Oral History and Historiography of the Islamic Revolution

An Interview with Dr. Morteza Mirdar

Interviewed & compiled by Mohammad Mehdi Musa Khan
Translated by Ruhollah Golmoradi

2022-01-11


Introduction

For more than two decades, the subject of oral history has been considered among history scholars, especially scholars of history of the Islamic Revolution. Many works have been published in this title in the country and abroad, theoretical discussions have done about this field, and a number of books have been published about it. But what is the relationship between oral history and historiography of the Islamic Revolution? Has oral history helped historiography of the Islamic Revolution in this period? To what extent scholars of history of the Islamic Revolution can use oral history data in their research? and another important questions ... To answer these questions, I interviewed with Dr. Morteza Mirdar, who has been working for many years in the field of oral history and history of the Islamic Revolution. He welcomed us warmly, and answered the questions patiently. We recommend this interview to dear respected readers of 22 Bahman Website.

At the beginning, please say what is you definition of the term oral history?

Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim. I interpret oral history as a witness history; that is, those who narrate to 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 referred to before that. So, oral history means someone narrates their observations to us, and we examine it in some ways.

Do you equate memoir with oral history?

Memoir is a part of oral history, which means if one publishes his/her daily notes, he/she would write and record his/her collection of witnesses. If someone also verbally narrates their memories, this method is also part of oral history.

In recent years, people have collected memories of witnesses of an event or current, and have reconstructed and narrated it. Do you consider this as oral history?

Yes, this is a collective and thematic oral history, and, in fact, the collective narrative is closer to reality, because different people narrate their memories of one event from different angles, and therefore different aspects of an event can be partially identified. Based on our experience, we also call this as collective narrative that narrates a part of history in more detail. The narrative of ten people from the Black Friday (1978) is far closer to reality than the narrative of one person. We consider narration of one person of a narrative to be the lowest quality narrative because its possibility of erroneous is more.

How do you define the term historiography?

I define this term as a current. I call historiography a current that writes past events by all documents and is usually influenced by certain thoughts. But I consider writing history as individual activities about past events, such as writing history of a region during the Islamic Revolution.

Given your definition of the terms above, what is the relation between oral history and historiography of the Islamic Revolution?

I consider oral history as a subset of historiography of the Islamic Revolution; that is, oral history is one source of historiography of the Islamic Revolution.

Forty years have passed since the Islamic Revolution. How do you evaluate current of oral history inside the country during these 40 years?

There is a belief in our religious thought that the more secret is done the good, the greater its value to God. In this regard, most Muslims who did activities during the Islamic Revolution considered it for God's sake, and did not attempt to express and record their memories of the revolution. After a decade of the revolution, other political currents opposed to the Islamic Republic tried to present their analysis of the past and interpret the revolution for their own benefit by writing books and recording their memories. It was here that sympathizers of the Revolution noticed an informational vacuum in the field of historiography of the Islamic Revolution, and over time efforts were made to record the memories and documents of the Islamic Revolution. Therefore, we see in the first decade after the Revolution, nothing serious was done to record memories of those participated in the Revolution and to preserve the documents and papers. We see only individuals have written individually a book to chronicle and analyze the Islamic Revolution. The book Contemporary Political History of Iran[1] [1] by Sayyid Jalal al-Din Madani, and An Analysis of Imam Khomeini's Movement[2] [2] by Sayyid Hamid Ruhani, first Volume, are among these activities. But since the mid-1990s, importance of this work became clear to many. It became clear if they neglect it, maybe all achievements of the Islamic Revolution would be lost. So, individual and collective activities started and centers were established to record and preserve documents and memories about the Islamic Revolution period. Thereafter, we see a wide range of activity that have been continued to this day.

I think this process also happened for the eight-year period of the Holy Defense. It is true that people alongside the commanders of headquarters recorded events of the war, but there was no extensive activity in recording incidents across the fronts. People like Shahid Avini did things individually that even they were neglected. However, after end of the war and necessity of recording memories, stories and sacrifices of the warriors led to establishment of centers to preserve and record all documents and memories of the war. Therefore, in both areas of the Islamic Revolution and the Holy Defense, we see publication of many books with oral history and documentary methods. Although historiography and oral history are far from ideal state, apart from the first two decades of the Revolution, we have had an acceptable performance in these areas because we have recognized importance of historiography of the Revolution.

How do you assess oral history abroad during these four decades?

