Narration Standards

Gholamreza Darkatanian

A look at history, necessity and importance of oral history (1)

Now that the main theme of this issue of Zamaneh Monthly is oral history, it is indeed fruitful to get aquintede with foreign and domestic institutions involved in compiling Iranian oral history as well as the point of view of some scholars in this new field. It is worth mentioning that, oral history whether to be considered as old as human history or as something that developed due to the modern technologies, has proved to be extremely efficient in numerous fields ranging from sociology and literature to even military sciences. Thus it should be taken seriously. Existing opportunities should be utilized in line with its improvement. The young generation with high motivation might need to be trained to achieve this goal through, establishing academic disciplines for this historical research approach. In view of the attempts carried out recently with this regard, it seems that this goal is to be achieved in the near future. The current article consists of chapters, definitions and considerations about this new field.
The global attitude toward history is very important. It is so important that, a nation with a national history is a nation who does not recognize its identity. Recognizing this history and identity requires research in various historical fields. Since, written sources cannot satisfy the needs researchers alone, using oral history alongside the written sources is of great importance. In fact, it could be said that oral history is one of the most important and basic methods in the contemporary historiography. Oral history plays an important role in doing research and collecting oral document. Oral history is a method with which the memories and observations about a specific historical event is recorded.
There are various discussions among the experts about the term "Oral History":
1- Some regard the entire authentic historical documents of historians like Tabari, Ibn Athir, Ibn Zahri and Zahabi who have recorded the events of the Prophet era from oral narrations of the Prophet’s followers or the followers of his followers. In fact, this group categorizes firsthand and reliable resources of Islamic historiography in as oral history.
2- Others regard the term oral history as a new phenomenon which was developed for recording memory after the invention of tape recorder and its use in 1948 by Allen Nevins who used this technology in order to achieve new discoveries in historiography. With the establishment of Oral History Association (OHA) which was founded to promote world standards and extend the field of oral history, this method soon became a growing trend. 
However, oral history is not really considered as a new phenomenon in general. Historians and sociologists have always paid attention to this research method in their sociological and anthropological investigations. By investigating legends and customs, this possibility comes to mind that perhaps all these legends and tails have roots in societies, real life and actual history; the possibility that these legends have been retold and retold; that as time passed by and as they were narrated orally, they were expanded, and exaggerated. Thus, sociologists and anthropologists use the prevailing customs, traditions and the existing oral narratives as source of information where a community or a nation- such as African tribes- does not possess a written history. It is interesting to know that in many cases, the foundation of the historiography of civilized nations has also been based on oral history. As we mentioned before, the history of the Islamic advent has been based on the narrations of followers from apostles or on stories of followers of followers to the extent that the name of the news source is mentioned with the Arabic word "Qala" which means he told.(2)
About oral history, Ma'adikhah – the head of the Foundation of the Islamic Revolution History- says: "All these contentions about oral history which is attributed to Harvard University are totally unjustified. Some look at this story as if a transition has taken place. This is not true. All historical sources like Tabari History are essentially oral history. It means that for example this Tabari History narrates incidents like Badr War and then reports memories about it. The difference between this source and those of today is that the previous historical sources mention a series of documents about the events which are considered an advantage comparing to today's works. Tabari History from the beginning to the end is nothing but oral history. Ibn Athir, Ibn Zahari and Zahabi have also methods in historiography. Oral history is very valuable, provided the users are equipped with a know-how that can differentiate the true from the false. If we classify the reliable sources of Islamic history, it seems that firsthand sources are among oral documents. Also, a high percentage of the histories with report background are the narration of memories and oral history."(3)
Dr. Asghar Montazer Gha'em, the associate professor of the History Department of Isfahan University, about the status of oral history among the Muslims, and their first efforts in the field, says: "Recording and keeping Hadith was an important step toward understanding and interpreting the holy Quran. Thus, the Muslims specifically paid attention to this form of historiography since the advent of Islam. Meanwhile, Quran's emphasis on exemplifying the behavior and deeds of the Prophet of Islam –May peace be upon him and his progeny-caused the apostles especially Imam Ali- may peace be upon him- and his followers to pay special attention to the biography of the Prophet before and after his appointment as Prophet.
He also says: "The Science of Hadith and oral tradition in the process of its historical evolution faced various charges such as being fallible and the lack reliability of memory, the conditions of narrator, inauthentic and authentic Hadiths and narrative, the conditions of Hadith etc. Therefore, Hadith scholars set up directions the outlines of some parts of which are as follows:
1. Categorizing the news, 2.The condition of knowledge to consecutive news, 3.The condition of Hadith, 4.The condition of priority of Hadith, 5.The condition of the narrator, 6.The condition of transferring the oral tradition. And thus the Science of Hadith and Oral Tradition took the form of a compiled science and hundreds of books were written by Sunnis and Shiites so that later they became one of the most important resources of historiography of Islam."(4) 
