“Oral History” and “Coffee-house Painting” As Narrated by Mohsen Kazemi

Oral History Is Product of Inquirer Document and Rationalized Document

Maryam Asadi Jafari
Translated by Ruhollah Golmoradi


According to Iranian Oral History Website, the ninth part of "Night of Narration" program, attended by Mohsen Kazemi, an oral history researcher and interviewer and author of the book "Coffee-house Painting," was broadcast on IRIB TV4. In this session, Mehdi Salehi asked questions about item of oral history and the process of researching and editing the book "Coffee-house Painting". At the following, you read details of Mohsen Kazemi's answers.


* In these days title of oral history is very much heard. What is this oral history?

It can be said that sound of oral history has voiced from every side. A fascinating genre that allows historiography not to be confined in the elite hand and control, and populace to be able to record their own history. It can be said that it is a public historiography and today it has gone beyond this level too and entered into various fields of the humanities which I will explain further if necessary. Oral history is associated with mind, ideas, hearsays and the smelt. All that we can say is the introverted, and its productive and extroverted form is oral history. It, of course, should not be confused with memories and memory-writing. Although they have a lot in common but memory-writing approaches literature, oral history becomes close to history. In oral history, verification and research have a very high status, but not in memory-telling. In memory-telling we have a monologue space, but in oral history we have a dialogue space, and there many more advantages can be mentioned that I will describe in terms of your program.


Can we conclude that oral history is a way of pulling social events out of the masses heart and not being clung to the theories that want to dominate history?

Oral history is essentially a democratic historiography. Once it was said that history was written by Sultans and kings and courtiers, but today history has become socialized and people themselves can have a lectern and talk. Oral history is history of silent classes of society; but much care must be taken in order to advance in its right way.


* What is its right way?

I listed some indicators for it. What is result of oral history must go through a complex process. Its complex process is that its interviewer must be an active and creative interviewer. The interviewer him/herself should, in principle, be an inquirer document and consider whom he or she is facing. He is a rationalized document. That is, product of an inquirer and rationalized document at the end is a written document, oral history. It should be considered that without research and knowledge, one shouldn’t enter field of oral history interview. Verification must be considered for any narration heard from the narrator - especially those that are suspicious. Validity and reliability of these works must be evaluated, and finally, functions of oral history should be regarded. Where and for what the text is to be used? Today, it is not just oral history method and research that are useful in writing history. In many fields of the humanities, it has entered fields of sociology, especially anthropology. Our researchers and scholars can use oral history as a method of qualitative research and address their purpose and hypothesis.


* You mentioned "accuracy"; validity of oral history narratives that must be measured surely. In the meanwhile, you mentioned that the researcher should at first examine all the existing narratives and then enter the field or into the interview. To what extent do those earlier narratives shape mind of the researcher, and how much is there the hope that the researcher will not enter the field with a formed mind?

It cannot really be determined. We have to define research field for ourselves. Our statistical population should be clear. Otherwise, it cannot have a limit. How much can you do historiography and ethnography, and follow human issues in a natural disaster where we can direct it toward oral history. But you need to have a clear field of research for yourself and go, ask and research to a point that it be determined the research is sufficient. Sometimes, it also happens in succession that we have had this in the past too and it is the case in Hadith. Sometimes our validity isn’t just realized with narratives. You will often have to look for written documents. It can be said that oral history in itself may not serve for historiography. I think oral historiography is used to serve the historiography itself or intends to fill the gaps, shortcomings, shortages, and defects of written historiography. All of this should be kept in mind. Whatever there is, it has to find its historical significance and prestige, otherwise it goes toward oral memory-writing.


* In today's world, the new media and the powerful are making a lot effort to shape and direct oral histories. How can a researcher find his/her way against them?

Certainly oral historiography cannot be very far from this damage. In my opinion, you should see these as a network that at the end can complement each other or show each other deficiencies. If we only look at one cell of this network, yes! We have lost. We need to see these as unified text in a complete network so that oral history can express what our purpose is. Of course, oral history today only overseas but even inside the country is interested by the powerful and centers of power are also moving to use oral history according to their own ideas, goals, and objectives. Oral historian’s task is to distance themselves from these domains and to try to keep oral historiography away from commodification and industrialization, and can use this whole process to serve and build culture of his/her country and society.


