Session on "Debris and Yell: A Reflection on Oral History of Kermanshah Earthquake" -1

Oral History Approach the Past to the Present

Maryam Rajabi
Translated by Ruhollah Golmoradi


From the right: Sabah Ghanbari, Sabah Khosravizadeh, Iraj Vafinezhad

According to Iranian Oral History Website, the session on "Debris and Yell: A Reflection on Oral History of Kermanshah Earthquake" was held in Dr. Parham Hall in Documents and Archive Center of NLAI on Tuesday, January 15, 2019.

Sabah Khosravizadeh, an expert in documents of NLAI, was presenter of the session. He started to talk, "The earthquake of November 12, 2017 was considered almost as the most catastrophic event of 2017. How history can enter this area and examine its different aspects is a debate that speakers will answer. In order to have a proper view on such incidents, we need to clarify role of oral history as an important tool of historiography for ourselves. We are faced with two areas in this gathering, one is theoretical discussions and introduction, and the other part is discussion on presentation of the project and compilation of oral history of earthquake in Kermanshah, which will be presented by dear speakers. On deficiency of such oral history to be cleared since no one had addressed the earthquake in Bam that had occurred before Sarpol-e Zahab earthquake. No one has paid attention to this area so that gather data about that incident and interview the injured. I've been working with these friends since 2017. They interviewed about 19 to 20 sessions with the injured people in Sarpol-e Zahab earthquake. Their work is now passing the final stages and eventually a book titled "Debris and Yell" will be published on oral history of the earthquake."

Sabah Ghanbari was the first speaker of the session. He told, "I try to discuss why our historians and scholars neglect important events of their time? When Bam earthquake happens, for example, it is an important incident, but historians do not pay attention to it. Plasco fire occurs, Sanchi ship drowns and again our researcher does not pay attention to it.

There are a lot of questions and ambiguities in the accepted definition of history. "What is history?" it is the first and most difficult question we face in the first year of our work. In fact, our answer to this question makes clear our historianship and scholarly path. When we answer that, "History is events of the past," and we regard that past far from the present moment, this answer creates negligence.

In the definition of history, there are almost three distinct factors: human, time, and an event that is related to human and occurs during the time. I agree with the view that in the definition of history there is emphasized on human, that is, in history we deal with mostly human. "History is in fact part events of man and nature," and this is in one of definitions of history, but if we want to accept this view, the planet before human life could be also subject of a historical work or eruption of a volcano apart from its effect on man can also be subject of a book. For example, consider history of a volcano that is not related to humans.

Someone else says, "Events which are raised in history are events related to humans in the past. Here, the definition is more narrowed down and specify course of history more precisely. I believed to the answer in my own research and the work with Mr. Iraj Vafninezhad (about: Oral History of the earthquake of Kermanshah). If we accepted earthquake as a subject, it was because it influenced on lives of 120,000 people who were in a particular geography, but the big question here is that a time that comes in definition of history, which dimension of time does it include?  The past? The present?  Or the future? What has been mostly accepted in history community is the past dimension, that is, we are more concerned with the past dimension of time in history, and again the question is that what is definition of time of the past? A last day? Ten years ago? A hundred years ago? When does the past start? The answer to the last question can lead us to the desired direction.

What has happened so far has been that we based on that documentary approach that we took from Europeans, we says that there should be an incident, time passes and so-called to be dusty, its documents come out of the archive, and then I go as a researcher and work on it as a subject, and this last about 30 to 40 years; for example, the imposed war occurred, and Iran was in war for eight years. This has been a great event and has affected lives of all Iranians, but produced historical text is very low, and perhaps it is because of that we have accepted that events should be old and dusty and we have to wait until the time pass so that we can have an eagle-like look from above to this issue, even look at it beyond time. This intellectual approach has led us to distance from important events of our time. This is not happening once or twice and it is occurring constantly. I think that if we do not change this approach and if we do not reduce the gap between the past and the present, this mistake would be repeated every day. If we made this mistake in Bam earthquake, repeat it in the earthquake in Kermanshah too. If we did it in Plasco, we also repeated it in Sanchi, and this view causes to lose the historianship active mentality, in which if it speaks during time his/her work becomes more accurate and more valuable. I wished we get a point where Tabari write about his era and Ibn Athir of his era, but unfortunately, I saw that when we get to the stage, our historians cut short their hands and pen, because we accepted our period is not a historical period, and this is the same damage point that we face until today, but oral history does not have partly this problem.

