Using the tools of the oral historian to discover Osama
The Talking Points Memo Cafe Book Club focuses this week on The Osama bin Laden I Know: An oral history of al Qaeda’s Leader, by Peter L. Berger. With book excerpt and discussion of the Oral History Method used in the book
Peter Bergen’s own discussion to how he got started with this book—- a biographical treatment of bin Laden through those who’ve known him:
During the course of our chat, [the governor of a province in Afghanistan, Haji Deen] Mohamed, a genial white-haired former mujahideen commander, mentioned in passing that he had known bin Laden reasonably well in the 1989 to 1991 time period when the Saudi millionaire was helping the Afghan war effort against the communists. That comment started me thinking about who else might have spent time with bin Laden, who might be willing to speak to me. As it turned out there were around fifty people that I spoke to directly, who had had some encounter with bin Laden, whether that was a brief meeting or a friendship of decades.
From John Stuart Blackton’s discussion:
Although the oral historian’s string of such conversations usually takes the form of interviews, in which one person—the interviewer—asks questions of another person—variously referred to as the interviewee or narrator—oral history is, at its heart, a dialogue.’
In Peter’s bok he tries to leave himself out of the reportage as much as possible, although his questions sometimes shape the comments and his selection of interview text necessarily derives from a particular frame of reference or historical interest.
Many of the oral excerpts are from official documents such as court proceedings and printed interviews.’ In keeping with the high oral history tradition, the entire book is made up of oral reports from people who have known Osama personally or had direct dealings with him.