The Fourth Online Meeting of Iranian Oral History

Iranian Oral History beyond Borders – 2

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 continuation of the meeting, the host asked Dr. Hossein Kamali to speak about the subject of the meeting:

Kamali: I also want to express a few points regarding different types of the oral history or the oral history projects and plans that I know outside Iran. The respected professors talked about the oral history of Harvard and I have also talked to Mr. Zia Sedghi in the previous years. Mr. Sedghi was very interested in Iran had also a good public information in general; but the Harvard project started at a time when the work of oral history had not yet taken root in the true sense of the word, and was a pioneering work in its own type. The Foundation for Iranian Studies in Washington had launched another project titled the Oral History of the Foundation for Iranian Studies, which was run by Mrs. Pari Abasalti and was also staffed by Mr. Gholamreza Afkhami and his colleagues. Several volumes of it have been published and now they have a podcast too.

Another important oral history project is the one carried out by Admiral Dr. Hamid Ahmadi. The plan was the oral history of the left in Iran, who were themselves party members in Iran, while living outside Iran - and still are there. More than 1000 hours of interviews have been conducted in this project; including a good interview with Bozorg Alavi and other examples of leftist activists that have been published. The plan is only available at a few US universities, including Harvard and the Library of Congress, as well as at Columbia University. Dr. Ahmadi continued the interview with national-religious activists in a part that, as far as I know, has yet to be sent to any center and is being completed.

I also know another project entitled Art Box, which is conducting interviews in Iran and abroad for the oral history of artists, writers, musicians, including Iranologists abroad. There was another project that Mr. Hossein Dehbashi did on behalf of the National Library of Iran during his stay abroad.

Then, the host asked Dr. Mehdi Monfared to continue the discussion.

Monfared: Given that many titles have been mention in introducing Mr. Dr. Kamali including a professor in the Department of the Middle East Studies of the Columbia University, I would like to ask you to tell us a few words about their activities and what universities they teach and research at.

Kamali: Thanks a lot. At present, I am teaching at the International University of Hartford in the third year and have the opportunity to work there on behalf of the Khoja Shias and Pakistani Shias namely the Twelve-Imam Khojas and some Pakistani Shias in a chair established in the name of Amir al-Momenin (PBUH) which is the first chair of Shialogy in the United States. Other than this, I have no other thing in introducing myself except that a historical book authored by me was published three years ago and another book published two years ago by a non-academic publisher under the title of the History of Islam regarding Twenty One Women. This book is an attempt for writing the history of Islam and its use by the general public, but instead of the history of caliphs, kings, scholars and Sufis who are generally men, 21 women were chosen as the sample. The number 21 was also the publisher's suggestion for the 21st century.   

In continuation, Dr. Monfared asked Dr. Abolhasani to complete his words.

Abolhasani: Since I liked Mr. Ahmadi's work when I was studying the samples, I wanted to go to Colombia and the Foundation for Iranian Studies, which is called Columbia University, if I had the opportunity, but I would prefer to look first at the oral history of the left in Iran and some examples. That Master Kamali told me to mention. Because I liked Mr. Ahmadi's work since I was studying the examples, I wanted to go to Colombia and the Foundation for Iranian Studies, which is determined with the name of the Columbia University, if I had the opportunity, but I would prefer to look first at the oral history of the left in Iran and to mention the sample that master Kamali explained.

Mr. Hamid Ahmadi is a member of the left; he was also the deputy commander of Captain Afzali, the former commander of the Iranian Navy, and was arrested following the issues brought up in Tudeh Party regarding spying for enemy. Since then, Mr. Ahmadi has left Iran, living in the Soviet Union and in double exile from the Soviet Union to the Czech Republic and East Germany, and for some time in Afghanistan. This party affiliation in Tudeh Party, the vast amount of information and knowledge he had, the access to the very rich resources of the former Soviet Union and the archives there, enabled him to work with four generations of left-wing activists from the constitutional era which we mean the second period from Ahmad Shah to Reza Shah, and part of the other period in the 1320s, 1340s and 1350s, which, unlike other works, was carried out as it should be. He has also collected interviews and narrations of the important personalities of the late Lajevardi. The distinguishing feature of Mr. Ahmadi's work is that he did not sacrifice accuracy for speed, and by comparison, the number of interviews he conducted at Harvard for seven years was twice that of Mr. Ahmadi.