Dr. Montazer Gha'em believes that three main functions of history are: "A. History as a guide for social action through transferring the past conceptions, themes and, events to the present. This is the same special work or function which is presented traditionally among the ordinary people in the form of phrases like "History, the Mirror of Lesson" or "Past, the Light of Future's Way".  B- History as an institution for training, transferring and cultivating civility, C- History as an institution for organizing the affairs of politics, society, culture and economy for the present and future. Dr. Morteza Nourani, the associate professor of the History Department of Isfahan University believes that adapting the above viewpoint, there is no difference between the function of history and the function of oral history, but oral history acts as a main and supplementary source for history. The job of oral historian is to find lost pieces of the puzzle in various fields of history. In these lost pieces, there are in fact coherent or singular and discontinuous chains of dreams and desires, goals, troubles, intentions, deeds and so on which in most cases are not recognized in the official documents, thus shaping parts of the unsaid history. Therefore, the job of oral historian –especially at the present time – is to discover, recreate, recover and reconstruct past events."(5) 
Elsewhere, interpreting Alexander Portelli, professor of Literature in Rome University, he goes on saying: "The first thing that characterizes oral history is that it talks about concepts and meanings rather than an event". And then adds: "This not only does not lessen the value of oral history but represents one of its main functions; because interview usually reveals the unknown events and the lost aspects of the incidents. Oral documents always emphasize on the unknown realms of the daily life of the society's non-dominant classes. In other words, oral history not only talks about what the people did, but tells us about what they wanted to do and about the origin of their beliefs which justified their actions. In this case, the people are evacuated historically and in fact, it is one of the methods of collective memory-therapy of a society which achieves to dome spiritual and cultural mending with the help of past historiography and history."(6)
Salymoba, an African researcher of oral archive states: "The phrase "oral history" which has been originated from oral observations has caused debates among the experts. In Africa, the discussion is about oral texts, the texts which cover the observations that have been transferred orally. Texts in societies equipped with writing, and traditions in oral societies play an important role in the correct function of a society. Therefore, the traditions not only are not concluded to ethnic recreation and culture but are charged with reconstructing the society."(7) 
The method of historical research like the history alone is a dynamic phenomenon. The issue of oral history is considered as a relativly new approach especially in historical studies. The first activity in this field started with the issue of political history and especially with recording political memories on tape. In fact, such activities gained scholary significance through the invention of tape recorder and specific techniques which were developed durring this period. It basically developed during the past three decades and openrd new horizons ahead of researchers especially historians. The invention of tape recorder created a revolution in field research in historical studies called the Oral History Movement since 1970s. The first initiation in this field was carried out by Professor Allen Nevins in Columbia University in the United States in 1948. He detected the possibility of using tape recorder and collecting political memoirs when he was studying some historical documents and dedicated his first plan to recording and collecting the political memories of a group of political figures and particularly US pensioners. Ever since then, the term "Oral History" spread. It was translated into Persian as "Tarikh-e Shafahi".(8)  
After the establishment of Oral History Association (OHA) in 1970, oral history has developed significantly. Some of the oral history centers which are involved in studying the Iranian history outside Iran are as follows:
1- Iranian Oral History Project (OHP) in the Harvard Center of Middle Eastern Studies which was established in 1980. The head of the Center is Habib Lajevardi. And it has so far published ten memoirs.
2- The Oral History Project of Iranian Left Movement from 1920s to 1990s which was formed by Hamid Ahmadi in 1983 in order to study about left political activists in Iran. This center works with videos and conducts many interviews. It has so far published two memoirs.
3- Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History which was established in Los Angeles in August 1995 under the supervision of Homa Srashar. The aim of the Center is to collect data about the Iranian Jews in different fields through conducting interviews.
4- The Foundation for Iranian Studies which was established in New York in 1981 in order to collect, keep and transfer the cultural legacy of Iranians, has so far conducted 180 interviews in this regard.
5- The Office of Oral History Research in the library of Lima University (Iran-US Relations) which a number of its interviews are conducted around the relations of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Carter with Iran.(9) 
Moreover, in recent years, oral history has received significant attention in Iran. Iranian Oral History Association with the participation of eleven research centers has been established in order to coordinate such activities and to systemize, theorize, and determine the theoretical and intellectual structures of oral history institution and help improve such activities.(10)  
It is worth mentioning that written texts on the contemporary history of Iran are very limited, imperfect and in some cases have been written with biased inclinations. The remaining official documents have also been censored although they play an important role in compiling Iranian contemporary historiography. Furthermore, as it is obvious, one of the main resources of history scholars – especially on political issues – is the existing reports and documents in the foreign embassies, while each of the mentioned documents have had their own especial policy in writing the reports. 
However, although oral history is generally accepted as a supplementary material for written resources, the main problem of our scholars regarding oral history is that they just rely on collecting data from the powerful political figures. The interviewer is willing to conduct interviews only with leading figures. They do not interview the well informed or third-rate or fourth-rate people, whereas sometimes active people in the medium echelons of power distinguish the issues better and are very well informed.(11) 
