Carnet de recherche: Robin Schmahl

May 23-24, 2022: I participated in the international workshop The Historicity of Democracy in the Arab and Muslim worlds at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient Berlin, where I presented my draft-chapter on  “Treading a Fine Line: Deliberation, Mediation and Colonial Propaganda within the Diwan of Cairo, July-October 1798“.

April 28, 2022. This week I visited beautiful Cambridge, UK to participate in the annual PTIH Conference. Under the title Community and Conflict in Intellectual History the conference explored how political thought shaped the realities of its time. I presented my work on the Cairo Diwan of 1798-1801 and notions of shūrā at the amazing King’s College directly opposite of the stunning King’s Chapel. As my intervention was certainly of a rather different cultural, political, and geographical focus than most talks at PTIH, it was a fantastic opportunity to engage with people working on Hobbes, Hegel, or Nietzsche, and to rationalize our different perspectives on topics such as deliberation. I must thank the great organizational team of PTIH and King’s College, as well as all participants for the amazing experience! I hope I’ll be able to visit Cambridge once again in the future – until then, Cheerio!

April, 2022: During the first week of April, I participated in two amazing science communication projects: I’m a Scientist and Book a Scientist by the Leibniz Society. There, I have met with curious students eager to learn more about scientific work in Germany. Together with a couple of colleagues we chatted about our work in the humanities and social sciences. I was happy to discuss European and Middle Eastern history as well as political theory over the course of several sessions. Presenting my own work to people outside of academia was a worthwhile experience that led me to reflect on my studies in a completely new light. I have to thank the coordinating teams of the two projects, and of course all the students as well as colleagues participating!

November and December 2021, February 2022: Over the course of the last few months, I had the amazing opportunity to visit the archives of the Service Historique de la Défense in Vincennes and the fantastic Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris. Working through dozens of folders of documentation of the French Expedition, I’ve came across many small historical treasures delivering testimony to this fascinating episode of history: personal correspondences between Bonaparte and his officers, Arabic letters to the Sharif of Mecca, or the personal journal of Kléber in Egypt, just to name a few. I must thank the fantastic staff at the SHD and the BNF for their patience with me and my humble French skills. (Merci beaucoup!) Sifting through the mountains of old documents in almost non-decipherable, miniscule handwriting was a difficult though worthwhile challenge. In the end, I hope to be able revisit both archives – you never know what treasure awaits in the next folder!

November 11, 2021: Today I had the pleasure to participate in the Book a Scientist program organized by the Leibniz Society. This event offers the opportunity to meet a scholar within a speed dating format and to talk about his/her main field of expertise or recent research project. As such, I was one of three scholars from Leibniz-ZMO to participate in the programme. I had diverse conversations with curious people from all over Europe about the French administration in Cairo, narratives of imperialism, as well as the situation of the Coptic community in 18th century Ottoman Egypt. I can only recommend to participate and am looking forward to contribute in next year’s Book a Scientist!

September 24, 2021: For the last two days I had the pleasure to represent all PhD candidates of our Institute (Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient) at the annual general assembly of the Leibniz PhD Network. We had productive talks about mental health within academia based on our survey throughout the whole network. After getting professional input on how to improve psychological well-being and setting boundaries, we also elected our new steering committee and discussed the future of our working groups as well as potential for cooperation with other networks. For me this has been an inspiring event with lots of opportunities to talk with people from a plethora of different fields of expertise. I am looking forward to another productive and exciting year in the network!

September 2021: This week I was busy going through some private libraries in the old city of Jerusalem. First stop and first set-back: Budairi Library. Understandably, the library puts the present situation to good use to do some necessary renovation work. As such, conducting research there was unrealizable. However, I was much luckier when working at the beautiful Khalidiyya Library. With the gracious support of Dr. Salameh I did not only get an idea of the building’s interesting architecture but also went through the personal Kaškūl of Ḥasan al-Ḫālidī. Dr. Salameh also showed me some of his interesting personal work and guided me to an edited poem on the occasion of Bonaparte’s defeat at Acre currently held at Budairi Library. Thank you, Dr. Salameh!

September 2021: These days I am going through some manuscripts relative to the French occupation of Egypt held in the National Library of Israel. Working in the history-steeped city of Jerusalem was a humbling experience especially under the current political as well as pandemic circumstances. Among British and French documentation, I came across this interesting sermon against the occupation written in Arabic. Once back in Germany, I’ll do some postprocessing of the material of the National Library – in the meantime, check out their amazing website (in Hebrew) on the French military Expedition. To my knowledge it’s one the best popular resources on this momentous period out there!

