Forty years of experience in interviewing

By Mahmoud Hakimi

The article has started by relying on this point that: "the method of historiography in Islamic countries is principally oral history". Then the writer addresses definitions about the concept of "oral history". The next point is that this feature of oral history which is unbiased and impartial is brought up. However, some points about the most necessary features of oral historian will be brought up again after reviewing the difference between oral history and memories.
Elsewhere in this article, Mahmoud Hakimi voted for the "priority of oral history on memories" and for proving this, he refers to the record of his acquaintance with oral history. In this record, the books and press which have been considered by the writer, were named and reviewed roughly.
In the final subject of the article, the writer says: "I have interviewed five people lengthily since the beginning of my life. Here, I bring up two interviews which were published later."


As many friends know, the main part of the books I have wirtten for children are historic. The main reason for my approach to history and writing the books like "The Civilization History for Teenagers", "1001 Historical Stories" or "Learn from History" was the letters I received from the teenagers after the publication of the first edition of the book "The Stories from Amir Kabir Life". The teenagers are the main audience of my works. A teenage wrote for me that such stories caused me to not only to be proud of being an Iranian because I am Amir Kabir's countryman but also try to act like an Amir kabir in defending the human's rights.

About the oral history for which the meetings have been held and I have taken part in the meetings mainly for learning from the respected professors,  I should say that the method of historiography in Islamic countries is principally oral history. The study of Tabari History shows us that this history is nothing but oral history.
Also in his everlasting work, Abolfazl Beyhaqi says: what I write is either I have heard myself or from a thinker and scientist.

About the definition of oral history, I should say that there are lots of definitions about it, but I like very much the phrase "using collective wisdom". It means that oral history should not be in a way that people of upper classes are just interviewed. Many ordinary people know the things that those wealthy men or politicians or as they say "at the higher class" are unaware. About the importance of oral history, a professor used the phrase "democratizing the history" which in my view is very interesting. As a matter of fact, the history should not be in the monopoly of the politicians or the leaders of a party, or a class or a school. I remember that once I had decided to research about religious societies. About one of them, I found out that a less literate man who was sitting beside brazier to prepare tea for the mourners was more informed than the manager. He remembered the names of all the preachers who had delivered speeches in that society since twenty years ago and was more faithful and honest than the others.
Oral history as the professors of this field have written is an active conversation between the interviewer (historian) and the interviewee. But Professor Alireza Kamari in an interview with Zamaneh monthly has explained well that the oral historian should be familiar with the conversation technique, know psychology and are fully aware the generality and details of the discussed subject.
About the features of oral historians, a professor had commented that the interviewer or oral historian should be unbiased. I do not accept this view. It is better to say that the oral historian should be impartial because an unbiased man is indifferent and lightheaded so he or she cannot be active and enter a discussion with the interviewee and even reject some his or her viewpoints. It is only in this case that the interviewee for proving his or her views is forced to refer to his or her memory, remember new events from the past and bring them up.
I have read many articles about the difference between memory and oral history. However, the respected experts who know much more than me have brought them up. But Mr. Kamari brought up an interesting point for me and have said in his interview that memory is normally a defense which is rightfully correct.
Once I decided to produce and compile some 10 volumes of book consisting of a summary from the memories of the statesmen of Qajar and Pahlavi eras for teenagers and even I published one volume. Later, I quit continuing, because I believe that everyone who wants to judge about the Qajar history, he or she should study three books carefully. They are Masoudi History which is in fact the memories of Zellol Sultan, the memories of Mirza Hassan Khan Etemadol Saltanah, and the memories of Aminod-dowleh. All of us know that Zellol Sultan was ruling over more than two fifth of Iranian soil before his father Nasereddin Shah deposed him angrily. The oppression and cruelty this prince inflicted on the people was really shocking. But more shocking is that this brutal ruler in his memories who published in the name of "Masoudi History" has claimed that his wealth was not as a result of oppression, injustice and abuse of people's properties, but this wealth was granted to him by God Almighty for his justice, fairness and good behavior.
His highness Zellol Sultan in other pages advised the people to "consider God whenever they want to have a lawfully-earned income and that they should know that good and evil have results and justice is good and oppression bad".(Masoudi History, page 255) and the advices of a brutal man really make us laugh.