Khosrow Moatazed, a historian and researcher of oral history, says: "I think that oral history coming from the heroes and players of the incidents are significantly superior to the written manipulated and multi-perverted history –except for authentic documents. Therefore, explanations and details given by a person who has played a role in an incident or the hero of an event are much more reliable than the person who talks about an event just on the basis of press documents and articles or other books. On the other hand, a person who has been involved in the course of events or a commander can enhance the researcher’s understanding and point of view. But, a researcher should also have calculated data even on trivial issues of a historic even and the activity of the interviewee and can explain the matter in a friendly and participatory manner and achieve a correct conclusion when the interviewee prevaricates from stating the realties due to personal interests, or hiding the facts or other reasons or talks about minor issues.
He also says: "What brings difficulty and ambiguity in oral history is that the statesmen or prominent figures and generally all those who are interviewed try to justify all the historical points to their benefit mostly because of the passage of time, forgetfulness as well as ego-centrism and selfishness. Thus, that is why the researcher or historian should beware of such prevarications or intentional or unintentional mistakes, and the way of clarifying such ambiguities is to refer to documents as well as oral history based on the statements by other players in the political scene in that period and also referring to international documents related to the country's events in the same period. Skilled and proficient researchers can easily discover the contradictions, lies and prevarications and consider them in the final research."(12) 
If oral history does not merely rely on the data given by prominent players and takes into account the observations of and even narrations by various on-scene people in order to explain the historical events of a period of a country's political and social life, then it will find a great importance and credit. Also by referring to domestic and foreign documents and correspondences and telecommunications, we can find out the status of a historical event considerably. Although referring to oral history is very important, this should be done with caution. Oral and written documents complement each other. This connection can now be established thanks to information technology and lapse of time. In fact the oral history is not superior to written history, nor is the latter over the former, but the two emerge alongside one another.
Technological progress is what brought oral history to the stage. Until the beginning of twentieth century when phonograph and gramophone came to the market, nobody imagined that it was possible to record voices or even the images. But after the invention of various audio and visual sets, and the emergence of phenomena such as internet, satellite and so on, the history and historiography of the twentieth century found a special advantage toward the entire previous periods when the events were merely recorded with paper and pen. Although with the emergence of this technology, the record of events changed and moved away from what was widespread previously – for instance in the era of Xenophon, and even in the nineteenth century in the works of historians like Albert Malet or Jules Isaac-  nevertheless, "the thought and analysis of a scholar can never be rendered void and thoughtless ".(13)
Dr. Hosseinali Nowzari – the researcher of Iranian Institute for Contemporary History Studies – says: "The job of oral historians, is to collect and preserve the memoirs of politicians and social and political forces who were against the ruling order (opposition forces), former and current state officials, those who are involved and responsible for various social, political, economic, and cultural departments, currents, activities and inclinations, indigenous people of an area and the immigrants and foreigners residing in that region, artists and novelists, civil and military citizens and other numerous cases and the elements which are or were dealing with a historic event; in other words all human subjects, elements and factors irrespective of ethnic, race, language, sex and class disparities and discriminations."(14)
He also believes that unlike common wrong and unclassified thoughts and notions, oral history is one of the most important and basic methods of historiography and plays a crucial role in verbal evidences and documents.(15)
Morteza Rasouli Pour, a history researcher, about oral history says:" In fact if we want to offer a simple definition of oral history, we should say that it means the collection of verbal data in different areas of humanities especially history. However, in view of the spiritual requirements of human who does not always have something to tell, everyone does not write his or her secrets – it makes no difference who this person is - and will never express them."(16)
The importance of oral history in compiling Iranian contemporary historiography is because the written sources cannot satisfy researchers' needs. But it seems that involving in oral history does not solve the big problem of our historiography, because we again go to the mighty men. For instance, in examining the ruling power, we go to first-rate people for information, and not the informed third and fourth-rate ones.(17) 
Oral history is the individual experience as well as a podium for those who cannot have access to necessary instruments and positions to express and transfer their memoirs."(18)
Mohsen Kazemi – A historian of the Islamic Revolution period– about oral history says: "Oral history is a technique and method which registers and records memories, observations, agent audible elements (director, administrator and player) or a witness of a historic event in the form of language by using audio and visual tools such as tape recorder and camera."(19) 
Robert E. Cook, the head of Dutch oral archive, about audio and visual documents, says: "Audio-visual documents have been increasingly growing since World War II. These documents are considered not only as a supplement for written data, but as documents which have existential value. After re-evaluating these types of documents as a source for historic research, the researchers found out that showing the audio-visual life of a person or an event can be much more successful than its mere description. Many non-western cultures rely more on audio and visual communication sources than the power of written language. They have to be able to use audio-visual sources in order to maintain cultural legacies. In such communities, it has especially been proved that using audio and visual connections is more effective than other methods. This means that audio-visual collections should be founded as special professional collections managed by National(20)  Archive." Using audio-visual documents in new studies and researches is spreading rapidly. According to the reports from the archive departments, the number of those who use such documents are increasing every year.(21)  

