Carnet de recherche: Robin Schmahl

From 17 to 19 April, 2023, I participated in the 2023 Leibniz-ZMO yearly researchers’ retreat in Sport Center Blossin in Heidesee

February 13, 2023: Today, I’ve participated in the HISDEMAB doctoral colloquium. Together with my four PhD colleagues I’ve presented the progress of my own PhD research detailing its situatedness in current scientific discussions, a working title and outline, my previous archival work, as well as my overall research journey. As always, it was highly helpful to get feedback from my peers as well as supervisors on these issues. It was also a wonderful experience to finally see where all of our different research projects are heading since I have been eagerly following the progress of my peers since the beginning of HISDEMAB. Now, with the last year of our project having just started, I am confident to say that all of us made great achievements in uncovering the historicity of democracy in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Good job, everybody!

February 8, 2023: Today, I am happy to announce that the second issue of Maydan is out! I was happy to be able to contribute with an article to this fantastic project. Maydan is a rather new journal based in Italy mainly driven by young academics and junior scholars, but nonetheless aiming to meet the highest scientific standards. My research paper was titled: “Deliberation in the Name of the People? Assessing the Role of the Diwan of Cairo, 1798-1801” and dealt mostly with theoretical aspects of deliberative and democratic theory applying those to the Diwan as a case study. I am very thankful to the great peer-reviewers and editors, without whose work I wouldn’t have been able to present such a thought-provoking paper! Grazie!

Maydan Issue 2, Feb. 2023.

January 16, 2023: Today, I was invited by one of my dear colleagues from ZMO, Noura Chalati, who is currently holding the substitute position of junior professor of Islamic Studies at Hamburg University, to teach a session within her course on Arabic source material. Of course, I’ve gladly jumped the opportunity. With her and her students I’ve discussed my own research and gave an introduction into Arabic manuscript studies as well as how to approach, and ultimately work, with manuscript collections in European and Middle Eastern archives. We even found the time to read one of the manuscripts I’ve been working with for my PhD together. What a truly splendid experience. Thanks for all who participated!

November 1st, 2022: Today I presented my research as well as an updated version of a draft chapter in front of my peers and supervisors at the BGSMCS graduate school. I’ve used this opportunity to discuss where to situate my research on 18th century European writings on Ottoman Egypt and how to incorporate my findings there into the overall narrative of my thesis. Thanks to my amazing peers, I’ve received valuable feedback on how to think about structuring my PhD, categorizing my source corpus, and updating my working title as well as outline. Thank you all!

October 20, 2022: Today I’ve presented my PhD project in front of my colleagues at the ZMO during our bi-monthly internal meeting. I’ve had the opportunity to talk about my research progress as well as archival work and included an introduction into the political system of 18th century Egypt. My talk preceded an hour-long fruitful discussion on my chapter for the HISDEMAB anthology, in which we touched a comparative perspective between the Diwan of Cairo and of other cities, as well as the notion of modernity and its explanatory power for research within the humanities.

September 25-29, 2022, Reflections on Positionality and the Departure from the Anglosphere: a Report on the HISDEMAB Workshop in Hammamet, Tunisia, 2022

« je n’ai qu’une langue, or ce n ‘est pas la mienne » (Jacques Derrida)

From September 25-29, 2022, The HISDEMAB project held a workshop in Hammamet, Tunisia, entitled L’historicité de la démocratie locale dans les mondes arabes et musulmans. The workshop gathered a divergent group of researchers from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, to discuss local democratic practices in the region and to explore their historical roots from various perspectives. The presented papers ranged from ibadi deliberative councils, internal democratic dynamics within the Tunisian Jewish and Berber communities, the Ottoman governing diwan in Algiers, the municipalities of Sfax and Souk el-Arbaa, elective practices under colonialism and post-independence, consensus mechanisms, constitutional reform projects, the public sphere and Jordanian salon-culture, among many more. While on the outset the workshop dealt with a wide range of topics that were seemingly impossible to thread together into a coherent narrative given the multifaceted geographical, cultural, and temporal focuses, the numerous research projects were united by a common desire to tackle the following question:

What is democracy? Or rather: what are the preconditions for democracy in terms of institutions, administration, societal activism, constitutional aspects, as well as general political conduct?

While the core themes of the workshop deserve an in-depth scientific resume, this endeavor would require the time and resources outside the scope of this humble report. Instead, I intend to simply shed some light on a few aspects of positionality that have sparked some noteworthy reflections over the course of the workshop.

As a member of the HISDEMAB project I had the unique opportunity to participate in the workshop as well as its several social and cultural activities. Given that I did not have to present a paper of my own I was able to engage with the different panels from a more detached viewpoint and explore the workshop’s core themes as a more or less distanced observer. While I could tie the presented results to my own research agenda in history and democracy studies, my unique perspective, i.e. being engaged though somewhat uninvolved at the same time, led me to reflect deeply on my own positionality in terms of research, societal and institutional embeddedness, as well as intellectual tradition.

