the Oral History of Iran program Background

When we began the Oral History of Iran program of the Foundation for Iranian Studies in l981, the field of oral history was already a few decades old. But the Foundation's program was the first of its kind in Iranian studies--a path breaker in source material preparation for the study of Iranian history based on the remembrances of participants in or witnesses to events in Iran. We embarked on an ongoing, open-ended intellectual adventure. This catalog represents our achievements to date; it is a prologue to our future endeavors.

By 1981, Iran had undergone two decades of extraordinary growth and change, first within the framework of what was called the "White Revolution," followed by a radical transformation now known as the "Islamic Revolution." The second revolution resulted in mass migration of the nation's leaders, not only in politics and government, but also in business, finance, industry, education and the arts. It seemed to us at the Foundation for Iranian Studies a most important and challenging task to set about recording the memoirs of these participants in and witnesses to events of historical significance in Iran.

Interviews cover a wide range of issues. In certain cases, issues and topics of special interest have determined the choice of the interviewees: the revolution, Shah's military policy, SAVAK, the Rastakhiz Party, USIranian relations, the Confederation of Iranian Students, the women's movement, religious minorities, the Shiraz Art Festival and the like belong to this category. In other cases personalities have been the deciding factormen and women whose experiences have affected important aspects of contemporary Iranian history. Always, priority has been given to men and women whose experiences have not been previously recorded in books and articles or in other oral history programs. This rule, of course, has not been allowed to hamper recording important information or insight not previously recorded, even though the subject may have written books or given other interviews.

Production of oral history memoirs of value rests on a number of prerequisites. A primary requirement of good oral history production is a belief on the part of the program directors, the interviewers and interviewees that individual experience is inherently important. In societies where individual experience is valued only as it serves the collective, or where destiny or the will of some higher authority is held as the final arbiter of human existence, oral memoirs, if contemplated at all, are likely to be considered antisocial, if not subversive or heretical. These societies do not encourage individuals to record their experiences as an important contribution to the enrichment of their collective culture.

Another aspect of the social commitment to recording and preserving individual experience is the freedom of the interviewer and the interviewee to speak honestly and openly without fear of reprisal. Unfortunate as it may be, the only place where recollections of Iranians may be openly relayed and safely recorded for the sake of historical study is outside their own country. The memoirs recorded in this collection, therefore, are records of events, personalities, and developments in a wide variety of fields in twentieth-century Iran, seen from the vantage point of life in exile. "History," it is said, "is lived forwards but written in retrospect. We know the end before we consider the beginning, and we can never wholly recapture what it was to know the beginning only." In the case of those interviewed for the Oral History of Iran Program, knowing the end involves experiences of such intensity and feelings and emotions of such complexity that all recollections must somehow be colored by it.

The spontaneous and personal character of oral history allows this intensity to be captured in a way rarely achieved in other fields of social science. The Foundation's program has taken care to preserve it in the texture of what it has recorded and transcribed by remaining faithful to the oral quality of the interviews. On the other hand, it has also tried to achieve an objective balance by recording a wide variety of experience, testimony and opinion, as witnessed in the pages of this catalog. The transcripts prove fascinating reading. They are full of color, texture and the sort of anecdotes usually absent in articles and books. They provide information that often fills the gaps found in other scholarly endeavors. They also have their share of trivia. That is why the collection is particularly useful to students who are familiar with Iranian history.