The role of memory in oral history
Memory means the mental faculty of retaining and recalling past experience, or the period of time covered by the remembrance or recollection of a person or group of people.(22)
The main objective of writing memory or registering a memory is to provide a situation in which the influential figures in an event can state their views and interpretations. On the other hand, we should acknowledge that all memories cannot be considered as baseless and untruth.
Someone who goes the wrong way in expressing or writing his or her memoir and is dragged into exaggeration and self-promotion would not find any audience. At the same time, public justifications about historical affairs hardly make a mistake, and paying attention to this will surely increase the level of correct criticism, because both the memory writer and the critic are subjected to public opinion and need the mass’s reception. However, we should not forget that there are people who go the wrong way and this can have an impact on people's temporary judgments at the time of producing such historical products. Thus, it is necessary for those who are responsible to think more about working standards so that they are put in a proper and feasible status in long-term judgments.(23)   
Main problems in writing memories taka place in the political area, but in other issues, the interviewees or memory writers mainly tend to tell the truth. Conducting an interview with an expert in the history of Iranian music is also categorized under oral history, but these experts comment on their subject more easily and quietly than political experts. The main commonality of many memories is the claim of individuals on the validity of their function and insistence on the others' mistakes and most memory writers and interviewees have analyzed and interpreted the events due to some human and historical considerations on the basis of defending the role they have played.(24) 

