In the absence of national museums or the other state institutions usually essential for the production of a national history (with all of their own problematic tendencies towards symbolic violence), Palestinians have had to memorialize and record the pivotal events of their recent history in other ways, among them oral history. Oral history is considered an unorthodox approach to historical research for several reasons; yet, its rewards are not to be minimized. Not only does it help to compensate for some of the gaps in Palestinian historiography that are the consequence of Palestinian statelessness, but scholarship that utilizes oral history methods or analyzes oral historical narratives also helps to create a view of the past that, in many ways, helps to forge a productive way forward, as well.
Historians long disdained oral history as a methodology of historical research. Oral history was deemed unreliable because people’s own telling of their pasts were assumed to be unreliable. Using the methods of oral history in Middle East history posed further obstacles. Even as historical research on the United States and Europe began to embrace oral history as a method, historical approaches to the Middle East continued to focus on political histories of elites, keeping oral history out of scholarship (Doumani 1992; Fleischmann 1996).
Anthropologists, whose methods and subjects of study are more open to oral historical approaches, have produced key works which feature oral histories (Sayigh 1979; Swedenburg 1995). Several recent studies show that oral histories can shed light on theoretical topics like memory, nation, and identity as well as on Palestinians’ collective past (Davis 2002; Khalili 2005; Slyomovics 1998).
A key insight of some of these works is that oral narratives have value not only when they accurately reflect past events, but also because they express something about the relationship between the past and the present. In this way, they are like other forms of historical sources, and thus not unusually unreliable. Just as archival material must be read with the conditions of its production in mind, and just as academic historical texts often reflect as much on the context in which they were written as they do on their historical subjects, so are individuals’ narratives of the past always told in relation to their contemporary setting. For example, Swedenburg, in writing about Palestinians’ memories of the 1936-1939 Revolt, analyzes how speakers related historical events to the first Intifada, the period during which he was conducting his research (Swedenburg 1995). This analysis helps to place oral narratives on the same epistemological level as other kinds of historical sources.
A corollary insight regarding the use of oral narratives is that because narratives are told in specific social circumstances, their narration follows the rules of those circumstances. This can be a guide to how we should use these oral narratives. For example, Rosemary Sayigh notes that “Women in Palestinian refugee camps have a rich stock of historical experience in the form of qussas (stories; singular qissa), transmitted mainly in women’s gatherings and family settings. Their stories are fragmentary and particularistic, limited to what the speaker has witnessed or heard directly, since veracity is essential to the qissa” (Sayigh 1998:42). When gathering narratives in these settings, Sayigh could be confident that they were truthful because the norms and rules of the genre do not permit imaginative fiction.
Having, then, addressed the presumed problem that oral history is not reliable, we can turn to a more interesting question of what oral history can especially contribute. Its benefits to scholarship on Palestinian society are at least two-fold: first, it allows us to include in the historical record neglected perspectives and voices; second, it helps us to analyze topics and forces generally obscured in other historical narratives.
First, oral history can encompass voices that usually do not make the pages of more traditional political histories. Oral histories assert the importance of women’s perspectives and experiences, which are so often excluded from archival sources like newspapers or economic statistics (Fleischmann 1996; Gorkin and Othman 1996; Sayigh 1988). Oral histories can include the viewpoints of the poor and refugees (Swedenberg 1995, Sayigh 1979, 1998). Oral narratives are also an effective way of studying political imprisonment, since access to prisons themselves is quite limited (Nashif 2004). Aside from prisoners, all of these groups tend to be marginalized in other forms of Palestinian historical writing. Thus, argues Sayigh, “The life stories of refugee women from low-income strata do not merely ‘reflect’ national history; they offer the materials for a more complete, more “real” national history – one not narrowly focused on men, political parties, and the national elite, but taking in women, home, families, non-elite classes, and varied diaspora locales” (Sayigh 1998:43).
