The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) in Beirut recently held its first annual history conference "The Role of Oral History: Concepts, Methods, and Research in the Arab World". The conference, held February 23-26, 2014 was the first of its kind in the region. In his opening address, Dr. Wajih Kawtharani, academic director of ACRPS’s Beirut branch, explained the importance of holding a conference on oral history, noting that the Center is trying to fill a gap in the Arab practice of history so as to give oral testimony the chance to become history. He expressed that the fire storm of events after the Tunisian Revolution has initiated a new historical epoch in the Arab world as a result of the effaced, suppressed, and silenced memories that will be revealed.

Oral History: Problems and Methods (2 sessions)

Sean Field opened the first session with a presentation of his paper, “Sympathy, Emotion and Disagreement: Oral History in South Africa”. He spoke about the role of oral history in the post-Apartheid period, drawing attention to the shortcomings of oral historians in transmitting events. He underlined the use of sympathy in documenting oral history, and called upon oral historians to facilitate the narrators’ efforts, translating their feelings and experiences of violence and oppression into memories. Next, May Seikaly’s paper “Expanding the Borders of History: From Narrative to Documentary History,” offered a look into oral history as a form of knowledge and as a stage for one’s conscience. She draws specific attention to discrepancies in Western archives regarding Palestine and the documentation of Palestinian history and the obliteration of information. She also uses oral documentation of women in the Gulf, using social status and social change to draw attention to women’s oral documentation, thereby making them an active and present part of society. Professor of Sociology and judge at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Ismail Laachar spoke on “Truth and Falsehood in Coerced Narratives,” and focused his presentation on the necessity of authenticating narratives, offering insights and suggestions for interviewers, as they do not inherently give equal weight to both parties. He dealt with asylum tribunals and the narratives they hear, and offered an explanation of how and why these interviews are unique.

Session two dealt with the problematic issues of oral history, and started with Abdullah Ibrahim’s paper, “Informers: Historians Just Like You and Me,” in which he offers a fresh perspective on the relationship between the informant and the informer in light of new developments in the knowledge of the historical report derived from linguistics, communications, and ethnography. He used examples from his experience recording the testimonies of the Kababish along the Nile in Sudan in the 1960s. Ibrahim Boutchich then delivered his paper, “Strong and Weak Points in Oral Testimonies: An Applied Study of Moroccan History 1973-2005,” noting this period has not been sufficiently studied because of a scarcity of documentation, some of which was destroyed. This highlights the importance of oral testimonies to speak about and supplement this period, information he obtained through testimonies from the Justice and Reconciliation Commission organized in Morocco after the liberalization that accompanied the new reign in 2004 and 2005, affirming that the testimonies reinforce written history giving voice to marginalized languages, such as Amazight and the colloquial language.

The second session concluded with Moroccan researcher Abdel Rahim al-Hasanawi’s discussion of his paper, “Oral and Recollected Sources and the Challenges of Writing the Contemporary History of Morocco”. He highlighted the role of oral testimonies when writing Morocco’s contemporary history as it is important for creating an oral archive of forgotten events and the collective memory and helping construct individual and collective tracks. He noted that the availability of these testimonies has helped fill in the gaps in Morocco’s history, particularly as they often address banned or taboo issues.

Experiences (2 sessions)

Linda Shopes began this session with her paper, “Six Decades of Oral History,” explaining the sanctioned methods in the US and pointing to the subjective and objective in oral historical work. She believes the achievements in oral history enabled the transition from the archive to the mainstream, public sphere, and stressed the importance of the narrative account, oral history, and human experience. She affirmed that narratives of daily life drive oral history, and criticized the dominance of theory as it detracts from the construction of collective and individual narratives. Following Shopes, Abbas al-Hajj al-Amin spoke about the “Oral Narrative between the Control of Academic Archives and the Freedom to Reveal the Suppressed”. He offered various definitions of oral history and initiatives, pointing out that historical accounts are predominate over their historical narratives. Next, Tony Atallah offered a reading of his paper, “Problematic Issues in Oral History and the Construction of Memory in Pluralistic Societies: The Lebanese Experience (1957-2013),” praising civil society institutions for making documentary films in this area. In his paper, he points to the fact that the gains and rights of the Lebanese people are at risk of collapse if they make do only with written history. 

