The Layers of Oral History Texts

Mohsen Kazemi

If the interviewer has enough information and skill as well as courage, he or she will be able to extract the historical facts even from the most concealing and conservative memory tellers, and the output will be a strong and valuable text in the field of oral history. There are various internal and external factors on such text. The following article is seeking to review these factors.
Today, oral history is considered as one of the most important parts of historiography which reflects information and statistics' layers of the events and incidents about live experiences at a deep and half-deep level so that the lost rings of an event are discovered. The form, structure and content of such type of historiography need to be thought and noticed in order to identify the weak and strong points of oral history on one hand and to study its deficiencies and problems on the other hand.
The article is trying to study the most important element of oral history "content".

Content is the essence of oral history which is under the effect of many factors and variables. Text in oral history covers mental internals. In other words, it reflects objective and mental perceptions which witness or play a role in an event's text. Thus, memory is the main theme of oral history. It is obvious that memory is the same mental input resulted from realizing through sensory system as well as the impacts of the conscious mind and the unconscious mind and the thinking of the person who is involved in the content, background or margin of an event.
What we hear, smell, taste and touch today is registered in our mind alongside the intellectual perceptions and will be reflected in the future in the form of memory writing in a process beyond oral history framework.
Numerous factors and variables are effective on perception through sensory system and intellectual effects, and registration and record of the events in mind and then in the way of the text's output, formation, composition and ordering. They can be divided into two sections of internal and external variables.
Power and capability of the sensory system as well as the degree of the internal willingness and interest, and the intellectual world hidden in the individual's mind are all internal variables which are effective on the rate of quality, type and way of perception from the events and then the state of the text's registration and dissemination. Someone who suffers eyesight weakness and color blindness may record pink as orange in his or her mind. Or someone who has hearing problem memorizes noises in mind in calculating high-pitch sounds. Such states can be defined and illustrated for other senses.

Factors involved in the event's text
1- Internal variable:
The most important internal factor on text is the mind, thought, vision and smartness of a person involved in an incident, or event. Therefore, the internal factors and perceptions of an individual over the text of an event are different with other individual inside the event. This change and difference often appears in expressing the analysis and reasons of the event. However, sometimes, this difference is also obvious in the type of language and prose, form's presentation and even the structure.

The historical event of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization's change of ideology to Marxism in 1975 was criticized, analyzed and described in various forms by the then campaigners and political activists who had specific ideology and worldview.  The Marxists and left activists described the move as revolutionary and progressive and interpreted and do it in materialistic dialectic rules and conclude that campaign in Marxism is a science. A number of the Muslim senior leaders of the organization who were in the prison at that time and did not see any problem for the activities of leftists were analyzing and describing the ideology change event as an opportunist measure and criticized as undemocratic. The event for part of the Muslim campaigners and a number of clerics who were earlier engaged with the organization and spared no efforts to help them financially and intellectually was like a shock. Thus, they considered the move as atheism and the followers and the converts to this ideology as religiously unclean. So, we see that the ideology, worldview, internal leanings and intellectual world are effective in interpreting and analyzing the events.  That is why the internal, intellectual and psychological world of the text owner or in other words the historical actor is considered the most important and effective internal variable in expressing, analyzing and interpreting the text. 

2- External variables:
Time, place, pre-data and the one who re-narrates (researcher, interviewer and compiler) are among other variables which are very effective in production and formation of the text. Since such variables are not resulted from the narrator's internal world and nature but from his or her outside world and nature, and can change the content by influencing in the intellectual world and the psychological nature of the narrator of history and event, they can be considered as external variables.

The point of time and place the narrator has stood high on it and looks at the past is effective on his or her eyesight depth. It is natural that assuming stable pre-data, the more the individual distances from the time an event has happened, since the mind dwindles, he or she cannot observe and generalize the deep layers of a historical event and remains externally in expressing the events.

On the other hand, the increase of information and data and new findings may cause the events to be interpreted and analyzed more precisely than the earlier time.

The passage of time has in itself the change of the state policies, culture and society. Thus, expressing, interpreting and analyzing the events will be different depending on the time conditions which have changed. In a period, actions like violence, explosion, killing and being killed can be regarded by a campaigner or a political activist as a heroic, brave and valuable action for achieving the goal, but in another period this can be considered as violent, anti-value and heinous. Sometimes in a specific time, force, terror and destruction are prescribed for achieving a goal but in another time, tolerance, negotiation and peaceful solutions are advised for advancing the goals. It is obvious that in different periods, the language of expressing the text, interpreting and analyzing an event and hence the narration's time and place are different.