* Perhaps many will ask what is the need for this oral history? People are writing their memories. The media also publish reports and news; Then suddenly a researcher enters the field and starts interviewing three to four people, and sometimes after ten years, publishes a text and saying that this oral history of that event or person.

What happens in diaries, memos, and memoirs has mostly individual functions. But what is published in oral history has a collective function. My memory will remain in my personal sphere as long as is intended that its pleasure is limited to myself, my son and my family, or creates a nostalgic situation between me and my past, as long as it's going to remain in my personal domain. Oral history must have social function and be able to resolve a step of our social issues and ultimately causes accumulating and liberating information. The media, of course, can help oral history and expedite it; as this is happening.



* There are some defects in the work that are being published today in the country in the name of oral history. That what is research methods? How accurate are trainings? How much have paths and practices been identified, and does theory override method, or is it method that produces theory? It's good to talk about these points too.

Regarding Iran, I have to say that the great weakness of our oral practitioners is lack of proper theory and research method, and we suffer from this. Theoretical books are not almost indigenously written, and experiences of my colleagues, who are really past masters and the very experienced of oral history, have not been theorized so that those who come later can use them. In my opinion, our oral historiography atmosphere was a special one. After end of the war, we reduced suddenly to oral history. Not that oral history wasn't done, but it wasn't highlighted like now. Ending the war cause us that we saw ourselves suddenly in the middle of oral history, and we actually started operating it before doing any theoretical work. I think we acted based on the principle that start to do it, then maybe we could introduce it later, and now we see that we still have problems, and it hasn’t been introduced and fashioned. That's why we have problems in this field, and I think one of the reasons is that our universities don't address it. Our universities are passive towards oral historiography. They still see historiography as traditional and classical historiography. They did not enter into these new types of research and did not move toward this direction and solve problems of oral history theoretically. Universities have much responsibility for this, but they are silent.


* In my conversations with oral history practitioners and narrators, they complaint a defect and shortage, and it was that at first step, some definitions were unclear and they did not know that they were doing documentary, historiography, or ethnography. The strangest thing is that we still do not have a manual of style for writing oral history texts, in other words, a manual of style for editing oral history and oral narratives. Do you accept these two defects too?

Some organizations and institutions have created a handbook for themselves and are doing it, which is internal. Personally, I don’t and have never followed such guidelines, and we do not have such a framework in our own collection. Our framework is in this complex is having no framework. But it's really a flaw. Where should those who are interested and want to do oral work start? With what tools do they advance, and in what way can present their product? I now think that NLAI is publishing a book by Ms. Peimaneh Salehi that it may be able to solve some problems of such friends, and it must be admitted that oral history doesn’t much conform a framework. I can say that oral history work I do, oral history work you do, or the third person who wants to do it, will definitely be three different things, and we cannot expect much that limit them and say act like this with an official notification, a circular or a rulebook. The whole story is very important. That we really know what to look for and what to do with oral history. We need some work and practice. However, we have very profound methodological problems. That is why I have been focusing on methodology for many years and have even chosen subject of my dissertation oral history methodology and hopefully I will be able also to resolve this problem by addressing this issue and helped by Dr. Morteza Nooraee.


* You considered in "Coffee-house Painting" that end of the book to have a semicolon. There is even a semicolon on the cover. You regarded that Mr. Darabi's dialect, for example, comes within guillemet. Parts you saw attractive and valuable should be stated. In fact, you determined a rule. Of course, I think the publication also has done some edits. What, for example, orthography and spelling should be; How and where to use signs in oral history. Consider that if a sentence or word is used that may not be familiar to many audiences, use footnotes and explanation as well as regard manual of style tips in editing the work. Where do we use spoken language and how to express it? If oral history speaker had an accent, would we apply that dialect and if so, how? If this manual of style to be formed and developed, at least some publisher associates in the field know what to do.

