The Fourth Online Meeting of Iranian Oral History

Iranian Oral History beyond Borders – 1

Sepdeh Kholoosian
Trnaslated by M. B. Khoshnevisan


Dr. Abolfazl Hasanabadi, Dr. Morteza Rasouli Pour, and Dr. Abolhasani  participated in the fourth meeting out of the series of meetings on oral history in Iran held online on Saturday 11th of Dey 1400 (January 1, 2022) hosted by Mrs. Mosafa. In the meeting set up in the History Hallway of the Clubhouse, they talked about “Iran’s Oral History beyond Borders”.

In the beginning, the host in a short statement said: the subject of the meeting is Iran’s oral history beyond borders, which will be discussed by the respected professors and guests. Following the series of meetings initiated by Dr. Monfared and chaired by Dr. Hasanabadi, the course of oral history in Iran began, and now in this meeting we will focus on the activities that have taken place in the field of the record of oral history of Iran abroad.

Then, the host asked Dr. Abolfazl Hasanabadi to start the discussion.

Dr. Hasanabadi: As we already talked about oral history inside the country, the issue of the formation of the Islamic revolution and the departure of Iranians from the country led to the creation of a kind of historiography, or rather a form of history that came under the title of Iranian oral history. Several major centers were established at that time, but the same centers, especially those established in the 1360s (80s), still had the most important function. The first project was that of Mr. Lajevardi, with which almost all oral historians and those working in contemporary history are familiar. In this project, 134 interviews were conducted and its output was published in 16 volumes. The Lajevardi project also has the most accessible interviews in oral history, which have been published both in a book and on the website. Most of the topics of this project were related to the important men of the second Pahlavi. This was the most expensive project, which took about 14 years.

The second project was produced by the Foundation of Iranian Studies which was formed in 1360 (1981) concurrent with the Lajevardi Project. It can be said that if the first project was a personal one, the second one was formed in the form of a foundation with the help of Pahlavi family and many people took part in it like Mrs. Afkhami, the first female minister before the revolution who was both in charge of the project and its managing director. She had also conducted many interviews of the project. It was formed with a certain order and logic; because it was a subset of Columbia University's Oral History, and its activists had been trained at the center and formed a codified structure as a foundation. Numerous interviews were conducted out of which 176 interviews were shared on the website, and in addition to the Iran Nameh Quarterly, a number of their books has also been published and made available in Iran. Their most important working field was the oral history of Iran’s development during Pahlavi era. They mostly worked in economic and social oral history. The next project is the oral history of the left on which Mr. Hamid Ahmadi worked. The project was started in the last days of Dey 1360 (January 1982) and took some 14 to 15 years. It can be said that the strongest field of oral history of Iran outside the country in terms of historiography and order was the same project that below the oral history of the left, we see several fields that have worked at least in the recent thirty years. Mr. Ahmadi has conducted a great number of audio and video interviews. He has conducted interviews with 115 people the output of which is some 1100 hours. The interviews can be accessed and their resources are available in Harvard and Columbia addition to this, we have also the work of Mr. Shokat in the US and oral history of the left written by Mr. Touraj Atabaki in Amsterdam which are below the field of Iran’s oral history of the left. 

Alongside these projects, a brief project titled “Oral History of Iran-US Political Relations” was also carried out. These were the most important ones. Mrs. Homa Sarshar in Oral History of Iranian Jews has worked very well on Iranian Jews. Although these projects still continue, in fact, the time of using them is today. The largest oral history project inside the country was that of Mr. Dehbashi, which became very popular and talked about.  Mr. Dehbashi has discussed a lot about this project of the oral history of contemporary Iranian history. According to him, he has been following the project for about 13-14 years and his initial forecast was to interview 211 people, who eventually managed to interview a total of 58 people abroad. Only 4 volumes of the books were published from interviews with these people. The memoirs of Aali Khani, Dariush Homayoun, Seyed Hossein Nasr and Azar Barzin were published in this work. Three volumes were stopped in the stage of printing and were not published. They were good works too; like interviews with misters Badi’, Etemad, Farhang Mehr, and other narrators which have yet to be published. According to what they have said, the sources except a few interviews are also available.

