Report on the Fourteenth Conference of Oral History- 3rd and final part

Connecting oral history to the body of power is traumatic

Edited by Maryam Asadi Jafari
Translated by M. B. Khoshnevisan


According to the Iranian Oral History Website, the 14th Oral History Conference titled “Oral History on Scale” was held by the History Department of the University of Isfahan and the Oral History Association of Iran on Tuesday morning, May 14, 2024; professors, experts, and activists of this field participated in this conference which was held in Saeb Tabrizi Amphitheater of the Faculty of Literature and Humanities, University of Isfahan.


In the beginning of the second part of the conference, Dr. Ali Tattari, a member of the Board of Directors of Iranian Oral History Association and the founder of the oral history department in the Majlis (parliament) Library dealt with “Pathology of Oral History Productions in Iran” and said, “I divide my content into two parts. One regarding the pathology of the production of centers and institutions and the second; We have compiled 12 questions in the field of oral history with the cooperation of Dr. Mohsen Kazemi, which I will raise as a challenge and question for students and those interested in oral history. Oral history has three sides: the interviewer, the interviewee and the employer. For pathology, we must first explain these three sides, recognize them, and identify the damage caused to them one by one. Now, we will discuss the outputs and I will certainly provide examples from my work life. First, in the field of publishing oral history, these questions are raised: Should oral history be published? Is the mission of oral history to be published quickly? The answer is no! Next question: Why should there be a rush to publish a book? I have been involved in an oral history project on Khark Island for some time. At first, the Ministry of Oil - the client of the project - introduced us some persons to conduct interviews, but when we went further, we found out that the IRGC Navy, the Air Force and the Army Navy and 8 other companies from the oil company's subsidiary are involved in this story. If we published the book based on the names given to us, it would definitely be an incomplete book. Is all the mission of oral history based on books?! Shouldn't a regular and referenceable archive be formed? This case is both lost and one of the damages.”
In continuation, he dealt with the scientific and technical pathology of oral history and emphasized the significance of a research plan in oral history projects, saying, “A lot of the organizations I've worked in there basically don't ask for a proposal and say, you have oral history experience, go ahead and do it. Isn't it the case that every research work should be done based on need? It means that there are dark points that we intend to clarify. Shouldn't problem formulation, problem statement, goal, hypothesis, output, duration and costs be specified and explained? Of course, during the last 3 years, proposal presentation has become institutionalized in most organizations and should be made mandatory. Verification is the third issue. In one project, there was a manager who had been interviewed more than 10 times earlier than us. When we went to him, we expected to have a 4-hour interview, but he only spoke for half an hour, as if he had just done something”.
Emphasizing the significance of archiving audio and video documents of oral history interviews, Dr. Tattari said: “If someone wants to criticize our work, which archive should he or she access? Basically, apart from one or two active oral history centers, I don't think they have any archival services. If they publish a work and a student wants to verify or adapt the words of the narrator, where should he go? This is also a big challenge. In a project in the field of banking, we formed a question committee and selected 7 pre-revolution bank managers and asked if you were to be the oral history interviewer, what questions would come to your mind? Basically, the question itself is a process that is divided into two categories: a series of general questions such as: the place of birth, education and life course of the narrator. A series of specialized questions are extracted based on the narrator's work experience. Another part is the narrator's rights. Sometimes the narrator is a political and parliamentary figure who is usually in a good financial situation and do not like to receive fees or gifts for publishing their books, but some retirees cannot even pay the travel expenses to attend the interview session. Sometimes even the narrator's name does not appear on the front cover and even inside the cover is hard to find”. 
Referring to the weakness of organizations in the field of producing documentaries, he regarded producing documentaries as the main goal of oral history and said, “Oral history should be archived for future generations, students and researchers of that organization. The organization itself is the first consumer of oral history, which they have no plans to document. Another issue is training, where we see a big gap and many organizations do not have oral history training at all. Over the years, the Oral History Association has somewhat institutionalized the training as an oral history standard. The pre-interview discussion is also very important, which we have rarely witnessed. I even believe that the pre-interview is a process for designing questions and identifying the person; Even in the pre-interview process, the person can be left out. When we interviewed him and realized that he does not have certain information or correct memory or is delusional, we can remove him from the interview”.


