Syrian Oral History: Racing against time and war

Dimashq Blog | Fadi Esber

In the late 1960s the American University of Beirut launched the first project of its kind in the Middle East on Oral History. The pioneering endeavor continued up until the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in the mid-1970s, with only a handful of Lebanese and Syrian notables interviewed. It remains as the only institutional effort to delved into the oral history of Syria. The audio recordings were transcribed by the AUB’s Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies (CAMES), and both audio and written materials are available online. Of those interviewed was Aref al-Nakadi, a Syrian judge and leading linguistic and legal scholar. Nakadi was born in Lebanon in 1887 to a prominent Druze family. He was a member of the Arabic Language League in Damascus, a leading academic authority on the Arabic language composed of twenty members. Nakadi’s testimony as recorded by AUB includes a wealth of information on the development of both the judicial system in Syria and Lebanon, and the Arabic Language League. His comments on political life in the Levant in the early and mid-twentieth century also offer valuable insights.

AUB also interviewed Husni al-Barazi, a former prime minister of Syria. He was born in 1895 in the city of Hama into a prominent landowning family of Kurdish origin. He was educated in Istanbul and received a degree from the Istanbul School of Law. During the French Mandate of Syria, Al-Barazi joined the national opposition to French rule, but in 1926 he was arrested and exiled to Lebanon. Upon returning to Syria in 1928, Al-Barazi ran for parliamentary elections and was elected a Member of the Syrian Parliament. He was appointed Minister of Culture from 1934 till 1936, then Governor of Alexandretta (Iskandaroun) from 1936 to 1938, before France split the province from the Syrian motherland and handed it over to Kemalist Turkey. In April 1942, al-Barazi was appointed prime minister, but was removed from his position and isolated by the Free French authorities in January 1943, following which he again moved to Lebanon. Al-Barazi returned to Syria in 1946 and remained in his position as Member of Parliament during all the military coups that took place from the late 1940s until the mid-1950s. He went into final exile in 1954, when, while a trip to Turkey, he was accused of plotting and conspiring against Syria, and was sentenced to death in absentia. In the late 1960’s, al-Barazi was pardoned on account of his old age but never returned to Syria; he remained in exile between Lebanon and Turkey, where he died in 1975, the same year Nakadi passed away.

Listening to the oral testimony of Husni al-Barazi, one can’t help but detect flagrant self-aggrandizement on the one hand, and blatant false accusations levied at political opponents on the other (a problem not uncommon in written accounts too, especially in Syria). What should any historian working with such material do in this case? He or she would have two options. Either remain uninvolved and simply transcribe the testimony into a memoir, or fact-check the text and place it into its proper context(s) to produce a balanced objective biography of the subject. In case the subject of the study waived his right to the material, there would be little impediment to both options. However, if the interviewed is long gone, and had not given specific instructions on how his testimony should be handled by future scholars, this would present any historian with an ethical problem. Such a problem could, and should be avoided by having a clear methodology for recording oral testimonies set out by the institution conducting the project. If a historian is taking up the task on his own, he should make it very clear to the subject what he intends to do with the material. Preferably, and even though this way of conducting affairs is anathema to many Syrians, the historian (or research institution) should seek a signed agreement based on clear terms with the subject.

Another important factor to consider when recoding oral testimony is old age. Both Barazi and Nakadi were in their late 80s when they gave their testimonies, and we cannot ascertain the status of their memory and overall mental health at the time. Unlike documents, memoirs and other written material, the human brain, to put it crudely, has an expiry date, and it is therefore the duty of historians to seek out those willing to give a testimony about their life and work, and to record it before it is too late. However, and notwithstanding certain distortions, oral testimonies are a great resource for historians. If investigated thoroughly, contrasted with other testimonies, and placed within their historical, cultural, and socio-political contexts they are a necessary supplement to any research effort. This is especially true in the case of Syria, where most notable decision-makers, trend-setters, and witnesses to historical events have left no memoirs or personal accounts.

The third and final Syrian interviewed was prominent Damascene poet Nizar Kabbani, who was at the apex of his career at the time. This last account is perhaps one of the least complete ones, since Kabbani was in mid-career when he was interviewed, and unlike Nakadi and Barazi who were in their late 80s and reflecting on their entire lifetime, he would live another eventful three decades after the interview. This latter case highlights the many uses of oral history. It could function as a means to gather a biography on important people who failed or declined to write a memoir. Or, it could simply record the testimony of a key person at a certain historical juncture to supplement a specific research project. Kabbani’s testimony could not function as a memoir or be used as a biography of him, but it would be a necessary reference to any future discussions of his controversial life and literary work. Many Syrian and foreign historians have conducted such research-specific interviews with Syrian politicians and other witnesses to historical events to supplement their works. However, and unlike what we have with the AUB project, these interviews remain in the bibliographies of books, and are not gathered in one data-base for future use.

Oral history in Damascus, Syria, and the Middle East remains an untapped wealth, not only when it comes to politicians, intellectuals, and artists but also ordinary people in an area known for its longstanding oral tradition of passing culture, knowledge and wisdom from one generation to another, in addition to its rich and diverse religious, ethnic, and cultural composition. The AUB’s oral history project, small as it was, remains an inspiration for future projects, and for an expanded effort on preserving an important part of our national heritage and the testimonies of our city’s and our country’s leading women and men. The vicious ongoing war in Syria, and the widespread destruction of historical heritage and the displacement of millions from their homes, makes this endeavor even more urgent and necessary.


Fadi Esber is the editor of Dimashq Journal

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