Memories cannot replace oral history even if they are written secretly.  Most honorable researchers undoubtedly have read the memories of Mohammad Hassan Khan Etemadol Saltanah. Recently, Dr. Yusef Motevalli Haqiqi has published the book "Historian Minister" about the life, works and method of Mirza Hassan Khan's historiography, which in my view is a valuable work. I have also used his memories in several books that I have written about Qajar era. Frankly, Mirza Hassan Khan was a scientist. Many scientists like Allameh Qazvini, however believe some of these works have been written by others but there is no doubt in the high knowledge of Mirza Hassan Khan. What surprises every historical researcher when reading Mirza Hassan Khan's memories is that flattery and sycophancy had prevailed so much during Nassereddin Shah Qajar that the Press Minister in his memories written secretly was flattering extensively.
I found 65 memories out of 73 which were really defense bills. The memory writer especially when he or she is a political dignitary, or a leader and coordinator of a political party, is trying to justify somehow his or her actions and political and social positions, cover up his or her wrongdoings and exaggerate his or her good works. Kianouri Memories is a clear example of such memories and if there was no criticism of the memories, a teenager or a studious and uninformed man might gradually develop a champion from Kianoori in his or her mind that he was thinking of the poor and the deprived and nothing else!!
You can't find such things in oral history. Whenever the interviewer wants to escape a fact or downplay a great event, the questioner historian challenges and stands on an event and asks a lot of questions about that event so that the interviewer is forced to tell the fact.
Of course, I don't mean that the questioner should extract confession like the interrogator of prisons of Haroun ar-rashid or Stalin prisons or the US Guantanamo detention camp by torturing and abusing. Such confessions do not really worth.
Oral historian does not want to extract confession. He or she wants to reach the reality and do not allow the history to be distorted. In my view, faith is the most important and necessary feature of an oral historian. An irreligious oral historian attributes a word to an interviewer very easily, while he or she has not said such a thing. This is a kind of filth. A faithful man will never do that because he or she believes in the other world. But an irreligious man does everything. He or she does not fear to fabricate the events and to accuse but pretending that he or she is faithful. Such men are more dangerous than the torturers of the former Soviet KGB prisons, because that Communist torturer, liar and traducer at least did not claim faithfulness.
I do not have the opportunity to talk more about the value of oral history. To me, Mr. Mohsen Kazemi in an article entitled "Memory and Oral History" in Zamaneh monthly (no. 34, Tir 1384[July 2005]) has expressed very well the difference between memory and oral history very briefly and with a systematic method. I also found useful another article under the heading "The status and role of oral sources in Iranian historiography".

