Oral History and Historiography of Islamic Revolution

An interview with Dr. Morteza Mirdar

Interviewed and compiled by M. M. Mossakhan
Translated by M. B. Khoshnevissan

2020-03-10


The interview has been released in the website of Islamic Revolution on 25th of February 2020. It is more than two decades that the subject of oral history has been paid attention by the history researchers especially those of History of Islamic Revolution. Many works have been released inside and outside Iran under this title. Theoretical debates have been carried out and a number of books have also been published in this regard. But what is the relation between oral history and historiography of the Islamic Revolution? Has the oral history helped the historiography of the Islamic Revolution during the period? To what extent can the researchers of history of the Islamic Revolution use the oral history data in their researches? And… for answering these questions, we have gone to meet Dr. Morteza Mirdar who is active and researching in the area of oral history and history of the Islamic Revolution for years. He welcomed us openly and responded with great patience to the questions posed. We recommend reading this interview to respected readers of 22 Bahman Website.  

*For the beginning, tell us what your definition from the term oral history is?

*In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. I interpret oral history as witness history; namely those who narrate for us as witnesses. Of course, it is said that oral history has been created since the invention of tape recorder and the term cannot be used before that. Thus, someone narrates his or her observations and we review its accuracy through methods.

*Do you consider memory-writing with oral history as equal?

*I consider memory-writing as part of oral history; it means that if someone publishes his or her daily notes, he or she has recorded his or her collection of witnesses in written form and has recorded them. And if someone quotes his or her memoirs orally, this method is also part of oral history.

*In recent years, some people have collected the memories of the witnesses of an event or a current and have reconstructed and narrated that event through them. Do you consider this as oral history?

*Yes. This is a field and collective oral history and accidentally, collective narration is closer to reality, because different people quote their narration of an event from different angles. Thus, various aspects of an event can be specified to some extent. According to the experiences we have, this type of work is also considered as collective narration which narrates part of the history more comprehensively. The narration of ten people from the event of 17th of Shahrivar (8th of September 1979) is certainly very closer to reality rather than the narration of one people. We regard the narration of one people from an event as the lowest one, because it is more likely to be wrong.  

*What is your definition of the term historiography?

*I define the term as a current one. I regard historiography as a current that writes the past events through all documents and is usually influenced by a particular thinking. But, I regard history-writing as individual activities about the past events, like writing the history of an area during the Islamic Revolution.

*In view of your definition of the above terms, what is the proportion of oral history with historiography of Islamic revolution?

*I consider oral history as a subset of historiography of the Islamic Revolution, meaning oral history is one of the sources of Islamic Revolution historiography.

*More than forty years have passed since the victory of the Islamic revolution. How do you evaluate the current of oral history inside the country during the forty years?

*There is a religious belief in our religious thinking that the more a good work is done more secretly, the more it will be valuable to God. Thus, most of the Muslims who were active during the Islamic revolution did it for the sake of God’s satisfaction and made no attempt to express and register their memoirs of the revolution. A decade after the victory of the Islamic revolution, other political currents against the system of Islamic Republic tried to present their analysis of the past and interpret the revolution in their favor through writing books and registering their memories. It was here that the sympathizers of the revolution took notice of the information gap in the historiography of the Islamic Revolution and over time, efforts were made to record and register the memoirs and documents of the Islamic Revolution. So we witness that in the first decade of the revolution, no serious work was carried out to record the memories of those who participated in the revolution and to preserve the documents. We just see that a few persons with their personal efforts have written books for describing and analyzing the events of the Islamic revolution. The book “Iranian Contemporary Political History” [1]authored by Seyed Jalaleddin Madani and the book “Reviewing and Analyzing Imam Khomeini Movement”[2] by Seyed Hamid Rouhani, volume one are among such activities. But since the mid-1370s (1980s), the importance of this work has become clear to many. It turned out that if they neglected this, all the achievements of the Islamic Revolution would be wasted. Thus, individual or group activities were initiated and centers were established to record and preserve documents and memoirs of the Islamic Revolution. From that time on, we are witnessing extensive activity that continues to this day.

