A review of twenty years of oral history in Iran

Scientific and professional authority; perspective of Iranian Oral History Association

Interviewed and compiled by: Maryam Assadi Jafari
Translated by: M.B. Khoshnevisan


If a person has a personal library in his or her house, one or more oral history books are seen among them. In recent decades, the wave of book lovers has turned towards the field of oral history, and all this rising trend is owed to the activists in this field. Dr. Morteza Nouraei, Professor of the Department of History in Isfahan University, is one of the first people who played a major role in introducing, establishing, promoting and streamlining oral history in the country. We have had a conversation with him in this regard:


*How many years ago did you become familiar with oral history?
* My familiarity with oral history discussions goes back to the seventies (1990s). I did research in Bashagard between 1370 and 1374 (1991-1995). In that area, I used active interview methods to collect information in the field of historical sociology among tribes and nomads.
*I thought that the continuation of your studying in Britain has caused you to be involved in oral history atmosphere.
* As mentioned earlier, there were already decentralized works, but in 1375 (1996), I went to England to continue my studies and there I was acquainted with the school of oral history widely. I read the available books in this field and started studying the methodology of oral history in a specialized way since then.
*When you came back to Iran, what method did you use to introduce and expand oral history?
* Of course, a project called Oral History of Harvard University had been done before that, but inside Iran, the category of oral history had been translated or was about to be produced in a limited way. We held the first national oral history workshop in Isfahan University with the presence of professors, enthusiasts and researchers on 24-25 Ordibehesht, 1383 (May 13-14, 2004).
*Were these workshops platforms for the establishment of Oral History Association?
* Yes. Of course, we did not think of setting up an association from the beginning. We were only thinking of publishing and spreading information about oral history in the country. Fortunately, since we started these workshops in 1383 (2004), they were welcomed and many people interested in oral history attended. Gradually, these workshops continued and until today, 13 workshops have been held in the form of conferences in Isfahan, Tehran, Mashhad and Sari. Gradually, oral history circles were formed, especially focusing on the issue of Islamic revolution and sacred defense in the country. Little by little, oral history institutions and centers were established in the country and the practice of oral history as a mechanism to recall the recent past was accepted at the country level. This process gradually continued until the late 80s (2000s) and caused oral history to become more and more prosperous. Government projects started in the field of oral history. Writers were able to use them and entrepreneurial tools were provided especially for history students. As of today, when I am talking to you, the names of about 10,000 people who are engaged in oral history work at different levels in the country have been accounted, and this success after 20 years is a source of happiness.
* After approximately how many sessions of oral history workshops did the Oral History Association become official?
*Second or third session. In total, 7 or 8 young and motivated researchers were present in these meetings, and they continued to hold it annually with the aim of drawing the necessities of oral history day and its scientific methodology dimensions. Simultaneously, we acted to turn oral history into a field of study in different universities, especially the University of Isfahan. In 1386 (2007), we established the field of local history in the University of Isfahan, and two units of oral history were included in the doctoral level of this field. This field continued from 1386 to 1395 (2007-2016). In the meantime, we taught students oral history and even asked them for a project. Many graduates and professors became authors in this field of education. Now about 30 of these students are university lecturers across the country. Even in the Faculty of Medical Sciences of the University of Isfahan, Dr. Mohammad Reza Firouzkoohi, a doctoral student in nursing, took his thesis with me on the topic of oral history of nursing in the war. This thesis became one of the best theses. Its articles are still among the most referenced ones and the book he published in this field is considered a phenomenon in the field of oral history. Therefore, oral history and local history helped to enrich the knowledge of oral history enthusiasts. So far, a large number of history students of Isfahan University and other universities have worked on their master's and doctorate theses focusing on oral history.
*In fact, oral history was formed in a gradual process.
*Yes. Meetings at the local, regional and national levels under the title of Oral History Association were formed in the same way. The association did not necessarily have a technical system, but it was active in connection with all poles of the country's oral history production. Through the observations of the association about the problems in the field of oral history, we tried to organize the next meetings and workshops at the national level according to the topics and necessities of the researchers. At the beginning of the path, we intended that the people do oral history work so that everyone would become familiar with it, but today everyone knows what oral history is. Today, everyone has read at least one oral history book and has gotten acquainted with this historical knowledge.