Now I want to write when I became familiar with oral history and its importance.
Some forty years ago when I wrote or translated detective stories for a short time in Omid-e Iran magazine, an incident happened for one of the magazine's reporters which prompted me to find out the importance of "oral history". One of the reporters of that magazine – at that time, its chief-editor was Reza Hamrah – had interviewed Dr. Mozaffar Baqaee. As always, he had to justify the behavior of his party with Mossadeq government, and had placed himself at the level of "a national champion". The interview which can be said was a kind of oral history was just published in two issues and the magazine refrained to publish the rest of the interview on the order of SAVAK (Shah's secret police). At that time, this reaction of the Shah's security organization was very surprising for me, because Dr. Baqaee attacked strongly on Mossadeq after August 19, 1953 coup. But it was surprising that SAVAK did not let anyone to attack Mossadeq. Little by little as I studied more about the history, I found out that any tyrannical rule like Mohammad Reza Shah's rule fears even the name of some of its opponents to be raised – even if someone insults him or her, especially Shah hated Mosadeq deeply. Several years later when I started to research about the life of Mirza Taqi Khan Amir kabir (The Chief Minister of Nassereddin Shah) and read carefully any book in this issue, I met the book "The social, political and economic thinking in the unpublished works of Qajar era". The writers (Freydoun Adamiyat and Homa Nateq) had waged an interesting authorship. They published parts of the works which had not been allowed to be published more than one time or basically they were never allowed to be published.
One of them was the book "Nasseri Customs" written by Mirza Ebrahim Khan Mahalatti (Khalvati). The writer of "Nasseri Customs" had used very ugly words against Mirza Taqi Khan Amir Kabir for greeting the Shah and probably for receiving award.
But Nassereddin Shah who did not like at all the name of Amir Kabir to be highlighted ordered to prevent the book to be distributed. Some thirty years earlier, Nassereddin Shah prevented the book by Miraza Mohammmad Jafar Khan Haqayeq Negar (a person who writes the facts) to be published and exiled its author to out of Iran. The book had been written clearly and plainly about the brutal killing of Mirza Taqi Khan Amir Kabir in the Fin Public Bath of Kashan (a city in central Iran). 
In my view, "oral history" is a way for reaching the fact. Some researchers consider memories as more important than oral history. So far, on the basis of my notes, I have studied carefully more than seventy memory books and even published the book "Path toward the political memories of Iranian dignitaries" in this regard. I believe that "oral history" has priorities over memory books due to some reasons. Let me give a few examples for proving my view – priority of oral history over memories. At first let me refer to several journals before the victory of Islamic Revolution which both published memories and interviews. The magazines of "Vahid Memories", "Ayandeh" (Future), "Sokhan" (Word), "Book Guide", "Yaqma" (Loot) and "Gowhar" (Jewel) published both memories and the transcribed texts of the interviews which were in fact a kind of oral history. Some of the memories issued in the magazine of "Vahid Memories" were later published in the form of book. One of them was Mohsen Sadr Memories (Sadrol Ashraf). The book helped me a lot in writing "Qajar Era and Pahlavi Era". But the main problem of such memories is that the memory writer is doing his or her best to justify somehow his or her religious, political, and social deed and behavior. 
Sadrol Ashraf has done this. He is very angry at being called as "Bagh-e Shah Executioner" and in the chapter "Establishment of Inquiry House in Bagh-e Shah", he has commented that participation in those meetings had been an attempt for removing many liberals and constitutionalists Mohammad Shah Qajar was going to kill. Here, I am not going to write anything on scoring or praising Sadrol Ashraf. Judging about Sadrol Ashraf memories or any political dignitary of Qajar or Pahlavi eras is not very easy. But I want to raise here is that Sadrol Ashraf had cooperated with three tyrant kings, Mohammad Ali Shah, Reza Shah and Mohammad Reza Shah and even promoted to the position of "Amirol Haji" and played an important role in changes made in the Iranian justice system. To me, his memories are a collection of contradictory words. In one part, he writes, "He (Reza Shah) did not like the police officers or people to oppress other people". (Page 332) and in another part, he writes, "The arrogance of Reza Shah was no less than Hitler". (Page 370) But Sadrol Ashraf memories have priority over many memories of Pahalvi era's statesmen. If he in numerous cases was trying to justify his collaboration with two dictatorial systems, he also stressed that he was himself taking key positions in order to lessen the oppressions during the ruling of three kings, although some believe that any collaboration with the first and second Pahlavi was in fact a kind of participation in their oppressions. But if an interview was conducted with Sadrol Ashraf, undoubtedly he was not able to justify his actions so easily. In his memories, he says frankly that he had been against Mosadeq government, called his supporters "a handful of hecklers" or "vicious men". But nevertheless, when we compare his memories with the writings of Ahmad Bani Ahmad in "Five days of uprising by the Iranian nation, from 16 to 21 August 1953", we find out that Sadrol Ashraf had not expressed happiness on the collapse of Mosdaeq government as much as Bani Ahmad.
Ahmad Bani Ahmad's book was enough insulting that the Imperial Especial Office in a letter dated February 13, 1963 imparted "His Excellency's expressing happiness" to him.  
The main difference of memories with oral history is that the interviewer has enough knowledge, he or she does not let the interviewee to say something, and if he or she does  not feel right to talk about it in details, he or she should raise another matter immediately. We observe this point well in the memories book of Dr. Muzaffar Baqaee Kermani which is part of "Iran's Oral History" plan and the result of the interviews of Dr. Habib Lajevardi or the reporter of his institute with Baqaee in 1986 while he was in America. Baqaee wants to quickly pass some issues. But the interviewer forced Baqaee to stop cleverly by raising new questions. These memories like other Baqaee's, however are full of fancies.
In criticizing Baqaee's memories in the "World of Book" journal (issue no.7, year 8, November 2003), Mr. Majid Rahbani has referred to many of these fancies. However, Baqaee's fancies are very far from those of Shaban Jafari whose memories have been the result of an oral interview. Jafari's memories were widely circulated in Iran.

