Oral History Training

Early knowledge, before the beginning

Compiled by Golestan Jafarian
Translated by Ruhollah Golmoradi


Before addressing a "good start", it is better to pay some attention to the importance of "early knowledge of the narrator". Obviously, no sane person enters a subject or project without studying, but the interviewer may go to the narrator because of his high self-confidence, even without pre-writing his questions. Although high self-esteem and not relying on writing can be positive, it is sometimes also harmful.

Entering into a human interaction and dialogue, such as entering a dark room in an unknown house, requires basic caution and cognition. This basic cognition is achieved by observing, studying, querying from people around you, or calling the narrator. Sometimes asking a short question about the background, expertise, age or status of the interested person can be very helpful.

One of the most important factors in initial knowledge of the narrator is prior knowledge of his physical health status. If our narrator is a veteran, we need to know in advance what physical limitations we face. In this way, we can regard these limitations from the moment the interview begins. For example, when we know that our narrator has an artificial eye or hearing loss in one of his ears, we choose how to sit, the angle of body position, the angle of view, etc. in a way that he/she can see and hear in the most comfortable way.

Initial cognition, in addition to starting, is also effective in concluding and arranging duration of each session of an interview. We have discussed effect of early cognition on the summation of the interview in an article titled "Good Ending".


Good start

One important part of an oral history interview is "Good Start." It can be said that a good start is one-fifth of outcome of the whole work, which comes from "what and how to ask" and finding the right spot to begin with. In fact, importance of a good start in the interview can be expressed by the proverb "a good beginning, makes a good ending." Putting the first brick right is decisive in continuation of the work. Achieving good starting skill is not achieved except by experience. As a military man as much as he/she has fired, in targeting, knowing weapon, etc. is more experienced than the other, or just as a pilot with 3,000 hours of flying experience is not comparable to a pivot with 300 hours of flying, here will also have better beginnings an interviewer who has interviewed more. In other words, like drivers, pilots and military, interviewers also become proficient in the number of hours they do interview. However, we try to get an outline of its features by examining the main parts of a good start:


1) Make an identity for the interview file

The purpose of making an identity is to provide simple but necessary information about the interview by the interviewer at the beginning of recording of the conversation.

  • Interview time (on what date, which day and at which o’clock?)
  • Narrator's name (with whom?)
  • The subject of the interview (about what?)

The most main "basic simple information" must be mentioned in the forehead at the start of the dialogue. In fact, this information converts the interview file into an "oral document". In other words, absence of any of this essential information at the beginning reduces "documentedness” of our file. Time of the interview is important because every day and hour is different from the other day and hour and has its own events and requirements. The narrator, who owns the memory, should be known so that the file be documented, and finally, expression of the subject not only causes the main theme of the dialogue to spark again in the narrator's mind, but can later be used to evaluate the interview. For example, topic of the dialogue is "Memories of the War". It is important to see whether the interview and questions have been moved towards realizing the mentioned topic.

In contrast to these three vital cases, it can be said that mentioning location of the interview, the interviewer's name, occasions, etc. are unnecessary, and expressing or not expressing them will be largely dependent on the interviewer's taste.

About location of the interview, it should be said that the place, when it is tied to the topic of dialogue, is important. For example, you want to talk about "history of restoration of Arg Mosque in Tabriz" and you have made an appointment inside the mosque shabestan; it is important to mention the location here, but if the place is only an agreed location, a place to meet each other, such as an office or house, is not necessary to mention it.

Not mentioning name of the interviewee will not also be harmful. His/her name can later be retrieved in the documents, but on the other hand, this 20-30-second introduction gives the narrator more time before the dialogue begins so that he/she can think about it again.

Although it is not necessary to mention the occasions, it takes a little time and may later affect the better understanding of the mood, arbitration, analysis and review of that interview. For example, one can begin: "The night of Tasu'a Hosseini, September 30, 2017, we are with Mr. ............. . The topic of dialogue........


