A speech by Alireza Kamary

Tips about oral tradition and its relation with history

*Alireza Kamari
Translated by M. B. Khoshnevisan


Greetings to all of the attendees; the meeting is held for reviewing and criticizing the translation of the book “Oral Tradition as History” authored by Jan Vansina. It has been translated by Farhad Nam Baradar Shad. It is obvious that we here talk about the book’s text and content particularly about its translation. Nevertheless, I would like to touch upon several tips about oral tradition and its relation with history. Discussing these points may provide the ground for recognizing the significance of the topic and the book’s criticism.

1- “Sonnat” or “Tradition” in word means procedures and method. In Islamic culture, it is also said to the deeds, words and presentation of the Prophet of Islam (and before the followers of the Shia, in addition to the Prophet, the deeds, words and presentation of Hazrat Fatemeh Zahra (AS) and the infallible Imams). Tradition is one of the quadruple resources of jurisprudence in Shia denomination.

Sonnat is an Arabic word and in Farsi, it is called “Taradad” upon the suggestion of the late Ahmad Fardid “Fardahesh” and with the agreement of the late Zabihollah Behrouz.

Tradition has been taken from the Latin word “traditio” which means the teachings which have been remained from the time of the apostles and transformed to the next. It is obvious that the conceptual commonalities of the word in Islamic and Christian cultures are based on religious and divine matters.

From the viewpoint of traditionalists and those who research about tradition – for instance and in particular Dr. Seyed Hossain Nasr – the origin of tradition is spiritual, crucial and sacred. However, according to him and his companions, under the influence of the teachings of René Guénon, the tradition, while rooted in spirituality and divinity, implies the affairs and categories that confront modernity and Westernism.

Dr. Nasr considers the inclusion and extent of the tradition so large which he regards it as religion. In fact, from the viewpoint of Dr. Nasr, the motivation of resistance against modernity and western science and preserving cultural characteristics depend on tradition. He candidly regards tradition as antidote against the poison of modernity. This kind of interpretation appears to be confusing and reducing the functionality of the tradition.

2- In the objective and diminished in the great notion of tradition, what is implied in the meaning of tradition in the social sciences is that the tradition is the surviving collection of beliefs, practices and norms that have come and gone from the past and past to now. It is not easy to enumerate the instances of the tradition, even from this view, because of the diversity and variety. On the basis of this notion, some characteristics are derived from the tradition and its features.

2-1- The tradition is not necessarily a "custom", since the custom is often a set of well-known and current norms in society, while the tradition refers to the life, practice, and thought of the past and the ancients. According to this, tradition has more overlapping and analogy with heritage (intellectual, cultural and practical heritage) than the custom and customary affairs. However, this does not mean that the tradition is completely disconnected from the present time.

2-2- Traditions are the result of the life experience of humans in their collective family on the scale of family, ethnicity, and society. Traditions are created and sustained in the process of social relations.

2-3-Traditons are created and lived in time and place (history and geography) and because of this, they are considered as an important and prominent element of identity of societies.

2-4-Traditions are created, grown and expanded and may even join the downs, oblivion and death, and in this way, they may be increased, decreased or transformed. The survival, movement, longevity and transformation of traditions depend on various factors,

2-5-The traditions are generally survived and transformed in two ways:

One is the narrative / spoken / oral transmission in the form of a variety of words or phrases. (Essentially, oral narration is considered as one of the characteristics of traditional society and history. The status of biomass / geography and sovereignty and power is also influential in the emergence and spread of oral / spoken traditions).

The other is the empirical, in person, objective and practical transfer, such as the construction of buildings, equipment, cultivation and livestock, etc., which had been transferred from parents to children and the teacher to the student and....

