Session on "Debris and Yell: A Reflection on Oral History of Kermanshah Earthquake"-2

Necessity, difficulty and experience of earthquake oral history

Maryam Rajabi
Translated by: Fazel Shirzad


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 Islamic Republic of Iran's Documents of the National Library and Archives Center on Tuesday's morning, January 15, 2019.

In the first part of this session, the statements of Sabah Khosravizadeh, the session's administrator and the expert of the Documents of the National Library and Archives, and Sabah Ghanbari, member of the project and compilation of oral history of earthquake in Kermanshah and the first speaker of the session.


Why Debris and Yell?

Mr. Iraj Varfinezhad, another member of the project and compilation of oral history of earthquake in Kermanshah was the second speaker. He said: "The earthquake of Sarpol-e Zahab took place incredibly. We had no history of such earthquake and surprising accidents, so when it happened there was a lot of psychological consequences, as people did not understand what had happened for a few days. It is time for me to praise the national epic of Iranian people at that time. This is the golden page that we took in oral history and remains in our memories, minds and hearts.

We were all engaged in relief. I remember that a machine came from Kerman and we distributed its equipment and food to people. When the work was over and we returned, I saw that there were seven missed calls from Dr. Aliraza Malaii Tavani. She was worried and called to ask my condition. I described the situation to him and he said that I could make document, take a photo or film and give as good as an article. This was the first spark of work. I thought I would expand it to make it bigger. Mr. Ghanbari was the main role of the work and it wouldn't be done without his presence. We decided to do this. After speaking several times, we came to the conclusion that as various media are responsible for the reflection of this natural disaster, we will pay it from a historic perspective and as a historical mission to open a path to other scholars who they want to work on disasters or natural disasters.

The title we chose for work is "Debris and Yell". The "Debris', which is the main character of an earthquake, and "Yell" also has a Kurdish word meaning "a cry for getting help," and this may or may not be responded. Considering that these words were appropriate vocally, we decided to select this title for the book. We had several necessity to do: One of the arguments of our country (Iran) was that it is naturally a catastrophic country, and this led us to a conclusion that this work should start from somewhere and these natural disasters should not be ignored in history, and according to Mr. Ghanbari's friend, because, the history is not related to 100 years or 1000 years ago, this moment can be matter of history. The other thing we needed to do was about shortcomings in which we were engaged daily, and people were struggling with it, such as the disarray in relief. The first two days, the most important problem was water and dry bread, as  if the family had dried water and dried bread, it seemed to have a king table. There was a strange confusion in the field of relief. All aid organizations were in the confusion, and if there were no people's help starting on the second or third day, a large part of people would be died for hunger and thirst. Everyone who was there and familiar with that situation could testify it. Another necessity that existed and other shortcomings we observed was the lack of help to those who were the main injured of us. We went to do interview about two or three weeks after the earthquake. Those people whose family or relatives were killed had not yet received tent. Everything was so unplanned that original the main injured was not particularly relieved and, on the other hand, they were not in normally mental situation to receive tents and supplies. If the neighbors gave them food, they would eat in the same open space. This disorder, what I can speak about, is visible here that some families have four to five tents. These were the shortcomings that took place during the earthquake. Another problem was infrastructure problem, that is, the failure of water, electricity, telephone. All lines were cut off suddenly. If the telephone lines worked, perhaps we would be able to reduce a rate of five percent of our casualties, which is a remarkable rate. If we consider earthquake casualties as 600 people, then five percent of effort to reduce the number of deaths could be large amount.


Like the story of a wife and husband who...

At first, we did not understand problems which people were legally involved with. When we were doing interview, we found a family that, only the woman of family was survived, and there was a hereditary issue that is still ongoing and unresolved. It was same in the medical field; for example, government said medical costs were free for 40 days. The eye of someone was injured seriously. Her first surgery was done during forty days, and the rest of surgery were delayed until three and four months. He would have to pay all medical tariffs, and it was no different with a person who was not injured by earthquake. Another problem that we found in this earthquake, and unfortunately it is also one of today's biggest problems, is the loss of social capital and public trust. This problem represented itself in distributing popular aids. People came from different parts of the country; they filled their own machines from food and distributed them directly; why? Because there was no trust to relief agencies, and people preferred to distribute the aids themselves. True, it was a national passion and epic, but this method make the work of relief difficult. I think, the traffic of roads and the lack of this trust was a huge loss, for relief organizations. These shortcomings that we found in the earthquake of Sarpol-e Zahab, it is important that the earthquake is not our last historic catastrophe, as it was not our first disaster in our history, these will be happen in the next disaster. That is, if these problems are not studied pathologically, then if we do not find a solution to them, it will again be a problem. One of the positive outcomes we image for our work is to illustrate these shortcomings and failures that can be useful for those who is responsible for making decision.