There is also a big difference in terms of content and richness of the work. So first, the affiliation and party background and archives he had access to in the Soviet Union helped him a lot, and then the party forces and the friends and comrades he was with in the Soviet Union - and what a difficult time they are going through now in Eastern Europe - led those who may not have been able to gain the trust of many oral practitioners to this day to sit down and talk to him for several sessions, because they knew him. Mr. Ahmadi's knowledge and domination in interviews is complete, and these can all be seen in raising the questions, the topics, being challenging, the documentation, and the characteristics he has.

In 1356 (1978), Fereydoon Keshavarz released a book which is the result of a short interview – and I accuse it – about the Central Committee of Iran’s Tudeh Party and this can be considered as the first sample of the historiography of the left movement. After that, other works were done in an inappropriate way for ten years, and then, we had the memoirs of Iraj Eskandari till we reach the research done by the likes of Maziar Behrooz as well as the collection by Hamid Shokat. We can say that these are complementary to each other and I think the work of Mr. Hamid Ahmadi completes all of these.

I reviewed four works by Mr. Ahmadi. One was the memoirs of Air Major Parviz Ekteshafi, which is also very rich. Most of these are questions and answers, and we believe that when we put the title of oral history on a text, it should be in the same format as questions and answers, and if the questions are to be deleted and the text becomes a homogeneous narrative, the title should be changed accordingly; that is, an issue that is less observed in our country. A text is titled as oral history but it is mostly a memory or according to master Kamareh’ei, it is “pseudo-memory” or a “story”. This exists in all three of the plans they published. To me, Mr. Ahmadi was successful in his goals namely the discussion of paying attention to social principles, political developments, criticizing the stereotyped approach of the historiography of the Russian Marxist historians or the Iranian historians following him, a critical view on formal history-writing, the issue of infiltrating the mind and thinking of narrators, and the issue of historical psychology. He has reviewed the two areas of political history and social history simultaneously. The video recording by him is an advantage that he and his plan have. This leads to the recording of much of what we know as body language and what the narrators have to say about themselves, and even at the time of publication we see videos and photos of interview sessions specifically about Bozorg Alavi's work. Where he explains something by snooting or mimicking, there, that photo is taken and printed in the book, and it is exactly in the part where we have the narration that photo is present, which helps in a visual understanding of the subject.

The documents that Mr. Ahmadi has collected for this project are written documents related to 40 parties, organizations and leftist groups in Iran, which in fact speak to 4 generations. Interviews, features that show where the interview has taken place, being structural, or sections that were unstructured or time-consuming and costly are all documents. The memoirs I reviewed are from Parviz Ekhteshafi, Bozorg Alavi, Morteza Zarbakht, and a combination of interview-memoirs by Najmi Alavi entitled "We also have a right in this house." The points I want to say about the disadvantages and advantages of this plan are after reviewing these four plans, each of which has its own documentation.

The first point, what I have emphasized on them in my dissertation and articles and is not observed in many places, is to discuss the interview identity card, that is, to record the exact details of the interview, and not just that we only suffice to saying our last name and the narrator and a general date. Accurate recording includes the recording of the employer, the presenter, the site and place of the interview, the exact time, in minutes, and other features of the interview at the beginning and end that exist in Mr. Ahmadi's work. Another feature of the whole interviews is that all of them are subject-oriented. Mr. Ahmadi has maintained the structure of the question and answer and what we call the validity and psychology of the text, and in the discussion of content critique, both during the interview and in the produced text, it has coherence in the narration and fluency of the text. Spoken language has been preserved in all interviews and a single spoken method and language has been used. Although we sometimes see technical, partisan, military, and political terms and expressions from these characters, the author has preserved the language of speech at the same time. From these interviews we can identify the origin and social composition of the left forces in Iran. The points seen in the interviews are that where the interviewer says what he hears is different from when he himself was the factor, observer and witness of the events, and these are separated. In many interviews in other projects we see that a few pages may be narrated, but it must be clear whether this is what the person has heard or observed. Everyone who has been a rival with Ahmadi including Bozorg Alavi or a scientific, literary, and political figure like Parviz Ekteshafi with the position he held in the Iranian Air Force and the degrees he went through, he has never allowed any of his tricks that he has known, to express unscientific materials and strengthen the narrators' superficial analysis of leftist history, and even where Bozorg Alavi mispronounces a name, he challenges the interviewee with his own tricks, let alone a misanalysis of a subject that he corrects the story with a turn he makes during the interview and gets the narrator's approval, which is very valuable.

