The Fourth Online Meeting of Iranian Oral History

Iranian Oral History beyond Borders – 3

Sepdeh Kholoosian
Translated 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 “Iranian Oral History beyond Borders”.

In continuation of the meeting, the host asked Dr. Hasanabadi to sum up the discussion.

Hasanabadi: About having access, both the archive of the university regarding the oral history of Iranian Jews and the archive of the oral history of the left of Mr. Ahmadi have given detailed explanations on their website, which can be viewed by referring to them. In particular, Mr. Ahmadi himself noted that they have allowed their resources to be available at both Columbia University and Harvard. The Foundation for Iranian Studies has done the same. The released sources are available in Berlin, Sweden and the United States.

We have two viewpoints here about which I explain. The projects were carried in different periods. The project of the Foundation for Iranian Studies and that of Lajevardi were carried out in 1360s (80s) at a time when the Iranians had just gone abroad and the atmosphere was the atmosphere of the atmosphere of the early 1360s (80s). I mean we have another discussion totally. The work by Mr. Ahmad was carried out with delay in late 1370s (90s) and for this reason, the atmosphere is calmer and slightly different. The next point is that Mr. Ahmadi has basically done historiography and no historiography has been done in any of the other projects. Only, the goal in the first step was to gather information and accessibility. But you see a historical intention in his work. However, he is influenced by Marxist historiography and refers to E. P. Thompson. [1] He was in England and under the influence of the view of the 1360s to 1370s (80s to 90s) has also historical influences. What he has done is a little more professional overall, and he has done it basically for the purpose of historiography. In all these projects, Mr. Hamid Ahmadi's project have the most coherence; because a person has chosen the individuals, has interviewed, had forwarded and directed the work by himself and did not have to answer anywhere. He was in no hurry too. While he has received help from outside, everything was in his own hands, and from this point of view, apart from focusing on one subject - the left - and working only on that subject. It has also a definite thematic structure and the questions in the discussion of historiography in the left movement are quite purposeful. In this line, it has also taken a more specific output.

Mr. Lajevardi or Mrs. Afkhami and their team do public discussion. Thus, the project is a little different and the comparative examination may not be correct so much, but the reality is that Mr. Ahmadi had been familiar with the global standard of oral history and the International Oral History Association. Compared to other projects, it can be said that his work has done a better job of personalizing and identifying oral history and the explanations he has given show that he has done what he is supposed to do for himself with double interest and power, which is commendable in its own kind.

The next point I have to ask Mr. Rasouli Pour is that he has conducted the most interviews with the second Pahlavi men in Iran, and without a doubt, I do not know anyone more knowledgeable than him about the men of the second Pahlavi period. He has a personal relationship and has lived with these people for many years. If we want to compare with the work done in the field of the second Pahlavi men abroad, here it is good to do a comparative study and comment that the friends should also be aware and are informed of the hard work he has done.

In the next point, an important discussion in this regard, although we say the title of the discussion, is oral history outside Iran, but basically, the focus of all these projects is on the second Pahlavi and the activities that preceded it. That is, for example, it is between the 1320s (1940s) and 1350s (1970s), and when it reaches 1360 (1981), the work came to an end, and practically, when we enter this decade, we have no more information. That is, we do not know much about the fate, the identity fragmentation and other information of the Iranians who have lived abroad for about half a century. Many great families and dignitaries have gone abroad and their traces have been lost from our contemporary history.

One of the good issues that were brought up was that we should pay a little attention to the significance of oral history abroad. If we are supposed to say something and the fate of many of these great men who left the country and are successful men there is seen and the grounds are prepared for their return, and their stories are heard, it is necessary to deal with their life both inside the country and abroad in the recent fifty years. As the story of Iranians abroad has strong points, it has also an attractive and at the same time, a dark story. It means that some people should support it so that the story of Iranians abroad and their life during the recent fifty years apart from the second Pahlavi is seen. The issue of the oral history of Iran abroad especially their invitation and return is important and there is almost a consensus inside the country that the project of oral history abroad is needed to be seen because we have so far been involved in the field of political and social studies with an approach to the second Pahlavi era and did not enter into the post-revolution discussion and its early years, which unfortunately has been largely lost and not seen. 

Host: It seems that Dr. Monfared has a few questions from Mr. Hasanabadi. I ask him to raise his questions so that Mr. Rasouli Pour answers them in a summarization.  

