Oral History, a meeting with the subject of Challenges of Oral History revolving around security of historical resources was held in the venue of the 31st Tehran’s International Book Fair in Imam Khomeini Mosalla on Wednesday 10th of May 2018. Shafiqeh Nik Nafs was the secretary of the meeting and Amit Masoud Shahram Nia, Majid Tafreshi, Mohsen Kazemi and Gholamreza Azizi were the speakers of the meeting.


Significance of opportunities in oral history work

Amir Masoud Shahram Nia was the first speaker. He said, “Preservation of cultural heritage is of great importance for every country. Preservation of written heritage can help better and more precise studying and it has its own special status from this view the responsibility of which has been left to the National Library and Archives of Islamic Republic of Iran. Today, I am glad from several aspects. First, today is the Day of National Archives and I am interested in this day because I am active in this area for a few years. The second reason is that I am among very good colleagues with whom I have the honor to work for several years. I had the opportunity to be at the service of the friends in two different stages. The first one was due to my own personal interest in the area of individual studies, because my professional field is not history but political sciences. But due to the interest I found, I cooperated with the friends at one point and a project entitled Oral History of Contemporary Iran especially dignitaries of Pahlavi era and the period of Islamic Republic was carried out. Unfortunately many dignitaries who made contemporary history and played a role in it are losing their lives one by one due to old age and many of them did not have the opportunity and motivation to write the events happened around themselves.”

The Deputy Head of the 31st Tehran’s International Book Fair continued, “During my three-year cooperation with the friends in the form of a working project, some 360 hours of interview were conducted with the dignitaries who are not among us now and even some of them did not follow memory-writing. The good thing happened at that time and was continued later was that memory-writing did not get limited just to the recording of interviews with these respected people and limited to audio conversations which are common but it was tried that the interviews were perfect and in addition to audio conversations, a good visual work was also carried out. I was looking at a list provided for the interviews and saw that today, 80 percent of the interviewees are not among us. This shows that to what extent hurrying up is important. Once the subject of oral history was an oppressed one in our country, but at present it has become much more serious. Previously, they looked at oral history like social history but now, this child has grown to such an extent that it is more important to pay attention to it. Oral history was already considered as a method for historical studies, today it has turned into a field and a branch of historical studies. The resources were very few at that time, but fortunately, the literature of oral history has revived now. Paying attention to oral history has become more serious in the universities. I think good international experiences have been carried out about Iranian oral history and we can say that the treasury of oral history of contemporary Iran has become weightier. However, the work of oral history is very hard. The biggest challenge that we have experienced was that access to most of the dignitaries that we wanted to go to them was difficult due to either old age or job plurality or for political reasons; for instance, access to some of the actors of the first decade of the Islamic revolution is not possible. Efforts to interpret historic narratives are also one of the challenges to oral history. How different the narratives were when we went to different dignitaries. We are also concerned about other points of the history. Registration, preservation and writing of the history of the imposed war also require serious attention. The serious point in writing the history of war is the issue of being sacred which has been shaped by using the shining faces of the combatants which makes difficult the recording of the events. Being sacred of the combatants' faces is correct but we should not hinder the correct registration and recording of the events and this has turned into a challenge. We need to carry out a proper chronology of the events of the war era. The second point that we could cooperate with friends was the time when I was the Deputy Head of the National Archives and I want to confess honestly that I had the sincerest, the most hardworking and scientific colleagues in the National Library and Archives of Islamic Republic of Iran during my career."