I think we should wait for this book of NLAI. If it come out, it would solve some of our problems. The issues you raise are of the most important conflicts among great figures of oral history. Some believe that what is heard in oral history should be passed on without any change; some do not believe it and say historian is free and she/he can change some points and make the text attractive and literary. How much we can manipulate the work, change the work literature, and how much we can maintain the tone and accent, is a matter of long debate. Specialists need to comment on this. But we have some principles. Certainly when we talk about one of our narrators, we must know what his/her accent and tone are. Where is he or she from, and these can be introduced only by linguistic functions. If we also want to make a literary maneuver in order to make the text consistent and coherent, we must reflect these within specific limits, and know what are accents of people who do the farming, living in the mountains or the seas, in Khuzestan or Mashhad. It must be representative personality of these people; sometimes even dialect and language express their personality and mentality. If you take these people [narration] and write only by the author's own pen, you will kill them! And that's why you surely introduce these in certain areas of the book. When you advance parts in the same way, the reader is guided by them. He/she reads with the same voice of the narrator not with the author's voice. Perhaps when you read now "Coffee-house Painting” it is not in my voice that you read with it, but with voice of Mr. Darabi. These must be observed. We need to know what art, technique, and elegance to be used so that to be employed in this way.


* Today (September 17) is an important day in the last forty years of Iran's history and a great event took place on this day and your book "Coffee-house Painting" tries to narrate the story.

Yes. About 27 years ago, on September 17, 1992 (September 26, 1371 SH), at a such night, an unfortunate and very sad event happened in Berlin, and nine people were targeted by terrorist groups, whom were often members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Some objected why I say often? Because three of them were members of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan. I just say it implicitly; This dominance is a relative dominance, not an absolute one. That is, those who know mathematics and most of readers are aware of this. Four people were killed in the incident; of course, three were killed immediately and one in the hospital. This happened and four people were assassinated. In the years that followed, another person was assassinated. Who is that person? He is Kazem Darabi. But he was assassinated by bullet! He was shot by words, with narratives and the media war. He and his family are other victims of Mykonos event.


* In February 2019, the book "Coffee-house Painting" was published; it was about the fifth victim of Berlin. This nearly 1,000-page book is result of dear Mr. Kazemi's ten-year review and Mr. Darabi's the five-thousand-page case and 182 months in prison, which was our guest in the last program of “Night of Narrative”. Talk about this book please.

This book is of particular importance. Because it deals with one of the most important issues in Iran's international relations, and it can be said perhaps it is more important than many international issues. Because Mykonos still influences Iranian-Western relations, and it can be said that, by the Mykonos theme, for the first time Iranian opposition, which was always divided and was full of disagreement and all were against each other, agreed in one subject and they united together to overcome Iran's power and made every effort to engage Iran in Mykonos and cause to be on trial on the pretext of that Mr. Darabi is an Iranian, and we saw that in 1997 When the verdict was issued and Iranian system and government were considered criminals, the European Union called their ambassadors, and Iran also did the same, and our country entered a major foreign policy crisis. This book deals with memories of Mr. Kazem Darabi and, of course, with the question of itself Berlin issue and the assassination that took place there. But what is the basis? The basis is Mr. Darabi's memories. For the last 25 years, the opposition narrated this issue, and we, for the first time, have introduced another single narrative which is not tolerated by the same opposition right now.


* How different is this story from the current one?

Well, in a word, I can say that comparison has been made in the book itself. We used narratives of the opposition in Darabi's own narrative. They certainly blame Iran, consider Mr. Darabi as criminal, and Mr. Darabi, who has another story, sees himself innocent. He knows that he has not deliberately, wisely and consciously come to this issue. He had a house which was in control of a group that he hadn’t known for what they used it. Like that you might borrow a car from me and I don't know for what you want to use it. He claims that he didn’t involve consciously, wisely, and deliberately, and they tried very hard to attribute him to a number of our military-intelligence agencies, which was by no means proved. The only thing Mr. Darabi agrees with is that he is a member of Union of Muslim Student Associations in Europe. He accepts all its activities and responsibilities. But he does not accept affiliation with any of these institutions, which he says this with regret and says I wish I was connected and worked with them; If I worked, I would feel honored by it, but I wasn't. This remark by Mr. Darabi is difference between Mr. Darabi's single narrative and their multiple narratives.


* With publishing this book, we have faced a topic that is deeply rooted and perhaps even painful; that we are faced with a lack of discourse and a lack of narrative in different areas. This means sections who are sometimes political groups opposed to the Iranian regime publish their own narrative, which is often anti-Islamic Republic of Iran narrative, and use various media spaces extensively to disseminate these narratives. But on the contrary, sometimes we have no narrative, and sometimes, we have very simple and accessible narratives that seem the same authorities organized them, and serious, scientific, and in-depth work is lacking or scarce.

