Discussed in an interview with Hossein Zanjani

Concerns on the development of irregular monographs in the field of oral history

Maryam Assadi Jafari
Translated by Natalie Haghverdian


Hossein Nasrollah Zanjani is the cultural adviser to the General Director of the provinces and the Majlis in the field and has had his unique experience in ghost writing and supporting those active in the profession. An interview on the current status of memoirs with focus on the field of art was conducted.


Prior to your involvement in art you were the Executive Secretary of the Festival of a Quarter of a Century Holy Defense Books held in October 2009. Over 2094 memoirs were introduced. This field is one of the most active groups with the largest volume of literature on the Holy Defense and the jury categorized them as “Self Written Autobiography” and “Ghost Written”. Were these categories in place prior to the festival?

The concepts were in place but the categorization happened in the festival to categorize memoirs of various origins. The achievement of the festival was that we realized some sub-categories in ghost written memoirs. We recognized reminiscence, memoir writing and oral history and we realized that there are emerging categories in the field of Holy Defense Books with no reliability and there are many articles published. There were other books with mixed pose of memoirs and fiction which were later titled as life stories or memoir-story. It might be that the festival triggered some scientific interviews and articles.


What was the status of memoirs at the time? Were oral history books recognized by the audience?

At the time, the concept of memoirs was almost obsolete and more literary creations were considered by authors and institutions. The main concern was publication of a quality novel and comparisons were made with similar creations of other countries. The focus was more on literary relics than memoirs. The festival, at least, introduced some peaks of memoir. The book “Kenar Rude Khayin[1] by Ashraf Olsadat Mosavat, was interesting. There were other similar books which were recognized as the best in the festival and it proved that the genre is both reliable and well received by the audience. However, we figured our deficit in oral and research documents.


It seems that memoirs have overcome novels and the old era is over.

We were in war for eight years and one and a half million of the population of the country were directly and the general population was indirectly involved, but we never talked to them. By the end of the festival we realized that we don’t have enough resources to create literary relics. It was a wakeup call for some authorities that if we once again intend to manage people in a crisis situation we have to revive the spirit of the era and paint a bright picture of the people involved.


In the festival, 6 titles which were rewarded and 5 were from the art division. However, “Da” had a positive influence on public perception towards the genre of Holy Defense Memoirs. The book was published in October 2008 and due to time considerations it was not included in the festival. It seems that the strategy adopted by the Art division with regards to oral history is targeted and “Da” is pursuing the same trend. What is your opinion about it?

There are two approaches to “Da”. One aspect is memoir collection which was accomplished by Ms. Seyyedeh Azam Hosseini and the change in the method of interview and the second aspect is in its prose. There are serious critics and also praises. I believe that the book is loyal to reality but closer to a creation.


Does “Creation” mean that the memories are cultivated?

Yes! The memories are cultivated and there is little trace of the narrator. Interviews were later conducted with the narrator, Ms. Seyyedeh Zahra Hosseini, which showed the reflection of the narrator’s literature. I agree that “Da” and “Army of the Best” have high status. In case a man who had experienced the war had interviewed Seyyedeh Zahra Hosseini and had the same detailed approach of Seyyedeh Azam Hosseini we would have a different phenomenon. It is to say that “Da” is the result of the efforts of Ms. Seyyedeh Azam Hosseini in her detailed interview. I believe that it broke the bias of over generalized interviews. Though, I shall say that I’m sorry that we didn’t consider the surrounding events and were obsessed with the book.


We will talk about this obsession in the art division of the counties. Despite all the critics and praises, do you agree that “Da” was effective in advocating war memories amongst the audience?

I partially agree. It was a different phenomenon in memoirs of war and a new and positive approach towards the prose and taste of the audience. However, consider that I don’t use “oral history” here. Celebrities like Rakhshan Bani Etemad and Majid Majidi, who have read the book, consider it a novel which deep impression. Other features like Mojtaba Rahmandoust, who is a veteran of war and active in the field of collecting memoirs says that the book is a novel with a different prose.


When the book was published, our attitude towards oral history was different until it was recognized that oral history means recording the memory as recited by the narrator.