Risks of memoirs

Majid Tafreshi, a history researcher was the second speaker of the meeting. He said, "Today I want to speak about risks of memoires. As we did not pay attention to necessity of oral history in the last years, now we do, but we pay less attention to its challenges and ifs and buts. I faced with the individuals inside and outside the country who had characteristics worth listening to their words, registering and recording their memoirs. There are several issues here to which we must pay attention. First, sometimes, the interviewer sees himself or herself in the form of a tape recorder who sits in a corner without any guidance, supervision and organized method, allowing the interviewee to say whatever he or she has. This has reasons. First, there is the unawareness of the interviewer towards the interview, and the interviewee does not have enough awareness and study. In this case, like the past several years, the interviewee takes control of the affairs knowingly or unknowingly, leading the interview and the interviewer is a tool and tape recorder. The thing that happens here is that the interviewer may be influenced by the interviewee. It is possible many times that he or she confronts with the interviewee with previous intention and sometimes is charmed due to much fascination and the quality is lost. So, if the interviewer has necessary readiness, he or she can launch a powerful and bright project easily. On the other hand, the interviewee can also have several problems. Sometimes, the interviewees are distinguished people and are either conservative in expressing their memories for reasons, or do not have confidence on the interviewer for reasons and do not say the whole thing; one sample is the interview conducted by Mohammad Ebrahim Amir Teimour Kalali with Habib Lajevardi in Harvard Oral History Project. As far as we know Amir Teimour Kalai in Iranian contemporary history, he knows himself a descendant of Nader Shah and Timur the Lame. His family was in Teimuri District and among the proprietary and regional land owners and lords. He has been a member of Khorasan’s Scientific Association since Ahmad Shah and after the Constitutional Revolution. He was present during the Constitutional Revolution, conquer of Tehran and Pahlavi era. He was one of the close friends of Dr. Mosadeq during oil nationalization. He was the Minister of Labour in the first term and then was appointed as Interior Minister. In the eighteenth term, he was among the few National Front representatives who came to the parliament in a coup; his daughter later became the wife of Pakistan's President, Eskandar Mirza. He was a great man and we see that he at the age of 90 talked with Habib Lajevardi in Los Angeles and the result was very ridiculous memoirs from a wacky person who knows nothing. This happened for two reasons. First, he was interviewed at a time when had lost his memory and second Habib Lajevardi knew nothing of Amir Teimur and interviewed him and the thing that could be bright in its time turned into a worthless work. We owe Habib Lajevardi but if a proper mechanism is not observed, the result can be low value. Sometimes, the owner of memoirs lies knowingly or does not tell the whole facts due to registration in history. Many times, he or she does not tell some memoirs which are not important from the viewpoint of the owner of memories, and or stresses more on the ones which are important from the view of the audience, and this is the art and ability of the interviewer in view of his or her skill who recalls some cases. On the other hand, when the interviewer argues during an interview with the interviewee, the trust is lost. Argument in an interview should continue until its challenging aspect is not eliminated; finding the border between challenge and interrogation is very difficult and on the other hand, observation of these standards is different for every person. Oral history is a tool for historian to write history and an important and undeniable resource for historiography. If we consider an oral history interview as an original history, it provides the grounds for systematic mistakes and lies of the interviewee and interviewer intentionally or unintentionally, and this can be turned into risks for historiography namely an opportunity turns into a serious challenge and this is seen in some main resources extremely. One of the big problems which we have in recording memoirs is that our memory-tellers do not have the culture of daily note writing. When you do not have daily note writing, you forget many things and the generalities just remain in your mind, but you forget the details, and when we during an interview remind them of the details, they are thrilled. This is also a point for helping the owner of the memory and the current of interview which should also be noticed."


Oral history is an active interview

In continuation of the meeting, Mohsen Kazemi, a history writer and researcher said, "After three decades of oral history work, we need to take a look at the back and see what we are going through. We should see what this information we generated and left at the disposal of society, whether it solves the problems, or what heritage it has brought to our country. The subject of pathology of oral history has numerous chapters and on the other hand is very sensitive and I would like to bring up the debate of information engineering or information organization which is a prelude to pathology. We need information for an engineering construction or an intellectual construction to be properly engineered and architecturally organized, both quantitatively and qualitatively. In qualitative organization, we must pay attention to oral history process from the phase of finding subject, pre-research, research, post-research and during the interview. We need to know how and with what necessary information and training should go forward. Then, there is the issue of archive, transcription and compilation. In order to present a good work qualitatively, we need training and experience. What is being produced today in our country does not follow any of these steps; things are tangled, emotional, and triggered by a series of immediate community needs. Some think that recording of any memory can be named oral history while this complicated process should also be considered. The selection of a subject and our studies around that subject is of great importance; it means that the information regarding a subject should be first organized by us as oral historians and questioner history questioners and go to the interviewee with good information so that not to become passive, because oral history should be shaped in an active atmosphere as a correct definition of oral history says it is an active interview. We must first make this service to ourselves and if the information is organized before ourselves, and pay attention to the process of obtaining information out of the mind of our interviewee, we need to have a normal level of the society's literacy namely to know the literacy of psychology and sociology and a little of political and economic issues and a little of the whole issues of the society. That is, we need to have a medium to high intelligence so that we can obtain that information, otherwise, as Mr. Tafreshi said, we will fall into the same trap in which the interviewee leads the interviewer and takes to the boundaries that should not be taken. When the information is being produced, we need to organize them qualitatively. Here and in qualitative terms, there is a discussion of validation and verification that to what extent the information that is being produced is correct and false. To what extent is our information correct and false, it goes back to the way we have come form in the past, how we have chosen the subject and how far we have researched about it, and what we are going to do now to generate this information. We are now going to the point where we do the work of validation with with various tools and internal and external credit, that is, by establishing exchanges between different narratives and with the post-interviewing research, we compare and adapt them to the documentation in order to verify and raise our data qualitatively and to give credit to them. Then, the issue of archive is brought up. Archive should be viewed not only qualitatively but quantitatively. In qualitative discussion, the point is how we should have the world's literacy. We need to know what the status of the world is in the archive, because it helps us to organize information. Arranging more and more information takes us to the archive, and if we organize the information well in the archive, we can take easy and big steps in the compilation. If we do not organize our information in the archive correctly, we will face with trouble in compiling it, because we need to organize information in the compilation too. A good editor must know where to put the data in place so that he or she can get the right meaning and purpose of the work and give it to the community. To me, all of these is a chain and we need to pay attention to them well and have necessary trainings. But a serious damage which exists in the field of information is that it is generated massively. The reason for mass production is that there is no organized arrangement that will cause us a major problem in the future and that is a huge accumulation of information. In the future, we will not be able to identify pure from impure in the information explosion that is happening. For example, lots of information about war are being produced. Because there is a halo of sanctification in them, they all suppose that the narrator who is expressing memories is attached to that holy space, so he or she is right. Hasn't wrong information entered the society inside the words and the targeted work the interviewer is doing? How can we sort through them? Sorting is a technique but information must be tabulated and purposeful to answer. We need to have the necessary skills to organize information and use all of the information and data to build the country."