*What was the next step to expand oral history and make it more scientific?
*In other universities, courses were defined that became the basis for oral history discussion. Then, in 1385 (2006) or 1386 (2007), we started oral history training workshops at the National Library of Iran, which held 5 courses, and the collection of lectures was published. In this period, the production of text in methodological discussions and case studies in the field of oral history was on the agenda, which caused a group of oral history experts to be trained in Iran. For example, the art centers in Hamedan, Tabriz, Mazandaran, Mashhad and recently in Kerman have activated oral history in their provinces. In general, very good and capable people were trained and I thank God that we were able to encourage these people with their own talent to enter the field of oral history.
*Was there any activity in the field of oral history before the formation of the Iranian Oral History Association?
* There were individual works in the Archive Center of the National Library of Iran, but since 1383 (2004), it has progressed towards scientific development and technical development, and turned into a current from scattered works. Members of the Oral History Association along with other writers in the field of art had a meeting with the Supreme Leader in 1392 (2013). In 1395 (2016), the directive approved by the Council of Ministers for compiling the oral history of government departments was issued and communicated, and based on that, a part of the cultural budget of the ministries and institutions was included in the oral history projects. We thought that oral history would be introduced to many scientific and academic centers by receiving this instruction from the Cabinet; I even wrote a chapter for master and doctorate courses so that oral history is taught as a separate major, but there are still many problems and we are not accompanied in many cases.
*In the first part of the interview, you mentioned that in the first step, you sought to introduce and expand oral history in Iran. Now that you have achieved this goal, what is the next step or perspective?
* Since 1390 (2011), in view of the relative development of oral history, we inevitably moved towards the pathology of oral history and tried to diagnose the published works in the field of the topic, mechanisms, methodology and path of oral history. I also published a collection of notes and articles to make oral history more specialized, more technical, more authentic and documented. My friends in the association were also active in this field. Oral history is the history of the future. Therefore, oral history is essentially a finished history that is mostly used as a historical passage for the production of content in the future and becomes reference in the field of documentation. So, the essence of oral history from this point of view is the connecting link and dependent on the future. That is, technically, anyone may make claims in oral history narratives or even take back their words after telling a narrative! In general, we believe that oral history productions will contribute to the enrichment of the future documentation of professional or academic historiography from a technical, specialized and perspective point of view. Because of this, oral history is a vast process. In fact, oral history is a "handy", "immediate" and "close" history whose narrators and agents are still alive. It means the process of the lives of the narrators whose history is written, is not finished yet and they are busy with other things. Therefore, history is alive and shows the reasons to the future historian.
In their question package, the oral history experts answer the probable questions of future historians. For example, in a project, we interviewed two ranges of conscript soldiers and Basij volunteers about the Sacred Defense, and what was extracted from their narratives showed two wings of the Sacred Defense that were different from each other. The perspectives created by oral history experts are good raw materials for future historians. At the same time, they bring the recent past under the umbrella of registration, recording and illumination. I think it is necessary and good to give microphones everywhere, that is, if everyone's memories are recorded in the form of oral history and active interviews, it will be useful for the future. We do not know what parts of the past will be questioned by future generations to understand their own time. Hence, a wide range of diversity of current events must be recorded with an efficient oral history method.
* Even at the cost of the interview not going the right way?
*Yes. Narrating the existence of their subject is better than nothing. A false or inaccurate and weak narrative can be verified. What can be done when there is no narration or quotation?!
*Why do you believe in this?
*In my first article, I said that the oral history experts have a slogan: “It will be late soon.” If we wait to train someone to learn the principles of interviewing and research and historiography and go interviewing, we may miss many opportunities or many people. Because many of them, so to speak, have one foot in the grave and many opportunities are missed. Moreover, the cost of education for higher levels is high and not available for all interested people. It is a principle that what is extracted from an active interview is not all at the same level.
*If we leave oral history interviews to everybody, what will happen to verification of the interviews?
* Future historians will do verification later. One historian says: The science of history is the engine of future dreams. Everyone likes to say their wishes for this science and we should be aware of this. Even someone who is a professional historian brings his or her own wishes in the text of history. Different people can speak; Different people can record. Anyway, if these people don't act to conduct the interview, maybe the main issue will be lost and the narrator will die and the opportunity will be completely lost.
*We conducted a series of interviews about the material and spiritual rights in oral history works during which the significance of role of Oral History Association in managing the subject was mentioned. Now the question is, will the pathologies and criticisms that are brought to different books in the association, will also be reflected to the publishers? Does the Oral History Association have an executive guarantee or does it only operate in the scientific space of this field? Do active organizations of oral history pay attention to the suggestions of the association to improve the quality of their works?