Prior to “Da” we had serious works in the field of oral history. The book “It’s a duty brother” concerning memoirs of Martyr Hossein Hamedani by Hossein Behzad is a serious interview. It is detailed and precise. It has a new and detailed structure where three key elements of time, location and narrator are highlighted. I agree that it was an important event in the field of memoirs and oral history of war; however, I’m reluctant to consider it as a relic of oral history since I still believe in the tough talk of soldiers. We are talking about war which in nature is not picturesque and there are difficult incidents to talk about. Other authors have elaborated on women’s involvement in the war but “Da” is a clear illustration of feelings of a woman in war and aid activities. We never had another “Da” which makes it unique and other books have serious differences and “Da” is still on top; but its status as oral history is a concept for debate.


We don’t intend to review “Da”. We wanted to assess its status in the index of Soureye Mehra and Art Division oral history books. You joined the Art Division of Office of Cultural and Sustainability Studies. What were the measures taken to publish oral history of the Revolution and war in other cities?

Activities of this division filled the gap of comprehensive approach towards involvement of the whole population in the war. We were worried that war will be recorded in the history from Tehran’s perspective and the role of people all over the country will be forgotten. This office took steps beyond this line and over 400 titles of oral history projects were conducted of which over 200 titles were published. Now, it’s time to review these books and reflect on how we shall deal with memories of war?


After “Da” there were other best sellers like “Noureddin, son of Iran” published by Soureyeh Mehr. However, the authors of different counties were complaining that they are expected to create a second “Da”. It was the dominant spirit in the Art Division in different provinces; but every author has its prose and if everyone would write “Da” then it wouldn’t be memorable.

I don’t deny it. Sometimes, our cultural managers neglect the capacities and origins of the authors and expect to have a book similar to a best seller. However, even in similar situations, hardly two books are created with the same value. The attitudes towards war are different. The provinces were notified of the approach of the Cultural and Sustainability Study Center. We highlighted the importance of preservation of local literature and the attitude of the individual towards war with their unique ideas and observations and also the importance of focus on details in our oral history training courses. I encouraged the authors to write in their own prose and avoid imitating others.

I believe that we succeeded and the literature provided in the third provincial festival in Kermanshah and fourth festival in Isfahan is the proof of such success. I believe that books like “My Share of His Eyes” by Mustafa Rahimi, “Color of Childhood” by Shirdel brothers, etc. overcame this bias. However, we were unsuccessful in introducing these books and build trust in authors from different provinces. Of course these books found their audience.


Are measures in place to reinforce the stature of these books in counties?

The approach of the Cultural and Sustainability Study Center is limited to publication. Soureye Mehr has better performance in distribution of its books but due to mass publication, provinces were unable to secure such status. Department of Provincial Affairs is in pursuit of establishing a proper distribution structure.


You stated that over 200 book titles are published in provinces. It seems that it’s time to review them. In your opinion as a stakeholder, what are the threats against oral history books?

It would be appropriate to consider oral history beyond the limits of art division. Intertwined incidents shall not be considered as individual. Despite the fact that art division oral history books have elevated stature, history is not the main mission of this division. Recording the history of war and Revolution is not specified in the charter of this division. The offices established to record oral history were a means to create art relics. However, dominant attitude and the activities in this field resulted in key changes in oral historiography. Art Division is the pioneer in the field and considering my experience in other institutions working on the concept of the Holy Defense but I believe that the work in art division can’t be compared to others; other institutions have their own deserving works. The Cultural and Sustainability Study Center has had many publications during years and lead the way in provinces to introduce influential features of the Revolution and Holy Defense. There are critics on its methodology but its key activity was decentralize study of war oral history and expanded the number of active individuals in war historiography and oral history at county level which shall be appreciated. There are groups in every province, familiar with interview methods, which are going around recording the history of the Revolution and war. This should be acknowledged and pursued. Even the activities in the Sepah and military to record oral history are appreciated. However, a general overview of the situation raises concerns.

After “Da” monograph of war history was largely highlighted. Many private and public institutions adopted this methodology. Books published in the field were 2 thousand titles in 2009 and now we have over 5 thousand titles. There seems to be an unhealthy competition in increasing number and volume of books.


