4. What factors shape an oral history interview?
Being a younger woman talking to older women, too, I ended up being perhaps overly deferential and allowing them to control the interviews. When youre dealing with human sources, human beings, and human interactions, I think its very difficult to make it a science. You cant anticipate what its going to be likefacial expressions, chemistry with people.
In my case, it was very important to interview women without men where possible. You frequently would have men censoring the women or trying to take control of the interview.
There are subjects they would discuss with a Palestinian woman that they wouldnt discuss with me, and I think subjects they would avoid with a Palestinian woman that they talked to me more about. In some respects, politically, they were freer to talk to me. When it came to issues that they didnt want to show to the outside world, there were certain issues they might have avoided.
Talking about sexuality isnt as big a deal as one might imagine, particularly for older women who are poor or peasant women. They have a much more practical sense of birth, death, sexuality. The identity of the interviewer, as long as its a woman, may not be such an issue.
In the rural areas, people would talk about stories that they had heard. Specifics are not known, things are not written down. Its more a part of collective memory. So that I had different responses according to who I was interviewing.
Sometimes there was an avoidance of questions. There was one issue which was a bit sensitive. In the Mandate period in Palestine, there was incredible tension between two factions associated with two major notable families in Palestine, the Hussani family and the Nashashibi family. It was indirectly responsible for why the Palestinian Nationalist movement was not strong enough to meet confrontations against the Zionist movement.
And the womens movement started out as one womens organization. In the 1930s, it split into two factions. It was not as contentious and not as tense as it was in the male-led nationalist movement. And yet women tried to avoid discussing it, partially, I think, because they wanted to project unity from this period. People outright denied that this existed or talked about it in a way which was very sensitive.
On other levels, the older Palestinians were eager to talk about the past. When we got talking about the late 1940s, people broke down. And in one case, a woman was so upset about what happened to the Palestinians in 1948 that she wouldnt talk at all. Some people would refuse to talk just out of sadness. It had nothing to do with me personally. These were obstacles.
The time I interviewed was before the Oslo Accords. The Israelis militarily occupied the West Bank and people were fearful of a strange person asking questions. It didnt prove to be a major obstacle because I had lived in Palestine before. I spoke Arabic. I had friends accompany me. And I started cultivating a network. It wasnt too difficult because I was talking about events that happened, at that time, 60 or 50 years earlier.
One quote I got frequently is, Why are you talking to women? They didnt do anything. Talk to the men. People tried to steer me toward men. When I wanted to talk to ordinary people, they often tried to steer me toward people who were well known, who were in the contemporary political scene and had nothing to do with my topic.