In September 2015, The Women Forum and Memory organized an international conference on “Oral History in Times of Change: Gender, Documentation and the Making of Archives,” in Cairo, Egypt. The conference was organized in co-operation with The Supreme Council for Culture in Cairo and UN Women. It was organized to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the establishment of Women Forum and Memory, which aims to produce alternative knowledge by constructing an archive of women’s voices.
The conference brought together scholars, researchers, students, artists, and practitioners to exchange views and experiences regarding the challenges of documenting oral histories in times of change. It focused on methodological and theoretical issues regarding the documentation of oral history and the creation of archives. The major questions that participants were urged to address included: What are the potential and limits of oral history projects in times of change? What are the challenges facing oral historians in such times? How can oral history empower women to become active participants in politics? What are the challenges posed by the digital revolution in the field of oral history? What are the challenges to the construction of a “representative” archive of voices in times of conflict?
The three-day conference started on September 13. Participants came from fourteen countries: Algeria, Canada, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Sudan, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.
The conference program consisted of eight panels, three keynote presentations, and two round tables. Other activities included the screening of two films, “Four Women of Egypt” and “In the Shadow of a Man,” and the Exhibit of the Private Papers of Wedad Mitiri (1927-2007), who was a prominent figure and unionist in the Egyptian national leftist movement. Recorded interviews with her were played while we walked through the exhibit.
I was invited to present a paper on “Oral History in Times of Conflict: Ethical and Methodological Issues.” My presentation was informed by my experience as senior researcher for TAARII’s Iraqi Oral History Project (IOHP), where more than 180 Iraqis living outside Iraq were interviewed. I explored the following questions, using examples from the oral histories we collected: Why do people remember what they remember? How does memory work? What challenges do oral historians face when documenting oral histories in times of conflict? How do the methods and ethics of documenting oral histories differ from other research methods and ethics?
Three additional panelists raised the challenges entailed in using oral histories. Sandra Hale, who has worked extensively in Sudan, questioned the application of “expert knowledge” as intervention in crisis. She raised three interesting questions: How can scholars interpret the various forms of knowledge produced by fact-finding missions, “truth” and reconciliation commissions, and witnessing and testimonies? How can we retrieve a form of knowledge from either the collective memory or individual memories to guide us in conflict resolution? Is indigenous knowledge/memory more valid than information produced by “experts” with its claim of “objectivity”? Nadje al-Ali from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), whose project documented the oral histories of Iraqi women, explored the issue of using oral histories when the prevailing narratives are politicized, contested, and linked to power struggles. Finally, Hessah Lootah, from United Arab Emirates University, talked about the challenges involved in “preserving” oral heritage, which entails reducing it and transferring it from an action-interaction space into one of “reading” and “classification.”
A number of presenters in other panels raised the issue of social media as a source of oral history. For instance, Randi Degulhem, from The Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (National Center for Scientific Research in France), researched two websites of Syrian activists (she calls them “amateur historians”) who collect short testimonies, video narratives, paper publications, graffiti, etc., and place them on the websites to document the history of the Syrian uprising. Nahawand Eissa, from the Lebanese University, shed light on the narratives of what she called “historian-citizens” who created new spaces made possible by recent advances in technology to document their memory without mediators. These presentations raise two related issues: how oral is an online text, and the relationship between orality and writing.
A number of presenters approached the multiple genres of oral history: popular working class songs, novels as depository of oral history, memoirs, testimonies, and drama as an archive of women’s experience.
The first round table, “Archives and Power,” focused on state control over the production of documents and archives, and raised two questions: If the state controls the production of documents, what about documents in the times of the Internet? And, how does state control limit/facilitate researchers’ access to an archive? The second round table, “Feminist Archives and the Production of Alternative Knowledge,” concerned three major questions: What is the nature of a “feminist archive”? What is alternative knowledge? What are the criteria for identifying knowledge as worthy of being preserved and documented?
The American University in Cairo has offered to publish a select number of conference papers in a special issue of Cairo Papers in Social Science (CPSS), a quarterly refereed monograph series, which has become a digital publication as of 2015.