Do you believe that in the field of oral history, quality is sacrificed for quantity?

Not to that extend, but strategies should be established to deal with monographs. For instance, there are many books about Mousel War Prisoners’ Camp. The content of all is the same. It describes their daily life. It seems like we don’t have any new questions to ask. Incidents are views from different perspectives and we insist to interview all without due consideration of the key objectives. Also, we insist on having books of over hundred pages.


We see the same in memoirs of the combatants. In some cases, the stories of operations are contradictory.

There is no contradiction but the result of different attitudes. However, it should be determined if it is necessary to review one incident from different perspectives. How many interviews are required to Karbala 5 Operation? Mr. Kamari made a valid point by saying that we don’t have history books, but historians’ books. We see the author in the books not the incidents and despite their effort to remain loyal to the content still their attitudes reflect in the books.

We had one million soldiers, and then we have one million memories! However, the question is that if someone reviews all these memoirs, will it be possible to draw one conclusion and have a comprehensive understanding of war? There are other issues including funds to publish this large volume and the fact that those who were actively involved in war and Revolution are lost due to old age.


Would it better to identify individuals with unique characteristics to interview instead of interviewing all? For instance the narrator of “A leg left behind” had coded memories and incidents and hid it in his cane. This is a special characteristic to have an interesting story.

It’s a good approach. In recording oral history or monographs we sometimes come across or discover new intuitions. It is possible to gather elites to select an unbiased concept and interview the right people. As a public institution we are facing funding restrictions and we need general consensus. We are facing crises in three fields. The first one is concerning the theories of war oral history. However, Mr. Kamari and others have conducted studies and published articles but still not enough. Defense Literature and Art Division shall have proper theories in historiography of the Revolution and war after 30 years. These theories should be documented and reviewed. We are not strong in theorizing resources. The other concept is organizational synergy and leadership.   


Organizations can’t be requested to stop monographs, but the current situation might be systematized to have better selection criteria in concept selection either individually or collectively. We have to be brave enough to drop the project when we feel that the individual, even a prominent feature, has nothing to share. This has financial benefits and promotes quality.

Correct. In some cases it is concluded that what is said about an individual is far from reality. In case we pursue the current irregular approach of monographs we will face serious chaos and a volume of information of which the history of war will not be extracted. We haven’t touched general and original concepts yet. We have had the best practice of “Battlefield and War Advertisement Headquarter” during Holy Defense managing advertisement about the fronts and promoting the spirit of the soldiers. War history shall be taken into consideration as passive cultural defense. Relevant institutions shall collectively review their monographs and determine their achievements. They should assess if they have been successful in realizing their goal? The gaps in war history are points of concern. Monograph methodology might throw us off the main tract; the concept of Muslim Kurdish veterans who were critical in maintaining security in Kurdistan; or military schools recruiting soldiers; or nearly 36 thousand martyrs who were students. This kind of oral history might show us how to use the support of the youth once exposed to other crisis. War logistics and women’s role behind the fronts are topics which are not covered fully.


You talked about theories. Do you think that recruiting the academic support might be effective in defining the framework of oral history?

I agree that we should move towards the academic approach and classify and manage our knowledge but we need to be more careful about the interviews. However, there is the concern that academics might not properly influence war history and literature. The issue was discussed with the Supreme Leader in spring of 2013 and Dr. Noorayi and Dr. Abolhassani established the MS faculty of war oral history in the University of Isfahan and two others obtained PhD in war oral history. University of Harvard is the pioneer of oral history but except for the individuals stated above and couple of others, our universities failed in their attempt to get involved.


Many prominent and influential political features of war are not yet interviewed. Many passed away without sharing their story…

Revolution and Holy Defense Grand Museum has 57 projects, one of which is “The role of government in Holy Defense”. I’m the chairman of the data collection committee. There are few documents which fail to define the role of the government properly. While we know that for every soldier fighting the battlefield there are 10 others behind the scene working to equip him. During the war, in the field or all over the country, we never faced any epidemics. This proves that health division was active and despite our involvement in the war, they did their job to prevent other problems. These are left unattended in the field of oral history. It is recommended that organizations gather and identify important concepts which form our passive cultural defense for probable future crises.


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