Lessons’ Learned from PalestineRemembered.com’s Oral History Experience
Since PalestineRemembered.com’s* inception in 2000 - the largest online community for Palestinian refugees on the internet - we have been looking for documented resources for Palestinian history & culture, especially for events pertaining to Nakba, but very little was found or available. Consequently, it became apparently clear that oral history is the only tool left to solve this problem. We also recognized that we should react quickly, otherwise, it could be too late since our refugee population, especially those who survived the Nakba, are aging quickly, and their memory could be lost forever.
As a result, in 2003 PalestineRemembered.com initiated al-Nakba Oral History project in Jordan, where the largest refugee community currently lives. Since then we have recorded over 230 interviews with refugees who survived the Nakba, containing over 750 hours of recording (all can be viewed or heard on the internet), which cover over 140 ethnically cleansed and destroyed Palestinian towns.
In this article, we would like to share with you our experience in the field of oral history -hopefully other oral historians will find it beneficial. From the beginning, we have faced many problems, but the key to our success has been persistence and perseverance. As the project evolved, we made great efforts to document our findings and experiences in two booklets, which can be easily downloaded from our website. The first booklet contains training material and the second is a complete set of questions (over 150). We would like to summarize the major lessons learned as follows:
1. From the start, we found that very little experience from this field has been published, so there was very little we could base our work on. Consequently, we had to develop a new process from the ground up, such as a training manual, questions, management structure, reporting structure, technologies, publishing, ...etc.
2. Because we are a USA based website, it has been very hard to find the right personnel in Jordan to conduct the interviews and to manage the project. Consequently, that increased cost of management.
3. Although Jordan has the largest refugee community, most of them aren’t clustered together, but are mostly dispersed in and around Amman, Irbid, Jordan Valley, and Zarqa. Consequently, that increased transportation costs and completion time for each interview.
4. Scouting for qualified candidates has been a constant battle; it has been very hard to find qualified candidates especially when they live all over the place. What makes this process even more challenging (especially in Jordan) is the absence of any grassroots organizations.
5. Since PalestineRemembered.com is a privately run, managed, and funded website, funding has been a struggle from the start. The website and the project are being funded mostly from a private fund, and if it was not for lack of funds, we would have already expanded the project to Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza.
6. Early on we struggled to find the right mix of technologies that is cost effective, easy to use and publish on the internet. Now we use digital camera with no tapes involved.
7. Based on our experience, we found that preparing refugees for the interviews is critical. Although the preparation process is costly and time consuming, we found that such preparation visits help in put the refugees at ease, help them to open up more, dissipates a lot of their fears, and make them receptive to answering questions.
8. Before each interview, we mandated that interviewers should research the refugee’s town. Such a research isn’t only helpful during the interview, but it also helps in gaining the refugees’ trust. We also coupled this step by showing the refugee’s town at the website including all available pictures.
9. Early on in the process, we make sure that refugees know we are not profiting whatsoever from the interviews, and their interview will be available online within a short time. We also found another important hidden advantage in this step; by telling the refugees that their interviews will be available online, it decreases the likelihood of exaggeration, and encourages a respect to others in the narrative.
10. At the end of each interview, we share a copy of the interview with each refugee. We make sure that they know this before the interview, which also increases their level of confidence and trust.
11. The questions are divided into two parts. The first part attempts to paint of picture for the village or city before the Nakba, and the second part attempts to paint a picture of events before and after the Nakba. We found out that the second part is more complex and dynamic than the first, and usually requires lots of efforts and skills by the interviewers. It might be because of refugees’ old age or because of memory loss, but we found lots of refugees mix timing, places, directions, and sequence of events. Although many refugees like to talk about their experiences, we found that events leading to the Nakba are intentionally being skipped for certain unknown reasons! To solve this problem, we have devised a special set of questions to refresh their memory by intentionally slowing them down - we call these questions breaks. These questions are being asked purposely not to collect information, but rather to refresh refugees’ memory, such as: what were you wearing when you left your home? Who was with you? What time of the day was it? Did you have any cars? ...etc. When the refugees are slowed down, we found that hidden important events comes to the surface all of a sudden. For this reason interviewers have to be extremely alert for follow up questions. Consequently, sometimes we require the presence of another interviewer (especially when budget allows) to help in directing the interview. Regardless of the interviewer’s skill and experience, we found that the quality of the interviews usually increases when a director is present.
12. After each interview, the management in the US and in Jordan evaluate each interview. Sometimes the interviewer fails to ask certain important follow up questions pertaining to special event (such as experience as a prisoner of war, visiting their town post-Nakba, ...etc.), and we ask for a follow up visit to clarify or shed more light on certain event. We believe that is an important step in the process since it improves the overall quality.
13. From our experience, we found that conducting two to three interviews per village, and up to five interviews for the cities is more than adequate. Usually after conducting two interviews per village, the third interview repeats 90% of what is in the previous two, and they mostly differ with events pertaining to leaving the town. Otherwise, almost everything else is similar.
14. We found that many refugees mix right of return with their right of self-determination. Also we found that the mass majority of refugees equates compensation with selling land or dishonoring Palestine. We spend considerable time educating the refugees that right of self-determination should not precondition their return, and most importantly returning goes hand in hand with compensation for suffering, and destruction of lives and properties.
We cannot think of any other project more important than the al-Nakba Oral History to work on. We call on all organizations, activists, and individuals to collaborate and share their findings so we all can learn from each other’s experience, and to keep duplication of efforts and resources at minimum. In that regard, we hope that activists in this field share information about the towns which they have researched share sample interviews so others may benefit from their experiences. This is the only way for other activists in this field to concentrate their resources to cover towns that have not yet been covered. We hope this article, along other publications on this subject, will bring much needed attention to this subject. In that regard, we are very thankful for Badil Center’s effort in raising awareness on this important subject.
Our DATE is 58 years LATE, inshallah we shall return.
* PalestineRemembered.com is a non-profit website based in the USA. Currently, it’s the largest online community for Palestinian refugees on the internet (with over 12,000 registered members). This article is also available on the PalestineRemembered.com website.