*We in the Oral History Association do not have executive power. This may eventually be referred to relevant authoritative centers in legal cases or validation of oral history projects. In my opinion, the organizations active in the field of oral history, which carry out their plans and projects with public funds, should leave the work in the hands of those who are familiar with oral history and appoint a supervisor for the projects. For example, when a book is published, by whom is it approved? Where has the interviewer gotten his or her degree and how many workshops or courses has he or she attended? Which supervisor has approved his or her previous works or books? This is the same "scientific authority" that I think active oral history institutions should insist upon. For oral history projects, a person or institution other than the people involved in the project should be the supervisor of the project. In topic-oriented oral history projects, anyone can hand you a thousand-page book and call it an oral history, when, upon review, we realize they haven't produced content for even one page. In topic-oriented oral history projects, anyone can hand you a thousand-page book and call it an oral history, when, upon review, we realize he or she has produced no content for even one page. An 800-page book was sent to me that neither the supervisor nor the institute realized that from page 450 onwards, only the appendix had been arranged. This means that more than 50% of the books that were delivered to the institute were the papers that were put together and printed. Why should government funds be wasted in this way?! Footnotes and appendixes have their own meaning in a work. Scientific standards should be included in the plan and contract. Perhaps, for example, if we consider 10% of the project's share for a valid expert supervisor, we will achieve more high-quality and valid works.
*Does the Oral History Association intend to offer a call for proposals for monitoring the projects?
* The association has not yet gone in this direction. On the occasion of entering the third decade of the association's life, we are supposed to have a meeting to determine the policies of this decade, but what is at the top of importance is the "industrialization of oral history". Another argument is that after this quantitative and to some extent qualitative development of oral history in the country, we should emphasize "an authority for oral history".
We can have two types of authority in the Oral History Association: one is scientific authority and the other is professional authority. The scientific authority is that people who have the authorship and experience and veterans in the field of oral history work together with the association to increase the standards of oral history in the country. The second one is the trade authority. A wide range of oral history experts are active in Iran, and we should consider a framework for their contracts and extracts. For example, in 1398 (2018), we in the association evaluated how much a subject-oriented or person-oriented project costs for each person interviewed. If this one person increases to 50 people, how should it be added to the executor's payment? The result of the estimation was that outside of Tehran, each interview costs 800 thousand Tomans, and in Tehran, between 1,200,00 and 1,500,000 Tomans. The cost of commuting, the time required to conduct the interview, and the cost of implementation and compilation have been considered in this evaluation. If we do not defend the oral history experts as a trade authority, their rights will be lost. It should be stated in the contract that if the number of interviewees increases, the cost should increase according to the number of people. In addition, the amount of 800 thousand Tomans is for oral history experts with a bachelor's degree. If they have a master's degree or a doctorate, the percentage of oral work will be higher. Finally, when the association gains professional authority, it can be assumed that the acceptability of the works will also increase. In other words, as much as the professional emphasis is on the interviewer or the executor of the oral history project, it will also be on the results. Can the employer complain about the presented result and protest about the standard output level? What reference can be considered for this type of claim? However, authorities such as the Oral History Association should be able to provide the grounds for this decision-making support.
*If the Oral History Association moves towards becoming a trade union, will it also have a political aspect?
*Humanities in general are political and we do not discuss in this field. It depends on how we see politics. If the Oral History Association takes the status of a trade union and the interviewers are certified, they also find the possibility of legal action. In some cases, interviewers have gone too far and used interviews that belong to the client, without permission, to write articles or otherwise. When concluding the contract, it should be clear who owns the interview data and from whom the performer should obtain permission to extract this data. "The industrialization of oral history" means the same as the unionization. That is, oral history productions must have a basic standard so that oral history experts can benefit from it. Professional authority is in the interest of institutions and oral history experts as well as in the interest of the body of oral history so that it does not suffer marginal damage so much. The next issue about oral history at the international level is to know that the centrality of production in oral history is archiving, not authoring! That is, any organization that signed an oral history project contract must oblige the oral history experts or the employer to provide a copy of the raw audio or video archive materials of the interviews to the National Library of Iran, because the National Library of Iran can somehow be the custodian of the country's oral history.
* Even if the project budget has not been given by the National Library?
