Most Oral History Projects of the Prisoners of War Transformed into Oral Memory

Maryam Asadi Jafari
Translated by Natalie Haghverdian

2019-08-27


Iranian Oral History Site - The hard days of loneliness, exhaustion, torture, waiting, longing for family and endless captivity finally ended on August 17, 1990, and more than 43,000 of the prisoners were gradually returned to Iran.

Production of films about the era of captivity in Saddam’s military camps began with the narration of the released captives and the production of their memoir books. Payam Azadegan Artistic Cultural Institute was founded with a focus on recording the memories and experiences of the war captives and continues to operate with offices in Qom, Mashhad, Isfahan, Hamadan, Tabriz and Khuzestan provinces. Most of the Institute's projects are based on memories. The Ravayat Fath Institute has also published works such as the series of "Closed Doors" and "You Will Not Be Done", including the memoirs of Asadullah Mirmohammadi, which is a recent documentary in the field of war captives. In fact, their workflow has changed and, despite being faithful to the documentation, they have made the work more fictional in order to be closer to the target audience. The Art Division in Tehran and other counties has published works such as: "One Wag and Four Fingers", "Salar Tikrit", "A leg left behind Stayed" and ... and continues to focus on oral history. According to information available in the Special Warfare Library, 506 titles have been registered as individual memoirs and captive memoirs.

Although reading about the experiences of Iranian prisoners in the camps of the Iraqi Ba'ath Party is intriguing, after reviewing several book titles, you will find repeated memories and experiences. In this report, the Iranian Oral History site addresses the pathology of this problem and the way out.

 

Preventing Repetition in War Prisoners’ Memoirs

Mohammad Ghasemipour, head of the Office of Culture and Sustainability Studies of the Bureau of Provincial Affairs and Art Division Majlis, described the policy of the office to record the oral history of the war prisoners: “We work on two major general topics of the Islamic Revolution and the Holy Defense oral history. Anyone who has made sacrifices and has been dedicated to these two causes can be the subject of our projects. Most pre-revolutionary political prisoners also have war prisoner cards and their prison record is recognized as freed war prisoners. Fighters for the Islamic Revolution are also among the subjects that can be interviewed for oral history projects. Depending on the subject matter and the suggestion by researchers, some provinces, such as Gilan, have worked more on the oral history of the freed war prisoners. Of course, we have also thoughtfully avoided the repetitive models and stereotypes that have taken place in the memoirs of the freed war prisoners. We believe that the freed war prisoner narrators have been influenced by their portfolio of narrative memoirs, and that there is a stereotypical, and cyclical interview and recollection that is evident in some published work. Only the name and family change, but the context, events and incidents are the same. Sometimes with bitter humor, I say in some training sessions that I know the content of regular and repetitive books of the war prisoners by heart and I repeat them! The content and chapters of the hypothetical book begin with birth and childhood, continue with recruitment or deployment to the Front, and end with Muharram in captivity, Nowruz in captivity, acceptance of Resolution 598, the passing away of Imam Khomeini, and the return to the homeland. We have had many unconfirmed examples in the provincial Art Department over the years, saying that these works are not life-oriented and have not been licensed. We propose to extract behavioral details, mindsets, and insights from the captive's memory, rather than reporting the repetitive days of captivity.

We have no doubt, however, that war prisoners’ oral history projects, after being implemented and published in the form of oral memoirs to fit the general public. But since about five years ago, we have come to a serious and pathological critique of the war prisoners’ oral history and have tried to distance ourselves from the fixed and stereotyped pattern in memoir projects. Books like: "Fatah" Memories of Fateh Mohammadi from Kohgiluyeh & Boyer Ahmad, "Dance on One Leg" Memories of Azadeh Ismail Yektayi Langeroudi from Gilan Art Division and "Esmaeil Nazr Aftab" Memories of Azadeh Esmaeil Karimian shaddel from North Khorassan Art Division are examples that we believe did not follow previous patterns, and in these books a new exploration into the behavior and personality of the narrator took place during the period of captivity."