Why is the past time approaching the present time in oral history and sometimes to be united? That is, in oral history definition, past and present times are hardly separable. In oral history, the separation is possible and it is an advantage, and what's happening, if I have an oral history mentality, for example, if there is an earthquake, I say that this is my subject and I have to work on it. While I as a graduate student of University of Tehran, as a kid from Sarpol-e Zahab, when the earthquake with a moment magnitude of 7.3 occurred on November 2017, I acknowledged that it was not even in my mind that an important issue or an incident had occurred and I had to put pen to paper, because that attitude (time passes and so-called the events and document to be old and dusty, etc.) had stuck in my mind.

We can distinguish three factors in definition of oral history: interviewer, interviewee, and the event that is related to interviewee. We are faced with these factors in oral history. One question is that who could be interviewed in oral history? Necessarily famous people? Necessarily not-famous and ordinary people? Famous and non-famous people could be interviewed in terms of the selected topic, but I think importance of oral history and at least its pleasure being more where it is event-oriented and we can bring to the arena of history those who have low podium (ordinary people). Then as a researcher, you can experience more pleasure and it is more useful. Function of oral history increases when it brings the democratic spirit to history and exit history from that elite aspect, because oral history becomes more specific in comparison to general history, especially in events that matter to people.

Some events have less importance to governments, especially contemporary governments, which could be both due to different views of government and people, and due to criticisms that people have, especially as to how aid is given and questions like that. For example, in Plasco fire or ship of Sanchi, the government always asked that "wasn't there any better relief?" In earthquake of Kermanshah, this question was raised by the people. The question raised by people, especially in contemporary governments, cause highlighting and keeping memento these important events to be unattractive for governments, but for us as community of history, exactly the opposite, this can be a strong point that we understand what people say. Government agencies have their equipment and media, but what do people say? Regardless of which sides are right, our task is to reflect voices of people.

One of the topics that oral history faces is disaster or catastrophe. We have sociology of disaster, but do we have also history of disaster? As a subject we can produce text on it. As far as I've researched the answer is no. We have not worked on issue of disaster as an independent issue in order to separate its indicators; such as oral history of wars. For example, we have a lot of memories of the holy defense, but do we have a history of disaster?  No. This is in fact a weakness for our historiography that does not create these distinctions. We are a country whose history is in context of geography of disaster. Our country has always been faced with drought, flood, earthquake, and various cases that could be called as disaster. Why a country which is full of disasters should not produce a text on the disaster? This is a question for me that what is response of developed countries to a disaster? Our academic and research centers have been the least active in earthquake debate that we have experienced frequently the last few years. I remember precisely that when Bam earthquake occurred, we were in Tehran University. The first thing that professors asked us was not to do an historic work, but they said us go to help as a relief worker. They did not provoke our mind that an important incident has taken place, and you, who you are a history student, can go and learn from this important incident; that you can understand, for example, when Ibn Athïr said city of Halwan was destroyed, what it means. It is interesting to note that in all wars of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), we might have killed people about 10,000 or a number close to this, but in Bam earthquake alone, we had about 40,000 killed people. There are hundreds or thousands texts produced about wars of Prophet, and historical text we have produced for earthquake of Bam with forty thousand dead, is almost nothing. Surf the net in website of NLAI on history of Bam earthquake, you would not find academic work on history of this earthquake, and this is a disaster itself, that is, we could not turn disasters into text. Perhaps part of the reason that our people are still not prepared to prevent or facing calamity is fault of us as community of history, and more than us institutions that do scientific works. It's interesting to know that an earthquake with a moment magnitude of 7.3 in Sarpol-e Zahab, the biggest catastrophe in 2017, cause no shock to our research centers, neither University of Tehran, nor NLAI. What NLAI did was to send a number of valuable books to the region, but did it send a researcher to see what's going on there? Did University of Tehran or other universities do this? The research budget is not an astronomical amount to do oral history work in this area. The important thing is that we did not understand and did not accept that topics that occur in our era can be subject of our historical work."

Khosravizadeh said in response to one of Ghanbari questions about whether developed countries address these issues or not, "I remember that in the early days of the earthquake, when I went to area the earthquake, I saw a number of German scholars who had come to do an anthropological study on views of people about this earthquake. It is certainly important for them, but in our own country, this is very less important. Inshallah, in future, it would become important."


To be continued

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