In addition to the two ways of transformation and survival –which are traditional in nature, a third way may also be mentioned; this third practice may lead to the documental recognition and registration of the traditions, but necessarily, it cannot cause their user/application transfer. The efforts by the people such as those of the late Jamalzadeh Dehkhoda, the late Anjavi Shirazi, Ali Blokbashi and Panahi Semnani, and academic anthropologists in the past few decades, especially the field research and valuable studies by Dr. Morteza Farhadi, are among the activities of documental registration in tradition. And Valentin Zhukovsky is notable among the preeminent researches of non-Iranians, folk poetry of Iran in the Qajar era.

2-6- Separating the oral tradition from the other, or naming the "oral tradition" means that we also have a non-spoken tradition, which, as mentioned, may include practical / behavioural traditions, such as customs and a written tradition and writing. At the same time, the analogy against the oral tradition is not a written tradition. According to many experts, in oral history, oral history is an analogy against and even opposite to the written history, and this is both correct and wrong.

2-7- The separation of the oral tradition from that of non-oral is credible, and, to a large extent virtual, since the set of traditions is so synthesized that their definite separation from one another results not only in ambiguity, but also the disjunction of meaning, or distortion of the concept.

2-8- It was referred to the diversity and plurality of instances and cases of oral traditions; different types of proverbs, stories (tales, fables, maxims), riddles, songs and lyrics, elegies and slogans, prayers and insults, enchantments, poems, oral compliments, verbal jokes, rumours, idioms and interpretations, as well as memories, have usually been described as oral traditions.

2-9- In oral societies in which speaking language and speaking styles are strong and rich and diverse, the oral tradition does not only focus on the lower classes of the society and the masses of the people (the public) and the common people. Therefore, we can distinguish and recognize the oral tradition from each other based on classes and guilds, on the value of the profession and status, and .... This separation perspective is used later in analysing events and citing data in historical studies. The proverbs of villagers are different from the past traditional craftsmen. The way of dialogue between them is completely different from the secretaries and clergies of religious sciences. In special literary books, such as Kellileh and Demneh, especially in books such as Tarikh al-Vozara by Abu al-Raja Qomi, which is a valuable and unique work in this regard, there are many proverbs and maxims which are not common in the popular language.

3-When we mention or speak of tradition, it means that we are separated from the world and the era of tradition, it means that things which are the focus of attention and the subject of our study do not belong to the current time and belong more to the past and ancients. This understanding and intelligence – even extensive - is the result of the past perception of the present, and now. Our awareness of the difference between "what it is" and "what is traditional" comes from our "modern or pseudo-modernization" and from the bounties or consequences of "modernity" unwillingly/knowingly or unknowingly. Above all, it can be said that the struggle with modernity (and its apparent and verbal abandonment) is also the result of modernity and modern toxicity. Perhaps, the pause and hesitation of the soldiers of Shah Ismaeel Safavi, who fought with a sword and a shield against the ottoman soldiers equipped with guns and cannons, was among the events that had led some of the leaders of the Safavid government to use the bounties of modernity and relation with the West. As if the experience of the 11-year-old war between Iran and Russia caused Abbas Mirza to ponder and the Dar al-Fonoun School came out from this event and historical experience. Modernity in Iran began with the efforts and passivity of the higher classes of the community from the very beginning and gradually spread to the body of society and overflowed. This adventure in the field of literature, which has been called the mirror of historical developments in Iran divides everything into the "new" and "old" parts in the post-constitutional period, this is an adventure in the poetry of the era - in the works of Iraj Mirza and Bahar and others - are reflected and the publications of the day are the basis of this confrontation. For example, take a look at the treatise of “Sheikh and Shookh”, and the second volume of the book “Iran in Four Galaxies of Communication”, the tenth chapter, Tradition and Modernity. In my opinion, this kind of confrontation has continued until now and continues. Whether who we are now and what we are and what we can and must do with modernity, or how many parts are our current identity is another issue.  Our problem is to recognize the nature of this encounter, and this recognition can have a historical path.

