Oral history emerging as alternative to traditional historiography

Deena Douara
5 Min Read

CAIRO: Historians and researchers must rely on government documents, elite culture and oppressors perspectives for the bulk of historical knowledge. Interest in subaltern studies, in the voices and cultures of those less heard, is growing, but the materials with which to amass such knowledge are sparse.

A relatively new documentation method called oral history is attempting to balance the bias in historical records, one life story at a time. The first of two workshops discussing uses and techniques of the emerging research method was hosted by The Economic and Business History Research Center (EBHRC) Sunday, at the American University in Cairo (AUC).

The process is akin to a recorded interview, but generally with fewer prompted questions and often with a broader purpose than an interview.

According to Project Officer Wael Ismail, oral history is currently being used for development, activism, research, museums, preservation of local cultures and as historical narratives.

Its proponents believe that the stories of ordinary people, whose experiences and perspectives of past and current events are rarely documented, are invaluable for later generations.

Perhaps due to the relative novelty of the technique, its processes and uses are flexible and were enthusiastically debated by attendees.

One of the concerns with oral history is its subjectivity: At the end of the day, we would construct different interpretations [of events], says the director of the EBHRC, AbdelAziz EzzelArab.

But personal experience of an event is history, says Project Officer Noha Roushdy. There is a tendency to trust written records, she continues, arguing that oral histories were no more flawed than other forms of primary sources on which we rely.

Subjectivity is its strength, not a drawback, agrees one attendee. It can reveal what someone wanted to do but couldn t do was one example she gave of the benefits of oral history.

Ismail further emphasizes that narratives are not necessarily used in isolation, but are counters to the rest of existing documentation, and are cross-referenced with other sources.

The way the hosts from EBHRC described oral history was as a craft, a process of trial and error, not a standardized technique. Some interviewers, for example, ask many guided questions, while others rarely interrupt. The interviewer must also be attuned to his or her own behavior: how questions are asked, showing agreement to relax the subject, avoiding judgment and respecting cultural norms.

It s a question of the interviewer s sensitivity, says EzzelArab.

EzzelArab also highlights the importance of timing with regard to when a subject is interviewed, especially within the EBHRC, where important figures are those being interviewed: Sometimes it s not useful to get someone in the limelight, he says, as self-censorship is more likely then.

The second stage for some oral historians is the laborious transcription process, which has its own set of issues and variations. The most intuitive method is transcribing verbatim what is recorded.

However, Ismail indicates that this was not always the most advantageous final result: sometimes colloquial Arabic is hard to understand . two weeks later I can t understand [what is written] because of its spontaneity. An alternative is to convert transcripts into classical Arabic, which raises concerns of authenticity of meaning.

Another issue with converting oral records into written ones is that nuances of pauses, punctuations and sarcasm are lost or interpreted.

Many of the attendees were from Cairo to Camps, who are hoping to use oral history with young Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, regarding both their experiences with the latest war, as well as their life experiences in general.

The EBHRC was created by EzzelArab, AUC associate professor of economics and the center s director, in 2004, to create and archive primary sources related to the social and economic history of business in Egypt and the Middle East. The center has compiled the oral histories of various prominent members of Egyptian society, such as Galal Amin, Aziz Sidqi, Mohammad Abdel Wahab, and Fouad Sultan. They plan to interview less prominent figures in addition to well known figures in the future.

Their second session will take place Oct. 15 at AUC, for those interested in learning about interviewing, documenting, or interpreting oral narratives.

Share This Article
Leave a comment