Monfared: I have two questions from Dr. Hasanabadi. First, you pointed to the global standards of oral history. I would like you to mention these standards in the list. In any case, this meeting is a good time and place for such a reference, and the fact that Mr. Hasanabadi has included in his book’s attachments, Oral History in Iran, a list of universities and centers which have oral history projects. These universities, some of which are about the International Association of International Oral History are specific. In some of the centers that are in the universities, especially the universities that have branches of Iranian studies, apart from what has been mentioned and discussed so far, are there any oral history projects related to the oral history of Iran? Please if possible, tell us.

Hasanabadi: After a period of generalization of oral history in the 1360s (80s) that focused on social history, minorities, and women, and the resources collected, especially at the community level, under the heading of oral history of blacks, women, and workers, the content of history was criticized seriously in the 1370s (90s) in the world. Interestingly, until 80s, references to oral history sources were not allowed at all in dissertations, and oral history sources were not considered as historiographical sources. At that time, there was a serious debate between oral history practitioners and some historians about the position of oral history sources and what are its strengths and weaknesses, and what should be done about it? There was a debate in the 80s the result of which was that since we have the standards of humanities in the United States, oral history must also follow a set of standards in order to be able to be cited in university dissertation sources. In this decade, this event became a basis for international standards of oral history, and the International Oral History Association defined standards in several general areas, including the standards of project compilation, interviewer selection, interviewee selection, interview conditions, tools and equipment, and finally intellectual property rights and generalities and presented to all institutions of the world for use. These standards are now used in all centers in the world. In Iran, the main centers of oral history have somehow localized and use the international standards of oral history. I have been localizing these standards since 1382 (2004) in Astan-e Quds. The same happened in the National Library of Iran and was later gradually completed. In other words, in practice, these standards have been in place in Iran as well.

About the centers, the projects of oral history of Iran are somehow influenced by the second Pahlavi oral history, and we practically do not have any Iranian projects in the field of contemporary history after the revolution. In fact, they do so if there is special support for projects in centers and universities. They are not like our universities that receive government funding and can do something. Of course, I did not see anything and have not searched recently; but since I once did something about the role of universities in the development of oral history, I say I did not see any cause for concern in this regard because no support has been provided. As such support is carried out in many countries whether from inside the country or from outside, the interested Iranians should develop a scholarship for this work and define projects that should be done, which are also very necessary.

Abolhasani: I would like to introduce one of the most recent works done by the same Oral History Center of the Columbia University on Iranian oral history, which is still ongoing, on Iran-US foreign relations between 1364 (1985) and 1368 (1989). This is one of the most recent works which to the best of my knowledge, some 3,000 pages of 83 cassette tapes with an introduction by Columbia University Projects and Collections have been presented.

Rasouli Pour: To me, Mr. Hasanabadi started a discussion which is the beginning of oral history debates. I mean what I pointed out is an introduction to this.

There was never an opportunity or opportunity for me to come and compare what was done abroad with what was done inside especially since I was a little closer to the other oral history interns that my friends referred to as oral practitioners. Their work was closer to what I did; because I have talked more with the politicians of the Pahlavi era and I know this period relatively more than other periods and I have lived with these men. In general, the way we work is different from what other friends abroad have done, and that goes back to the way I look at oral history.

I do not consider the most important work in oral history as interviewing – unlike what many say – and I may even find the interview a little simpler than the compilation and output of the work. Orality does not exist in oral history in all its parts; that is the output of oral history work in Iran and abroad is in writing. This means that we do not publish the audio files in which we talk. It rarely happens that an interview is published completely and if it is published in cyber spaces, it will be very limited and only a few minutes. For example, a part of the interview with General Mobasser was published some time ago about Navab Safavi and the Fada’iyan-e Islam. In fact, the conversations will be released in a written and book book.

Therefore, when it is released in the book form, we have to edit it. Now how it is going to be edited is a detailed discussion about which many seminars have been held and we in the Oral History Association have allocated a few meetings to the issue of editing and compilation. However, some are against editing and I think like many people in the Iranian press in the 1340s and 1350s who were very insistent on new poetry and opposed classical poetry, part of it was because they practiced that classical poetry less and everyone said whatever he or she wanted to say. I do not want to criticize that argument, but one argument is that you must be familiar with the principles of writing and writing styles.

