Bill Ayers on Oral History in Cyprus

Background…

Cyprus, one of the smallest countries in the European Union, is also the last divided country in Europe, Nicosia its last divided city. Winning its independence from Great Britain in 1960, Cyprus has been roiled in ethnic conflict, violence, and division almost from the start; everyone of a certain age remembers the troubles of 1963-1967. The 1974Turkish invasion and subsequent occupation sealed the fate of Cyprus for decades.

The troubles of the last 50 years are not unrelated to Cyprus’ strategic location at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, a place that has long attracted and continues to draw the great world powers. Rome ruled, as did Istanbul and England. Richard the Lion Hearted took a piece of the island on his way to the Crusades, Paul the Apostle was given 39 strokes with a lash by the Romans for preaching the Gospel, Othello’s Castle is on the southern coast, and Lazarus died on the island. Cyprus has always been a storied jewel of the Mediterranean.

Today UN peace keepers patrol the buffer zone between north and south, and England maintains a massive presence, tens of thousands of military personnel, and two air bases (which were used by the US most recently to launch into Afghanistan and Iraq) constituting 10% of the land mass. Some Cypriots complain that the great powers see Cyprus as little more than a huge, unsinkable aircraft carrier.

While there has not been a shot fired since 1999, and while the border between the north and the south opened in 2003, for the generation now in its sixties, memories of the early days are both vivid and raw, and, indeed, for most Cypriots of every age, Cyprus still bleeds. That bleeding—its interpretative meaning and its pervasive imaginative power today—is the focus of this work.

Our project is simply this: to record in notes and photographs and sketches, on audio or video, the voices and words of the people of Cyprus themselves, from every community, to capture their memories, understand their specific meaning-perspectives, illuminate their lives. Our guiding light is every person a philosopher/every day another story. We will create as rich and varied an archive as we can, and we hope that participants will see themselves in this collection as three-dimensional, grass-roots makers of history, and that their descendants will better understand how their ancestors—like all human beings: free and fated; fated and free—shuffled through this mortal coil. We hope, too, that future historians will find material to aid in their own searches for deeper meanings and fuller understandings. We hope, finally, to add ground-level, individual perspectives toward uncovering and teaching the conflict, and in this way, through oral history, to assist the process of truth-telling and reconciliation.

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Oral History Notes

October 2011

Oral historians do the work of historians—we search through the records for the facts—and we do the work of anthropologists—we search for the meanings that people attribute to events and experiences. We do both, and then some. We want both the factual and the meaningful, and the focus of our work is always that space between: between history and anthropology, between fact and meaning, between past and present, between remembering and forgetting, between interviewer and subject. Oral History is not an adjunct or a poor cousin to “real” history, but a third thing with its own integrity, demands, traditions, and base. We are interested in a history of moments; we are interested as well in a history of memory.

We hear the objections to Oral History quite clearly: you cannot rely on oral sources; you cannot generalize from individual accounts; your technique of interaction contaminates the purity of the data; recollections are self-serving and delusional; memory deteriorates and forgets. These objections have degrees of merit, and can be discussed and debated on their own terms. But for several decades now oral historians have recognized that the pitfalls of Oral History can become themselves a route to the social imagination, and they have turned the objections around by approaching oral sources through an interdisciplinary range beyond history: psychology, linguistics, literary theory, ethnography, folk lore, and more. We learned from Freud and Jung that dreams, while not “real,” reveal something true about the meaning of life; we know from Joseph Campbell that mythology contains fidelity beyond the myth or legend. Stories are in fact a powerful and universal way to understand and generate human meaning, and in reality oral historians have access to stories and performances, not experiences.

The Oral History interview is always a dialogue: someone is telling a story to someone else. Like any other dialogue, it depends on relationship more than technique. The interview is not an interrogation or an intrusion or a designed therapeutic moment; it is rather the opening of a narrative space which people may choose to enter or not. It is not a ground one digs, but a ground one opens. The researcher is the student, the learner, the one who brings a lack of knowledge and certain ignorance into the conversation; the subject of the interview is the expert, the teacher, the recognized authority and an entire universe of meaning-making energy. For the interviewer listening actively and attentively is the main idea; learning from the stories of a range of participants is the payoff. For the story teller, the conversation is another occasion to perform an account of events and experiences for an audience, a chance to reveal meanings and in the process to discover something valuable and possibly new.

When we think of oral accounts as performances, and of ourselves as witnesses to acts or presentations, we allow a different order of response. Someone in the US says, “I don’t remember those bad times,” and we note that forgetting can be psychologically understandable even when politically unstable. Someone in Nicosia begins a commentary by noting, “I’m a Black man,” or “I’m a woman,” or “I’m a gay man,” or “As a refugee,” or “Being from the North,”—in some settings this may invite critique or correction, but for oral historians it provokes a primary question: Why does she or he begin from that standpoint? What is the meaning of this positioning to what is to follow? What can we learn that we don’t know from the decision to utter that sentence?

Much of social science work eliminates a full knowledge of the interactions researchers have with people through proscribed rituals and rationalizations to explain the alienation of researcher and subject; oral historians resist alienation and detachment, diving head-first into personal relationship and the world of human experience.

James Agee’s and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1939), a germinal study of southern sharecroppers during the Great Depression, is brought to life by Evan’s magnificent photographs and Agee’s prose which, at its best, captures his attachments and his emotional responses to everything he saw and experienced. He was engaged, passionate, and angry at the injustices. Reflecting on this work, C. Wright Mills challenged social scientists to craft sociological poetry, which he described as a style of expression that reports social facts and at the same time reveals their human meanings. Sociological poetry rejects the dispassionate stance, adopting instead a capacity for empathy and identification, for great joy and immense indignation, and, above all, a willingness to be changed in the process.

Oral History is the poetry of the everyday, the literature of the streets, the subjective experiences and personal perspectives of the extraordinary ordinary people—not a substitute but an essential piece of any accurate record of human events.

The stories we tell and share may yet become powerful tools against propaganda, political agendas, and all manner of impositions and stereotypes. We seek honesty and authenticity in stories, and that means we are interested as well in contradiction, disagreements, silences, negation, denials, inconsistencies, confusion, challenges, turmoil, puzzlement, commotion, ambiguities, paradoxes, disputes, uncertainty, and every kind of muddle.

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