3. What are some strengths and weaknesses of oral histories?
Many times, when I went to an interview with an idea of the kind of information that I wanted, the people I was interviewing took control of the interview. And what is interesting to emphasize is what it seems to tell about the person. What do they focus on? If you ask them a question that seems straightforward, what kind of tangents do they get off on? What does this tell us about what is important about their history to them? Particularly with oral history, you have to go into it with a much more open mind than we often are trained to do as formal historians.
This happened to me in almost every interview I did, and I did about 70 of them. I went into these interviews wanting to ask women about the organizations that made up the Palestinian womens movement during the British Mandate period, about leaders, activities, individuals. I would ask questions and the women would say something simple or dismissive or say, Well, I dont know that much about this, but when I was 16 . . . and then theyd launch into discussing other things. I thought I was going to write a book about the Palestinian womens movement. And I did. But I ended up writing a lot about womens education and womens lives and the status of young women of a certain class during the Mandate period.
And it was people like Mrs. Jarallah who contributed to constructing a picture of that time that I had not thought out myself. They tutored me indirectly about certain topics that meant things to them. And one of the big themes that emerged was education. These were women who were very proud of being educated. It was extremely significant to them in a way that I didnt immediately recognize.
Language is always an issue, because I interviewed people in both Arabic and English. In some cases, women liked to show off their English. In other cases then, you have the intermediary of translation. When people are speaking in the language theyre more comfortable in, theyll talk more fluidly.
When I first started interviewing, I used certain language that I had learned as a grad student in Arabic that people didnt use. For example, the word for mandate in Arabic is intidab. Id go in and say I wanted to talk about al intidab al britani, which is a British Mandate, and people would look at me as though I was speaking Japanese. They said things like When the English were here, or Under the English, taht al ingliz. One of my obstacles was to learn not to talk so formally.
Everybody who does oral history has these same kinds of sets of issues, and theyre not easily overcome. Womens hesitation, the issues of women not thinking of themselves as worthy narrators of history, the problem of concepts of history, (my concept, their concepts, mens concepts, womens concepts).