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Oral History, Which Records Once-Silenced Voices, Gains Ground in the Arab World

Oral history, which is gradually taking hold as an academic discipline, captures potentially hidden corners of the historical record by listening to those whose voices might otherwise have been ignored.

“Oral history provides a big challenge to the people who are powerful, including historians, who think that they should get to decide whose stories are being told and what counts as evidence,” says Wesley Hogan, director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, in the United States, perhaps the best-established academic institute in the discipline.

In the Arab world, where official histories often reflect political viewpoints, oral history has taken on an increasingly important role, scholars say. Rosemary Sayigh, a retired faculty member at the American University of Beirut who has used oral history to record the stories of dispossessed Palestinians, says oral history has particular value in recording the status and experiences of women, agricultural and industrial workers, linguistic minorities, colonized societies, immigrants, refugees, and gypsies.

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“The most powerful thing oral history does is force the researcher to look the subject in the eye—forcing the historian to be an ethnographer, actually sitting face to face with the narrator, listening to their voice and sensing their emotions and body language,” says Hana Sleiman, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge and manager of a Palestinian Oral History Archive at the American University of Beirut. “It puts you in contact with the entire life narrative.”

The U.S.-based Oral History Association describes the field as gathering, preserving, and interpreting the narratives of people, communities, and participants in past events. The discipline is the oldest form of documenting history, dating back to times when sharing stories was the only form of creating a historical record. At the same time, it is one of the most modern means of documenting history, expanding with the use of tape recorders.

Oral history as an academic sub-discipline was first established in the mid-1960s. “For a long time in the 1940s and 1950s, there was just not enough access to equipment,” says Hogan, at Duke. “We did not have access to portable tape recorders until 1963.”

One of the earliest uses of oral history by scholars was at Spelman College, a historically black institution for women in Atlanta, Georgia. Academics would take portable tape recorders to civil-rights movement meetings in the mid-1960s to record discussions and interview participants. Despite the clear value of having such on-the-spot recordings, many historians at the time viewed them with suspicion.

“The most powerful thing oral history does is force the researcher to look the subject in the eye—forcing the historian to be an ethnographer, actually sitting face to face with the narrator, listening to their voice and sensing their emotions.”

Hana Sleiman
Manager of the Palestinian Oral History Archive at the American University of Beirut

“Even though historians started to use [portable tape recorders] in the early ’60s, most history departments only started to admit oral history as evidence in the late 1970s, so it took a very long time for historians to be willing to accept oral history as evidence, comparable to evidence material, such as journals or written documentation,” added Hogan.

Oral History and Palestinians

Perhaps the event that has been the most documented by oral historians in the Arab world is the Palestinian Nakba. The 1948 Palestinian exodus, also known as the Nakba, occurred when more than 700,000 Palestinians—which was then more than half of the Palestinian population—were displaced from their homeland by the creation of Israel.

Much of that work has been collected by the Palestinian Oral History Archive, launched in June at the American University of Beirut. The archive contains more than 1,000 hours of video and tape-recorded interviews with Palestinians, made available to the public through a digital archive. Some of the interviews are available on the Internet.

Sleiman, the archive manager, says it “offers a push back in the face of the destruction of the villages and the attempts at erasing the records, and captures an entirely different layer of history that is not captured by written archives, including the most intimate texture of human life.” The collection includes folktales, songs, and the stories of the Palestinian refugees who fled to Lebanon.

Even Palestinian national cultural institutions have been slow to record Nakba experiences, but individual scholars and activists have moved in to fill the gap, says Sayigh.

“History is often written by the victors, and the story of the Nakba has been presented through the accounts of the Zionists and the colonial regimes,” said Lena Jayyusi, a professor emeritus at Zayed University.

“The details of the massacres and how civilians were forced out of their homes [during the Nakba] are very important to understand what happened; a general idea is not enough to build a foundation for the continuity and the remembrance of a certain community,” added Jayyusi.

Jayyusi also said oral history was important to “reconstruct Palestinian life before the Nakba: the social life, the religious life, the relationships between the people.”

Rising Respect for Oral History

Technological advances in managing sound and video files have made oral historians’ lives easier lately and increased the power of the discipline. Scholars can now more easily archive and index sound and video files, search files for particular speakers, and label emotions, as pointed out on the Oral History and Technology website.

Also, the average citizen now has easy access to powerful oral-history tools. “In a world where many people have access to a smartphone and an app that can record, and where data storage is cheap, we have increasing access to creating oral history archives,” says Hogan. “The more information we have from everyday people, people who are on the margins, the more we can understand societies, especially the ones in rapid transition.”

Many resources on the web, such as the International Oral History Organization, are also increasingly providing instructions and encouraging people to start their own oral history projects, filling a gap because universities do not often offer such courses. Archiving social media history is an important complement to oral history, scholars say, especially in societies where governments might delete what is now online.

Oral History and Academia

Oral history, just like any other qualitative research methodology, must be conducted with a critical eye, scholars say. Much of oral history relies on memory and a lot of subjectivity comes into play.

“People’s ideas and perceptions are reflected in oral history, and researchers should be aware of that,” explained Jayyusi.

Jayyusi said that no methodology is straightforward and objective, and researchers must be critical even when dealing with numbers. Methodologies must be triangulated, compared, and assessed, before producing a final report.

If oral history catches on with younger scholars, who fan out and capture the stories of today’s refugees and others whose stories are not being chronicled well in official channels, those scholars will be creating an evidence-rich gift for future historians.


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