It seems that there are generally two ways of confronting the tradition (both oral and non-oral); one, emotional and ideological confrontation, and the other, a confrontation based on methodological criticism and recognition and as accurate and comprehensive as possible.

In the first type, there are two or three practices: one, a nostalgic emotional, physical, and pastoral encounter, which is primarily the result of turning away from the present, or seeking refuge to the past, a past reconstructed in mind. One kind of this approach and similarity to the past is spectacular and artificial. It's like setting up traditional cafes and restaurants, whose face is traditional, but its real and inborn is free of a tradition, because everything comes up and disappears at the expense of time and background. For this reason, many heritage-like behaviors with culture and cultural heritage (as an organization) have removed the originality of tradition from traditional ecosystems; in many cases, what we have of tradition is a museum display of tradition, not tradition itself. In the face of the past, the objects for some may have a memorable and reminder application, thus, the object (like an old wooden radio) has a secondary meaning for them, not a daily and everyday use.

The second practice is the foreign-like encounter with the tradition which has caused bitter and humorous events happen in our contemporary history.

The second practice and method is the negative encounter with the whole new manifestations and biased attachment to the past and with the ancients in which any newly-found and modern thing is denied by the claimants of the practice – of course in word and claim- and admire anything free from the world of tradition and the past in so far as they prefer tyranny to the constitutionalism publically and officially.  In the event of the constitutional revolution and the differences after that, the place of dispute is confrontation with modernity and tradition.

It is worth mentioning that a number of well-known people – followers of Mirza Sadeq Mujtahid Tabrizi – live for many years in the area of Taleqan in a village – which the others have named it as “Ista” – and have abandoned all the manifestations of civilization. They have no IDs and do not use water, electricity, gas and phone. A book has also been written about the living conditions of these people titled Village of Ista.

But it is possible that facing with tradition can be based on recognition and criticism and of course relying on method. For instance, the efforts by the late Abdol Hadi Ha’eri can be considered as a scientific historic effort for recognizing the events from the angle of confronting tradition and modernity; the most important work of this scholar in this regard is the First Showdown of Iranian Scholars with Two Practices of Western Civilization and Bourgeoisie. At any rate, the search for this adventure brings us into the category of Orientalism and Westernology, which brings historical recognition of thought into the category of tradition and modernity. 

4- The question is what type is the historical search from tradition and what subjects come into mind in proportion between oral history and tradition and what is the opinion of a historian toward tradition? In the shortest phrase, it can be said that “history” in the meaning of text and proposition is the result of the historian’s research for recognizing and introducing the past and the ancients to the present people and posterity. It should also be added here that the understanding of history and the perception from it, is a historical event and process in nature. One of the characteristics of evolution in the attitude towards history and its understanding is the definition of the past in history. In short, the past is not unlikely in the farther past, but it is before the present and now. Meanwhile, the historian identifies the past – history - from the standpoint and perspective of his own present time. In short, the encounter of the historian with the tradition and the oral tradition is not a kind of nostalgic and memorable encounter, nor a traditionalist encounter with the struggle against modernity, nor the rejection and praise of modernity for escaping and confronting the tradition. What is important for a historian is to look at “oral tradition as history”.

4-1-History whether in the meaning of an event or incident or in the meaning of reporting an event looks at oral tradition as a subject area and realm in the status of supremacy. In other words, the studying of tradition and oral traditions – in macro or minor form – is the study subject of history and historian; as literature can be a subject for a historian to study, the history of singing in a climatic arena and a period of time is relevant for the historian. Moreover, as I have said, the story of the confrontation between tradition and modernity (as a historical occurrence) is in nature a historiological category and matter; the historiology of an intellectual event. 