Oral culture and mindful concealment

Gholam Reza Azizi, the Head of the Research Center of the National Library and Archives of Islamic Republic of Iran was the last speaker of the meeting. He said, "Oral history deals with two groups of problems; a group that is common, and you can see them in the whole world and in all oral history groups. For example, one of the downfalls of oral history interviews is that memory is unstable, and the narrator may make a mistake or forget. Issues like exaggeration and concealment always exist. The issues that concern the interviewer such as lack of domination on the subject, and lack of knowledge over the subject whom he or she is interviewing are also the issues which are commonly seen in many oral history projects. On the other hand, the culture of we Iranians is oral, we are not accustomed to write our memoirs, we love to talk more. Our oral culture is also followed by something else. The prophet of Islam (blessings of God upon him and his progeny) in a hadith says, "Conceal your path, your money and the way you have." A culture of concealment has grown alongside our oral culture. The culture of concealment is one of the damages of oral history projects in Iran. We have many conversational taboos in our culture talking about which for instance in TV is also problematic. We may see such self-censorship in all societies, but in the societies which the amount of comfort and relaxation are less, the damage can be seen more clearly. There should be no argument in oral history interviews, because in such interviews you want to revive a reality not forcing him or her to double speaking. If the party is forced to double speaking in the interview, the name of the opposite individual is not the interviewer, it is the interrogator! One of the cases which shows itself in oral history projects is the mindful concealment. It means whatever the interviewers, listeners or audience can abuse and somehow crush my face (narrator), I conceal it. Mindful concealment has its roots in history, it shows itself in our poems at least since the fourth or fifth centuries that don't talk! Let not your tongue cut your throat! We are told continuously, be silent! Don't say anything! The friends can find fault with me that oral history is a conception for twentieth century and there should be no evidence of it before, but as historical roots, we have to work on something that has become part of our speech culture. We can assume whether our lack of writing and that we say our culture is oral and have sought memory-writing to a lesser extent have an influence in it? In oral culture, we can deny everything but in written one, this cannot happen. The issue is considered in my mind as pathology of Iranian oral history which can be reviewed and studied.”

At the end of the meeting, Shifteh Nik Nafs said, “We had an interviewee last year who himself came to the National Library and Archives to narrate his memories and have an interview. From the beginning, the man had an issue in his mind for which he had come to the organization in order to express and record it for history. My interview with that person extended to 30 sessions and he has not still talked about the issue for which he had come and still hesitates whether to tell it. I always assured the interviewee to speak and that no problem would happen. I always take God as witness that during the past 25 years, no problem was found for anyone on behalf of us, but in the conditions of this individual, I cannot give this assurance. I want to know whether I have to insist that person to talk or do not insist due the risk that exists?”

In answering this question, Majid Tafreshi said, “No one can give the assurance one hundred percent that the memoirs are disseminated nowhere, you can just do this as much as possible.”  

Also Mohsen Kazemi in answering this question said, “It is natural that the narrator is worried about post-publication risks. The grounds should be provided in a way that I as an interviewer and he as an interviewee publish the materials when we are sure, otherwise they should stay in the archives so that the posterity comes 50 to 100 years later and use them. However, this creates the worriedness whether what I give the organization is used by the intelligence and security agencies? Are they used against me? I think intelligence and security agencies have reached this extent of adolescence that they know unpublished information is like what have not been confessed in the court. On the other hand, this question is raised that if they are given these texts, they may be used. All of this is probable and they bring responsibility for the individual who is a narrator and for the individual who registers and records the narration and create risks. We must measure all of these aspects and do not lay ourselves in line. Some people are worried about the future. So they do sacrifices. The work of history really demands such sacrifices. We have had historians during the history who sacrifice themselves on their path and this is not the case apart. I have a simple prescription for lower situation and lesser risks that if the risk of publication is existed, several copies of the narration should be kept by the narrator and his or her family so that if it is misused or distorted, they have documents to reject it.”               

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