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New Jordan Research Institute
Conference on Social and Women’s History
August 16-18, 2005
ORAL AND SOCIAL HISTORY:
PERSPECTIVES ON THE STATE-OF-THE-ART
Thomas M. Ricks, Ph.D.
Department of History
University of Pennsylvania
“History is a process, an argument, and is composed of true stories about the past” - John H. Arnold, History: A Very Short Introduction
I. History and Historiography
History is both a process and an argument about the past. But, it is also an exercise in memory and remembrance. It is generally agreed that there are three types of historical sources or memories; (1) archival memory in written documents, diaries, reports, parish records, and letters, (2) living memory in people whose autobiographies are filled with events, places, peoples, and traditions, and (3) material memory in coins, statues, buildings, streets, neighborhoods, coast lines, forests, tomb stones, broadsheets, posters, photographs, and paintings. In each case, historians have methods and techniques to question, to analyze, and to interpret the “true stories of the past”. No one historical source is entirely and unquestionably valid or historically “true” in itself so that historians are always seeking corroborative primary sources to substantiate the various evidence.
History is also problematic, or better yet, filled with problems, gaps, and silences which make little sense when left alone. Indeed, if the past was an intelligible and coherent narrative in itself, there would be no need for historians for the historians’ tasks are to examine the problems of the past, sift through the various levels of historical evidence for explanations and interpretations, and write a narrative that is coherent and provable. If the results solve some of the problems of the past or fills some gaps, well and good. Chances are that the historians’ tasks and responsibilities are unfulfilled as new historical evidence emerges, new questions about the past narrative challenge older interpretations, and active exchanges occur between historians and the social sciences, other humanities, and, more recently, with the natural sciences.
Thus, there is much to discuss when speaking of past events, peoples and traditions, such as why did particular events occurred at a specific time and place, and why did that person or peoples act in a certain rather unexpected way? Since history is a process, historical sources are never entirely clear about the past. Thus, historians constantly engage in arguments over the availability or validity of evidence, propose theories to explain past changes and continuities, and establish schools of historical interpretations of the past. In a sense, historians shape history from the primary sources about events, traditions, activities, and lives of peoples. They do so since the “true stories of the past” rarely explain any more than a moment of time, an event or person, or place in the contemporary records, manuscripts, diaries and journals, and in police reports, government memos, and parish records. The past in the sense of being fossilized or frozen in time is yet unborn in texts we call primary or contemporary sources. It is only after the historian seeking out the processes of the past, questioning the historical evidence, and then attempting an explanation of the cloudy narrative that history is then created and shaped into an historical narrative. Thus, historical evidence and historical research go hand in hand with the former representing the untapped “true stories” of the past, while the latter seeks out meaning to past actions or persons, or a resolution to an historical problem. Once the interpretation of the historical evidence is made known, we then have a “history”, or the true stories of the past.
The historians’ digging up historical evidence in pursuit of solving historical problems, and creating an historical narrative show why history may rightly be considered a social product or production between historian and the peoples, events and things of the past; that is, an intimate interaction between the researcher and the material or human evidence of the past. Over the past decades, the interaction has addressed a range of social, economic and cultural topics unattended by earlier generations. Women are clearly a center of historical studies today as are workers, peasants, and the long-term impact of religion, rituals, and culture. New questions are now being asked about the environment and climate, diseases and pandemics, and the power and production of history. Social history has expanded its historical horizons with social scientific methodologies, new uses of oral history and memory research results, and, overall, the vibrant field of world history. All of these innovations have changed much of the approach of modern historians and how they now think about the past.
20th-century historians have now looked well beyond written historical accounts as the only historical sources available for analyses and interpretation of the past. In their search to know the true stories of the past, historians have sought answers for their questions and ways of filling the historical silences by utilizing a second major source of historical evidence; that is, from material evidence, such as coins, grave stones, buildings, memorials, maps, soils and agricultural patterns, and the ever changing coast lines, winds and climate of the globe. Memorialization is now a challenging and important field of historical research that uses grave stones, family plots and cemeteries as evidence of social history of women and children, and the meaning of death and ways in which rural and urban people of the past expressed their losses and grief. Statues in town squares, in battlefields, and in ports express the community’s past aspirations and values, some of which are not found in diaries, letters or government documents which others collaborate written and oral historical sources. Historical ecology, for example, created the need to know the history of flora and fauna of world regions, the origins of foods and plant life, and the changes in glacial soils, river basins, and sea coasts in order to understand more fully the lives and societies of peoples of the past, their settlement patterns, and confrontations over land and water with earlier peoples. Migration studies necessitated greater reliance on the medical science of pathology, methods of disease transmission, and DNA in the attempt to understand peoples’ migration paths, and diffusion theories of music, artifacts and art forms, technologies and metallurgy. Historians turned to dating periods of unwritten history by oral traditions that cited celestial phenomena such as the eclipses of the moon and sun, meteors, and the aurora borealis, or the mapping of millennial geological formations, landscapes and seascapes, and the formation of tectonic plates. Earthquakes, abnormal weather changes, and famines have become important benchmarks for devising chronologies when printed records are not available, or questionable for a variety of reasons.
