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									The Place of Oral History in
Writing British Asian Cities
       by Irna Qureshi
           March 08
              How I use oral history in my work

   Freelance researcher and writer specialising in issues relating to Britain‟s Asian communities

   Most of my work is in the arts, media and heritage sectors – curated a number of exhibitions using oral
   People don‟t like to use the term “oral historian”. I‟ve been referred to as a reminiscence workshop leader,
    autobiographical storyteller, anthropologist, lady with the microphone, and most recently memoir artist

   In this presentation, want to explore who‟s doing British Asian oral history, why and in what
   Based on my own observations, going to make a number of arguments as to why there isn‟t more British
    Asian oral history
   Will refer to examples of oral histories we‟ve heard about at the different city events

                                                                                                          Irna Qureshi   1
    Impact of funding on DIRECTION of oral history

First look at Heritage Lottery Fund – main funder of oral history projects – funded majority of projects I‟ll be referring to

Want to argue Heritage Lottery‟s funding strategy has steered the way people do oral history
Kept it at community level and stopped it from being mainstreamed

Useful to understand what‟s involved in application process - determines project outcomes

   HLF‟s “community cohesion agenda”

   Must show evidence of demand from within the community
   Such as letters of support from potential interviewees and audience

   Must make „in kind‟ contribution, i.e. volunteer time
   Only those passionate about the project or with an interest in that specific community are likely to volunteer

   Want budget for number of recordings you plan, so need idea of how many interviews when applying
   Suggests focus on quantity, not quality – what/who gets recorded seems irrelevant
   Focus is on making collection accessible, rather than improving intellectual content

   I feel this marginalises the project‟s appeal – the oral history ends up being produced by the community for the community

                                                                                                                        Irna Qureshi   2
     Halfie dilemma leads to sanitised accounts
Next – argue that Abu-Lughod’s HALFIE dilemma leads to pressure to offer a good representation of one’s community

   Most prefaces to oral history literature emphasise that key to project’s success is that it is led by someone from within
    the community
         Interviewer spoke mother tongue, same ethnicity, able to gain trust more quickly, had her own contacts + good
         Also several disadvantages

   The interviewer has a sense of accountability to his community
        “Speaking from” community means pressure to make them look good, especially if your community has been subject
         to negative attention
        If your starting point is invisibility, surely you only want to make the positive elements visible
        In this, there‟s a danger that project becomes source of pride for the community – an advocacy document rather than
         an honest and balanced reflection of that community
        Also pressure to interview the firsts, the pioneers, those that have made remarkable contribution
             i.e. “The project successfully met its aims of gaining recognition for the pioneers from younger generations of
                British Asians and encouraging the wider South Asian community to value its cultural heritage. “ (extract from
                an oral history archive,

   This has also been my experience during fieldwork in Pakistan, for an exhibition that was going to be shown in Britain
   Repeatedly told, “we don‟t need our own to be presenting our warts” and asked “are you making us look good”?
   Reliant on family contacts in some areas – censored where I could and couldn‟t go
   Didn‟t want to take me to what they deemed to be “poor areas”, and they didn‟t want me to photographing women with
    pots on their heads, but they were keen to introduce me to the first female Pakistani commercial pilot

   Also, if the ones doing the oral history are the gatekeepers, there‟s a danger they could produce more sanitised “food and
    festival” accounts, as were discussed at the Leicester meeting                                                         Irna Qureshi 3
           Oral history doesn’t take itself seriously
 I found myself asking, is the lack of Asian oral history related to what mainstream history thinks of it?
 OR is it to do with what oral history thinks of itself?
 I want to argue that perhaps British Asian oral history doesn‟t take itself seriously

