What could Oral History possibly offer to navigate contested history?
This guide was created in Lebanon, during an era defined as post-war, but that is not post-violence. The political, cultural and social systems, and the structures and relationships that fueled the war are still present and often erupt into new forms of violence. This situation is not unique to Lebanon, as it exists in many post-war contexts, and is compounded by the presence of competing versions of what happened in the past in public discourse.
As such, these contested histories are easily weaponized for political gain, single or one-sided narratives used to justify ideological stances and political actions, perpetuating continuous cycles of violence and deepening divides. It is in this context, where the past is so present, that ironically, history is unattainable and where oral history is seen as a tangible way to reach the past. In Lebanon, the collection of oral testimonials among activists in their work on dealing with the past is widespread; yet these collections are often limited to a specific project or outcome, and are not interconnected with other projects, activists, or researchers. The hope is that this guide can serve as a platform and a resource for Oral History, to foster awareness of and networks between people and projects using Oral History in their work.
As a field of study and a research practice, Oral History is a record of the past and its subsequent interpretation, preservation, and dissemination. Instead of focusing on history as a binary representation of what is true or false, Oral History gathers an array of diverse experiences, memories, and perspectives. In conducting interviews with people about their memory and experience of past events, Oral History sheds light on how people lived the past, how they remember it, and what it means to them in the present.
In so doing, Oral History allows for multiperspectivity in accounts that might not be in line with one side of the story or the other, shunning ethnocentric and single narratives, to present a much more complex and comprehensive understanding of the past through the voices of ordinary people, those who make up the majority of society.
At its core, contested history is fraught with tension between facts and perspectives, between memory and interpretation, and between the past and the present. Instead of focusing on building a narrative of what happened, the transformative power of Oral History can possibly relieve these tensions by allowing us to explore what is contested, what is asymmetrical and unequal, and most importantly, why this is the case,
This may offer a deeper understanding of each other and of the stories that guide us, across generations, communities, and geographies. It is in this light that Oral History can play a significant role in dealing with the past and support efforts towards conflict transformation.