4-2- Since historical perspective and historiography has been intertwined with narrative oral tradition before modern historiography, oral traditions – tales, stories and myths – are not only among historical resources but have promoted as the forerunner of history in historical narrations. Oral traditions, various quotations and even the legends are fully reflected in the History of Tabari. Thus, it can be said that history in the meaning of text in the past and old history-writings starts with oral traditions in so far as there is an overlapping and commonalty between story and history.  In the recent narratological approach toward history – history as narration – the oral tradition and history of the past has been revived and analyzed. Here is the point of joining and connection of literature with history.

4-3- In view of the historiological approach in light of the proofs of oral traditions as evidence and development of historical documents, with the analyzing of such findings and data – which have had no room in the official classic history and the history of sovereignty and the political history and power - we can have access to the recognition of the events which have no trace in the official texts of the history, because in a higher look at the official histories, the mass of the people have not been paid attention to.

4-4-But in the new conception that began gradually after the advent of the Annales School and social history, the role of popular classes and guilds –history from the bottom- gradually began to be considered. In this approach, not only the people and the hidden layers of life and thoughts of people are considered the subject of history, but also a kind of attitude and approach to history and historiography was created. In this approach, the oral tradition is considered as history and historical data. This has happened as a result of the evolution of the meaning of history from political history and sovereignty to popular history. Here, the field of historical studies overlaps with cultural studies and the discussions regarding narration and story. In this process, the oral tradition is considered to be history. The noteworthy point here is the recognition of the spirit of peace and confrontation / persistence of people against intolerance in oral tradition.

4-5-Although oral tradition has a heritage past as it was said, in view of the speed of the developments and time, the distance between the past and present has become very close to each other and for this reason, oral quotations (which was formerly quoted and released as chatters, rumors, jokes and songs) is quickly transmitted and noticed.

4-6-What reveals the necessity and importance of the study of oral traditions in history for us doubly is that we are still immersed in the midst of the struggle of the world of tradition and modernity, that is, we have not completely traveled from the world of tradition and, on the other hand, we have not fully integrated into the modern world. In this midst and strange situation, given the living experience of modernity and tradition, we are in a position where it is important for us to understand the present and the future, a proper and comprehensive awareness of the traditions of the past and the traditional past. In passing this passage, the books from the type of Vansina book are useful to us. Nevertheless, we need copies that are written for our history and our ecosystem, but considerable efforts are being done, including the efforts of Mr. Dariush Rahmanian are important and useful in this field with the publication of the magazine "Mardom Nameh”.

We have gone through two great events of the revolution and war over the past four decades; these two events are filled with diverse data to recognize the tradition of the world and the varied and unregistered incidents. Despite the publication of several books and articles, a relatively complete set of revolutionary slogans has not been provided to the geographical extent of the revolution in Iran, while the types of oral things and public affairs in the revolution and war are vast.

For instance, the prevalence of the news that the "Imam Khomeini's picture is seen in the moon" or the prediction of the overthrow of the Shah's regime by Shah Nematullah Vali, is the first of these statements. War and front were a great platform for the revival of these oral and non-religious traditions and the production of a variety of speeches and languages. Some of these popular words were collected and published in the form of slogans, terms and expressions in the book “Culture of Front”, but even in such collections, parts of the spoken metaphorical culture of the front have remained and have not yet been published. What have not been said is like the ones which are said just to the questioner and interviewer when the tape recorders of the interviewees of revolution and the war are off. A large part of this asset has been recognized and collected in the oral memoirs of people of the war and front. Nevertheless, the preservation of the authenticity of the documents requires micron sensitivity of such documentation and avoiding the upper hand, sympathetic, and emotionally and politically eloquent manipulation of them. I hope that the studying of the books of this type will help us to recognize our sensitivity and accuracy and how to identify and collect oral traditions as history.   

*This text was given to the website of Iranian Oral History thanks to its lecturer, Mr. Alireza Kamari, a history and literature author and researcher. Mr. Alireza Kamari delivered this speech in the meeting of introducing and reviewing the book “Oral Tradition as History” which was held in the venue of the National Library and Archive of Islamic Republic of Iran on Monday 12th of November 2018.  


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