*Yes. Or at least, they are kept in their archives. We have several archives in the country and each one works in a different field. Audio archives of oral history interviews should exist in these archives so that oral documentation remains for other researchers and posterity. If a historian listens to this archive in the future, one or dozens of books will come out of it. Also, if documents are concentrated in national archives, oral history productions can be verified by any reader at any stage. One of the points that should be considered in the discussion of the industrialization of oral history is that the archival version of all projects should be delivered to the client by the interviewers. Paying attention to oral history agreements will benefit both parties and is seen at the level of national interests so that viable products come out.
*The lack of awareness of the custodians of oral history has damaged the accurate archiving of oral history. If these organizations get a deeper connection with the Oral History Association to bring their activity closer to the scientific routine, they will get a better result.
* We hope that the significance of the scientific and professional authority of the Oral History Association will be heard by everyone. Because archiving is related to national-patriotic interests. There are practical ways to organize the scientific-technical and professional authority of the Oral History Association. Of course, we are trying to shape the discussion of the scientific authority of oral history in the "Oral History Research Biannual". Also, in the University of Isfahan, I have been asked to define the "Core of Oral History of Iran" in this university, which is going through its final stages. In this way, we can attract postdoctoral students and enter into methodological issues in the scientific mission of these students. Of course, I hope that in the 14th meeting, which is scheduled to be held on 25th of Ordibehesht, 1403 (May 14, 2024), in the University of Isfahan, with the topic of "Oral History in the Balance", these issues will be raised and taken into consideration.
* Tell us about the current status of "Oral History Research Biannual ".
* Three years ago, the editorship of this quarterly magazine, which was previously published under the title of “The Specialized Scientific Journal of Oral History”, was entrusted to me in order to move the magazine to a scientific and research direction, to be a forum and support for history students and especially, researchers and new writers. As you know, one of the problems for doctorate students to defend oral history theses is that their articles are hardly published in journals. I had a student who worked on the oral history of high school teenagers active in Isfahan during the Islamic Revolution, and it took a year for his article to be published and he had problems defending it. At that time, we and the friends in the National Library decided to make this bi-quarterly scientific-research magazine so that the articles of doctoral students would be supported. Moreover, we print even normal articles and we have followed these policies until today. Unfortunately, many of the articles that are sent to the secretariat of Oral History Research Biannual are at a low level.
*What do you think is the root of the weakness of essay writing in the field of oral history?
*One of the points and problems of oral history is that most of them have only gone to extract interviews and they are not mainly essayists in the scientific sense. Essay writing is an important matter for a scientific subject to prove its scientific nature, and we are in trouble from this point of view. That is, at the country level, we have very few scientific essayists in the field of oral history, and oral history is suffering from this point of view. We in the biannual have our own technical criteria and the articles must be referenced so that they can create their own narrative. Anyway, we receive good articles from all over the country.
*We may need to essay writing workshops special for oral history.
*Yes. We have sometimes held essay writing workshops special for oral history, but since most oral history experts work in the Art Center and the National Library, it’s better that most workshops are held in these institutions. The National Library of Iran can be a founder for holding such workshops periodically.  
*The Art Center tends to print more books.
*This is an important point. Other institutions are the same. At any rate, if an institution intends to improve its scientific rank, when it signs a contract for a book, it should finally ask the author to submit an abstracted article or a research report from the process of preparation and analysis of the problems and issues in the way of the work. We also publish the research report in the Oral History Research Biannual. These are the institutions that should realize the necessity of essay writing. Of course, we know that one of the reasons for avoiding essays in oral history is that an essay is refereed several times to make the essay richer. Maybe for this reason that it is time-consuming and goes under the microscope, they avoid writing the article.
*Is the method of essay writing in oral history different from other fields of humanities?
*Oral history essay is a historical one with most of its characteristics. For example, if the topic of your essay is a case study, your references should be to interviews. Let's say you've done 20-30 interviews and combined that with a library-archival study background. If the essay is topic-oriented, there is no need to refer to the interviews. You can use references to different books and works as research literature.
*Has the biannual journal become scientific-research?
*More issues of the journal should be published in order to receive the necessary points to become scientific-research. Now the issue 6 of the magazine is under print. Then we will go to obtain its scientific degree.
*Now that we are on the threshold of the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Oral History Association, are you satisfied with its current position?
In any case, it is an effective and more or less satisfactory position. At the same time, there are many concerns. We had a meeting in Esfand of last year (March 2024) when new members were added to the founding board. We hope that with the addition of new members, we will be able to set a guideline and hold workshops and meetings based on it. Probably, our greatest effort will be in the field of professional and scientific authority of oral history. I hope that the establishment of the Core of Oral History in the University of Isfahan will be the main part of our effort for the future.

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A review of twenty years of oral history in Iran

Scientific and professional authority; perspective of Iranian Oral History Association

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