At the same time, when an article is compiled, he has not skimped from narration, documentation, additional explanations, introduction of sources and all these in any way and brings all these. Since he was able to gain the ultimate trust of the other side, we can say that the information he received is maximum information. Where the interview wanted to be diverted and is dragged toward irrelevant topics, he or she brings the interview back to the main course with his or her own ability, which is very instructive for the oral practitioner. The detailed description of the memoirs and the answers along with the details of the historical events that I have mentioned are limited to illustration. That is to say, they have paid so much attention to the details of these narrators that they illustrate the details, and this in itself can be a strong theme for other works.

The added value of his works is enormous, and novels, stories and screenplays can be obtained from its heart. He has verified and documented video, photo and film sources that bring to mind historical events, and we can see this in the work he did against Morteza Zarbakht. He has also done something about which I used a term: “Turning written document oral document”. That is, he explains about the document that he presents during the interview, and based on that document, he conducts the interview. He raises its own network queries and gives the work more robustness. In retrieving a part of the history of the late Qajar and Reza Shah eras, the representation and explanation of the military history of Iran, the social composition of the senior military officials and the introduction of military equipment and tools in the Pahlavi era are all documented in the memoirs of Morteza Zarbakht on pages 22, 56 and 88.

In analyzing the social-political conditions of Ira after the Shahrivar of 1320 (September 1941), the issue of the activity of parties in 1320s (1940s) and even topics such as the situation in Germany, Iran-Germany relations, the activity of political parties in Germany and the leftist forces that were the guests of this country, the issue of modern literature and Iranian contemporary literature, this work helps our historiography to a great extent.  

The prevailing thoughts have been reflected in scientific-literary societies in the 1310s and 1320s 1930s and 1940s) and the memories of Bozorg Alavi, and we do not see narcissism and arrogance in the narrators because a skilled interviewer is sitting in front of them. Many of these party members recounted their memories for their own acquittal or revelation, but we seldom see such things in the works of Hamid Ahmadi and do not see the purification and acquittal of the narrators. Even these party mistakes and blames are presented according to what is stated in the documents and emphasized by both sides of the interview, namely the interviewer and the interviewee, and what is perhaps very important in our history and I call it the show of the tragic and sad fate of the first defeated generation of the military organization of Iran’s Tudeh Party about which he speaks in great detail in this section.

This work complements other projects, including that of Mr. Shokat work in the plan of looking inside the Iranian left movement. I have also reviewed some samples of the works of Hamid Shokat, Khan Baba Tehrani, Iraj Kashkooli, Kourosh Lashaei and Mohsen Rezvani, which are good works and have been based on an open and purposeful interview style and a two-way dialogue; but Hamid Ahmadi's work complements them.

In continuation of the meeting, the host asked Dr. Habib Esmaeeli to talk about the subject of the meeting.

Esmaeeli: I just say one point about the issue of rationalization about which Mr. Dr. Rasouli Pour spoke. In the works of Mr. Dehbashi published in the first 4 volumes, the rationalization of the text was up to me and Mr. Golshan Roghani, which we did together and honestly tried to do our best, and I am sure that what Mr. Rasoulipour said did not mean our work because we tried very hard there and tried to distance the text of the mistakes of similar, contradictory and …narrations as much as possible. I give you a few examples to show the accuracy of the work. In those dialogues, for example, Seyed Hossein Nasr deliberately intended to attribute all the major cultural developments of the contemporary era to himself in some way. Everything you can imagine from the late Jalal, from Hosseinieh Ershad and other activities, he thought everywhere that he had a duty to take responsibility for these things.

