Oral tradition is deeply embedded in Arab culture. One need only look at al-Hakawati, performances by skilled storytellers that enrapture the mind and imagination. Knowledge and memory have been passed down orally from generation to generation in many Arab communities throughout history, giving Middle Eastern oral history different importance and imminence than Western or European academia because of a lack of written and archival records.
A new book hopes to add more to the understanding of this “new-old” science. Jordanian researcher Maher Kiwan’s “Oral History Industry: Voice of the Actors in Society” (Abdul Hameed Shoman Public Library) examines this growing subfield of historiology. Oral history encompasses various techniques used in the retrieval and archiving of testimonies from people who have direct knowledge and experience. The field focuses on contemporary processes so that the experiences of the recent past are collected and narrated from a modern perspective. “It is the product of a progressive movement that illuminates collective and individual memory and participates in the making of societies,” according to Kiwan, as cited by Al Arab newspaper. “Oral history can contribute to bridging a gap in the level of Arab historical practice, allowing oral testimony — a direct expression of memories that were not destined to move to the stage of writing — an opportunity to become history and turn them into archives and publications, providing… alternate channels that traditional records have fallen short of.”
This method of historiology has seen more use since the 1960s, owing to advances in technology. However, the medium struggles against traditionally written sources, considered “underestimated” and less credible. “We are simply not accustomed to thinking in terms of oral evidence… we are taught to rely primarily on the written record and to question the credibility of word-of-mouth evidence,” wrote Donald C. Swain in his 1965 critical essay “Problems for Practitioners of Oral History.”
At the time of Swain’s essay, the significant obstacles that oral history practitioners faced included the enormous cost of resources, factoring in equipment, time investment, travel, transcription, and editing costs. But today, the recording technology in cell phones and other electronic devices, advanced automated transcription services, and the popularization of video-friendly apps like TikTok and Twitter have trivialized most of these concerns.
According to Swain, personal interviews allow historians to access information that would otherwise be inaccessible in government classified written records because of rigid security classification systems. However, he acknowledges the concern that interviewees would be “inhibited and therefore less candid if they know their remarks will be preserved on tape.” Though Swain’s criticisms of oral history pertain specifically to American studies of the field, they ring exceedingly accurate in the Middle East. Arab oral historians face obstacles beyond the material cost. Navigating through censorship in Arab countries — where people have been or continue to be ‘silenced’ by authoritarian regimes — remains a challenge.
A major criticism of oral history remains the point concerning human failure and fluctuation in memory, a complaint that applies to all fields of history, which itself is “distorted,” claims Kiwan. But the field offers beneficial insight that written records lack, including “the possibility of, without guaranteeing success, of recapturing the mood and the spirit of men and their times,” in the words of Swain. It offers a method of preserving memory where other ways, like written documents, prove lackluster. “If the methods of documenting official history resort to documents and libraries, this is not actually enough to put fingers on all the facts. A specific history needed to engage in the actual stories circulated as oral historical stories of legacies, passed from grandparents to grandchildren,” according to the novelist Wadad Abu Shanab as cited by Al Arab.
Communities that have historically been (and are presently) victims of “memoricide” rely heavily on oral historians and their work to keep their stories alive. This is most urgently seen in the preservation of Palestinian memory and the stories of Nakba. “It was the stated belief of Zionist leaders that Palestinians expelled from Palestine in 1948 would forget their country within one or two generations,” wrote Rosemary Sayigh, a British-born journalist and scholar of Middle Eastern history, in her essay “Self-Recording of a National Disaster: Oral History and the Palestinian Nakba.” However, despite extensive efforts to stifle Palestinian memory, stories of expulsion have been passed on by village and family.
Sayigh has done extensive work in collecting and recording the voices of Palestinians. Her work includes the web-book “Voices,” an archival project sharing Palestinian experiences through recorded interviews. “Even if the Web-book “reader” does not understand the mainly Arabic narratives, the textual materials and translated opening of each interview, along with the performative cues in the accompanying audio, help deepen understanding of the narratives,” wrote Sherna Berger Gluck in her essay, “Oral History and al-Nakbah.”
History is written by the victors, as the saying goes. Relying solely on written testimonies and traditional historian techniques overlooks the voices of the marginalized. Sayigh maintains that oral historians open the pathway to new perspectives. “Oral history has particular value in recording the status and experiences of women, agricultural and industrial workers, linguistic minorities, colonized societies, immigrants, [and] refugees,” she said, as cited by Dana Abed in Al Fanar media.
Oral history unearths the stories of those whose voices would likely not have made it onto paper. It allows historians to glimpse into historical events through intimate human experiences. In the words of Maher Kiwan as cited in Al Arab, “We must proceed from the fact that the actors in history are the members of societies from all across the globe, and they all make history, every day, and it is built from the bottom up and not the other way around.” His new book will hopefully illuminate the importance of this branch of historiology as a vital record of history, especially in the Arab world.
Copyright © 2022 by Al Jadid