Those who are into oral history should not publish what is said exactly in the same way. It then turns out that many of those who agreed to the dialogue oppose the publication of their interview because they say I trusted and I told you this. For example, he has said a rude word; you should not publish this. But some criticize this principle, saying this is against the principle and harms the validity of the work. I think this is not correct because the original tape is available and if the researcher wants to refer to it, he or she can refer to the archive.

But especially the issues that overlap in a conversation need to be addressed. How can these repetitive topics be avoided and what is the sin of the reader who should read all of them in the same way? Repetition after repetition and sometimes accompanied by imprudent words. In my view, we should work hard and edit the dialogue with the text. The oral history practitioners must be familiar with this and work hard to remove it. Part of what we call rationalization and the explanations that are given are all about editing and compilation.

The next point is to have knowledge about the contemporary history of Iran. Those who enter this work should be familiar with the contemporary history and men of the Pahlavi era very well. There are shortcomings in this regard, and people are less likely to bother reading. And the next point is the publication of these. That is, research institutes and centers that are in charge of oral history, according to their own goals, have an archival view rather than publication. There are many interviews that get dirty without being published. There are several reasons for this non-publication. Part of this is that the interviewers do not publish interviews in order to hide or not to reveal their flaws in the interviews; while many of these have the time value. That is, an interview that for instance, has taken place two years ago may lose its usefulness if it is not published within another ten years because some of these are answers to the problems that we are dealing with right now and that affect our society and can be a solution.

At present, I have given some 80 books to the institution which have been edited and ready to be published but they are not published. If they are published, they can solve any problems. All of them have been the higher political officials of the country. So why aren't they published? We have nothing less than them. We have been careful, both quantitatively and qualitatively, and we have done the works that need to be fully critiqued. Unfortunately, none of this has been regularly criticized. Even many of our interviews are read more outside the country. Maybe, the public trust in oral history have been less inside the country. In my view, part of it goes back to our perception and our view; in fact, we have not even held a seminar to communicate with trustees and those who have done projects abroad and to explain our point of view on how to organize things in a conference and to have a kind of two-way communication between us to see where we are and what we are doing.

For example, in the interview with Mr. Parviz Sabeti, I was aware of everything from the very beginning. Mr. Erfan Ghane'ei Fard came from the beginning and talked to me and took also the book's title from me. But later, Mr. Sabeti announced in a US TV network that he just confirms the parts of his own words. That is, he looks at all the footnotes that have been written differently and does not believe in them at all. It is accidental that when one looks, one sees that there is no logical and correct connection between the interviewer and the interviewee, and you see that the people who work in this way, close down their work later with one or two projects; because they cannot gain that mutual trust. At any rate, working in oral history is a very sensitive and slippery task, and people may not last long in it.

To me, the most important part of oral history is to gain the full trust of the other party to trust you and to express what is going on in his or her heart. What many interviewees say is considered as a press conference. You many not believe if you hear that in many interviews conducted inside the country, the interviewee does not believe in what he or she has said. I know many cases that he or she says I'm caught up, I'm in trouble, and if I do not talk, they incite, and if I talk, I will not be able to say what I have to say. Where have we dealt with this problem so far? It means, in the midst of these conversations and the distance between the lines of these interviews, it should be clear to the experts what the interviewee meant behind the scenes. Much of what the interviewee says is in order to say things. This is because I personally do not believe in many of the interviews that are conducted, especially the ones done inside the country because this is not the real self of the person, but he is in a situation where he cannot offer what he is because he knows that his criteria are something else altogether, and he does not like the way I speak or my beliefs at all.

Once I talked to an ambassador who could not call the Shah anything other than His Majesty. Or when he said Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, we were obliged to include this princess in the text. But you see that those who were supposed to agree with the publication of the interview, opposed. Now you see how much these interviews are manipulated, and regardless of the nods and body language and gestures and wordplay, some problems arise in them. I believe that many of the interviews lose their authenticity with these manipulations that take place inside the country. So what I did in those interviews was my belief, and I also gave my life for it. Conducting those interviews was an individual job. I did not pay attention at all to what the institute was looking for and I did my own job. That is why out of some 500 interviews, about 45 to 50 interviews have so far been released because an organization has paid the cost of the research to me in order to work for them and I feel that it is unethical if I publish them myself. So I do not allow myself to act immorally.

We have found fault with many of the works done abroad, but as a matter fact, part of them have not had such problems; that is, the interviewee has spoken as he wished, which is an advantage in itself. One must look at these aspects from this angle as well, and judge fairly what has been done abroad.

To be continued …

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