For example, about Jalal, he had said that he had come to the United States and used a misinterpretation, and I interpreted Westoxication, and he wrote and published it in his own name. Mr. Golshan and I only wrote below that Jalal had gone to the United States in 1345 (1966) and that westoxication had been published two years earlier, if I am not mistaken, as a footnote in Etela’at daily. Or regarding Hosseinieh Ershad, he had claimed that I was a member of the founding board and we really tried hard in order to get the necessary information from Mr. Minachi with the help of Mr. Dehbashi. An old man who may God have mercy on him, was not patient and gave us information with difficulty, gave us this information.  

Or about Seyed Mohammad Khatami former Iranian president, he had claimed that Mr. Khatami had said that I owed my religion to Mr. Seyed Hossein Nasr. At any rate, due to the relation that was existed, Mr. Golshani and I both received a handwritten letter from Khatami and then included it in the text. Or for example, the same happened about Mr. Azar Barzin and two more persons. I want to say that the work was really done with a lot of patience.

At that time, Mr. Rasouli Pour himself raised an objection, which I now consider it correct. He said you give people extra information. He was right because the work had become a bit long and it should have been a little briefer, and I must also say that from the collection of oral history that Mr. Dehbashi worked on, I have no responsibility for the questions and the content and everything about them is theirs. He also published three more volumes, including the memoirs of Mr. Akbar Etemad, which were also included in those three volumes, but he was subject to political controversy and could not continue to publish.

In continuation, the host asked the audience to raise questions if any.

Khalkhali: I am really interested in this field, and even more so as a general listener, I would like to have access to the contemporary history of my country through oral history, which seems to be a new channel for identifying the current history. There was talk of the oral history of the Jews of Iran and the oral history of the left in Iran. I would like to know how we can access these. Does it have public access or not? Thank you.

Host: we were supposed to be at the service of Mr. Rasouli Pour, I ask the doctor to answer the question of Mrs. Khalkhali. Thank you.

Rasouli Pour: I should thank Mr. Dr. Abolhasani who said good points and I also enjoyed them. But let me follow the discussion by what Dr. Esmaeeli said about rationalization. He and Mr. Golshan really worked hard in this regard. In these 4 volumes of the work done by Mr. Dehbashi and we read carefully, the rationalization was good and of course a little more than enough; but I meant mostly the work that was done abroad. They were not successful in rationalization, and what I have said is more about their work.

Since he referred to the interview with Dr. Nasr and the criticism Dr. Esmaeeli made against Dr. Nasr, I elaborate on something. Basically, there is a fallacy in the interview that people boast to some extent and do not say unspoken things and you cannot force them to talk about this subject by all means; but it is fair to say that I raised this issue in a meeting with Mr. Dehbashi himself, and now I am asking Mr. Esmaeeli to answer it whenever he has time. First, there was an article in Mehr Nameh Magazine by Mr. Dr. Nasr in which he was very unsatisfied with the inclusion of the conversation or the type of setting the conversation published in Iran and if I remember, he had considered it cowardly in his note and you had promised, and I was supposed to see the text when it was drafted.  

I saw nowhere that Mr. Dehbashi who is not present here, explain about it. Why is this not shown to Dr. Nasr and Dr. Nasr does not see it when it was drafted? Maybe he had some corrections or verbal fallacies that were mentioned in part by Dr. Esmaeeli. At any rate, Dr. Nasr was a reference and, in the eyes of many people, one of the scholars of his time, and a man of knowledge who may have exaggerated his words, which is very natural. But in any case, he is not satisfied with the way and type of work that Mr. Dehbashi has done, and if Dr. Esmaeeli has an explanation or information about this, it is good for them to tell us for our use. But when I asked Mr. Dehbashi, he said, "Well, I will explain this later somewhere", which we did not see it later too.