After the Revolution, the first measure in oral history was the Harvard University project, based on interviews with important officials and personalities of the Pahlavi regime. During the interview, most of these individuals tried to highlight their past and defend their performance during the Pahlavi era. In some interviews, individuals also made biased statements about the Revolution and the Islamic Republic because they had been hurt by the Iranian people's revolution. On the other hand, the leftist current, which failed to gain power after the revolution, and also because of being familiar with printing and publication, made efforts to record and publish memories of leftists abroad, which was more successful than other groups. In my opinion, the current abroad recognized importance of recording memories and oral histories earlier and did some measures. Other projects were conducted at the Foundation for Iranian Studies in the United States and the Research Association for Iranian Oral History (RAIOH) in Berlin, which I think should be referred to cautiously, although sometimes they include valuable research data. Of course, the atmosphere abroad is now completely dominated by the anti-regime current (both monarchist and leftist currents), as if one wants to give independently a narrative contrary to this current, they immediately label him as “subordinate to the Islamic Republic.” Iraj Amini, the son of Dr. Ali Amini, is a prime example. He traveled to Iran several times for some research and his book On the Wing of Crisis[3] [3] was published in Iran. He remarked, “I was not harassed while traveling to Iran, and I was treated with respect wherever I went.” Immediately, the current abroad accused him that “Amini is the Islamic Republic's mercenary.” Despite his denial, the propaganda against him continued. I believe the monarchist current seeks to cleanse the Pahlavi regime, and it does whatever it can in this regard. An oral history that this process produces (memories and interviews) is carried out in line with this goal, and internal researchers should pay attention to this point. Of course, it should be noted that in the course of the research, any kind of information and data is very rich for the researcher, because one of the basics of historiography is collecting a lot of information and different narratives. In this regard, the works abroad should be considered as an opportunity for domestic researchers. Even if we do not like these narratives. generally, I consider activities of oral history abroad to be positive. Of course, the researcher of history should, after collecting information, critically examine authenticity of narratives.

 

What are the power points and weaknesses of oral history inside the country?

The power point of oral history inside the country (both public and private) is its vastness and numerous productions, which took place in the past two decades; when its necessity and importance became clear to all. Recording memories and publishing them by governmental and non-governmental publishers has made available a host of different narratives to researchers, which hold out some hope it. However, it is important to note that most of these memories have been narrated in a way that the individual him/herself has performed positively and impeccably, especially memories of figures and statemen which have been published during these forty years. A question arises here that if everyone's performance was good and impeccable, why are we facing problems now in the economic and social areas? Who is responsible for problems? We have had about 400 ministers and presidents and high-ranking executives in the four decades since the Revolution. When we interview them individually, everyone defends their performance, saying that “the situation in the country was great in our period, but the next government ruined the situation by its own actions.” All have a great and positive narrative of their own performance. This is curse of oral history inside the country, which I call it “oral history of power.” A significant number of these memories have been published as oral history. However, since there is little information about the interviewee's period, it is very difficult to verify authenticity of these narratives, and there is a risk the narratives will be used as theses, books or articles in the historiography of the Islamic Revolution without criticism. Since cyberspace has been expanded, the situation has become harder, because it is easy for a person to raise a rare narrative that cannot be approved or rejected simply; but everyone with all kinds of thoughts and tendencies uses cyberspace. Therefore, we see such narratives and memories are quickly used and distributed elsewhere. For example, when I interviewed the late Dr. Ehsan Naraghi, to prove his opinion, he referred to the late Morteza Motahhari in some points. We would tell him, “The late Motahari is not alive now and we cannot be informed of his point of view.”

In cyberspace and in also books, we see such narratives that cannot be verified by the researcher unless the researcher is confident in trustiness of the narrator; something that it is very difficult. Of course, I don't reject all the content published on internet websites, and I believe part of these memories in cyberspace provides an opportunity for our researchers. But there is the issue that some narratives are, in essence, forging memories and narratives. In order to reduce such narratives in the published books, I think interviewers should not only rely on narrators when interviewing individuals, especially officials of post-revolution era, but also use their contemporary individuals and their colleagues during interview or after it. For example, it would be nice when we have an interview with an education official, during the interview, his/her deputy along with a number of teachers, who worked at the time his custody, participate in the interview to verify his/her memories. I think in such a case, the interviewee cannot raise fakes through oral history.

What are strengths and weaknesses of oral history abroad?

As I mentioned, publishing memories of individuals from every political and intellectual faction is an opportunity for scholars of contemporary history and the Islamic Revolution. But those who were interviewed abroad have made allegations (like those inside the country) that can hardly be proved whether they are right or wrong. As well as, situation of their interview as immigrants has had a great impact on their memories and narratives. Moreover, the interviewees, especially in the oral history projects of Harvard University and the Foundation for Iranian Studies, did not have the necessary expertise and experience in the field of oral history so that they could fully receive memories of the interviewees, and finally due to research weaknesses they have surrendered to the narrator in a way during the interview. There are also many weaknesses in the field of compilation. There are few photographs, documents or narratives of contemporary people of the narrator in the published works of oral history abroad.

As I mentioned above, most of the officials in the previous regime are still trying to endorse and support the Pahlavi era, and narrate as if everything was great under the Pahlavi regime and we don't know what happened that ended the government.

Between those inside the country and those abroad, in your idea, performance of which one is better in the field of oral history?

