Ethics of Listening to the Silence: Voices, Archives, and the Unspoken Past

By Himmat Zoubi

In recent decades, critical intellectual trends have achieved significant breakthroughs in analyzing the relationship between power and knowledge, as well as in analyzing the dynamics between dominant and marginalized groups. These trends have led to profound debates about the production of history, emphasizing the need to consider the identity of the producers of history, the perspectives of those recording history, methods of reconstructing the past, ways of framing the present, the selection and availability of sources, and techniques of historical revision.

Critical scholars have challenged the traditional approach upholding the primacy of archival records. According to this critical viewpoint, documents and texts are rarely exactly what they claim to be—neutral, authentic, and objective. This new generation of scholars has highlighted the necessity of gathering oral testimonies to comprehend the histories of marginalized and subaltern groups.[1]

Feminists[2] and critical thinkers from what is known as the global South have also contributed to this critical wave of research. They argue that national narratives, including those of national minorities or colonized communities, often portray the past as more cohesive and comfortable than it actually was.[3] They assert that hegemonic historiography predominantly spotlights narratives and events from the perspective of elites and the powerful, disregarding suppressed or marginalized narratives.[4]

As a feminist researcher, I have been profoundly influenced by this critical trend. Being an urban sociologist with a specific interest in Palestinian urbanity, I recognize the value of learning about the transformation of Palestinian cities into post-Nakba Israeli cities, through the experiences of those who lived through this Catastrophe. In other words, those who remained in their cities after the Nakba.

I initiated my PhD research with a strong conviction that the accounts of those who resided in Haifa and witnessed the city’s transformation following its occupation would provide valuable insights into urban socio-spatial and political transformations. Although I anticipated challenges in securing a sufficient number of interviews due to factors such as the small number of urban Palestinians who survived the Nakba, I encountered a more intricate methodological and ethical dilemma.

The Palestinians who survived the Nakba in Haifa shared with me comprehensive details about their daily lives before and during the Nakba, yet they refrained from discussing their experiences in the city after its occupation. Understanding the reasons behind this silence and seeking to unpack the “absent box,”[5] I turned to archival sources.

Recollection is a complex cognitive process that I will not delve into within this article.[6] However, I will focus on addressing this silence – a silence absent from the ethical guidelines that researchers are required to adhere to. While this omission may appear insignificant to some, I shall argue that silence indeed represents a repository of significant moments filled with valuable insights.

Israeli archival documents and periodicals shed light on the harsh, terrifying, and unconventional nature of those days. Routine activities, such as seeking medical attention within the city or visiting family outside it, necessitated military permission, which was far from guaranteed. Securing a job entailed forging close connections with the colonial authorities and, in many cases, both routine activities involved personal humiliations, submission, and compliance to favoritism and nepotism strategies.

Military Transit Pass (September 1948), courtesy of Johnny Mansour and the author.

Additionally, urban Palestinians who were subjected to military rule found themselves forcibly relocated into areas dubbed the “ghetto” by Israeli newspapers of that era. Being compelled to inhabit residences formerly occupied by Palestinians who had recently become refugees added an extra layer of complexity and distress to the already arduous physical and emotional conditions.

This painful reality defied simplistic categorizations of heroism and weakness, collaboration and resistance, alienation and familiarity. It could also be seen as distorting the collective memory of Palestinians. These narratives—as is typical of other national narratives—often romanticize and idealize the past, creating an impression of completeness and comfort that does not align with reality. Such narratives are hesitant to acknowledge complicity, culpability, and involuntary collaboration.[7]

Unlike the well-studied Nakba experiences of 1948 and the subsequent Palestinian refugee stories, the narratives of those who remained in their homeland have received less attention. Consequently, their experiences have been excluded from the broader history of the Palestinian people, locked away within the “absent box,” unspoken and concealed.

Stories belong to their narrators, and it is their prerogative to decide what to share and how. Researchers study these stories to enrich our scholarly understanding and gain insights into human experiences. Knowledge, on the other hand, belongs to the public. Our role as researchers is to mediate between these domains—knowledge production and dissemination, and respect for personal narratives—a responsibility intrinsically entwined with ethical considerations.