At the end of his speech, Dr. Ali Tattari raised the 12 questions as the main challenges of the overall situation of oral history in Iran, as follows: "1: Why has oral history been so popular in the last two decades? 2: What do institutions and organizations (employers) expect from oral history? 3: What problems does oral history cure in society? 4: Taking refuge in oral history is an escape from what? Is our society too politicized or caught in another problem that all organizations take refuge in oral history? 5: Do the products that are produced as oral history have the characteristics of oral history? Of course, the association's opinion is that most of these works are pseudo-historiography. 6: After about 30 years since the peak of oral history, are those who work in the field of oral history aware of its nature? 7: Do preachers of oral history such as teachers and managers of this area have enough skills and experience in this area? And if they have, where were they trained? 8: Finally, when should we enter the critical space in the field of oral history? 9: One of the characteristics of oral history is its democratic nature. But what we are witnessing today is the populism of oral history. The generality of oral history is an advantage. But popularization is definitely a harm. 10: Why, despite the rapid growth of oral history and also entrepreneurship for universities, apart from the history department of Isfahan University, no university has entered this field and has remained limited to slogans and memorandums? 11: Why is oral history in Iran caught up in politics? So that from the highest to the lowest political position, there are experts in the field of oral history and they even give solutions and make policies. 12: Is oral history offered as a commodity? Does this mean that this packaging, which looks like oral history, is memory-writing inside it or not?”
Dr. Morteza Rasouli Pour, the Head of the Institute for Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies delivered a speech focusing on “Strategic prospects for oral history of Iran” and said, “Since 1367 (1988), when I entered the work of historical research, I realized that our view of the past and history, especially about the revolution, was not an internal view, but we examined it from the viewpoint of critics. The documents that I saw showed that those who were the source of activity in the previous regime had an issue called Iran in mind, and not everyone can be considered a traitor. In general, the division of servant and traitor in historical analysis is a false image. For this reason, in the same years, we talked with many people involved in the previous regime and those who witnessed the transfer of the monarchy from Qajar to Pahlavi, and we were among the first who were involved in this work. We had a series of interviews. Part of it was in the framework of organizational activities that I followed about 350 interviews. Among them, about 60 to 70 works have been published and some others have been edited, but due to the institution's discretion, they have not been published and some of them will definitely not be published. Because our duty is to produce content and publication is a subsidiary, based on this principle. When the Oral History Association was established in 1383 (2013), the discussion of interviewer training found a better order.”



He continued his speech by raising some questions and added: “The question is, to what extent have the custodians of oral history been successful in their work?" If this question is clarified, the discussion of the perspective of oral history will also become clearer. In what areas have the failures of oral history been? I have worked quite differently in terms of the nature of the work and the period of time. Since I still don't consider the post-revolutionary period as a historical period, I focused on the pre-revolutionary period. We still do not have all the documents about the war period. Some work has been done, but I think all these works were "ordered". That is, it was done based on the request of government organizations and institutions. Universities in Iran were not the guardians of oral history. Because they had no budget at all. About 23 documents organizations created oral history based on their own needs, and most of these works have not been done by others. Conversation means talking to someone else. Talking about bravery and courage is good, but it is not enough. To what extent has oral history in Iran been able to create the role of intermediary between the people and the government? I see this role as weak. Considering the connection of oral history activities to power institutions, can oral history play the role of intermediary or intermediary language by influencing the middle groups of society? By mediating language, I mean the intermediate role of oral history activists, between the masses and different strata of society and the institutions of power. If oral history is connected to high-powered apparatus, it can't give a speech at all, but oral history activities, both in software and hardware, should be reconsidered. Oral history is an expensive work. In the hardware part, help should be sought from various institutions of oral history, but in the software part, the problem is more, but we must be aware not to reflect only one side of the story to the society. There should be a conversation and the conversation with the other person should have a meaning, not that the interviews have more of a confirmation and supplementary aspect. Have the people who work in the field of war gone to the social harms of the families of the martyrs and their children? Shouldn't these issues be reflected in dialogue activities?”

At the end of his speech, Dr. Rasouli Pour stated: "80 years ago, when the recording device had not been not invented, all oral speeches, both holy and unholy, were unrepeatable, and if it was turned into a written text, the democratic aspect would be removed from it." That is, those numerous narratives that were democratic were not expressed. Now, fortunately, thanks to the audio and visual devices, spoken words can be repeated and documented, but there is still the point that if the spoken texts turn into the written one, according to many people, the transformation will have a meaning and this is one of the problems we see in converting speech into writing. Oral history activities are not 100% oral and everything you have seen so far has been written output. It means that the oral file must be presented to the society. Because there the body language, hand movements, personal sensitivities and accent and dialect of the narrator are clear. In this way, more or less efforts have been made, but it is not enough. Therefore, part of this vision should be in the hardware sector and be invested. Change in the quality of works is another part that should be taken into consideration. We must reduce the connection of oral history to power institutions so that we can hear the voices of the silent groups of society more."



In continuation of the 14th Conference of Oral History, Hojjat al-Eslam Saeed Fakhrzadeh reviewed the biography of the late Rahim Nikbakht and in the final part, Dr. Mohsen Kazemi and Dr. Morteza Nouraee summarized the conference. 


The End 


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