Marginalised on so many levels
 Double or even triple whammy – idea of a “community project” – not only local history, but minority history
 Can reinforce existing power structure – for instance if life histories of those that occupy privileged positions within the
  community end up dominating the collection
 Sometimes regarded as a bit of an ego boost for a particular community group - evoke sense of community spirit
 Text sometimes bilingual, suggesting its for consumption of own community
 If giving voice to people hidden from history, then need to have somebody INTERESTED in THEIR past for the
  project to happen

 Oral history has never regarded itself as part of the mainstream narrative
 I sense an apologetic tone – a reminder that this oral history project is supplementing history, not trying to compete
  with it
 For instance, always include a disclaimer in the preface - “not exhaustive”, or “limited first effort”, or

                                                                                                                       Irna Qureshi   4
          It does exist, we just don’t know about it!
Want to argue British Asian oral history IS happening. We’re just not hearing about this work!
  Projects often adopt a community publishing approach or limited to display in community centre or place of worship –
   low budget, no fanfare, little thought given to audience‟s needs
  Literature is sold through community outlets, no marketing budget or expertise, work not being reviewed or talked
   about like a new Visram or Ansari book, so “outsiders” don‟t get to hear about them

Impact of Digital Age – positive role
  Lots of oral history archive websites now springing up
  Frees up manpower, no storage costs, readily accessible - means they can be “open all hours
  Presenting oral histories online can make them more relevant and accessible to more audiences, especially young people
   - the techno savvy generation
   At Birmingham event, had a speaker from Connecting Histories project
   Project highlights histories of Birmingham's different communities (not just South Asian) – wants to encourage debates
    about multiples heritages and shared identities
   More than just an archive consisting of pictures, documents, text – set itself up like a community service online. Doesn‟t
    just tell you what‟s in the collection, but how best to use it – so offers free downloadable guides and worksheets based on
    recent research
   Offers good partnership model – Birmingham City Archives, Uni of Birmingham, Uni of Warwick, plus community
    groups – input from these different levels has made material and website feel professional, academic and serious
   Website looks very sleek and the speaker left a pile of publicity leaflets and postcards featuring funky ethnic pictures
    with website address prominently displayed – made the project stand out, made me take notice

                                                                                                                    Irna Qureshi   5
           It does exist, we just don’t know about it!
  At Manchester event, Anandi Ramamurthy talked about a Uni of Central Lancashire project – a self contained project
   rather than an archive
  Archives visual and ephemeral culture of South Asian struggle in Britain for social, cultural and political rights
  I was particularly fascinated by material on Asian Youth Movements of 1970s and 80s
  Informative slides, oral history text and best of all – video clips of the interviews with those involved – don‟t just get the
   information, but hear the broad Bradford accents and see their expressions as they describe their involvement in these
   events – their fears about the National Front, being questioned by the police, and becoming politicised and organised
  Impressive website – excellent content, empowering, entertaining, and yet it looks like a low budget oral history

   Shame they couldn‟t afford to have publicity leaflets and postcards or a slicker website to appeal to the British Asian
    youth of today
   Otherwise who knows this material is out there?
   My point is that it‟s not enough that this material exists. We need to know about it to be able to use it!

                                                                                                                       Irna Qureshi   6
          Need to make oral history more visible
Want to tell you about the first oral history project I was involved in 15 years ago – and lessons I learnt about

   I worked with photographer Tim Smith on an exhibition, produced by Bradford Heritage Recording Unit
   At the time there was material available on migrant communities, but we wanted to produce an easily readable
    summation of who had come, when they‟d come, where they‟d come from, why they‟d come, & how they‟d got

   Archive already existed with over 100 interviews done among Asians during 1984 to 1990. I sifted through this
    material and filled in gaps with more interviews – youth, women, some pioneers

   We wanted to use oral history extracts and Tim‟s contemporary photographs as well as archive photographs to
    produce a specific narrative – the story of the development of South Asians in Bradford – called Here to Stay