Out of respect for my interlocutors’ well-being, I made the conscious choice not to breach the contents of their “absent box.” This decision meant forgoing insights into their painful memories and refraining from confronting interlocutors with the information gleaned from archives and newspapers. Placing the interviewees at the heart of the research entails safeguarding them from harm.

Rather than awakening specters, I chose to explore the meaning and necessity of the “absent box.” Beyond the dichotomy of archives and oral history, I have proposed a “dialogue” between archival sources and oral testimonies—a theoretical and practical focus within the historiography of silenced memories surrounding painful events. This dialogue involves respectful and attentive listening to the concealed content of oral testimonies, coupled with critical readings of the colonizers’ archival documents. Such attentive listening and care are not quite captured in funders’ and/or institutional ethics guidelines. Even though the protection of research interlocutors is emphasized, the guidelines have trouble accounting for past and present power dynamics, which require a differentiated dialogue rather than an attempt at breaking open the “absent box.” By doing so, my research challenges hegemonic historical narratives and gives space to the muted memories of marginalized individuals and groups.


[1] For an overview of the history of oral history see Charlton, T.L., L. E. Myers and R. Sharpless Thinking About Oral History: Theories and Applications. Lanham MD: AltaMira Press (2008).

A work about oral history in Palestinian historiography: Masalha, Nur. The Palestine Nakba: Decolonising history, narrating the subaltern, reclaiming memory. London: Bloomsbury Publishing (2012).

[2] Gluck, S.B. and D. Patai. Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History. New York: Routledge (1991). Sayigh, Rosemary. Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries. London: Zed (1979).

[3] Saʻdī Aḥmad Abu-Lughod, L. Nakba: Palestine 1948 and the Claims of Memory. New York: Columbia University Press (2007).

[4] Sayigh, Rosemary. “Gender, sexuality, and class in national narrations: Palestinian camp women tell their lives, Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 19.2 (1998).

[5] The term “absent box” is inspired by Elias Khoury’s novel: Awlād al-ghīttū. Ismī Ādam (The Children of the Ghetto. My Name is Adam), Beirut: Dār al-Ādāb, 2017. The English translation by Humphrey Davies was published by Archipelago Books in 2019.

[6] I have discussed this aspect elsewhere: Himmat Zoubi, “The Ongoing Nakba – Urban Palestinian Survival in Haifa ,” in Nahla Abdo and Nur Masalha (eds), Oral History Narratives of Palestinians during the Nakba: Reclaiming the Past, Challenging Israel’s Settler-Colonialism. London: Zed Books (2018).

[7] Sa’di and Abu-Lughod 2007.

About the Author

Himmat Zoubi is an urban sociologist and feminist activist, delving into themes of gender, cities, and settler colonialism. As a EUME Fellow, her current focus includes “Re-urbanizing Palestine” and a book project, “De-Urbanizing Palestine,” investigating the transition from Hayfa to Haifa during the British Mandate and early Israeli State.

This article is part of the BEYONDREST blog series Beyond Guidelines: The Question of Ethics in Transregional Research and Knowledge Production. BEYONDREST is a five-year research project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme (Grant Agreement No. 101045661), hosted by the Forum Transregionale Studien (Forum), and related to EUME.

Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Research Council Executive Agency. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.

Other Recent Articles in the TRAFO Series ‘Beyond Guidelines’

Çiçek İlengiz, When Off-the-Record Takes Over: Research Ethics under Authoritarianism, 29 February 2024

Birgit Meyer, Doing Research Under Current Ethics Regimes: Some Observations, 8 February 2024

Banu Karaca, Introducing “Beyond Guidelines”: Navigating Mismatched Expectations between Research Ethics and Institutional Ethics Regimes, 18 January 2024

Citation: Himmat Zoubi, Ethics of Listening to the Silence: Voices, Archives, and the Unspoken Past, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 21.03.2024,

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2024, 21. März). Ethics of Listening to the Silence: Voices, Archives, and the Unspoken Past. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. April 2024, von

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

Das könnte dich auch interessieren …

Schreibe einen Kommentar

Deine E-Mail-Adresse wird nicht veröffentlicht. Erforderliche Felder sind mit * markiert

Diese Website verwendet Akismet, um Spam zu reduzieren. Erfahre mehr darüber, wie deine Kommentardaten verarbeitet werden.

Suche in OpenEdition Search

Sie werden weitergeleitet zur OpenEdition Search