The goal of oral history and principles of its function
The main goal of oral history is to develop and extend the historical know-how in the areas where the documented evidences and documents are rare and one-sided or basically there is no witness or document.(25)  However, defining the characters of those who have made attempts in the way toward great ideals with significant determination and love is a very difficult task and perhaps impossible, especially when the realism of practical method of historiography closes the doors of one-sided empathy and evaluates everything within the framework of scientific, objective and tangible standards.(26) 
The range of application and areas of oral history engagement is very vast, diverse and extensive. Interviews cover a wide range of past memories, novels and colloquial statements, songs and folk and slang songs, jokes, proverbs, puzzles, traditions, and customs which are recorded and registered in verbal or written methods.(27)

Practical principles of oral history are:
1- Lack of authenticity of oral history; oral resources function alongside written sources.
2- Active interview can reveal estimates and hidden elements behind different layers.
3- Active interview can help reveal important points and the intentions included in written documents.
4- Active interview can represent dormant ideals, dreams and troubles behind the facts.
5- Active interview can help reveal lost events and discover lost rings.
6- The status of oral history in the process of generalization is about the vacuums the historian can use.
7- Oral sources and oral history can help the operation of the event's cesarean like a midwife.(28)

Oral history is as old as human history. Oral history has been a part of the history of mankind since man could speak and had been considered the first type of history in illiterate communities. The primary form of transferring history – called news – in the advent of Islam was being carried out on the basis of oral narrations and in the two first centuries, oral history was the only source which helped them to transfer traditions, Hadiths and history. In the new century, the grounds for the growth and development of oral history were provided through the advance of technology. Thus, the researchers and investigators have paid special attention to oral history and memory writing during recent years.
What should we do in order to develop oral history as one of the most important and basic methods of historiography in the country and use it ideally in historical researches?
Two issues are necessary in order to improve and promote the level of oral history in Iran:
1- Academic circles especially the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology should recognize oral history as an "academic discipline" – not merely as an academic book – in the program of universities so that the students and those who are interested can pursue studies in this field with more seriousness, persistence and hope.
2- Professional collections of oral history are founded under the management of National Archive. The task and responsibility of any respective archive and research center should be to accept responsibility vis-à-vis the posterity and to introduce individuals who have made attempts in the way toward great ideals with serious determination, and to record, extract, type and edit the precious existing data with them by using functional tools in order to be used as an important source alongside written documents.   


 1- An expert in reviewing and planning the documents of the Organization of Iranian National Library and Documents.
 2- Shifteh Niknafs, "Acquaintance with Oral Archive Office, the treasury of documents, Fourth year, no. 15, Autumn 1373 (1993), page 92 
 3- The Oral History of Islamic Revolution, interview with Hojjatoleslam Abdolmajid Ma'adikha, Hamshahrai daily, taken from  
 4- Ali Ghorbani, "A report from the holding of oral history seminar and workshop in Isfahan University", The journal of Iranian Contemporary History. Eighth year, no.29, Spring 83 (2204), pages 360-361
 5- Ibid, page 352
 6-Ibid, page 352
 7- Salyomba, "The Land of Oral Traditions", Translator, Leila Ebrahimi, The treasury of documents, 13th year, nos. 51 and 52, autumn and winter of 82 (2003-2004), page 97.
 8- Hamid Ahmadi, "The plan of oral history of Iranian Left form 1920 to 1990", taken from: 
 9- Abolfazl Hassanabadi, "Introducing oral history centers in the world", Mashhad, The Publication of the Management of Press and Documents’ Affairs in the Oral Archive Department of the Organization of Libraries, Museums and Center of Astan-e Qods Razavi, [Bita], pages 2-6.
 10- Ali Ghorbani, Ibid, page 366.
 11- Mmorteza Rasouli Pour, “Oral History of Iranian Angle”, interview conducted by Arash Azarang, The Week’s Book, no.140, 12 Mehr 82 (September 2003), page 9.
 12- Khosrow Moa’atazed, “Sha’aban Jafari and the problem of cover-up”, interview conducted by Zahra Hajmohammadi, no.83, 13 Mehr 83 (September 2004), page 10.
 13- Ibid.
 14- Ali Ghorbani, Ibid, page 356.
 15- Ibid, 353.
 16- Morteza Rasouli Pour, Ibid, page 9.
 17- Ibid.
 18- Ali Ghorbani, Ibid, Pages 350-351.
 19- Aeldar Mohammadzadeh Seddigh, “A Report from Oral History Expert Session and workshop in Isfahan University”, Farhang daily, 5 Mordad 83 (July 26, 2004).
 20-Robert E. Cook, “Protecting image and Film in Audi-Visual Archive”, translator, Shifteh Niknafs, the journal of Public Relations and International Affairs of the Organization of Iranian National Documents, no.14, Shahrivar 72 (August 1993), Page 1.
 21- Ibid, Page 15.
22- Dehkhoda Dictionary, Volume 6, First edition of new course, Tehran, Tehran University, Spring 73 (1994), page 8191.
 23- Morteza Rasouli Pour, Ibid, Page 9.
 24- Ibid.
 25- Ali Ghorbani, Ibid, Page 354.
 26- Roza Nazem, Oral History, Abouzar Group, Tehran, The Center of Islamic Revolution Documents, winter 82, Page 16.
 27- Ali Ghorbani, Ibid, Page 355.
 28- Ibid, Pages 352-353.

Translated by: Mohammad Baqer Khoshnevisan

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