I think this process happened for the eight-year sacred defense period. It is true that people along with the base commanders recorded the events of the war, but there was no extensive activity in recording and registering events across the front. People like Martyr Avini did some things alone, which was faced with inattention. But after the termination of the war, and the necessity of recording memoirs, events of the self-sacrifice of the combatants, centers were established to record and preserve all war documents and memories. Therefore, we witness the release of numerous books with documented and oral history methods both in the area of the Islamic revolution and the sacred defense. Although the situation of our historiography and oral history are far from the desirable form, apart from the first two decades of the revolution, we have had acceptable function in these areas, because we have understood the significance of the historiography of the revolution.

*How do you evaluate the situation of oral history abroad during the four decades?

*After the revolution, the first action in the field of oral history is the project of Harvard University carried out according to interviews with important officials and figures of the Pahlavi regime. Most of these people in their interviews tried to highlight their past and defend their function under Pahlavi. In some interviews, the individuals made biased statements about the revolution and the Islamic Republic because they were struck by the Iranian people's revolution. On the other hand, the Left, which failed to seize power after the revolution, and also because of its familiarity with printing and publishing, made efforts to record and publish the memories of leftists abroad who were more successful in this regard than other groups. In my view, the current abroad realized sooner to the significance of registering memories and oral history and did things. Other plans were also carried out in the Foundation for Iranian Studies in the US and the Foundation for Left Oral History in Berlin that I think they should be referred to cautiously, although sometimes, valuable research data are seen among the registered memories. However, at present, the atmosphere abroad is completely influenced by the anti-system current (including monarchists and leftists) in a way that if someone wants to express a narration against this current, he or she will be labeled as “dependent on Islamic Republic” immediately. The example of Iraj Amini, the son of Dr. Ali Amini is a good one. He traveled to Iran several times for some research, and his book "On the Wings of Crisis"[3] was published in Iran. He said in a statement that "I was not harassed while traveling to Iran, and I was treated with respect wherever I went." The current abroad immediately accuse Amini of being the man of the Islamic Republic. Despite his denial, propaganda against him continued. I believe that the monarchical current is seeking to cleanse the Pahlavi regime and spares no effort in this regard. Oral history which creates this current is carried out in line with this goal and the domestic researchers should pay attention to it. Of course, I have to mention that any kind of information and data is useful for researcher in the course of researching, since it is a prerequisite for the work of historiography, the gathering of many information and various narratives, and in this regard foreign productions should be considered an opportunity for domestic researchers. Even if these stories do not suit our tastes, but overall, I evaluate as positive the oral history activities abroad. Of course, after collecting the information, the researcher has to examine the accuracy of the narratives with a critical view.

*What are the weak and strong points of oral history inside the country?

*The strong point of oral history inside the country (both state and private) is its large scale and production which has taken place during the past two decades; because its necessity and importance was known to all. The registration of memories and their publication by the governmental and non-government organizations have provided researchers a pile of various narrations which is a place of happiness and hope. But what is worrying is that most of these memoirs have been narrated in a way that the individual has had a positive and perfect performance; especially the memories of the dignitaries released during the past forty years. The question posed here is that if the performance of all has been perfect, then why we are facing with problems economically and socially?  Who is responsible for the turmoil in these areas? During the four decades after the revolution, we have had some four hundred ministers, presidents and high officials in the Executive Branch. When we interview them individually, all of them defend their performance and record and say “the country’s situation was excellent during our tenure. But the next government ruined the situation with its performance.” All present a perfect narration of their performance. This is a plague for oral history inside the country which I call it “oral history of power”. A significant number of these memories have been released in an oral history form. But since we have shortage of information about the periods related to the interviewee, it is very difficult to review the accuracy of the narrations and there is a risk that the presented narrations are used in the form of theses, books or articles without being criticized or reviewed in the historiography of the Islamic Revolution. The job has become more difficult since the expansion of cyberspace, because it is easy for a person to put forward a rare and profound narration that cannot be easily proven or disproved. But everyone is using cyberspace with all kinds of thoughts and tendencies. So we find that such narrations and memories are quickly used and spread in other places. For example, when I interviewed the late Dr. Ehsan Naraghi, he sometimes referred to the late Motahari to prove his point of view. We were telling him, "The late Motahari is not present now and we cannot inform of his viewpoint."

