It was brought up at the workshop “Midday with Oral History”

Preservation of “lost worlds” with oral history

Maryam Assadi Jafari
Translated by M. B. Khoshnevisan


In the scientific-research workshop “Midday with Oral History”, Dr. Morteza Nouraee said, “There are spaces in old tradition and modern tradition of historiography with which have not dealt and they are called “lost world”. We as just historians must pay attention that we should also deal with the lost worlds in distribution of historiography.”

According to the website of Oral History, the scientific-research workshop “Midday with Oral History” was held in the Literature and Humanities College of Isfahan University on Tuesday, 3rd of December 2019. It was organized by the Association for Iranian National History and the History and Iranology Group of Isfahan University. Dr. Morteza Nouraee and Dr. Masumeh Goudarzi delivered speeches in the workshop.


Historical partnership; an introduction to social partnership

In the beginning of the meeting, Dr. Nouraee talked about the significance of “history therapy” and added, “The term “history therapy” has been used for the first time in “Don Quixote” authored by Cervantes. It is possible that we do not know where the problem is in society, but we recognize that we are not well. These diagnoses have led to the creation of various departments of historiography and, by the way, oral history is one of the most effective history therapy approaches. One of the areas of interest to historians of this period was that who are the absentees of history? They eventually realized that there were spaces in the ancient and modern tradition of historiography that have not been addressed and are called "lost worlds" idiomatically. Lost worlds means that if we do not know it, it does not mean it does not exist. For instance, if you want to quote your life, you do not remember many parts of it. Aren’t they part of your life? We as just historians must pay attention that we should also deal with the lost worlds in distribution of historiography. The historians of the 60s considered the three classes of workers, women and the illiterates as the absentees of history. These three vast levels include the lost worlds which by the way are and have been a large part of our world. Another point that was raised was that the most boisterous strata of history, who have overshadowed the rest of the population and have always been registered, are "politicians". Part of them ruled, wrote, and was written. Some have produced historical documents, so they are both writers and have been written. When you have freedom and democracy in the field of history, it means that historiography must be present in all different social classes and aspects and in the lost worlds. Everyone should be present in history. So, this was the existential philosophy of oral history. Allan Noys interviewed the World War II soldiers not the army commanders, because the army’s conversations and orders of army commanders were registered and written in papers and they interviewed the reporters. But any war is mainly based on the rule of that society. In a society that exists the notion of democracy, if the rule of that society is not seen and the social partnership is low, it will lead to social divide. Historical partnership is the introduction to social partnership. Presence in the past for historians means being active in the future. The societies benchmarked from 1360s to 1380s in order to have an active presence for future planning around the society. For this reason, two titles have been considered for oral history: one “living history” and the other “future history”.

Differences between historiography and oral history

Regarding active interview in oral history, the history professor of Isfahan University said, “Oral history is based on interview. Thus, this interview is special and for this reason, it is called as active interview.  Active interview means that the interviewer during the process of interviewing helps the narrator to remember the memoirs and other things. Thus, the interviewer should also have relative domination over the considered subject. Therefore, a cooperation and companionship takes place between the interviewer and interviewee which is different with the type of the interviews by correspondents, sociologists, psychologists and populists. The populists’ interviews are based on chest-to-chest quotation. The difference between a historical event and non-historical one is that it should have an originator. Your narrator can witness an event or have heard it by one or two persons. More than this number, it turns into a narration. The depth of oral history is contemporary and for this reason, it is called living history. Some also calls it as “immediate history”. We know that memory-writing and oral history revolve around the mentality of persons. Memory-writing may be written by a person or another one. It means that you write your memoirs or read for someone else to write them. In this part, the interviewer may interview about the memoirs of a person. So, memory-writing and oral history almost cooperate with each other. In memory-writing, we have journal and late-writing. Late-writing include week-writing, month-writing or year-writing and sometimes chronology? The question is what is the difference between memory-writing and oral history? One of our perplexed problems is that some people in their interviews resort to memory-writing but sell them under oral history. This is one of the pathologies of oral history in Iran. Preparing an oral history work takes, on average, one and a half years. First, history from a standpoint is a science based on collective experience. Something is considered history in which a group is involved. If a community is involved in a story, it becomes a historical experience. While we believe that our work in an oral history interview should be a product of collective experience, but in memory, it is an individual experience. The narrative in the memory-writing is linear. That is, it has a certain sequence that the person himself states. This line is based on timing. So a routine is preserved in memory-writing. But in oral history, personal experience must become collective experience. Narration of oral history is a network and its building is historiology and one of its elements. We have numerous subjects and phenomena in that building. It is historiology in the building of memory-writing that sometimes, its subject is widened. But, the type of oral narration is multi-network. When you ask numerous questions, you turn the issue of memory-writing into a challenging one. This challenge takes you toward oral history. In memory-writing, people say whatever they like. But in oral history, the narrator’s conversations are shifted to documentation relying on documents, photos and films. You document exactly all phases of the interview. We help the interviewee to think more easily through the existing documents.”