Historians now rely increasingly on a third historical source of autobiographical memory of peoples and their eyewitness accounts of what they saw, remembered, reflected upon, and recited collectively with others. Oral history research began to be seriously utilized by social movement activists in the United States in the 1960s though its professional origins were from England and the European continent through the efforts of such public history historians as Paul Thompson. Professional historians were slow to accept oral history’s techniques and accomplishments until the 1970s when it began to be clear that African and then Asian historians had such successes with living memories as well as with oral traditions. The former served to present 20th-century African and Asian voices as their nations emerged from an era of elitist and racist colonial historiography while the latter oral traditions, handed down over for more than four hundred years, experienced a rebirth as an indispensable historical research tool in the hands of African and Asian historians. It is possible to say that due to the exemplary work by psychologists in the field of memory and cognition along with the continued popularity of oral history among activist and professional historians in South and Central America, Europe, Africa and parts of Asia including the Middle East, oral historiography and the tape/video/CD recorders have found firm place among historians worldwide. .
II. Oral and Social History
“From a distance, school children generally appear to be exuberant and optimistic. Reckless in their voices and absorbed in their songs, sports and field trips, the schoolyards of Jerusalem resemble so many the worlds over. Yet, it was in the schoolyards of Jerusalem that many Palestinians learned their “real life” lessons, and it is the memories of those school days that shaped the explanations of those lessons both within the schools and within the larger historical framework of that society. However ‘everyday’ or mundane those school day memories may seem, they inform us today about the historical process that shaped and continue to shape Palestinian lives, societies and aspirations. In addition to the archival records, memorabilia, coins, and monuments, researchers are turning to the human sources of history ‘harvesting’ the living memories of their land, culture, and societies; that is, the histories that remain beyond an official landscape, beyond the official records of the day, and the so-called creating of facts on the ground.”
Oral history is a social historians’ strategy to harvest the memories of the living autobiographical past and eye witnessed accounts through taped recitations. For the social scientist, the process is essentially a long interview of all that the interviewee can remember thus representing, more or less, an autobiography of the person’s major life events, or involvement in a key life event. This participant/observer role of the anthropologist or sociologist is well-established and practiced worldwide. The interview topics are woven into a background of supporting evidence for a broader contemporary discussion of the person’s society, life topics, or behavior patterns; all of which are part and parcel of social science research methodology.
In contrast, the historian, both professional and activist, views the oral history testimony by the oral history reciter as a living archive for use by others as well as by the historian. While following some of the interview techniques of the social scientist, the historian sets out to resolve a problem or an argument with a set of questions; that is to say, to establish and prove a thesis. The memory of a political demonstration, the destruction of a home or village, or a street clash with French or British troops is interesting in themselves, but the oral historian will be searching for patterns of demonstrations, destructions or street fights from the detailed remembered accounts in order to say something about the reasons for those events occurring at that time and in that place in the past. It also happens that in reading a chronicle or secondary source, or coming upon a monument or finding photographs of an event, the oral historian then seeks out oral history reciters who witnessed the event, and can explain what they saw and what they interpreted the event to mean for themselves at that time and place.
The collected recitations are then corroborated as historically accurate by other oral recitations as well as by material and written primary sources. Once finished with the tapes, both video and cassette, or CDs, the historian seeks out a depository for oral history and asks the oral history reciter for an “oral history release” thereby allowing the historian to use the oral sources for publication, and giving the historian permission to place the person’s history in that depository for public access and use. Oral history is then not only the autobiographical past of the reciter but also a living memory archive of an eyewitness to life events of themselves, of their families and of their communities. By definition, oral history, then, as practiced by the historians is a social history of people, of a community, and of the public places and events of the past.
There are some outstanding examples of how oral history is used to recover and reconstruct the past’s true stories. The most obvious example of oral history is the collecting of people’s memories of dramatic and well-known events, and the subsequent publication of the memories. Two such examples exist. The first is a two-staged oral history of the 1987-1990 Palestinian intifada collected by Adel Yahya and Mahmoud Ibrahim from participants in the Ramallah and Nablus regions. The former Bir Zeit University historians first interviewed the youth who were actively involved in the confrontations with the Israeli forces in the early stage of the intifada and then they conducted a second set of interviews several years later. The resulting publication was divided into four parts beginning with a chapter by Adel Yahya on the technique of oral history interviewing, then a chapter by Mahmoud Ibrahim on the significance of oral history as a research tool for historians particularly during the intifada followed by a chapter by Thomas Ricks on the theory and practice of oral history. The last chapter of the publication was a transcription of a number of the oral histories at both stages of the interview process.