This is a faulty analogy, because the atmosphere inside and outside the country differs greatly. But abroad, if two books on oral history are published, they advertise as much as 100 works, but there is very little publicity in home despite numerous published works. Of course, in recent years, inside the country, we have seen publication of oral history works by private publishers, which is a good happen. Now, because of existence of various components, the number of printed works in the field of oral history inside the country is higher than the outside. Shortly, many memories have been published at home and abroad compared to two decades ago, which have provided a lot of information to researchers in the history of the Islamic Revolution.

Over the past forty years, how much published works in the field of oral history have contributed to the growth of historiography of the Revolution?

As I said, given publication of memories and interviews in recent years, oral history has definitely contributed greatly to historiography of the Islamic Revolution. However, the important point should be considered is that most of the published memories have been related to the authorities and officials of the country, and narratives of ordinary people have not been heard, because nothing has been done and is doing in this regard. So, we are faced with one kind of oral history that can be called “oral history of elites.” In the field of war, memories of commanders, and in the political sphere, memories of ministers, parliamentarians, and prominent Ulama have been published. What about ordinary people? Have they not witnessed events? Don't they have memories? Because historians have paid more attention to the elite's narrative of history of the Revolution, they also have neglected narrative of ordinary people about the Revolution and the events that followed. I'll give you an example. Political officials have narrated many memories about life of Imam Khomeini in the 1980s. We know that the late Hajj Issa did Imam's personal works and his memories have been published.[4] [4] He, who is a normal person, has quoted from his point of view memories cannot be found in the memories of others. Overall, in my idea, oral history has contributed greatly to the historiography of the Islamic Revolution by producing a variety of narratives from the Revolution and after it.

 

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

I mentioned above that ordinary people's narratives of the Revolution and the events before and after the revolution have been largely ignored; so, public or private centers must arrange to record their accounts of events of the Revolution before it is too late (a large number of participants in the Revolution have died). As you know, there are a variety of people involved in an accident. The narratives of all parties involved in this incident must be recorded in order to provide the raw materials for researchers of history of the Islamic Revolution.

The second issue that I think should be considered more is the issue of recording memories of different people in government institutions and organizations. Although several oral history projects of government institutions have been carried out so far, which hold out some hope it, they have interviewed a few numbers of those who have worked in these organizations. There are also many organizations and institutions whose narratives and memories of their employees have not been recorded. In addition, regarding the institutions that were established after Islamic Revolution by the order of Imam Khomeini and merged with other institutions (such as the Housing Foundation or the Islamic Revolution Committees) in the following decade, not so much interview have been done with their various officials and employees. Unfortunately, their narratives of the formation, structure, performance of institutions in important events and changes in them, have not been expressed.

The next one, I think, is related to the important events of the Revolution, which despite recording and publication of memories, are the events that face researcher of history of the Revolution the problem of shortage of narrative and information. For example, in the case of the Black Friday (1978), memories of most of its eyewitness have not yet been recorded. There are still not many memories available to researchers about incidents on universities during the Revolution. Or I'll give you another example. Imam lived in Najaf for about thirteen years. There are very few narratives from this period of Imam's life. In these thirteen years, how have Imam's classes, formal and governmental meetings have been conducted? Unfortunately, we have received little information. I give you another example of the events that followed the Revolution. We had an issue called bombing cities in the war. I think there are rare narratives of these eight years of bombing cities. How have been life of people of the bombarded cities? Unfortunately, we don't have much information. If we have a more general view, during the eight years of war, how did people live in Iranian cities? What was story of rationing of materials (food and non-edibles) that we know as “coupon”? How did the economic headquarters, which were set up in different neighborhoods, work? What are people's memories of the moments of airstrikes? We have the issue of war migrants during this period. No person or institution has recorded memories of “The Imposed War Refugee Foundation”. However, this has produced many results in Iranian society. Unfortunately, the examples I have made are issues that have been neglected and should be collected and recorded as soon as possible.

How do you evaluate performance of governmental centers in the field of oral history of the Revolution?

I must say oral history is not concern of our officials. Therefore, everything done in the governmental centers in the field of oral history has been based on personal interest and motivation. In terms of perspective of works and goals, there is still a distance to optimal performance. Regarding massive works should be done, governmental centers and institutions move slowly. But I think a lot of work has been done in this regard that despite many problems that government centers face, we can give them a passing grade in the oral history of the Islamic Revolution. However, there is a distance to our ideal, and regarding experience of these three decades, I hope our governmental centers will do better in this area.

Thank you very much for patiently answering the questions.

 


[1] Madani, Sayyid Jalal al-Din (1991). Contemporary Political History of Iran. Vol. 2, Qom: the Center for Publication of Islamic Ma'aref.

[2] Rouhani (Ziarati), Sayyid Hamid (1979). An Analysis of the Movement of Imam Khomeini. Vol. 1, Qom: Dar al-Fekr.

[3] Amini, Iraj (2009). On the Wing of Crisis; Political Life of Ali Amini. Tehran: Mahi Publication.

[4] Sadr Shirazi, Mohammad Ali (2018). Ruhollah’s Issa; Memories of Hajj Issa Jafari (Imam's Servant). Tehran: Islamic Revolution Document Center.

 



 
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