2) The right question to start the interview

According to empirical knowledge, it is obvious that general questions should be avoided in interview. The narrator shouldn’t also talk round and interviewer must react to it. But for a good start, it's better to choose a general question purposefully. In this way, without disturbing the narrator's mind and materials he/she has already prepared for the beginning (verse, hadiths, etc.), we allow a small introduction to be formed and the narrator announces his/her presence.

  • If you have a point to start, please express it. Say what you feel is better.
  • Please talk about yourself. Would you introduce yourself?

These are examples of the right questions to start with. As many people as, there are ways to get started. The next questions are based on the narrator's answer to this general starting question. Just like a driver who sits behind the wheel of a car, fastens the seat belt, adjusts the front and side mirror, pulls down handbrake, starts and moves with the most suitable gear; he/she close cautiously from the sidelines to the main road and proceeds on the main road at the right speed, and with confidence and calmness. Similarly, in the interview, interviewer, like a driver who sits behind the wheel, begins to move slowly with the initial question, and by asking the next questions, while gradually increasing the speed, approaches the main topic and then proceeds with confidence and calmness in order to realize the subject.

Obviously, the interview should not begin with compound questions. This means that the interviewer should not, in the initial question, pour a compact series of his/her demands and needs on the narrator's lap and leave him/her confused.

  • Please introduce yourself and tell me where you were born and how many siblings do you have and how did you join the holy defense process?

This is an example of an inappropriate question to begin with. Faced with this question, the narrator remains confused about where to start and which question he/she should answer. In addition, he may want to say the verse or hadith he/she has already prepared in his mind. In this situation, the interviewee after announcing his/her presence asks, "Excuse me, what was the question?" and the interviewer will say, "Where were you born?" and after, for example, 50 minutes, the narrator would reach the question of "How did you join the holy defense process?"


Checking 'Start' of a real interview

"In the name of the Lord of the Martyrs and the Righteous [in Arabic بسم الرب الشهدا و الصدیقین.] The first session we will host Haj Agha. Mr. on 2017/09/29 at 23:10 .............. First, I ask you to present your biography. Please introduce yourself briefly and then let’s continue our interview."

This is a real example of start of an interview in which the narrator's name is not mentioned for ethical considerations. As we can see, in part of make an identity for the file, "subject of the interview" fits well. Before asking about the biography, topic of conversation should be mentioned. For example, we are here with Haj Agha ......... to discuss his "memories of the holy defense period" or "experiences of raising children and grandchildren."


Results of a good start

A "good start" has results that affect continuation of the work. A good start can lead the "interview" toward "being a dialogue." "Interview" is merely a headline and an arbitrary name. Here, interview is made of oral history and is not comparable to what is discussed in the media as an interview. Turning an interview into a dialogue is a pervasive harm that can happen for a variety of reasons, not just because of inappropriate start. Interviewers often do not enter or enter late into the narrator speech thread because of bashfulness and their respect for the narrator. Thus, questions are not asked in the right place and time, and "Goft [means said]" will not become "Goo [means tell]". But if that good start happens, "interview" can go in the right direction and move towards becoming "Goft [said] and Goo [tell]," in the sense of two people's purposeful talking to each other.  

A good start helps the interviewer remain in “guider” position. Everywhere it is said that guider of the interview is the interviewer, but in practice the narrator can distance the interview from the main road and addressing the interested subject. It doesn't matter whether the narrator is an old housewife of a martyr mother or a high-ranking military commander. With any social position or any cultural background, he/she is able to take wheel from the interviewer and turn it wherever he/she wants. In this case, the dialogue process will not proceed as expected: "I will ask as interviewer and he/she will answer." Although staying in the guider position is a multidimensional and complex subject –which we discussed in detail in another article titled "How to Remain a Guider"– a good start can definitely have a positive impact on control of the interview by interviewer.

A good start reminds the narrator topic of dialogue. Repeating subject of the interview during making an identity for the file and with a clear recording makes the subject once again officially to be reminded for the narrator, and he/she will think about it again and adapt his/her mind to it at the opportunity he/she has been given.[1]


[1] From the workshop on oral history teaching by Mohammad Ghasemipour in Tabriz, November 2017.

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