A second example of published oral histories of well-known events involved two different published oral histories by Rawan and Dima Damen. Wishing to learn more about the lives of the Palestinian refugees before 1948, Rawan and Dima interviewed a large number of Palestinians in UNRWA camps in Jordan resulting in a publication entitled Atfal Filastin (Children of Palestine). They then followed up on that publication with a second oral history of refugees’ autobiographical childhood memories of the nakba itself. The second publication, like the first, is a summary of the oral testimonies of the Palestinian refugees in the Ramallah and Nablus regions, and is deeply moving in the recitation of the unfolding of events in the hours and days following their expulsions and subsequent banishment from their Palestinian homes and villages. These two energetic and highly resourceful Palestinian women were 12 and 14 years old when they conducted their first oral history project, and then 15 and 17 when they completed their second publication. As young researchers, they quickly learned both the methods and strategies of oral history research through their oral history work. More importantly, the Damen publications not only breath life into the stark statistics about Palestinian refugees in Palestine and Jordan but also discovered through their many interviews with the refugees the depth of the refugees’ painful memories and how much those recitations changed themselves and their own views of the past.
A third example of oral history practices in Palestine involved a collaboration between a local community institute (the Arab Educational Institute or AEI) in Bethlehem and the Bethlehem St. Joseph School for Girls (SJSG) in the midst of the Second Palestinian Intifada (September 2000 to the present) that resulted in three different publications. Coordinated by Toine van Teeffelen from AEI and Susan Atallah, an English 11th and 12th grade teacher at SJSG, the first publication of the “memory project” was a series of essays by teachers, principals, a university student and the staff of AEI in addition to diary entries of the 11th grade high school girls from SJSG about their memories and reflections on the street protests and battles with Israeli troops in the Bethlehem area. The second publication was an “oral history project” by the 11th grade high school girls of SJSG that involved collecting the memories about Palestine’s past from their parents and grandparents. One of the objectives was “to document real life experiences and personal stories from the different periods that Palestine was occupied, and compare that life with the present situation (2001-2002)” and thus “our main aim was to preserve our history.” The majority, it is said, enjoyed “being part of their grandparents’ past.” Finally, and in a sense the capstone project of SJSG and AEI was the publication of the Terra Sancta/St. Joseph School for Girls 11th grade girls’ diaries that they began to write from 2000 to 2004 while in Susan Atallah’s English classes. The project was created to help the “students gain a feeling of control and … to deal with personal insecurity and traumatic experiences in a constructive way”, to help “create a sense of identity and … meaning to an uncertain world,”, “to help building community and empower students in searching for shared solutions to their problems,” and finally to “encourage students to get a voice and to communicate the Palestinian experience to a broader public. In doing so, diaries help to challenge stereotypes about Palestinians.” The coup de grace of the three publications came in 2005 when twenty of the St. Joseph high school girls were invited to the annual international Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland to present a seven-act play based on their oral histories and personal diaries funded by the American Friends Field Service.
Written autobiographies of Palestine’s past substantiate the oral history testimonies of peoples and societies. While memoirs and written historical accounts based on oral recitations need to be used as carefully as oral histories themselves, such accounts nonetheless provide excellent corroborative evidence for the oral historian. Several of the better known autobiographies or memoirs on various aspects of 20th-century Palestine are in English and in Arabic usually available at bookstores in Arab capitals and abroad. Researched histories serve the same purposes when based on supporting oral histories of villages, towns, and national movements, such as the research of Susan Slyomovics on the Palestinian village of Ein Houd and the original village now occupied by Israelis and renamed Ein Hod, or Ellen Fleischmann’s researched history of Palestinian women and the British Mandate period using oral history narratives. Finally, contemporary Palestinian historical research is now being published that utilizes both research articles based on primary written sources and remembered history based on personal accounts within the same publication.
Memoirs or autobiographies are valuable historical sources for social history in other Middle Eastern societies in addition to Palestine including Egypt and Iran. Leila Ahmed’s autobiography focuses on the social history of herself, her family and Cairo from the 1940s to the 1970s while the memoir of Sattareh Farman Farmaian is the life story of her growing up as part of one of Iran’s elite families in 1930s to 1970s Tehran and the United States. Both memoirs are social histories of individuals and their immediate families. However, the details of towns, cities and villages as they change before their very eyes, and the shifting relationships between the authors and their immediate families, friends and professional colleagues during certain periods of intense political upheaval in contemporary Middle East evoke the “true stories” of an oral recitation. When complimented by interviews of the authors by the historical researcher and corroborated with additional memoirs, written and material sources, the history of women, village and town peoples, and social movements is enhanced and, as is usually the case, raises more questions than answers about 20th-century Middle East’s social past.
As historians, we live in an era of global change. It is appropriate then for us to see the value of oral and social historiography in our historical research work. It is also appropriate for us to view oral and social history as part of the new global history whose contributions and contributors worldwide continue to grow. The establishment of departments of “oral and social history” are needed in Arab universities more than ever before. In addition, an Arab Associations of Oral and Social Historians will go a long way to increase communication and shared experiences and expertise in a meaningful and consistent manner. As oral and social historians, our contributions to the Arab, Islamic and Middle Eastern past within the growing body of local, regional and global histories is not only pressing but also necessary. The voices from the Middle Eastern past and present need to be heard in all their oral, written and material forms. Careful documentation, vigorous research and argumentation, and close association with oral and social history colleagues in the region and beyond will solve many of the difficulties of historiography while illuminating the shadows and voicing the silences of the past.
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