The norms and values of a society can be varied from a place to another given the cultures. For example, in a society, the social phenomenon of "divorce" is considered as heinous, abnormal and anti-value while in another society this can be regarded as normal and ordinary. The definitions and explanation of an event and consequently paraphrasing the text are different depending on the place the individual stands on. That is why we see a number of people who earlier had a soft, calm, or neutral language in expressing the events, as soon as they go abroad, speak with hostile and tough language and comment about the past and current social-political phenomena and developments hostilely. This is exactly the problem the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization has in facing with the United States. As long as they were present inside Iran's political platform, they introduced the United State of American as imperialist, colonialist and the human's enemy and were proud of their assassination of the US military advisors under former Shah's regime in their record, but this organization after leaving Iran and asking the west to help them, considers the US as the savior of the human and protector of the human rights and try to clean their historical mentalities and past commentaries.
Their other main problem is that they do not have the necessary understanding about time circumstances. In all historical stages and points, they resort violence, intimidation and terror in order to advance their goals, thus their lack of understanding about the time and place circumstances has caused them to separate fully from the masses of people. So, this example shows us that historical text and narration has various forms in different periods.

Meanwhile, the most important external factor and variable in evacuating the past mind and history is the one who re-narrates in the status of researcher, interviewer, compiler and editor. The interviewer, his or her personal and personality characters, type and way of interviewing and the rate of his or her skill and mastery in it, and the interviewer's experiences and skill determines how the text is formed.
The interviewer resorts to conduct an interview according to the research subject and selects a few people among many of those who had been present in the text or margin of the event given time and place limitations and the available facilities. However, sometimes the research subject has become so limited and specific that all the text owners and their witnesses can be placed within the framework of the interview for re-narrating the event. But sometime, the subject can be extensive and deep that the event's narrators should be selected inevitably so that we can reach a correct narration without bothering repetitions. For example, the Karbala 4 Operation and its text and margin owners are so vast and extensive that it is not possible to interview all of them one by one. Here, the one who narrates has no way but to select given the tools, facilities, goals and priorities he or she has in hand and selects the narrators among general staff, commanders and troops, vanguards and so on. The process of selection, whatever was or is, has an impact on the way of the text's formation.
The interviewer needs to study and review about the subject and interview (text owner) beforehand in order to dominate and lead the interview. The aim and path of the research study create an eyesight angle which is effective automatically in explaining the text. If the aim is to study the reasons of the defeat in a subject like Karbala 4 Operation, the narrators will be guided toward a specific way in order to just explain about the reasons of this defeat, and this aim causes this part of the event to appear as important intentionally or unintentionally. It is interesting that reviewing a historical issue always causes it to be represented and other historical issues are ignored. In the meantime, paying attention to an aspect of an event can cause other aspects of the event to be ignored. Also, considering a specific aim in expressing and explaining about an event causes other aims to be disregarded. A number of oral historians believe the selection of a general issue is enough for focusing on the issue and that it should not be limited through considering smaller goals. Otherwise, it is likely that the range of the issue becomes so extensive that a single text is not obtained anymore and it is not possible to collect it. What is produced is so diffused, unspecific and irregular which lacks necessary tissues for a strong context.

How to lead and control an interview is effective in formation of the text. Some interviewers believe that the subject should be open and free in expressing the event; it should not be limited at all; he or she can say whatever willing, can ponder and analyze freely. It is in such a method and trend that the fact of an event is discovered among bunch of the narrator's memories and diffused words. But a number of researchers are also of the view that in such a situation, there is no guarantee to be able to approach the fact of an event and these numerous texts and margins can distance us from the real and main text. Thus, the interviewee should speak only within the context of a specific question and the designed aim.

In the meantime, there are others who advise an intermediate solution and think it is useful for reaching the correct text. They believe that the interview should be led and controlled. In other words, the interviewer while giving relative freedom to the interviewee, with skill and necessary tools should not let the interviewee to speak about everything. He or she must control and lead the main subject with his or her questions, and behavior. For such a skill and control on the interview's atmosphere, the re-narrator needs to be well aware of the subject and goal and carry out necessary studies and research about the subject beforehand. For example, the interviewer should be aware of the intellectual, political mental and psychological conditions of the subject (interviewee). He or she must know the interviewee's political stance and ideology. For example, if the interviewee is a political activist of Tudeh Party and believes in Marxism, the interviewer should not ask him or her about divine schools. Other personal characters of the interviewee need to be identified too. In such a situation, the interviewer will be able to create an ideal atmosphere for him or herself and influence the correct process of the text's formation.
The interviewer's information and knowledge at a time when the narrator's mind is silent can act as a driving force. Several correct questions with necessary information and signs can be like a fillip to the narrator's mind and light his or her mind in order to be able to remember the event's details and his or her memories.
Such role should not be indoctrinated to the re-narrator so that he or she wants to hear his or her own words from the interviewee or does not seek to reach the ideal results and pre-assumptions by presenting information. If the interviewer wants to play such a role, distortion will take place in the way toward research and historiography.

If the effective factors and variables are studied and reflected precisely, the following and final stages of oral history like edition and compilation will be reviewed more easily. It is clear that there are factors which have an impact on formulating the interview's text and the process of turning discourse into writing which cannot be studies under the title of this article.

Translated by: Mohammad Baqer Khoshnevisan

Zamaneh Magazine, No. 64

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