Second, oral histories open up novel subjects of study, three of which I will note here. Oral histories tend to conceive of place in relation to experience, rather than in relation to national or colonial ideologies. While traditional histories often view empires or nation-states as the object of research, oral histories are often much more intimate, reflecting how people actually perceive of, interact, and shape the places where they live. Memorial books, a genre not unique to Palestinians but also found in the wake of other moments of violence and dispossession, often tell the history of a particular village, or even an individual house (Slyomovics 1998). These up-close perspectives may capture what is at stake when people are dispossessed of these places better than political narratives. These perspectives may also help us imagine non-exclusivist, but just, resolutions to problems of displacement.
Oral history often takes as its subject everyday life (Davis 2002). Narratives of economy, kinship, and movement that focus on everyday life can help to connect the past and the present in revealing ways. For example, forthcoming research by Adah Kay, Catherine Cook, and Adam Hanieh uses first person narratives of movement restrictions under military rule in the Galilee from 1948 to 1966 to provide a contextualization for movement restrictions in the Occupied Territories today. Especially given the dearth of research on military occupation of the Galilee, oral narratives help to connect Palestinians in the Galilee with those in the Occupied Territories, who often see their experiences as profoundly different.
Finally, oral history can help to capture resistant actions and viewpoints that otherwise go unnoticed. Swedenberg’s research on memories of the 1936-1939 Revolt includes not only narratives that reflect official and elite Palestinian nationalist accounts of the revolt, but also those that emphasize popular contributions to the revolt, and even those which are overtly critical of the national movement. These perspectives would otherwise go unnoted, leaving official narratives unchallenged. Even when those contributing to oral histories are not among the most disempowered, oral narratives highlight agency in unique ways. Rochelle Davis, in an article about education during the Mandate period that uses sources based on personal testimony, quotes a slogan used during protests against the Balfour declaration. She identifies the powerful qualities of these oral sources, brought back through the ages by way of an individual’s memory: “this chant reminds us of the specificity of individual memory and the contribution each person makes to creating the whole” (Davis 2003:12). She asserts that by using oral historical sources, “we can appreciate the role that personal testimony plays in undermining dominant narratives” (Davis 2003:12).
Oral history is a historical method which, when used thoughtfully, avoids essentialism, encourages critical thought about the relationship between the present and the past, and promotes a multiplicity of outlooks. By creating a view of the past that is more inclusive – of women, the poor, and those holding alternative perspectives on history – and by emphasizing specific places and individual voices, oral history can usher in a view of Palestinian society that shows the texture of the past and the stakes and potentials of the future.
Amahl Bishara is a professor of anthropology at Chicago University.
Davis, Rochelle, The Attar of History: Palestinian Narratives of Life before 1948, University of Michigan, 2002.
Commemorating Education: Recollections of the Arab College in Jerusalem, 1918-1948. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 23(1&2), 2003:3-17.
Doumani, Beshara, Rediscovering Ottoman Palestine: Writing Palestinians Into History. Journal of Palestine Studies 21(2), 1992:5-28.
Fleischmann, Ellen. Crossing the Boundaries of History: Exploring Oral History in Researching Palestinian Women in the Mandate Period. Women’s History Review 5(3), 1996:351-371.
Gorkin, Michael, and Rafiqa Othman. Three Mothers, Three Daughters: Palestinian Women’s Stories, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
Khalili, Laleh, Citzens of an Unborn Kingdom: Stateless Palestinian Refugees and Contentious Commemoration, Columbia University, 2005.
Nashif, Esmail, Identity, Community, and Text: The Production of Meaning Among Palestinian Political Captives, University of Texas, 2004.
Sayigh, Rosemary, Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries, A People’s History, London: Zed Press, 1979.
Palestinian Camp Women as Tellers of History. Journal of Palestine Studies 27(2), 1998:42-58.
Slyomovics, Susan, Object of Memory: Arab and Jew Narrate the Palestinian Village, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.
Swedenburg, Ted, Memories of Revolt: The 1936-1939 Rebellion and the Palestinian National Past, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.