Both in the cyberspace and inside the books, we witness such narrations the verification of which is not possible for the researcher unless he or she have confidence in the narrator’s credibility which is very difficult. Of course, I don’t deny the whole materials released in internet sites and believe that part of the memoirs in cyberspace have provided an opportunity for our researchers. But there is a problem that some of the narrations are essentially fake memories and narration. In my opinion, in order to reduce such narrations in published books, the interviewers should not only rely on the narrator when interviewing individuals, especially those in charge of the post-revolutionary period, but also use the interviewees and their associates during or after the interview. For instance, it is very good to interview an authority in Education Ministry attended by a number of other authorities who were working during his or her term in order to verify his or her memoirs. I think the interviewee cannot put forward fake things through oral history in such a situation.

*What are the strong and weak points of oral history abroad?

*As I said, the release of the individuals’ memories from every political and intellectual wing is considered as an opportunity for the researchers of contemporary history and Islamic revolution. The interviewees abroad have brought up claims (like inside the country) the verification of which are very difficult. Also, the status of their time of interview as immigrants has had a great impact on their memories and narrations .Moreover, the interviewers, especially in the oral history projects of Harvard University and the Foundation for Iranian Studies, lacked the expertise and experience to be able to fully capture the interviewees' memories well and have somehow submitted to the narrator because of poor research during the interview. There are a lot of weaknesses in editing as well. There are fewer photographs and documents or narrations from people of the narrator’s period in oral history works released abroad.

As I mentioned above, there are still officials in the former regime who are trying to confirm and support the Pahlavi era and narrate in a way that as if everything had been perfect in the Pahlavi regime and that we don’t know why the regime was overthrown.

*Do you think the performance in the field of oral history has been better at home or abroad?

*This is an argument from analogy, because the atmosphere at home and abroad is very different. If two books with the subject of oral history are released abroad, they propagate as many as a hundred books, but there is little propaganda about the released works which are very high. Of course, we in recent years have witnessed the publication of oral history works by private publishers which is a good happening. At present, the number of published works in the field of oral history inside the country is higher than abroad due to various elements. In summary, many diaries have been published inside and outside the country over the past two decades that have provided much information to scholars of the history of the Islamic Revolution.

*To what extent have the released works in the area of oral history helped the growth of the revolution’s historiography during the past forty years?

As I said, in spite of the release of memories and interviews in recent years, oral history has helped the historiography of the Islamic Revolution to a large extent certainly. But the important point that we should consider is that most of the released memoirs are related to the country’s authorities and officials and the narrations of ordinary people are not heard, because nothing has been and will be done in this regard. Therefore, we are facing with a type of oral history that can be called “Oral history of the elite and the elect”. In the area of war, the memoirs of the commanders and in the political area, the memoirs of the ministers, lawmakers and outstanding religious scholars have been released. What about the ordinary people? Haven’t they witnessed events? Don’t they have memories? The historians have also neglected the narration of ordinary people about the revolution and post-revolution events. I give you an example. Political officials have quoted lots of memories in 1360s (1980s) about the life of Imam Khomeini (God bless his soul). We know that the late Haj Issa did the Imam’s personal works and his memoirs have been released.[4] He is an ordinary person and has quoted memoirs form his own view the example of which cannot be found in others memoirs. In general, in my opinion, oral history has been able to help the historiography of Islamic Revolution to a large extent through producing various narrations form the period of the revolution and after that.

