Introducing and Reviewing a Book

Oral Tradition as History

Maryam Rajabi
Translated by Ruhollah Golmoradi


As reported by Iranian Oral History Website, the session on introduction and review of the book "Oral Tradition as History", attended by Farhad Nam-Baradarshad, Translator of the book, Alireza Kamari and Heshmatollah Azizi, was held in Parham Hall of the Center for Documents and Archives of NLAI on Monday morning, November 12, 2018.


A Work in field of oral history

Gholamreza Azizi, manager of NLAI's Document Research Institute, was director of the meeting. He began the session, "In field of oral history that we can talk about as a new science in Iran, there are still not provided significant, adequate and sufficient works in Persian. In spite of efforts made by oral history practitioners or in their own words oral practitioners, despite the effort which were began since start of the sacred defense through recording memories of the warrior, and despite the efforts that were began at home and abroad to interview people, and sometimes is astonishingly voluminous and number of interviews is ever increasing, and topics are expanding rapidly, but unfortunately,  a handful works have worked on theoretical debates of oral history and number of books you can find on this topic in market are not considerable. Fortunately, this year, at least two works have been published in field of oral history, one of which was a compilation, the same work was conducted by Ms. Faezeh Tavakoli, and the second is a work was done by Mr. Baradarshad. Proximity of borders of memory writing, biography, oral tradition, and folklore with oral history has, unfortunately, caused works that have been published as oral history in recent years to become more like memories, or those works published as memories to be similar to oral history. It isn't still the problem; the problem is that recently folklore and oral tradition have been sometimes mistakenly confused with these two categories. We did not have any book on oral tradition before work of Mr. Baradarshad, and we only had some articles, one was a translation and the other compilation, one of which was by Dr. Nooraee, and this shows importance of Mr. Baradarshad's work."



Importance of ethnological data

Following the session, Farhad Nam-Baradarshad, the book's translator, stated, "I present a short introduction on subject of the book, information about the author, the motive that made me to translate this book, and the problems that I faced in this way. My motivation to translate such a work into Farsi is referred to my postgraduate studies, which I was studying major of pre-Islamic history of Iran. In almost all resources of that period there was an oral tradition, passed down by word of mouth and collected later. There is an example; at that time, Mobads (a Zoroastrian cleric) did not give science to all people, and was not available for majority; for this reason, this science deliberately was passed down by word of mouth and usually was de/increased. I had heard much title of oral tradition, but I had not seen a book about this area, and what it is field of oral tradition at all? How is its methodology and how could we accept it? As historians, we cannot accept sources which have been passed down by word of mouth from previous years, because every subject, if it was passed down by word of mouth from yesterday to today, it would change, let alone a point which was passed down many years ago. If we do not mix oral tradition with oral history, we find that it is a very new field that nobody has ever worked about it in Iran. Dr. Yarshater wrote papers and books and talked about oral tradition, but generally, we cannot get information about how to collect, expand, and record it; we do not get any sense of how oral tradition is believable and measurable. Usually, data of historians and those who we now have in writing are official histories from pre-Islamic period to the recent period, especially until middle of Qajar and Naserieh period with a series of reforms and issues, that is, almost all of ours histories; It is a tradition that is written for the government and does not contain ethnographic and anthropological data. There has been data that the government generally has involved in and manipulated them, and it is clear that the data is biased. There is nothing about culture and customs of people. A book like John Vansina's Book (Oral Tradition as History) opens up a window to us.

Field of history extends day by day to include all humanities. To some extent, it can be said human sciences means history and history means humanities. This relationship has always existed, but our data is just official and often political and maybe economic. It is very good that this new way goes on and to examine all messages that have been passed down by words of mouth in poems, riddles, local epics, spoken stereotypes and jokes that we have in our own tribes from the past. John Vansina said the book is not just for history major practitioners. Even those who work in field of historical psychology and sociology can read this book and it is useful for them. This is process of forming the book; John Vanessa was born in Belgium in 1929 from a French-speaking family. He joined infantry from 1950 around central Africa, and then went there as a researcher. What is clear about his speech is that he himself was originally African. When he entered infantry, he was encouraged to follow up the path. He wrote many books and this made several foundations ask him to write a book on methodology. Because of this book, he tried to make his work more universal, and this methodology is a strategy for recognizing the truth and reducing errors in this area. He is very convinced that oral tradition can be applied not as a source of reference, but as an auxiliary source in supporting other sources, and even in our own ethnographic histories which we do not have any source or document, it can even be treated as a source.