In my opinion, two things are needed to strengthen this field and push our researchers to these fields. We need to strengthen power of questioning and boldness. As long as our researcher wants to work conveniently and keep himself away from these issues, entertaining himself with many simple, non-problematic issues, surely the great subjects of our history and events would be written by others. In my opinion, our cultural stream-making have problems. Because it aborts temerities and our researchers rarely dare to address such fields. Of course, you have to tolerate these with all your soul. Because when you get into the water, you get wet. Now see how much do the attacks target this book? Well, we have to tolerate them, and of course we have to admit that if we tolerate these attacks, we will grow and be vigorous. We should not be afraid of these attacks. In my opinion, we need to reinforce narration and narrative space with these two exercises: the first being bold and the second being able to ask. Really how much can we ask well. Asking question can move us forward. We are the same in many other social and political issues. We do not ask, are not looking “why”, we are constantly watcher for what is forming for us and accept the first narrative. I myself had the same mentality about the issue. When I am offered a job and I do not accept it, why I don’t accept it? Because I had prejudice on the problem and had accepted the same narrative that they had narrated. Then I think, wow! Everyone has talked except this guy. This man had could not tell his narrative.


* That is to say, Mohsen Kazemi, an oral history expert and researcher, in facing this issue also had a presumption that had been result of dominant discourse and prevalent narrative.

The only difference is that I had a chance. I had a good teacher gave me a prod. Mr. Hedayatollah Behboodi gave me a prod that do not judge, go investigate, and that made me come to myself; it caused me to go, see, search, and then consider what happened, and then this path, this space, this field to be opened up to my vision so that I went to do a work. I hope that by doing the work, I would really serve the society.


* Why did it take ten years?

Honestly, I involved this book for all these ten years; but surely I had other projects beside it. Inshallah if another work to be published by the end of the year, I think it will multiply the opposition's surprise and rejoice the society. But it is clear that I had other projects. As you know that in 2013, I had a gathering and bool launch for the book “Restless Years (Sal-Haye Bi Gharar)”. It doesn't mean that this book lasted ten years and I made effort for ten years and I wanted just to produce one work. As I am advancing two or three projects at the same time.


* One of the things you did was that you addressed and used the texts of Mykonos court, Mykonos court documents and German language sources, and occasionally reminded them during the conversation with Mr. Darabi. You also presented some other topics and tried to make the narrative more mature.

In the interviews I did during lately, I reminded that I didn’t go for internal sources. I have explained the reasons for it too. I say it very quickly and pass it. Readers refer to my book introduction or my interviews. I wanted to distance myself from potentially being influenced by internal alloys and considerations, and so when I keep myself away from these fields, where should I follow verifying work my own? I have to look for it in written documents and papers. In which geographical area Mykonos issue was appeared? In Germany, Berlin. As a result, we have used what is produced as document in Germany’s judicial, security and police system. We've used all of what Germany press have collected about Mykonos and the judiciary and prosecution system during 16 years, and wherever Mr. Darabi talked, we made an enormous effort to bring a fact from these documents and papers; documents and papers that due to them the opposition claims that Darabi was convicted. I also want to say that I actually used the same documents and papers. If I had an interview with his wife and his daughter, the interviews would have been very marginal and, incidentally, very weak. Because I intended to pay attention to psychological aspects of the story, and I did an interview with his daughter. Because I believe that Mr. Darabi's family, like victims' families, were injured in the incident. But the victims' families have had a lectern until now and have talked. This family has not had a lectern, and today this book is a lectern that they also can talk, and these are the people who have to judge.


What is the last thing you want to say about "Coffee-house Painting"?

"Coffee-house painting" can be a good start for our researchers, I think; For many of the issues and topics in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran that haven’t been addressed, from the occupation of the US Embassy to war events, to McFarlane's debates and everything else which hasn’t been studied. Our researchers should be motivated to work on these topics, and I hope this book inspire our researchers.


* I would like to say that this book doesn’t say a last word, it does not make a final judgment and tries to describe and narrate all the available situations, and allow the audience to judge. It tries to circulate the audience in all the different states of this event and to show him/her not to look at history one-sided and not to see history view from one angle.

Master Mehdi Kamoos believes that Kazemi has brought Mr. Darabi to a self-consciousness that as an explorer and researcher seeks to solve a number of problems. I think that in addition to Darabi, my readers as a researcher can follow this work and read it.


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