The other thing, which I'm concerned with, is that we decided to step in this direction anyway. This was a way in which we did not have expertise and experience. Due to the depth of the disaster, we did not have much mental readiness. We raised a lot of questions for this. Sometimes the questions were annoying and we confess to it. My uncle and I, went anywhere to ask questions; he later told us: "You are so brutal. You go to the minds of people to tell details. Maybe it's hard to say the details. "It was really painful to say the details, but for us to understand how the people reacted to the earthquake – and how they react when they lose one of the family members, or whole family at once, and only one person would remain healthy; therefore, they had to ask these questions. It can be very informative about how family relationships of our time have been and how this disaster has been viewed by people. Our main questions were about the initial response of people to the earthquake, i.e. people's attitude to the earthquake. Did they consider it as a fate or natural incident? There were somebodies who did not consider this happening as a natural incident; they consider it as a punishment of God and the result of human sins. There were somebodies who considered it as a natural incident. There were these views in the region. They were also asked In the case of funeral custom whether there was a chance to do it. It was also asked about the effects of earthquake on providing the needs of people, about how to help people, the public aids and psychological effects from aftershocks. We started research by some questions such as:" How were tents, Shelter Box, or temporary accommodation, and the facilities that the government had considered, distributed? How effective were they and how many problems were solved by them? And how did people see the future?" Our initial questions had a serious and static character. We took two or three first interviews with such questions and we did not have an active role in the interview. Questions were asked to all people in the same way, and we quickly realized that this is a big flaw for our work, because each person has own story and life with different shape in dealing with the earthquake; So the only thing we did was to ask a lot of supplementary questions along with these questions.

Each interview was conducted on the basis of one of our two people (Sabah Ghanbari and Iraj Varfinezhad) and in fact second person asked supplementary questions as an observer. If our first interview took about 40 minutes, our next interviews sometimes would be lasted two hours longer, and we achieved details in this way. But one of the difficulties in the oral history of Sarpol-e Zahab’s earthquake, was to find a case.

Naturally, we were faced with a huge range of injured people. There were several families that only one of them was survived. There were some families that had completely disappeared, and these were no longer narration. It means, what we are developing does not represent the whole disaster. Naturally, we had to choose. We were careful about the choice of a case, whether we should interviewed with those who were injured a lot, or those who had a rare and particular narration. Like the story of a pregnant woman and husband who, after 16-17 hours, were miraculously saved under the Debris, both the woman and her baby came out alive. This incident did not have any casualties, but the story is very painful. In my opinion, one of the most readable earthquake narration. When the mechanical excavator came to dismantle there, I heard the sound of its chain, and I said to myself: "it will hit my head now…" He was fully aware of incidents, but her voice did not go out. Many of them that were examinable deleted, because we could not do all interviews. Another difficulty was the dispersion. That is, we encountered a geographic area covering a large part of the province of Kermanshah, and eventually we were forced to cover two or three areas with a central area of Sarpol-e Zahab. This dispersion is also visible ethnically and religiously. Because there are Shiites, Sunnis and Yarsan  [1] Religion in region. In terms of casualties, there are Sunnis people about 46 percent and Yarsans  about 46 percent and Shiites about 10 percent perhaps less. We really got into trouble to be part of our work from the Shia. Mr. Ghanbari knows how much we tried to find a Shiite subject. Because practically so much of the other two groups were wasted, it was difficult to find a Shiite subject in the region. We really got into trouble to have Shia in our work. Mr. Ghanbari knows how much we tried to find a Shia case. Because practically so much people of other two groups were perished that it was difficult to find a Shia case in the region.

One of the other problems was that many people with readable narration were not interested in doing interview. Because the disaster's psychological burden was so high that they were not ready for interview, and those who were ready to get interview were so much heart sore that we were sometimes forced to cut off the interview because of tragic climate; person cried for two to three minutes, and then continued. It was very difficult for us to manage the interview and endure the tragic climate. Without knowing background, oral history interviews are virtually defective, and we were not aware the backgrounds of people. In fact, if we wanted to do the right thing, we would have to actively enter this field and get information about the past. Another problem was the pessimistic view that people had about the interview. Especially they were very scared of camera and phone. I remember when we wanted to coordinate interviews, they asked if you wanted to make a movie. I would say: No, it's not at all. Another problem that existed in this direction was the expectations and demands that we had, and we could not do anything; in the field of relief and assistance, in the field of bureaucratic trends that were affected, and the problems that, according to the people, the executive agencies made for them. I remember that we went to a village and someone told me that his house had been destroyed; now they said that his house was on the roadside, and If he want to make it again, he had to pull it away from roadside; therefore if he pull it away, practically he wouldn’t have space for making house, and he would be completely displaced and couldn't even make his own home. These were the problems we encountered during the work.