Mohammad al-Saadi presented his paper, “Oral History and the Preservation of the Collective Memory: The Justice and Reconciliation Commission in Morocco”. In his paper, he focuses on the commonalities among women in offering their testimonies in Morocco, and suggests that even though the Commission felt the testimonies deposed were selective and emotional, they were a cathartic experience that resulted in a peaceful atmosphere. He notes how women were excluded, and explains that the overlap between an authoritarian regime and powers in society succeeded in covering up the plight of these women for years, ultimately causing women to be punished when they dared to speak out about their suffering. Following this, Laura Odasso presented Dr. Catherine Delacroix’s paper, “History of Moroccan Migrants to France,” pointing out her consideration that Moroccan migrants faced social and cultural challenges, uncertain futures, and racism. 

Mundhir Jaber spoke on, “The Boundaries of the True and the Fabricated in Interviews with Southern Lebanese Abroad and at Home,” and pointed out that this history remains absent because Lebanese society is the descendant of those rooted in and preserved among the oral stories passed down to the people through their family, tribe, or sect. He drew attention to the position of women in oral accounts, and the role they played during the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon, when women, rather than men, waited at the crossing-points of the occupation to deliver correspondence, contracts, money, and weapons to the resistance in the South.

Palestinian Oral History (3 sessions)

In the first session, British historian Rosemary Sayegh spoke of the production of Palestinian oral history from the 1948 Nakba until now, noting that the national leadership’s neglect of culture and history prompted the profuse recording of Palestinian oral history, which consolidated and strengthened the actions of the Palestinian resistance. She explained that efforts to document these narratives were confined to Palestinian research centers, which lacked funds and organization, community associations, and independent Palestinian personalities. Next, Abdel Rahim Ghanem presented his paper, “The Significance of Oral Accounts in the Documentation of the Forced Transfer of the Palestinians in 1948,” which deals with the villages near Tulkarem. In a brief presentation of his interviews, he refutes the Zionist claims that the Arab governments asked the inhabitants of villages adjacent to Jewish populated areas to leave their villages. He further notes that oral history in Palestine has greater credibility than written documents and military communiques of the Zionist gangs and the state of Israel as through Palestinian testimonies, he discovered dozens of massacres perpetrated by Zionist gangs and the Israeli Army. Lastly, Osama Mohammad Abu Nahl’s paper on the use of oral history in the writing of modern history was read since he was unable to attend from Gaza.

In the second session, Palestinian researcher Yasser Qaddoura offered a presentation of his paper, “Oral History and Genealogy to Preserve the Roots of the Palestinian Family,” stemming from the conviction that family history can form an entry point to achieve political and national goals, and affirm the Palestinian people’s right of return to their homeland. After Qaddoura, in his paper “Oral History and Compound Marginalization: Palestinian Peasant Women and the Narrative of the Nakba,” Palestinian researcher Yahya Abbad focused on marginalized groups for whom the Nakba was an event that led to social movement that helped to improve their material and social circumstances. In her paper, “Battles on Empty Stomachs in Palestinian Oral Accounts,” Palestinian researcher Duaa Ishtiyeh, considers the issue of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons. She views this issue as one of wide importance in Palestinian memory because of the major sacrifices these prisoners made in defense of their nation and people throughout their struggle with the occupying enemy.

In the third session, Palestinian academic Sari Hanafi spoke of the Palestinian refugees from Haifa and the 1948 war, noting an insistent desire in oral history to restore the past and the present for the sake of a future still to be born in the hopes of compensating for and remembering the past. Next to speak, Hasan Hussein Ayyash presented his paper, “The General Situation in the Village of Beit Nattif Before the Nakba on the Basis of Oral History,” exploring his concern to revive oral history among all nations. The narrators of these stories offer an undocumented history, and their disappearance threatens the sustainability of the historical legacy of these villages. Lastly, Sahira Baleibila spoke about her paper, “Walking through Walls: The Hidden War,” an Israeli practice during their invasion of the West Bank in 2002.