Oral history has many benefits one of which is to disgrace the history's tyrants. One of the tyrants who oppressed people widely in the last years of Nasereddin Shah's rule was Jalalod-dowleh, the grandson of Nasereddin Shah and the son of Zellol Sultan. He was the governor of Shiraz until 1303 lunar calendar year. Jalalod-dowleh behaved so brutally toward the people of Shiraz who faced with the people's revolution and uprising. He was deposed and after he gave a precious gift to his grandfather, he was appointed as the governor of Yazd. Jalalod-dowleh also committed many horrible crimes in Yazd and his brutal rule continued until 1309 lunar calendar year. The memories of Mohammad Hussein Nawab and Mr. Kardan (the father of Dr. Ali Mohammad Kardan, well-known professor of education) about the situation of Yazd under Jalalod-dowleh are really stunning and astonishing. Then, the interviews of Fazalollah Majlesi about the situation of Yazd and Isfahan under Qajar show that the behavior of Zellol Sultan, the brutal governor of Isfahan, and his son Jalalod-dowleh with the people of Yazd and Isfahan had been extremely cruel. Really, if such interviews and dialogue did not exist, many events would have been forgotten. (See Vahid Memories magazine, year 14, no.7, 2, 21, and 22)
After the victory of Islamic revolution, interviews were conducted about the world history, Iranian history, history of seminaries, the life of the elite and Shia figures and the ulema campaigns against the rule of Reza Shah and his son and so on, and magazines like Goft-o Goo (Dialogue), Nashr-e Danesh, Hafez, Andisheh, Iran-e Farda, Cheshm Andaz, Zamaneh and so on published them.
The magazines' reporters donated part of their subjects to interviewing scientific, artistic, literary and religious figures some of which have been really very useful for the researchers.
The more I write about the importance of oral history, the more I feel that I have not written enough. I myself have used the interviews a lot. For example, I exploited a lot from the interview with the late Abdolhossein Nawaee published in the issues 31 and 32 of the Iran's Contemporary History quarterly. I have read a lot of Nawaee books. But becoming familiar with his life was very useful for me. Now, as a reminder, I would like to refer to the interviews I conducted with a number of scientists and scholars before the victory of Islamic Revolution.

Interview with Seyyed Gholamreza Saeedi and Abdulbaqi Golpanarli

I have conducted five comprehensive interviews since the beginning of my life. Here I talk about two of them which published and released later. My first comprehensive talk was with the late Gholamreza Saeedi, well-know Islamic translator and researcher and the second one with the late Abdulbaqi Golpanarli, famous Turkish expert on Mowlavi which was conducted in 1975 in Istanbul and just part of it was published in Nasl-e Now (New Generation) magazine (second year, no.11).

I traveled to Turkey in 1975 for the third time. In my previous trips, I had heard a lot about Abdulbaqi Golpanarli from the Iranians living in Turkey. But unfortunately I has not been able to meet him. In the third trip, Professor Ali-Akbar Mehdipour provided the grounds for my meeting with Abdulbaqi Golpanarli. His house was a little far from central Istanbul and located beside Marmara Sea. He himself welcomed us. He knew Farsi fluently. But as we Tehranians say, he had a special dialect and said with that sweet dialect: I've heard that you write religious books for the youth and your stories have largely been welcomed by the youth and teens.

"Yes, you are right. But today I've come here to use your great knowledge", I answered.
"That's very kind of you. Tell me which of the books you have published so far like more?", he said humbly.
"I like the book Hussein Ibn-e Ali (AS), the Leader of Freedom-Seekers published two years ago", I answered.

When I called the name of Imam Hussein, I felt that his eyes became full of tears. Then he took us to his studying room. It was full of books. After drinking tea, I immediately started the interview. First, I said, "Professor Mehdipour has told me about your life and works, but I would like to tell me about yourself from your language."
Professor Golpanarli started to talk with a special humbleness. With his special Farsi language, he said that he was born in 1317 lunar calendar in a Shiite family in Istanbul. Then, he talked about his education period in elementary and high schools and then education in Ottoman Darol-Fonoun" university in Istanbul. Then, he added, "I've heard that you are a teacher and at present you teach in Qum high schools"?
"You are right. I like teaching a lot.", I answered.
"Me too, I taught in the high schools of Qunieh, Qaisari, Balikassir and Istanbul after graduation from the university", Professor Golpanarli said, adding, "Then, I went to Ankara and taught the Gnostic of Mowlana and history in the city's university for a few years. Then, I came back to my hometown and started teaching in the city's university".