If we want to sum up the generalities, tonight we will talk about a few basic topics. First, most oral histories, both at home and abroad, have been supportive because of their cost. Both Mr. Lajevardi and Mr. Ahmadi had the support of Harvard University and several institutions. There is also personal and government support for the projects inside the country. The second point is that the researchers from the university subdivision have worked very well and have had a very good relationship with the universities. Of course, this has not been the case inside the country as the project of the Foundation of Iranian Studies overseas was undertaken under the auspices of the University of California and its members were trained. The third point is that because these projects have been taken over by universities and public archives, fortunately their resources are available. Now, although it has been less used, it is very useful, no matter how it is done abroad or inside the country.   

We have several main debates: the first one is historiography which was discussed very much especially about the project of Mr. Lajevardi; some questioned it, some rejected and we had a topic whether we can give them the dignity of historiography at all or not? The second point is the purpose of historiography and these should be further explained about their dignity and strong and weak points, and the third point is the importance of these sources in the field of oral history and contemporary history, which allows the researchers to use it better through more explanation about them.

Then the host introduced Dr. Morteza Rasouli Pour and said: he is a university lecturer and cooperates with the Encyclopedia and World of Islam and Iran Encyclopedia. He is also a member of the faculty of the conferences of Iranian Oral History and has held 11 scientific-specialized meetings on the subject of reviewing the Iranian press. He has authored numerous books and is in the process of writing other books. He is the author of books such as "Untold Stories from Mossadegh" as well as the book "A Look Inside" which deals with the political memoirs of Dr. Javad Sadr. Mr. doctor is also a member of the Scientific Committee of the Research Department of IRIB, and as a member of the editorial board of the specialized quarterly of Iranian Contemporary History, interviewed 420 officials, ministers, former members of the National Assembly, governors and courtiers.

Rasouli Pour: Mr. Hasanabadi pointed out that the project that Mr. Lajevardi is pursuing is personal and I do not think so. The project was also supervised by Harvard University and had no personal aspect. Mr. Lajevardi himself did not conduct these interviews alone, but in the interviews Mr. Zia Sadeghi and Ahmad Ahrar also helped to publish it. I have mostly worked on the content of these interviews and sometimes criticized them which have been published. At the same time, although in the conferences held in Iran, I felt that some people might question the generality of these works, I believe that all of them have more positive aspects. In my opinion, these are the services that have been carried out and have been very useful. Maybe we were expecting a lot. However, in the beginning, these people took the lead and worked hard. If what we expect has not been met, the same amount is very good considering the subjects about which they interviewed and had a heavy socio-political weight. That is to say, interviewing political and military figures, and especially those who were in the court and had relations with the Shah, is very important, but from a technical and content point of view, we may have objections. Especially Mr. Lajevardi himself and his knowledge of the history of Iran based on what we have seen and are seeing, especially in the first conversations with people who were once the Prime Minister, such as the interviews with Dr. Amini and Mr. Sharif Emami, were very poorly done and not challenged.

The next point that can be generalized to other centers in these works, and Mr. Hassanabadi also mentioned, is that they did not pay much attention to the compilation and arrangement of the dialogues. In other words, you see a lot of confusion in this discussion of the authenticity of the statements of these people, which should be published word by word in the dialogue. Some of the interviewees were over 80 years old, and the overlap in the statements of each of them was high. In other words, we see that in some 40 pages of an interview, it is a repetition of the previous session that this gentleman spoke about the same things as before, and the interviewer was not able to steer the conversation in the right direction.