Narratives from Rural and Tribal Life

During this session, researchers dealt with accounts of rural and tribal life in the Arab world. Egyptian researcher Feisal Sayyid Taha Hafiz delivered his paper, “Aspects of Oman’s Lawati Tribe,” in which he presents their history, migrations and conditions, customs, and movements between Oman and India. Furthering this topic, British anthropologist Catherine Lang considered oral history narratives and the production of history in northern Syria from an ethnographic perspective. Syrian historian Abdullah Hanna spoke on his experience with oral narrative in writing the history of Syrian peasants in the twentieth century. He indicated the role of such narratives in clarifying written material and uncovering little-known events, as well as the suffering of peasant women and labor migration to the oil states, and the effects these events had on the economic, social and cultural structure of certain regions in Syria: the Euphrates Valley, Qalamoun, and Hauran.

Life Stories of Ordinary People and Women Activists (3 sessions)

Egyptian writer Mohammad Afifi delivered his paper, “Coptic Voices Before January 25,” and spoke about how the Copts had left the shelter of the church and taken shelter in the nation, and the appearance of new generations with different ideas. Fathi Laysir then spoke on “The Risks of Using Oral Sources in the Writing of The History of Contemporary Times”. According to Laysir, the value of oral history as a historical source is undeniable; in Tunisia, oral narratives take on even greater importance because of the difficulty in writing about the Tunisian revolution as the situation is in constant flux. Moroccan researcher Ezzeddine Guessous presented his paper “Unwritten Aspects of the Resistance Movement to French Colonialism in Morocco,” and suggested that tools used in Islamic historiography, such as those used for assessing the reliability of Hadith narrators, should be made use of when writing and recording history. Next, Mahmoud al-Dik offered a discussion of his paper, “Libyan Oral Historical Testimonies,” and the efforts made to record the history of those forced into exile from Libya by Italian colonialism.

Nader Sarraj talked about the role of oral accounts in constructing social reality. In his view, the recourse to oral sources and images is not enough to write an oral account. Doha Sameer Mustafa’s paper was a reading of the generational movement inside Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood following the January 25 Revolution. She focused on the presence of two discourses within the Brotherhood, and indicated the difficulties in studying the state of the movement at present. Lastly, Muammar Dahmani spoke of events during the Algerian Liberation Revolution recollected through the oral testimonies of inmates at the “General’s House” detention camp in Tlemcen in 1955.

In the third session, Egyptian writer Jihan Abu Zeid presented “Women between Two Evolutions: Stories of the Women of Tahrir”. She stated that she sought to give a picture of the role of Egyptian women in Tahrir Square, drawing attention to women’s challenge to their previous culture and their transformation into citizens who wished to build their nation. In her paper, “An Egyptian Biography and History,” Dalal al-Bazri points out that modernity was not a conception understood by those who had written their autobiographies and that the tools of social media were important material for the writing of autobiographies. Next, Qasem al-Hadek spoke on “Oral Poetry and Women’s Resistance in Morocco: The Battle of Bougafer”. He considered that these kinds of poetry were authentic and without artifice, and, therefore, remained in popular memory.

The Marginalized: Exclusion, Imprisonment and Migration (2 sessions)

In the day’s final session, Fadi Shaheen presented his paper, “Diglossia and the Relationship between the Oral and the Written in Arab Historical Writing,” and noted that the relationship between the written and the oral is a highly sensitive matter for Arabs. He affirmed that a narrator will only acquire credibility through linguistic knowledge not only because of the importance of language’s role in oral accounts, but also the range of different dialects. Al-Amin bin Mohammad Babah delivered “The Rejection of Texts and Sticking to Texts: Mauritania’s Struggle with Contradictions between the Written and the Oral”. He pointed to the existence of a conflict between social classes, as well as between written and spoken languages. He referred to these as a nationalist conflict, for Mauritania is a multi-ethnic country located on the dividing line between the culture of black Africa and Arab culture. Lastly, Abdel Hakim Abul Loz delivered his paper, “The Sociology of the Amazight Oral Religious Order.” He noted that the Order remained faithful to Islamic religious values, and pointed out the complexities involved in categorizing the Order, even though it formed the entry for women’s religious education.

