Dr Myriam Cherti works as a Senior Researcher at the University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) and her fields of expertise include irregular migration, migrant integration, diaspora policy and Moroccan migration. She is also the author of Paradoxes of Social Capital: A Multi-Generational Study of Moroccans in London (2008).
She holds an MSc in Social Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Sciences and a PhD in Migration Studies from the University of Sussex. London Oral History interviewed Dr Cherti about her experiences in using oral history as a tool in her research and the importance of oral history for immigrant communities.
Please tell us a little bit about your background and how you fit into the migrant diaspora of London?
I came to London from Morocco in September 1999 to do a Master’s degree in Social Policy at LSE. My initial plans were to return after finishing my degree, however I soon realised that I wanted to stay longer in the UK to pursue my PhD too. My doctoral thesis was looking at the integration of three generations of Moroccans in London.
I never saw myself the same as the subject of my research. For years I thought that my stay in the UK was a temporary one and that sooner or later I’d go back to Morocco where the rest of my family is. As the years passed, that certainly of going back started being replaced by a certainty of staying in London. I now see myself as part of a different kind of first generation of migrants: those who came to study and ended up settling in the UK.
Do you feel migrants have been active enough in preserving their heritage through oral history and are the younger generation truly aware of the experiences of their elders?
Some migrant communities are more proactive in maintaining and preserving their heritage than others. This is often linked to the size of the community, the nature of migration and the historical links to the UK. All communities are trying in one way or another to pass on their heritage to the younger generation and oral history is one of them.
The most common medium is supplementary education which often includes a religious aspect combined with some teaching of traditions etc. In the past decade or so, there has been a growing interest among various migrant communities in using oral history as an effective method in reinforcing intergenerational links and preserving heritage. The Oral History Sound Archives at the British Library currently has numerous collections from various migrant communities across the UK.
What do you think the status of oral history is when judged alongside written or visual material?
Oral and written sources are not mutually exclusive. They have common as well as autonomous characteristics, and specific functions, which only either one can fill. They require different specific interpretative instruments. But the undervaluing and the overvaluing of oral sources ends up cancelling out specific qualities, turning these sources either into mere support for traditional written sources, or into an illusory cure for all ills.
The first thing that makes oral history unique, therefore, is that it tells us less about events than about their meaning. This does not imply however that oral history has no factual validity.
Do you believe oral history is important for migrant communities in London?
Hugely. It enables these communities to not only share their heritage with the younger generation but it ensures that they are able to narrate their own migration stories. By doing this, they are challenging some of the assumptions and accepted judgments of researchers or others. Oral history brings history into, and out of, the community. It makes for contact – and hence understanding – between social classes and between generations.
You coordinated the Moroccan Memories Project. Is this still active? What were the major challenges and achievements?
The Moroccan Memories in Britain was a small project that I developed after I finished my PhD. While I was doing my own research in London I realised how little was know about the Moroccan community in Britain as whole. I felt that there was a sense of urgency to document some of the unwritten history of this community whose first generation members were gradually passing away.
This project aimed not just to document the life histories of three generations of Moroccans in Britain but it also attempted to reinforce intergenerational links within the community. The greatest achievement of the project was the collection of life histories (120) across three generations in five different locations in Britain.
All the life histories were translated, transcribed and are now archived at the British Library for public access. We have also produced a short film documentary that tried to complement the oral history collection. For wider dissemination, we organised an international touring exhibition which went all the way to Morocco and some of the key cities where Moroccan migration to the UK started [in] the 19th Century.
The exhibition, and the events that accompanied it, created a fascinating debate and discussion about history, heritage and the interconnectedness between the two countries.
Some of the key challenges we faced were related to persuading people to share their life histories and make them accessible to the public, which meant that we had to spend a lot of time trying to convince them of the value of sharing their stories.
Can you tell us more about the results of the Moroccan Memories Project?
Some of the most tangible results of the Project was to document the history of the Moroccan community that had arrived almost five decades ago and had little historical references […] neither known within or outside the community.
The process of documenting this history led to equally important outcomes from reinforcing intergenerational links to celebrating a shared heritage outside the community as well. The production of the educational resource pack, the short documentary, a musical CD and the touring exhibition were all outputs that helped in making this migration history and tales of integration accessible to the wider British and Moroccan public.
What part does oral history play in the preservation and cultivation of community heritage?
Oral history [is the] catalyst in a much longer process of preservation and sharing of a community heritage. If it’s done by the community, and not for it, then this purpose is much easier to achieve as the members of the community are engaged and have a real sense of ownership of the process of collecting these life histories.
Is oral history susceptible to accounts of a romanticised past? How do curators and coordinators overcome this?
Yes, oral history can be susceptible to accounts of a romanticised past. However, oral history sources are still credible – with a different type of credibility. The importance of oral testimony may reside not in its adherence to facts, but rather in its departure from them, as imagination, symbolism, and desire emerge.
Therefore, there are no ‘false’ oral sources. Once we have checked their factual credibility with all the established criteria of philological criticism and factual verification which are required by all types of sources anyway, the diversity of oral history consists in the fact that ‘wrong’ statements are still psychologically ‘true’ and that this truth may be equally as important as factually reliable accounts.
What are the most important considerations for anyone thinking of starting an oral history project?
Some of the key considerations that one should take into account before starting an oral history project include:
- A need for the project
- Interest from the community
- An archiving site/organisation/institution
- Reliable recording equipment that enable adequate archiving