Opening to the Past: Oral History Becomes the Aural Record
by Patricia Allen '11 (M.A.)
If, according to the aphorism, all history is personal, Amber Abbas, Ph.D., was attracted to the discipline of oral history for her own reasons. “I’ve always been captivated by story,” says the assistant professor of history. “As I thought about research that interested me, I was drawn to the history of the Indian subcontinent because of my desire to better know my family’s experience there. Story seemed like the logical extension, and oral history the logical method.”
At its most basic, oral history is the process of ordinary people telling their stories to an interviewer, who records and transcribes their narratives, depositing them in a library or archive. With accounts of Greek historian Herodotus collecting the stories of survivors directly after the Battle of Thermopylae, circa 480 B.C.E., it’s an ages-old practice. As a contemporary practitioner, Abbas records her subject’s voices using digital technology, saving their voices and experiences in digital archives.
In Abbas’s upper-level spring seminar, titled Oral History, Migration and the Archive, undergraduates are learning the techniques and best practices of oral historians while they immerse themselves in the experiences of South Asian Americans. By interviewing members of the diaspora originally from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives, her students will gain experience in this burgeoning field, which Abbas feels is important for any budding historian.
“I hope my students experience oral history’s significance as a research method,” Abbas says, noting that their interviews will be collected in the online South Asian American Digital Archive (saadigitalarchive.org ), headquartered in Philadelphia.
While she was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin training as an oral historian, Abbas in 2005 started collecting her family’s memories of the Partition of India, which coincided with the end of the British occupation in August 1947. This led to the creation of the Union of India and the Dominion of Pakistan, which included East Pakistan. In 1971, East Pakistan fought for its independence from Pakistan and is now known as Bangladesh.
For many, especially those who feared violence and reprisals, Partition was a wrenching and dangerous process. It is known for creating one of history’s biggest migrations, when Muslims who lived in India fled to Pakistan and East Pakistan, and Hindus who lived in both wings of Pakistan left for India. In total, some 15 million people migrated. Roughly one million died trying.
“The Partition of India was a transformative and traumatic experience for many in the subcontinent,” says Abbas, whose family migrated to Pakistan from Aligarh, India, in 1947. “As my grandmother and the elders in my family aged, it became clear that their deaths would also mean the loss of their stories.”
Time was clearly of the essence. With one narrative leading to another, Abbas traveled first to Pakistan, then India, and finally Bangladesh, to interview more family members and other South Asians. Most of her subjects were students at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in the 1930s-40s. According to Abbas, AMU was a hub of pro-Pakistan activism, where students advocated and agitated for the change and votes that helped to bring about Partition.
As she met and interviewed former activists who were in their mid-70s and older, Abbas discovered that their experience was so harrowing, many had tried to put it in the past and move on. Abbas knew that her subjects’ reticence would, in a very real sense, be history’s loss, so she persevered, and in five years’ time, had collected the 70 interviews that became her dissertation. They now inform the book she is writing. When it is published, the interviews and their transcriptions will be archived in Pakistan with the Citizens Archive of Pakistan, and also at an archive in the United States.
Though Abbas interviewed people who were caught up in a time of great crisis, which is fodder for so much of the historical record, she says her work is as much about the specifics of her own project as it is about the bigger work of historical preservation.
“Oral history allows me to move away from stories about official policies and change, and move instead toward the stories of individual experience,” she says. “It provides a lens on why people act the way they do, how they experience the past, and what it means to them.”
History is personal, after all.