* What issues are still being neglected in the oral history of the Islamic Revolution and need to be addressed by everyone?

*As I mentioned above, the narration of ordinary people from the revolution and the events before and after that, have been neglected to a large extent and the state or private centers should arrange to register and record the revolution’s events before it’s too late (many people who were present in the revolution have died). As you know, different people are involved in an event. The accounts of all parties involved in the incident must be recorded so that a good source of research is provided for scholars of the history of the Islamic Revolution.

The second issue that I think should be taken into consideration is the issue of recording different people's memories in state institutions and organizations. Although there have been several promising oral history projects of government agencies, they have interviewed a small number of activists in organizations. There are also many organizations and institutions whose accounts and memoirs are not recorded. Moreover, a few interviews have been conducted with the authorities and employees of the institutions set up on the order of Imam Khomeini (God bless his soul) after the victory of the Islamic revolution and were merged with other institutions in the next decade (like the Housing Foundation or the Islamic Revolution Committee). Unfortunately, their narration of the establishment, structure, and the function of the institutions in important events and changes and developments in them have not been expressed.  

The next case I think is about the important events of the revolution which despite the registration and release of memories, there are events which face the researcher of the revolution’s history with shortage of narration and information. For instance, regarding the incident of the 17th of Shahrivar, the memories of most of the eyewitnesses of the event have not been registered and recorded. There are still lots of memories about the events related to universities during the revolution which are available to researchers. Or let me give you another example. The Imam lived in Najaf for about 13 years. Few narrations are available about this period of the Imam’s life. How were the Imam's classrooms, working, formal and government meetings done during these thirteen years? Unfortunately, little information is available to us. Here is another example of post-revolutionary events. We had a problem in the war in the name of bombing cities. It seems that you find few narrations of these eight years of bombing cities. How have the aspects of the lives of people in the bombed cities been? Unfortunately, we do not have much information. Let’s see more general. How did the people in Iranian cities live during the eight-year war? How was the story of rationing the materials (edible and non-edible) which we know as “coupons”? How did the economic headquarters in different neighborhoods work? What were the people's memoirs from the moments of airstrikes? We have the problem of war immigrants in this period. Nobody and no institution has not resorted to register and record the memoirs of the "Foundation for Immigrants of Imposed War" while the event created many results in Iranian society. Unfortunately, the examples that I gave you are among the issues that have been neglected and their memoirs should be collected and recorder as soon as possible.  

*In view of your statement, how do you evaluate the performance of state centers in the area of oral history?

*I should say that the concern of our state authorities is not oral history. Thus, everything carried out in state centers in the field of oral history is based on personal interests and motivations. We are still far from the desirable performance in terms of the perspective and goals. Given high volume of the work, the movement of state centers and institutions is slow. But I think many works have been carried out in this regard despite numerous problems in state centers. In general, we can give them an acceptable score in the field of oral history of the Islamic Revolution, although we are still far from the desirable point. Hopefully with the experience of these three decades, our state centers will act better in this area.  

*Thanks a lot for giving us your time and answering the questions with patience.

 


[1] Madani, Seyed Jalaleddin, Iranian Contemporary Political History, Qom, the Center for Publication of Islamic Ma'aref, 1991, two volumes.

[2] Rouhani, Seyed Hamid, Reviewing and Analyzing Imam Khomeini Movement, Qom, Dar al-Fekr, 1979, volume 1

[3] Iraj Amini, On the Wings of Crisis, the political life of Ali Amini, Tehran, Mahi Publications, 2009

[4] Sadr Shirazi, Mohammad Ali, The Issa of Ruhollah, Memoirs of Haj Issa Jafari (Imam's servant), Tehran, Islamic revolution Document Center, 2019.  



 
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