 

Extracting pristine narratives from seemingly repetitive events

"According to the criticism and pathology referred to in the provincial Art Division, we do not insist that the memoirs of every freed war prisoner must necessarily be published," he said. Although captive events are common, this cannot be the basis for not working and not recording memories. People face events with their emotions and feelings. There might be recurring events, such as the adoption of Resolution 598 in the memoirs of the war prisoners, but our narrator must tell of the personal effects of such incidents; they should not limit themselves to observations or use plural forms for reporting! Because we all have heard the reports and the prisoners have observed the same events. If the insights are told of the seemingly repetitive events, the same pristine, new and authentic narrative occurs.

Years ago, in the early two thousand, I did an oral history interview with a Zoroastrian freed war prisoner which was later written in the prose of a fiction documentary by an author and published by Fath Publications. In that interview, the narrator was a young Zoroastrian compatriot with a 26-month history of captivity. After one session, I concluded that the interviewee did not seem to have deep memories, and publishing him for the mere reason of being Zoroastrian for the general public will not be interesting. But he turned off the recorder and made a point of saying, "You have to know that I was sort of a double captive. Because I had been boycotted by other captives in the camp and everyone was trying to avoid me and I was alone at all times! It is hard to describe!" I told him: "If you want to express your situation in the camp and the approach you employed I’m eager to hear you." In the next sessions, the Zoroastrian war prisoner narrated the unheard and unseen stories of captivity different from others."

 

Narrator Selection

Mohammad Porhelm, deputy of art and culture and head of the Cultural and sustainability studies of the Gilan Art Division awarded in the 17th Ceremony of Selection of the Best Holy Defense Books, for his work on publication of the oral history of the freed war prisoners of Gilan province said: “We started this project in 2008 and published the first book titled "One Wag and Four Fingers" in 2010. Afterwards, we collected a number of youth, active in the field of memoriography and oral history from different counties of Gilan province. Since the war prisoners had a special character and somehow their untold stories appealed to the public, and at that time, the oral history and memoir writing was not developed, we continued with the youth for over ten years. We have published 26 titles in the field of oral history of the freed war prisoners. This process continues. Of course, in the last one or two years, we reduced the workload a little bit and shifted to the combatants. The main reason was that we felt we had to work with certain people more selectively. Because the memories were alike. The selection is both time-consuming and requires some kind of benchmarking and, if necessary, completing the project. So we reduced the number of tasks. Because we recorded at least two or sometimes up to five of Gilani's freed war prisoners in different camps. We are looking for better quality and do not want to get repeated narratives from individuals. That means we want to extract the untold stories of the Iranian prisoners and that is our main goal.”

Citing some examples, he points to the diversity of memories in the memoirs of the war prisoners and says: "We have a book titled" Sweet Love "including the memoirs of Qasem Zibayipour, which relies on a series of letters exchanged with his wife. He wrote about twenty letters to his wife in the pre-captivity era that we were able to obtain many of the great events of the war that happened to him, through the letters or signs in them. I think it's a very unique memoir that, at the same time, demonstrates the narrator's love and affection for his wife and two children. Another book, "In the ambush of «Kumeleh[1]", belongs to a war prisoner who was held captive by Iranian Kumeleh. They had built prisons on the Iranian-Iraqi border, kidnapping children and returning them against a hefty ransom to the Army or the Guardian Forces. We have many captives, some of whom have died in these prisons. It describes the captivity in the hands of Kumelehs, their detention centers, and their attempt to exert an ideological influence on the captives. ”

 

Quality Promotion

At the end, Porhelm emphasizes: “Although, I believe we will reach to the point of repletion, I believe that there is still much work to be done in Gilan and across the country. We have about 2,500 freed Gilani war prisoners, while the oral history of only one percent has been covered. We need to publish at least 10% oral history, which makes it 250 book titles so that we can say that we have recorded almost the majority of events. For example, we have worked on five book titles on the oral history of the Ramadieh Prisoners that might have common points. But they each remembered the events from their own point of view and had an independent narrative that depicted different aspects of the war and came from a range of different backgrounds. Each of the five prisoners narrate the events based on their own views and beliefs. That's why every book has its own color, and even if we have all these 2500 people, there are still many differences. "But we can't cover all of these people, and by producing and using the best narrators, we will produce the smallest but the highest quality."

 


 

[1] The Kurdish Communist Organization



 
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