The next content flaw is that these gentlemen and the people who have worked, have done very poorly in articulation. Sometimes, when some people needed to be better known to the readers, they were not explained, and if they were, many of them were incorrect. In any case, if I were to summarize all of this, I would believe that, according to the question raised by Mr. Hasanabadi, they said, "Can we give dignity to historiography, and are they really worth it?" In any case, in my opinion, a collection of these can be useful for researchers of Iranian contemporary history.

I cannot comment about the goal of the works which have been carried out. I believe that for whatever purpose the interviews have been conducted, we can use them, and the importance of these resources in oral history is not minimal. But despite the fact that they are very important, the work has not been taken seriously so much and more works need to be done inside the country. They do not value at the split that has taken place inside and outside the country and for the set of works that are carried out abroad and should look at them with more flexibility. No connection has been established between documents centers and the research centers of Iranian contemporary history at all because those who have been in charge of oral history in research centers were working under the auspices of state and revolutionary institutions and did not allow themselves to establish relations with these people. There has been no connection between the centers active inside Iran with those of abroad and this has been and is a big problem. They have also considered the works done inside the country from those who are the agents of the government of the Islamic Republic and feel that the interviews have been conducted and written with the specific goals of the Islamic Republic, which in my opinion are not very important. We have to see the content and the text. When content comes out of someone's words it must be critiqued independently.

In continuation, the host introduced Dr. Abolhasani and said: He has the doctorate of Iranian Islamic History from Isfahan University and is a university lecturer. He has carried out many activities and research about oral history; including the articles compiled in the field of oral history and citizenship rights. He has also reviewed other articles related to oral history.

Dr. Abolhasani: a few years ago, I along with other friends talked about the same subject in the National Library of Iran. There I said that I had to introduce these projects and extract details from them until 1390 (2011) due to compiling my doctoral dissertation. I also provided examples of which designs have been published, structural, scientific, and content analysis. In the plan brought up by Dr. Hassanabadi, there are points that I will say, and I will mention at least 4 examples of the plans that I have examined, the harms that have been done to them, and the advantages and disadvantages that the publication of each of these works has had.

In the project of Oral History of Iranians at the Studies Foundation of Harvard university, the first point made by the late Lajevardi himself is that the list of 350 people, of whom about 140 were interviewed, have been focused on political issues. They said that we had limited financial resources and could not address other issues, which I think is a big harm. This is because the characters who were chosen as the narrators of this project had different aspects and had multi-dimensional characters, and in fact, burning the opportunity started from here. That is, they limited themselves just to political issues. The next point about Harvard is that while we see a variety of narrators, all of Harvard's work, for which the transcripts of interviews and audio files are now available, is person-centered. That is, Mr. Lajevardi or Zia Sedghi and Shahrokh Maskoob and others who were in this project did not even bother to design the form of the interviews and research, and even extract and subject the basic issues in the field of political history and move forward subject-oriented.

So that first characteristic is the first damage of this plan, followed by the second damage. That is, it has been all person-centered, and unfortunately, despite Mr. Lajevardi's background in the School of Management established by him with the help of the Harvard School of Business in Iran, they have been unsuccessful even in the discussion of extracting information about their private lives, their upbringing, social background, and the process they went through to get to that point and did not even meet the characteristics we set for person-centered interviews and the standards we set for them anyway. They would take only a brief account of the narrator's life and then begin to ask questions, headlines, and subtitles that would include the narratives. 

What has been edited and the instances published in Iran have had two examples in the compilation and editing. One was based on meetings, like the memoirs of Abdolmajid Majidi, and the other was based on topics, such as the memoirs of Muzaffar Baqa'i. All of these interviews are now available, and the distinguishing feature of foreign designs from the domestic ones, which is a kind of advantage, is the issue of archiving them.

For instance, you may have heard that a while ago, an audio file of an interview with Mohsen Mobser, a police chief during the second Pahlavi era was released. In the part where he talks about Navab Safavi and the period of his captivity and the claims that this narrator makes about him, I myself faced many questions. Does this audio file even exist externally? Is that true? Is it related to this person who was the head of the Iranian police in the 1330s (1950s) or not? In view of the audio file that matched the text, these discussions existed and that was an advantage. But, the existing harms, including the verification discussion that the interviewer have done neither at the time of the interview nor at the time of drafting, should be reviewed, substantiated, and examined cross-sectionally by the researchers of each period.