Ethics in Oral History / "Oral Document" or "Oral Evidence"

In continuation of the scientific-research workshop “Midday with Oral History”, Dr. Morteza Nouraee explained about the ethical points in this area and added, “You are not going to blame someone in an oral history interview. You are not allowed to publish any terms or words from the interview without the interviewee's permission. There are a number of ethics and legal issues involved. You are not allowed to use the interview as long as the interviewee does not allow you. Some may ask you to publish the interview 50 years after his or her death. As we have said, oral history is the result of a collective experience. So how do we get this collective experience? One technique in an oral history interview is that we obtain from the interviewee the names of the individuals who have been present in that interview or have cooperated with him or her in that work. You may ask whether oral history interviews can be dubbed as an oral document? This is an important argument among oral historians the majority of whom believe that we do not have "oral document" but "oral evidence". The main reason is that if we interview one person and another person interviews the same person, he or she will definitely respond in another way. It has happened many times that the interviewee has said that I have not said such words. In the interview, there may be reforms, and something may happen. "Document" refers to a phenomenon that nobody interferes in it. But if the interviewee wants to correct the interview, he or she has to go another route and another document is produced. But on the issue of oral history, the individuals claim on the interviews. Many believe that as long as the narrator is alive, he will not receive the title of an oral document. So if we write in the book "based on oral documents", this is an idiomatic wrong term. According to Aristotle, one should not expect everything more than its nature. The nature of oral history depends on history. The nature of oral history is that it moves toward calendar and the strengthening of the main date; it means it does not have an independent existence. We can say that oral history phenomenon should be strengthened by documentation. For instance, we have a PhD thesis about the partnership of high school students in Isfahan in Islamic revolution a number of whom have been interviewed. They have differences of opinion and taste. A researcher selected as interviewer has read all of the papers, government statements and SAVAK (Shah's secret police) documents about the high school students in Isfahan. Thus, the documents should confirm all of the questions and answers of an active interview. Another point is that when we face with the narrations based on individual experience, it is considered as a conditional narration. If we have a witness, you cannot consider it as an absolute history and narration. You have interviewed in some places but there is no collective sequence and experience. If the narrator is credible and has the qualifications required for the interview, we say this is a modest statement. But you have to find other words to refute or confirm. In this case, we say that the narration is conditional; it means that it is not absolute. Therefore, the lateral problem of historiography based on oral history is that we cannot comment on it absolutely. That we say oral history is the history of future means that oral history productions are not used today as historical documentations. It is more about helping the future historians and multiple opinions for future historians and liberation of history. One of the students came to me. He had written his questions on cellphone. I said, "One of your failures in interview is that you do not look at me. You should not do anything to distract the interviewee. The questions should be the queen of your mind. The advantage of open questions is that the maneuverability of the interviewee is great. You should not interrupt the interview. He or she may say something which is useful in next projects. The interview should not be interrupted. He or she may say somethings which are useful for the next projects. Provide a list of the interviewees according to your plan. In the first glance, all of these people may not be useful for us, but when you are involved in interviewing, you see that many claim that they know and many have no claim. If you feel that he or she does not have anything for saying, say goodbye with full respect. The length of an interview is according to the agreement. About one hour and one hour and a quarter is enough. Even if the interviewee was in a good mood, do not continue more. It is preferable that you conduct two interviews with such people. They often interview one time, but ask other questions and make them promise for another meeting. It is recommended that you have two recorders. Be on time for the interview. These features show what a strong, honest and reliable characteristic you have. The camera shocks the interviewee's characteristic not to be able to be comfortable. For this reason, we do not recommend it. But since some organs and institutions invest for documenting the interviews, so filming is part of their meetings. The filming team should interview the interview. The camera should already be checked."

Practical principles of interview

Then, "Dr. Masumeh Goudarzi" a graduate in History of Islamic Iran who have compiled her thesis on the basis of oral history explained about practical points in oral history interviews and said, "What are the methods of conducting an active interview and how can we find subjects and when we find a subject, how can we have a good interview? Each interview has several main elements, one of which is time. When we want to plan for an interview, we need to pay attention to its time and place, as they are one of the main elements of an interview. About the issue of time, we sometimes refer to a specific event, such as the Islamic Revolution. When we pay attention to a person's year of birth, we are referring to a birth event.