In the second session, Hussein Ilyas spoke on his paper “Memories and Narratives of the Nation’s Past: Migrants from Kerala to the Gulf,” noting that the academic importance of testimonies of migrants from Kerala was that they could form an alternative version of history in the Gulf, particularly since these migrations coincided with the period of state formation in most regions of the Gulf. Mona Fayyad then presented her research, “The War from the Perspective of Jailed Adolescents: The World of Minors between Prison and Civil War,” in which she links psychology and history, and notes that historical knowledge lies in how we view the past. Tunisian Hedi Ghiloufi closed the first session with his paper, “The History of the Marginalized: Political Prisoners,” and pointed to the difficulty of obtaining testimonies from political prisoners. He mentioned that Tunisia lacks experience of oral history, though the recordings of resistance fighters exist within the confines of the national and government archive and have not been transcribed, and spoke briefly on the post-revolutionary period.

Atouf al-Kabir, an expert in the history and sociology of migration, opened the third session with his paper, “Recording the Oral History of Moroccan Migrants to France”. Al-Kabir believes that writing the history of the Arab-Islamic world, in general, is selective and focuses on the personalities that are deemed prominent, and ignores the history of the marginal. Preserving oral history, or “the history of those without history”. In his paper, “Memory and Illegal Migration: Oral Testimonies of Iraqi Migrants in Holland,” Hamid al-Hashimi, professor of social science at the International University in London, explained that his research is based on the recording and presentation of the testimonies and stories about the methods, stages, and high costs of clandestine migration. Lastly, Mohammad al-Maryami presented “The Oral Discourse of Religious Minorities and Co-existence in Ottoman Tunisia” offering an insight into the oral discourse of religious minorities about co-existence and the local history on the island of Djerba. He also criticized the selectivity of historians, in their belief that in oral history they are looking for a completion to written history and not something parallel to it.

Orality in Death Rituals and the Immortalization of Saints

Mahasin Abdel Jalil opened this session with her paper, “The Ritual Death of the Shilluk Reth: An Anthropological Approach to the Centrality and Continuity of Customs Related to Death in Sudanese Culture”. She pointed to the methodological transformations that started in Europe and the US with the Annals school and its influence on the African school in reading the course of history. She dealt with issues of terminological importance, as well as social and religious status, and noted the urgent need for state institutions capable of dealing with oral tradition. Shawki al-Duweihi delivered his paper, “Every Death is a Killing: Death Rituals in the Northern Maronite Countryside,” in which he deals with a number of points in an effort to critique and further understand traditions and transformations happening within these traditions. Saleh Alawani presented “The Biographies of Saints and Holy Men as a Source of Socio-cultural History in Rural Settings”. He noted that we are living in a time of accelerated history, and spoke about the professionalism of historians and the idea that memory is selective, provocative, and justificatory in how it stores information.

Closing Session: Narratives in Religious and Art Expressions

Wajih Kawtharani opened this final session, and pointed to the dramatization of historical events by Muslims and Arabs in the case of the Ashoura ceremony or among Sufis with their dramatic dance performance. In “The Dramatization of Oral Testimonies of the Marginalized: Memories of the Egyptian Revolution,” Mohammad Samir al-Khatib spoke about the dramatic treatment and performance of testimonies, noting that they were subject to dramatic traditions, and focused his attention on the interaction with the audience, official documentation of events, and giving visual form to the testimony. Hanan Suwaid then spoke on “The Hawza Song Tradition of Tlemcen and Historical Memory,” stating that Hawza music was the most widespread in western Algeria, but is rooted in Andalusia, having been passed down orally. She explained that cultural associations had contributed to its spread and continuation, while local and international festivals had played an important role in preserving it.