The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded $260,000 to the American University of Beirut for the Palestinian Oral History Archive (POHA) project. The project is a partnership between two entities at the American University of Beirut (AUB), the University Libraries and the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI), as well as two external partners located in Lebanon, the Arab Resource Center for Popular Arts (AL-JANA) and the Nakba Archive (NA).
Under the NEH grant, the project will produce an online searchable digital platform featuring over 800 testimonies by first-generation Palestinians in Lebanon, hailing from over 150 uprooted communities in Palestine. POHA, which will be housed at the University Libraries of AUB, will digitize, index, catalog, preserve and make accessible over 1,000 hours of recorded audio and video material in the hope of stimulating research on and engagement in oral history, the experience of Palestinian refugees, and the modern history of the Middle East.
The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is an independent US federal agency created in 1965. It is one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the country but competition for its grants is fierce. "This is an important project that will preserve and organize the oral history of a crucial epoch in the history of Palestine and the Middle East. It is particularly significant given the paucity of archival sources that record these events from the perspective of those who were most affected by them, the Palestinian people," said Dr. Rashid Khalidi, member of the Palestinian Oral History Archive Board and Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University.
AUB President, Dr. Fadlo R. Khuri, congratulated AUB and the team working on the project. “Heartfelt congratulations to all for this wonderful achievement. This brings great honor and credit to everyone working on this successful and transformative project and to AUB. It is a most impressive and meaningful accomplishment," he said.
Oral history interviews with first-generation Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were independently conducted and collected over longer than a decade by the Arab Resource Center for Popular Arts (AL-JANA), the Nakba Archive (NA), collection owners, and project partners. The interviews were digitized and the audio and video materials are now entrusted to be housed at the AUB University Libraries, who along with IFI have taken the responsibility to index, catalogue and preserve the collection as the custodians of the archive.
The collections constitute rich thematic and interdisciplinary material: They bear first-hand witness to the events of 1948, to life in pre-1948 Palestine, to the experience of the Palestinian refugees’ flight and exile, as well as to life in the refugee camps and the deep socio-political context in which the camps and the experience of being a Palestinian refugee are enmeshed. The archive will be of interest to scholars, educators, historians, geographers, social scientists, artists, politicians, UN officials, policy makers, as well community organizations from around the world and across a variety of disciplines, backgrounds and outlooks (academic and grassroots organizations). The archive is also expected to stimulate scholarly research on the experience of Palestinian refugees, as well as the history of Palestine and the modern Middle East.
The Palestinian Oral History Archive (POHA) project
The testimonies of Palestinians in pre-1948 Palestine – their journey into exile and their experience of refuge in Lebanon – fill a critical gap in the historical record pertaining to the experience of Palestinian refugees. Official records are scarce and dispersed over a multitude of often inaccessible state archives. As a result, oral testimony has become the primary means by which Palestinian communities in exile have narrated their experiences.
By allowing access to primary oral history resources, and through a scrutiny of the construction of the project including the methods, standards, conceptual parameters, and guidelines that the project set up for itself, the project expands the realm of authority in building local and official histories, helping to validate oral history as one medium through which communities re-inscribe their place in the world of historical sources.
The archive’s long-term objective encompasses an expansion plan that aims to engage with and feed into scholarly research about Palestinian history, the Palestinian question, and Middle Eastern studies in general. In this way, it eventually becomes a leading repository of, as well as a teaching and modeling hub for bilingual oral history projects in the region.
The archive is intended as an active resource rather than a mere passive repository. The Palestinian Oral History Archive project aims to serve as a platform for establishing links with other oral history initiatives worldwide, as well as with local and regional grade schools, NGOs, and cultural and educational institutions. It aims to integrate its archive into research, curriculum development, public policy reports, and other publications. It particularly seeks to present itself as a learning and teaching module, whereby expertise gained through the planning and execution of the project can then be transferred to potential interested parties. The project team will work on developing manuals, subject and word lists, village names, and user guides to be posted on its website in due time. The guides, manuals, resources and teaching material will be tailored to the needs of the medium at hand (oral interviews); the subject (local histories of exile and of being a refugee), and the language used (both Arabic and English).
To further build on these strengths and vision, the project seeks to invite in the near future visiting scholars and artists to engage with and tap into the archive in the hope of producing meaningful work and to engage with the public, as well as the artistic and scholarly communities. The project also seeks to organize discussion forums, talks, exhibitions and scholarly workshops around the archive. The POHA team is already in discussions with members of the relevant communities to consider possibilities and proposals around potential related activities. These activities include planned interventions covering the role of Palestinian oral history in enriching the historiography of 20th century Middle Eastern history, looking at changing gender roles, perceptions, and expectations specifically through the lens of how the roles of women have changed in light of the new social realities faced by Palestinian refugees post 1948. Other activities cover issues of refugee public health, a few digital humanities projects pertaining to spatio-temporal mapping, data visualization, data mining, and statistical charting of the archive.
The POHA project envisions a potential expansion to include additional Palestinian oral history collections that currently exist in the region, in Lebanon, and the Arab world. This is an initiative that responds to the need to access and preserve the local oral history heritage of the region, currently scattered through access points that are hard to reach and for which no real long term comprehensive preservation plan currently exists.