Sometimes we deal with a specific sign, like the day when all people poured to the streets for demonstrations in February 1979. But another important element in the interview is its place, namely the place where an event happens. If the narrator is a witness and is located there, I will challenge him or her by my next questions in order to obtain more information. I had a meeting in 2013 with Dr, Nouraee and a group of experts in the area of oral history like Mr. Mohsen Kazemi and Mr. Rasoulipour. He said, “When I want to go for an interview, I even pre-identify the perfume of the interviewee. How does he or she dress and what is his or her discipline? What time does he or she wake up? And so on. I try to get familiar with his or her moods in order to know when is proper to call him or her. If I am supposed to go in person, is he or she willing to have a meeting at home or at work?

Before the interview begins, we need a set of preparations. I have to bring a recorder with me. I check the recorder charger. The location of the interview should also be a safe and secure environment physically. It should have enough light and the space air is pleasant, because these issues affect the interviewee.



I certainly take a pen and paper with me. When you go for an interview, you’d better be generous and take a box of sweets or flowers to cheer up the narrator. Be open-faced and try to gain the confidence of the other party to make sure that you are an interviewer, not a person who is trying to catch him or her in the act. He or she should not think that you want to extract and misuse his information. Allow the narrator before turning on the recorder. Before that, consider anything that might disturb or distract you and the narrator, such as turning off your cellphone. Any interview for becoming a document must have a time and date. At the beginning of the interview, remind the number of sessions of the interview with the person, name of the interviewer, date, time and exact location of the interview, and then begin the interview. At the end, mention the completion of the interview.

Note whether you have an open, closed or half-open interview? You in an open interview let the narrator's mind go anywhere and do not have certain questions. In fact, the interviewee says whatever he or she likes. But if we ask the narrator to talk only about an event, it comes back to your skill to bring the narrator to before the event with delicacy, skill and precise questions. If you find that the interviewee has nothing to say or goes wrong, it is again up to you how to take him back respectfully to the point you are looking for and get the output. If you feel the narrator is tired and his words may not be useful as a result of exhaustion, you can say respectfully, “If you feel that you’d better postpone the interview to another time, I will be happy to be at your service again in another meeting” and end the interview. Sometimes, the interviewee has a series of frames and restrictions which we cannot go beyond it. We should not interrupt the interviewee while interviewing. We have to be a good listener. We should not hear his or her words without any feeling and attention. We must create this feeling in the narrator that we listen to his or her words and attach importance for him and her by shaking head, looking and saying “yes”, “wow” and so on. A good interviewer should have a good acuity and aptitude. As we are a good listener, we have to be a good speaker too. You must know how to talk to the narrator in order to get him or her excited that if he or she is going to speak partly, he or she passes up. These are the main rules of interview.”


Importance of citation in oral history


About the method of finding subjects in oral history, he said, “Sometimes, the subject is famous and sometimes ordinary and unknown; like one of the survivors of Operation Karbala 4. At times, the interviewee had forgotten the events. We should find his colleagues and comrades and talk to them. Then, we challenge his mind by expressing a memory we have heard from his friends. Some exaggerate or tell a lie. The narrator may have been in the war front but says that I have also been in an operation. We have to recognize whether to go that person… some are sick. If you go to the veterans' sanatorium and the doctor orders a veteran that no one should go to ask a question about the war, skip such subjects. A question about the war may take him to the same date and create those conditions for him. I as an interviewer am not allowed to play with others’ body and soul. In a group interview, the individual’s mind is challenged better. When you forget the events and something has remained hidden in part of their mind, another narrator challenges your mind by quoting that memory and event. As we already said, memory is main element of oral history which can turn into oral history after verification. Sometimes, we feel that the information is not enough. We have to find this flaw in two places: either I had not enough skill or the one I have chosen for interview, has not been a proper option. Thus, I first start from myself. I review the interviews, summarize them and extract its questions. You may take part in the interview session with 20 questions but when you listen to the audio file of the interview, you see that you don’t need the information. You attend the next session with more information and questions. A successful interviewer is someone who is polite, respectful, and generous in order to be able to extract good data. Then, to convert the data into oral history, we put the information sequentially to see how many people cite the story. Whenever you get to the number in order to conclude with absolute certainty that the person is right, this becomes oral history. If the narrator's words have been quoted in the documents and in the press, it is enough to confirm them. So in the issue of historical studies, newspapers, library resources, and interviews are among the resources that can be cited".

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