Different historical schools extend area of ​​ precision of history every day, and fields of history look at sophisticated angles day-to-day. For this reason, oral tradition shows its value here. I had historical studies too during translating this book. Because if we do not recognize philosophical schools of the West in studying this book, it is hard to understand the subject; on the other hand, author of the book is a French-speaking and an English-writer that it made the text heavier. John Vansina was invited to work as a professor at the University of Wisconsin's History Department in 1960. He has over 40 articles in prestigious journals in the world that have been translated into more than six major languages. For his works, he is recognized as the most important pioneer and founder of field of studying oral traditions in Africa; in fact, chair of African-studying of University of Wisconsin, that its statue is also positioned there is known by his name. He won Award of African Studies Association twice for book of "Oral Tradition as History". He resigned University of Wisconsin for a number of political issues that he had with President Bush, and was at home for 14 to 15 years and eventually died in lung cancer last February."



In continuance of the session, Alireza Kamari, researcher and history and literature author, talked. His speeches will be published on Iranian Oral History Website in form of an independent text.


Modernism of history in Africa

Then Heshmatollah Azizi, a researcher and author of history, stated, "Topic of modernism of history in Africa began with the colonial domination. As you know, one of the ways colonialists to bring nations of East and Third World into their own colonialism was that Western scholars and writers usually tried in different and blarney ways and through special scientific, intellectual and artistic tools to deny history, thought and culture of a nation. This happened in the case of Africa too. In their writings and propaganda, Africa was introduced as a continent without history, with savagery and barbarism and slavery, so that they could more easily overcome the African nation. Historians and scholars of Africa also use history for reviving identity and save Africa's history and race from colonialists. In modernism history in Africa, we see two major trends that emerged since nineteenth century. The first trend of African historiography is based on "Pan Africanism", which was formed after the Paris conference in 1919. Its pioneers were Du Bois, who is identified as founder of Pan Africanism, Bladen and Anta Diop. The historians' goal was to maintain national identity, return to self and fight against slavery in front of colonialists and aggressive culture of the West with an emphasis on history of Egyptian civilization in era of second Pharaohs. The second trend of historiography of Africa based on Islam. This style was introduced by Cooley in 1841. He was the first to present history of Muslim Africa as a reference to the African history, and posited Islam as a unitary belief, culture and civilization, and African nations as a single Islamic nation. Purpose of these historians is to promote culture and civilization of Islam as a stimulus for Africans to return to their own self and decolonizing. Historiographical methods in Africa used by these historians in 19th and 20th centuries can be divided into four categories. The first is historiography with sociology approach and orientation to ethnology, the second historiography by linguistic approach and the third historiography through approach of archaeological explorations that is carried out in two stages. The first phase begins with presence of colonialism in Africa, and major explorations that took place in that period were to deny history of African civilization and plunder of Africa's cultural heritage. The second phase was formed from 1960 with presence of historians and archaeologists from Africa and fair orientalists in this area and in direction of confirming African civilization and culture. Historiography through approach of oral tradition that is subject of our discussion is the fourth method of historiography in Africa. This approach has been established in Africa since the early 1960s. African societies, with the exception of Muslim states and ethnics in the continent, did not use writing language or use very little, and especially in East Africa areas and countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Djibouti, Somalia and Mozambique, much of the history and culture was in narrative and oral tradition form. The purpose of this historiography was also to portray role of Africa and African, and to restore autonomous and independent identity from era of European colonialism. In this field, John Vansina was representative and pioneer of this method. He has written two important books on the subject, the first one is "Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology" and was published in 1965. Twenty years later, in 1985, he also wrote the book "Oral History as History." These two works are considered as major methodological works in field of oral tradition. Contrary to prevailing approaches of the time that emphasized objectivity and underlying importance of written documents, Vansina believes that oral sources of history are equally worthy like of written documents and resources, and they can also be used to obtain genuine and reliable content. Vansina's ideas provide grounds for revolution in history and tradition of historiography in Africa. Historiography with oral tradition approach opens up new horizons for Africa which challenges distortions resulting from Europeanism in colonial documents. In this book, Vansina attempts to illustrate how oral traditions can be used as a historical resource by presenting a set of rules and regulations related to flow of production, publication and recording oral traditions to readers and researchers in this field. It can be said that today, in Africa, more than rest of the world, historians and anthropologists are relied on oral tradition."

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