Structured interviews and unstructured interviews

We had solutions to make sure the interview was right. One is that we contacted before the interview and we tried to convince people, who were our case, in different ways to come for interview. We used various intermediaries so that we could finally negotiate. We had to find several intermediaries for each person to persuade them and conduct an interview. We did not ask questions in the first quarter of the interview, we just spoke informally break that baleful climate, and the interviewee was psychologically able to speak and; it was actually very useful. We chose the sympathetic interview method for oral history of the earthquake. That is, we did not put pressure on the interviewee by asking questions. Every time he stopped, he let him to be free. We did not hurt him with multiple questions, and sometimes we listened s/he heartily words; of course, we gain good points from these words. Sometimes we were crying with interviewee but we didn’t it artificially. Their story sometimes was so deep that we left ourselves out of the atmosphere of interview and it can be said that we had an unstructured interview.

Oral history consists of structured and unstructured interviews in oral history. In a structure interview, you are extremely tied up questions and move in that format, but in our unstructured interview, when we started to talk about earthquake, we let the interviewee to be free in speaking. I think this method was brilliant and for the safety of interviewees we removed phone and camera and used a very small tape recorder that was ignored after a few minutes and interviewee did not feel interview's situation. It was very important in terms of mental security, and in the end, if the interviewees let us, we would take a few photo. That's the way we've followed in all the interviews and it seemed very positive when we said hem that our final product would be a book. Contrary to the bad attitude towards camera, they had a positive view of book and welcomed it. The advantages we had in doing interview was that we were in native community and it help us a lot. If one person came from outside the community and did interview, I think that, s/he would not be successful considering the short time that we started to do interview after the disaster. The factor" concurrent" was very helpful. We interviewed in Kurdish language. We followed these delicacies and they were very positive.

Another advantage in developing this project was that we were very close to the time of event. This caused interviewees to recall the details of event and tell them, and when the book is published, it seems that these details are considered to be advantages. Although the atmosphere of the interview was heavy and mournful, it was generally acceptable, it was not in a controlled and quiet room. When we were doing interview, the guests used to come there, some people came there for getting information about alive people in that area; it was noisy place and it reduced the speed of work process and was not controllable. The other point is that the questions were not provided to interviewees beforehand, because it was not possible. That control , as I mentioned, was not like that interviewees had enough chance and time to have mental readiness to read questions, think about them, and then respond to us. So, the coordination was in the field of "earthquake and events that taken place for you". Because we were not far from the incident, people easily expressed their opinions during the interviews, and this is one of the common features of oral history that the person expresses his point of view and his vision by own judging. Regardless of whether this view is correct or incorrect, it is a historiographical task that should be criticized. One of prominent views, which were most evident in our interviews, was the doubt in earthquake; someone believed that this earthquake was not natural, and it was related to theorem Harp and etc. of course, that it has no scientific reason, but that it was the judgment of people. There were few cases that considered these earthquakes as a natural one. That doubt was almost the main part of all our interviews. The next case was doubt in facts and statistics. The official statistics were about 600 to 650 deaths, but estimates of people were numerically higher than 1,500. That was what people judged about. The next case, which was seen in most interviews, was people's distrust towards aid organizations. One of the most important points, which was true and even many interviewees said, was: We changed our vision towards people of Iran, although the earthquake causes a lot of devastation, it improved national cohesion and solidarity, and it was a new chapter in Iranian alliance that commendable and praiseworthy.

We were naturally faced with the issue of implementation and development. One of the problems with developing and implementing oral history is that you cannot write your feelings on paper. On the other hand, it was also difficult to translate Kurdish into Persian. We were faced with duality here whether we are loyal to the standard language. If we approached the interviews in a standardized language, we would have avoided that original narrative, and if we did not do, naturally this was a flaw. Still, we have a lot of problems here and we need to think seriously between loyalty to narrator or standard language.

Many Kurdish proverbs and phrases in Persian may be meaningless, and they do not convey that sense and meaning in the mind of narrator. This is also one of the issues of oral historiography about non-Persian people and nations."

In completing the speeches, Iraj Varfinezhad Sabah Ghanbari said:" we did interviews some people at same time. We were two and interviewees, in most cases, were also two or three people, and this made a conversation attractive and, of course, complicated. In the case of pregnant woman who was under debris, we also had her husband's story. When the mechanical excavator came and the lady felt that she would be died under the Debris in a moment. Her husband did not believe in the debris that his wife was dead; he lay himself down in front of a mechanical excavator. The woman could not see, but heard the voices and realized her husband was trying to save her. When we ordered these narratives, love and life came from of interviews. The woman said that I found myself near death and heard my husband's voice struggling to not accept my death. When the husband interviewed and described what he was doing at that moments, his wife confirmed everything, and this created an interesting conversation. "


To be continued…


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

Oral History Approach the Past to the Present


[1] The Yarsan or Ahle Haqq, is a syncretic religion founded by Sultan Sahak in the late 14th century in western Iran. 

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