This was the point that I wanted to mention in this regard. Although all the things that Dr. Esmaeeli said are respectful and true and I do not see any objection in what they did and it was a good thing and they gave the explanations, but about the things that Dr. Abolhasani mentioned and in some cases went into detail, I should mention that in the project that Harvard University also did, apart from the very good work that Mr. Hamid Ahmadi did, one of the very good interviews at Harvard University is what Mr. Zia Sedghi did and he did an interview with Dr. Ahmad Mirfendereski. Mr. Mirfendereski was the last foreign minister of the previous regime and has long been Iran's ambassador to Moscow. He was very fluent in the Russian language, and in the dispute between the Arabs and the Zionist regime, he disobeyed an order given to him to send Iranian planes for medicine and weapons, and as a result, he was dismissed. In this interview, the material was so eloquently and accurately stated by a Foreign Ministry diplomat that I really consider it one of the first-rate interviews of the contemporary period. For example, even in comparison with the interview with Bozorg Alavi, which is a very weak interview, you can see here that Mr. Sadeghi has a very good domination towards these interviews.

In the works done by Mr. Lajevardi, unfortunately, I almost agree with many of the criticisms that Mr. Abolhassani said, and I consider them correct. Especially when some dignitaries have been named, for example, prime ministers like Mr. Sharif  Emami have been questioned and interviewed, this interview is so weak that although there is very good information in it, but you see that the role of the interviewer is very weak and I am very sorry that a man who has been the founder of a charitable work, and he himself is superior to many of those who have entered the field of oral history, has conducted such a weak interview , and if there is an opportunity I will go into detail.

At any rate, I would like to say that one of the problems of oral history both inside the country and abroad in general is that the political aspect of the interviews are very stronger than social debates. It means, the philosophy that was initially proposed for oral history, the involvement of oral history in the social sphere has been mostly been considered. This means that we rarely see people who are familiar with the fields of anthropology, sociology, etc. enter as oral history interns and conduct interviews. These interviews have mostly political aspect, and in view of the likes and dislikes brought up in political discussions, we see that many of the issues of the last 50-60 years have not yet joined the history, and a lot of animosity and resentment and likes and dislikes are seen these statements.

Oral history in Iran is still involved in political issues and we still have a long way to move toward social debates, interviewing the middle classes of the society, the lower classes and as such which is either weak or has not done at all.

About the question of the lady, I prefer that Mr. Dr. Dehbashi answers it. I myself am a consumer too and these materials are sent to me. When Mr. Lajevardi was alive, he himself had relation with me and exchanged the materials together. But my connection with other centers was less and the friends sent them to me, I think Mr. Hasan Abadi or Mr. Abolhasani have more access and can answer the question.

Host: Thank you. Dr. Kamali, please tell us if there is anything.

Kamali: I sent a link from the history of Iranian Jews, which was supervised by Mrs. Homa Sarshar and paid for its production, part of which is related to the history of Qajar women, of which Dr. Najmabadi is the head of the project at Harvard. But the part where Dr. Hamid Ahmadi is and was also mentioned by Mrs. Dr. Khalkhali, most of Mr. Ahmadi's works are not yet publicly available. He has uploaded some parts in YouTube for which you can search including an interview with Agha Bozorg Tehrani as well as several books published in Iran like a book by Taqi Arani and a book which consists of an interview with Mrs. Najmi Alavi. Also, as it was mentioned, the memoir of Bozorg Alavi which is the first book in his collection of the oral history of the left is among the works which are available.


To be continued …


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Full Name:

Is oral history the words of people who have not been seen?

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Daily Notes of a Mother

Memories of Ashraf-al Sadat Sistani
They bring Javad's body in front of the house. His mother comes forward and says to lay him down and recite Ziarat Warith. His uncle recites Ziarat and then tells take him to the mosque which is in the middle of the street and pray the funeral prayer (Ṣalāt al-Janāzah) so that those who do not know what the funeral prayer is to learn it.

A Critique on Oral history of War Commanders

“Answering Historical Questions and Ambiguities Instead of Individual-Organizational Identification”
“Oral history of Commanders” is reviewed with the assumption that in the field of war historiography, applying this method is narrated in an advancing “new” way, with the aim of war historiography, emphasizing role of commanders in creation of its situations and details.
A cut from memoirs of Jalil Taeffi

Escaping with camera

We were in the garden of one of my friends in "Siss" on 26th of Dey 1357 (January 16, 1979). We had gone for fun. It was there that we heard the news of Shah's escape from the local people. They said that the radio had announced. As soon as I heard this news, I took a donkey and went on its back.