Then Professor Golpanarli spoke about his professor in the universities and reminded us of two of his Shiite professors named "Sheikh Ali Khoee" and "Hossein Fakhreddin". He said: Sheikh Ali Khoee memorized Nahjul Balaqah and usually read some phrases of Nahjul Balaqah in the class for the students and since he was aware of my love and willingness to Imam Ali (AS) and Nahjul Balaqah, he encouraged me to translate selections of Nahjul Balaqah into English.

Professor Golpanarli also spoke about his other works especially the ones about the life of Mowlana (The works of the late Professor Golpanarli about Mowlavi and Masnavi have translated into Persian by Dr. Towfiq Sobhani and in a book entitled "In Mowlana School" that I wrote for the teens and Qalam Press published it, I have recalled and quoted these works).
In the last meeting with this great Shiite scholar, I asked him about the mean reason for the backwardness of Islamic countries. The late Golpanarli gave a short but informative answer. He said that the continuation of tyrant states is the main reason for the nations' backwardness and when I asked him about the main reason for this continuity, he answered: The flattery and lip service of the bystanders especially the poets, orators and historians.

Then Golpanarli sang some poems from Ma'anavi Masnavi about vain praising of the power lords. I memorized his words until thirty years later when I wrote the book "In Mowlana School" for the teens. 
When we wanted to say goodbye, he told me: I have not read anything form you so far. But I've heard from Mr. Mehdipour that you write religious and historical books for children and teens and they have been warmly welcomed by the teens. I like you to write for your audience that Imam Ali (AS) was strongly against the praising of power lords and considered it as the main reason for the societies' destruction.
I along with Professor Mehdipour got out of his house beside Marmara Sea. "What attracted your attention?, "Mehdipiur asked me.
"He loves Jalaleddin Mowlavi very much. But when he talks about the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), he is really upset. I found out that he loves the prophet of Islam (PBUH) and Ahlul Beit deeply." I answered.

Last year you had a comprehensive interview with Professor Gholareza Saeedi. What commonalities did you see between him and Professor Golpanarli?, Professor Mehdipour asked.

"Both of these scholars love Imam Ali (AS). Professor Saeedi is not familiar with Mowlavi's Masnavi Ma'anavi like Mr. Golpanarli. However, he sometimes sings his poems. But he loves Allamah Iqbal Lahouti and usually reads some poems of Allamah Iqbal at the beginning of every meeting. But they are common in one thing and that is their deep love to the holy Qur'an and Ahlul Beit (AS), the two trusts the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) have left for the humans for the entire centuries and periods.

Interview with the late Gholamreza Saeedi
The late Gholamreza Saeedi had a great knowledge about Abrahamic religions. He loved all divine prophets very much. When we talked about Prophet Abraham (AS), Prophet Moses (AS) and Prophet Jesus (AS), he read verses of the holy Qur'an which were about the divine prophets. But he loved Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) very very much. Whenever he called his name, his eyes became full of tears.

Saeedi loved a number of religious and non-religious scholars very much: Seyyed Jamaleddin Assadabadi, Allamah Mohammad Hossein Kashelfol-Qetta, Alllamah Mohammad Iqbal Lahouti, Allamah Amini, Engineer Mehdi Bazargan and Dr. Shariati. 

I started the interview with Professor Gholamreza Saeedi since October 1953. First he talked about his life. He was born in 1314 lunar calendar in Nowzad village of Birjand city. He was in the village for eight years and studied in an old-fashioned primary school for two years. Then he moved to Birjand where he studied elementary Persian and Arabic. Then Gholamreza Saeedi started studying in Shokatieh School of Birjand. At this time, Seyyed Gholamreza Saeedi started to criticize the old-fashioned primary schools and their method of teaching and announced that the Shokatieh School was the first school which had been established in new style by the area's governor.

First, the school's program had merely a literary aspect and its lessons were: Persian, elementary Arabic, history Persian law (religious lessons) and geography. In upper classes, lessons like elementary physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, French language, algebra and geometry. Arabic language was regareded very important in this school in a way the late Saeedi started to study Arabic journals obtained form Araab countries since the age of 20.

In this interview, he spoke about the late Haj Mirza Hassan Roshdieh, the founder of the new style schools and that he taught in that school for some time.

Saeedi told me, "We studied French language in the school and in the last year, I and my friend started teaching English and I personally did my best for several years to learn the language."

Saeedi's learning of Arabic and French languages caused him to translate several Arabic and English works into Persian. He considered a book by John Dion Port about Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and Qur'an as his best translation.

Translated by: Mohammad Baqar Khoshnevisan

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