One of the advantages and disadvantages of the Harvard plan, I think, is that part of it describes the public space governing the domestic politics of Iran, the court, and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi himself. This collection gives a picture of the men of the Pahlavi era and clarifies facts from within the last cabinets of the second Pahlavi government in the discussion of the confederation, Iranian students abroad in Europe, the composition of the confederation, and so on. I say this based on the examples I have examined, although they said that political history has been considered, the economic plans of the government in the 1330s are still discussed in some sections, and in this section, where he talks to technocrats, narratives and in some places, he has presented logical and scientific analyzes or, for example, about the interview he conducts with Dr. Mehdi Ha'eri Yazdi, he explains to some extent the discussion of the seminary and the relationship of the ulema with Reza Khan and the discussion of the religious elites and the position of Qom.

But the plan has also harms the first and most important of which is that it is person-oriented which prevents it from addressing key issues. Because, like the rest of the plans we take from the elderly and start with more experienced people, the main problem we see in their narratives is the discussion of forgetting events and even forgetting the names that are often seen in this work. The important point is that even after compiling and writing, they did not try to fill this gap. The point that Mr. Rasouli Pour made in the discussion of articulation is that part of it is that where a word, noun, idiom, place name, declaration, or index is needed, it should be mentioned in the text or in a footnote, which has not even been done.

For instance, in an interview with Abdolmajid Majidi, several interviewees spoke to him, and the type, gender, and method of asking questions were different. So they did not use a single method and did not even use a single method in editing. That is to say, the discussion of additional explanations and footnotes was not observed, the language of speech was used in one place, and in another place, the language of writing and what we call chronological order and historical chronology were not observed in this plan at all, and it has neither logical nor historical order.

Regarding the issue of time and the meetings of the interviews whose point I saw in the memoirs of Ali Amini, it is true that our interviews, in addition to being structured, are open-ended, and raising networking questions separates interviews from structuring, but the budgeting of the interview's time and sessions are the issues that need to be addressed, but we do not see this in Ali Amini's memoirs. Narratives have not been documented. A special instance of this is the same memories of Dr. Mehdi Ha'eri Yazdi in which supplementary resources have not been used and in general, the late Lajevardi or Shahrokh Maskoob or Zia Sedghi have played the role of a director than an active interviewer. Most of the interviews are somehow a kind of self-talk and monologue, and the interviewer's ignorance, which is sometimes on the axioms of contemporary Iranian history and has no relative knowledge of it, has led to short and superficial questions instead of asking key and challenging questions and suffice to general answers. Because of this, many facts and issues related to the contemporary history of Iran, economic, cultural and social policies have either not been addressed or passed by very quickly and have not extracted the maximum information that we have in mind.

In some places, for instance, in the interview with Muzaffar Baqa'i, it is clear that we have a subject in theoretical issue; The argument is that it is not important which person is in front of the interviewer. He or she should not be the subjugated and defeated by the narration and narrator, but we see that this happened in Muzaffar Baqa'i's memoirs and the narrator began to speak and narrated the history as he wished. Many claims by the narrator have also not been challenged, and not a single footnote or protest point has been mentioned at the time of writing. We have also self-contradictions in the works of Ha'eri Yazdi or Abdolmajid Majidi and in some places, for example in the interview with Ha'eri Yazdi, the course of the interview has been deviated totally and other issue were followed and the interviewer, in order to eliminate his ignorance or illiteracy on the subject of ijtihad (independent reasoning based on the Holy Qur'an and Sunnah), goes to issues related to ijtihad that have nothing to do with the interview and such. There are also other points that I will not address them anymore.


To be continued ...   


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