August 2021 : This month I had the unique opportunity to visit an Ulpan (Hebrew Language School) at Tel Aviv University. With a scholarship and financial support by the World Union of Jewish Studies. I had a deep dive into advanced Hebrew grammar and was able to improve my active language skills. Studying within TAU’s international learning environment has been an amazing experience. Todah rabah lekulam!

July 2021: I am happy to announce the successful coming to end of the Places in the Sun ( project which ended in the publication of an anthology written by upcoming young researchers. The project was a cooperation between the Institute for a Greater Europe, the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum, and Europe Lab 2021 with the aim of exploring postcolonial dialogues in Europe and beyond. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to write a chapter for the anthology about the public discourse on Germany’s belated intellectual decolonization with a focus on the Kantian tradition. The book is available for free download here . Contributing to the project has been an amazing experience and I hope there will be other cooperation in the future!

June 29, 2021: Today I had the pleasure to organize and moderate a talk by Dr. Guido Steinberg (SWP) in the framework of the Youth Forum of the German Foreign Affairs Association lecture series. Upon reflecting on the history of the Saudi / Iranian struggle for regional hegemony, Dr. Steinberg gave us a historically informed perspective on the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA), Israeli rapprochements to the Gulf states, as well as possible futures of European foreign policy in the region.

June 21-24, 2021: Reporting back from the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz (GSTA): this week I had the unique opportunity to revisit the Prussian Privy Archive in Berlin. Last time, I have concentrated on exploring the official correspondence between the Prussian Chargé d’Affaires at the Sublime Porte and the Prussian Court in 1797-1803. Although I came back with the primary intend to digitalize these files mounting to over 1000 pages, I also took the opportunity to skip through some of the Prussian mission’s Privata. In a file that collected documentation around Oberst von Knobelsdorff’s application for holidays (6 months, after 17 years serving non-stop as Chargé d’Affaires!), I came across a special piece of correspondence. It seems that Knobelsdorff on his way back to Prussia, brought with him a personal letter by Sultan III to the Prussian King. Although the letter merely dealt with obligatory royal salutations and show of respect, it is nonetheless an exciting document recording the historically strong relations between the Prussian court and the Sublime Porte.

June 16, 2021: Today, I had the amazing opportunity to participate in a workshop on safer research practices organized by the Berlin Center for Global Engagement. We discussed the manifold ramifications for conducting research in the field when operating in authoritarian contexts. The great team with a lot of first-hand expertise helped us thinking in new ways about assessing risks before, during and after working in the field. (Check out the team’s new book!) The discussions were fruitful especially since we were so many people from different scientific contexts: I cannot recall that I ever had the opportunity to discuss my research with a historian, a political theorist, a biologist, an anthropologist and a nutritionist (i.a.) at the same time! Given the global encroachment on free scientific practice, I am thankful to the team that I have had such an expedient introduction into the topic. Stay safe(r)!

June 2, 2021: Today, I had the opportunity to moderate and co-host a lecture by Ambassador Wiggemark, the head of the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo [EULEX], in the framework of the Youth Forum of the German Foreign Affairs Association lecture series. We discussed EULEX’s special role in the functioning of Kosovo’s judicial system and talked about the young country’s turbulent past. Touching upon the internal operations of the EU’s biggest CSDP civil mission, Ambassador Wiggemark was kind enough to invite a delegation of the Youth Forum to visit EULEX’s headquarters in Pristina. (“You should come to Kosovo, there is great coffee here!”) So, with a bit of luck, we might be enjoying a nice cup of Kosovar mocha later this year: I’ll keep you updated!

From April 6 to 8, 2021, I had the opportunity to conduct archival research at the Privy Prussian Archive (Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz) in Berlin. I was hoping to find some interesting manuscripts documenting the French expedition in Egypt, 1798-1801, from a Prussian perspective.

After struggling with the old library catalogue that is written in Kurrent – an old form of German cursive script – I ordered the correspondence between Berlin and its Chargé d’Affaires at the Sublime Porte in Constantinople, Friedrich Wilhelm von Knobelsdorff, between 1797 and 1802. Because the correspondence fell under diplomatic protocol the text is not only written in French, but also en chiffres, i.e. encrypted in a specific code of numbers.

non-decyphered text en chiffres

This code would then be deciphered (literally de-numbered) by a clerk in Berlin who held the applicable key and then presented the text to the relevant authorities and/or the Prussian Monarch. Sometimes the addressee marked the text or put direct notes in the documentation. Here, von Konbelsdorff conveyed the news that Napoleon Bonaparte had invaded Egypt, which prompted the addressee to put down his rather emotional reaction of “le défendre jusqu’à la dernière goutte de sang” [sic] (defend it until the last drop of blood).

Decyphered correspondance with annotations

I am looking forward to revisiting the archive and working more with this amazing source – so keep posted: there is more to come!

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