   Our backgrounds made it fruitful collaboration
      Tim photojournalist, regularly commissioned by national dailies to photograph various conflicts in Bradford
      I was TV researcher used to confronting difficult issues within my community
      Had broader sense of the impact of Bradford‟s changing multicultural fabric
      So if anything, we wanted to ensure we presented a balanced picture so that it wouldn‟t all be conflict and


                                                                                                                    Irna Qureshi   7
          Need to make oral history more visible

   Both used our press and marketing contacts to make the work more visible and push it into mainstream
   Exhibition toured nationwide and British Council sponsored tour of major cities in Pakistan
   Also wanted a book for longevity - got funding from local telecoms company (Yorkshire Cable)
   Fought to make it look like a good quality book rather than A5 report produced on the cheap with a staple down
    the middle
   Funding from local telecoms company (Yorkshire Cable) – we sold them the idea of the brown pound. This meant
    we could go to a publisher with a good distribution network – meaning book was well marketed and widely

   My point is this - we didn‟t necessarily have better material than anyone else, but our ability to push our contacts
    to be able to mainstream it meant the exhibition got seen and the book got read by many more people

                                                                                                                   Irna Qureshi   8
Encouraging young to value their cultural heritage

    Admittedly, Here to Stay now feels dated – alongside AYM, first Asian Lord Mayor, there was also a smattering of
     food and festivals
    Thinking about doing new version with a big section on Bradford‟s Muslims, with working title “Here to Pray”
    Raising profile of British Asian oral history is as much about broader themes as it is about using innovative
    Wanted to end by highlighting exciting work going on involving third generation in Tower Hamlets and Leicester

 Tales of 3 Generations of Bengalis in Britain (John Eade et all)
    Using intergenerational interview techniques
    Providing “a unique space for an exchange of views and experiences” and chance “to link Bengali cultural
     traditions, expressed through music, with contemporary forms of cultural expression”
    58 oral history interviews focusing on 3 themes:
        „roots and memory‟ (dialogue between 1st and 3rd generation on the history of Bangladesh and the 1971 war
            of independence)
        community creativity‟ (dialogue between 2nd & 3rd generation on welfare and community involvement in
            UK, from the 70s-80s)
        „popular culture: between tradition and innovation‟ (across three generations, mainly focusing on traditional
            and more recent British Bengali musical heritage, from the 70s-80s)


                                                                                                                Irna Qureshi   9
Encouraging young to value their cultural heritage

 Routes and Beyond – Voices from Educationally Successful Bangladeshis (John Eade et all – Centre for B’deshi Studies)
    Highlights aspirations of youth – as an example for others, and to help break away from stereotypes of Bangladeshi
    Aged 18-24, ongoing analysis alongside quotes makes it much more useful. Quotes are used to illustrate rather than
     tell whole story
    Girls struggle with parents and encourage them to able to go to uni
    Partnership with academics mutually beneficial. Gives more weight/kudos to the work, and means academics
     benefit from grassroots involvement – opportunity to get to the heart of the community)

 Flavours of Leicester – Young Leicester Asians look at their Heritage (Leicester Asian Youth Association)
    Purpose “encourage young people to access and understand specific aspects of Leicester‟s rich and often invisible
     Asian heritage”
    Targeting young – Design as important as content – a colourful, well produced, high quality comic book, featuring 3
     languages (English, Gujarati and Urdu) – for use as a learning and activities aid
    Directed and edited by a focus group of Leicester teenagers of Asian origin – a technique they call „voiced art‟
    Covers journey from South Asia to East Africa to Leicester
    Full of useful facts like Leicester was richest city in Europe in 1930s, and shoe making capital of the UK in 1950s
     employing many of their grandparents
    Really thought about their audience and worked to get the aesthetics right to appeal to them

    „Tales of 3 Generations of Bengalis in Britain „ and „Flavours of Leicester‟ move away from the idea of using
     professional interviewees
    Instead young people have become agents in the creation of their own oral histories
    This is an interesting and empowering way of rewriting British Asian oral histories
                                                                                                                     Irna Qureshi   10

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