This reflection on positionality was primarily induced by the locality of the discussions. The sessions were held at Hammamet’s international cultural center and more specifically at the villa Dar Sebastian. Students of history know that the villa was the focal point of several key events in the region especially during WWII – a fact that immediately deserves the attention of any researcher with a cultural and institutional background in Germany.

As such, it was not only visited by several important German artists during the first half of the 20th century, including Paul Klee and Auguste Macke, but also briefly served as the headquarters of Erwin Rommel’s failed north African campaign, while Winston Churchill wrote his memoires there after the end of the war. Learning the story about Rommel was particularly humbling, since I, along with many other Germans, associate this name with the troublesome history of Nazi Germany and the failures of German democracy in the past. And now I was sitting at that very same place discussing the historicity of democracy – what a curious stroke of fate!

Indeed, this led me away from merely approaching the historicity of democracy within the framework of my research, i.e. with the geographical focus of the Middle East, but more specifically with my very own cultural background and engagements with German civil society. Later, our group had the opportunity to meet environmental activists and civil societies actors from the city of Hammamet to discuss how the interrelations between grass roots democracy and the Tunisian state as well as the everyday struggles of civil society in the region. I noticed that, not surprisingly, there were many commonalities between the challenges of a civil society actor in Hammamet and a small German town of comparable size. Among those challenges are questions of shared responsibilities, international cooperation, financial resources, the ambivalent relationship with a centralized state and local municipalities, education, as well as how to win the hearts and minds of society for one’s own political project. However, aside these commonalities, there were also several diverging challenges that are particular to the specific place in which civil society operates. In Hammamet, these struggles were connected to the oftentimes problematic structures established by mass tourism in the region – a problem that I never had to account for when engaging with German civil society, or at least not to the same degree.

Lastly, I want to draw attention to the most tangible aspect of the reflections on positionality during the workshop: the issue of language. As researchers, we claim to operate in accordance to some notions of scientific standards and objectivity, or at least inter-subjectivity. However, we are of course highly influenced by our specific social, cultural, and institutional context. All these contexts are communicated through a common set of references and hence permeated with a common linguistic structure, oftentimes build on one common language. Without a doubt, in the case of research within a German institution this is more often than not based on the bilingual praxis between German and English. As such, German research has become more and more dependent on English academic output and, while one might deviate slightly in the reception of research and sources in other languages, one rarely fully departures from the Anglosphere in most intellectual endeavors. This characteristic not merely constitutes a simple choice in communication but also entails a specific bias towards certain research questions, theoretical viewpoints, and methodological decisions elaborated within anglophone academia.

The workshop in Hammamet constituted a clear alteration from this practice. In the specific research context represented at Hammamet the bilingual praxis was based on Arabic and French. Suddenly, my German colleagues and I had to depart from our, until then blindly accepted, Anglosphere and had to converse in either French or Arabic. Of course, yet again from a historical standpoint, this might deserve some further exploration – alas, the strong reliance on French is to a non-negligible degree due to the region’s colonial heritages. Though, conceptually speaking, there is more to the issue than historical continuity and close ties to the francophone world. Again, the choice of lingual framework has significant effects on the application of the referred concepts itself.

As such, to take an example from the themes of the workshop, while the English term historicity might appear congruent with the French historicité, their German counterpart Geschichtlichkeit covers a another, distinct set of ideas firmly set in the philosophies of Hegel and Heidegger that are seldom comparable to their English and French counterparts.[1] Hence, for the purposes of our project we often have to rely on the term historizität to cover the French concept of historicité. To make matters even more difficult, my Arab colleagues inform me that until today there is no commonly accepted rendering in Arabic within academic discourse. With translations ranging from tārīḫīya to tārīhanīya, the latter of which is incidentally more connected to the German school of historicism [Historismus], the confusing web of overlapping concepts seems inescapable. And while we continued to discuss the presented papers in Arabic and French in Hammamet, a disillusioning realization loomed in the back of my mind:

Doesn’t this example draw us to the natural conclusion that similar effects can be observed with other concepts, including and perhaps foremost the already contested concept of democracy itself? Is the French démocratie, with all its deep connotations and points of references, truly synonymous with the German Demokratie and the Arabic dīmuqrāṭīya? Where does this lead us if we try to engage these notions scientifically? And finally, what changes within our rational capabilities if we think about certain concepts in a language that is, in the Derridean sense, not our own?[2] Would an Arabic researcher come to different conclusions when writing in French about the historicité de la démocratie than if she would write about the tārīḫīya al-dīmuqrāṭīya in Arabic? These questions, of course, require some further investigation. But, exploring my own positionality, I suspect a text of mine on the Historizität der Demokratie would be quite different than another entitled Historicity of Democracy. One of the main conclusions I drew from all of the workshop’s detailed discussions on democratic, or sometimes proto-democratic, practices, was how to deal with this conceptual plurality. In the end, an historian’s effort to overcome methodological inconsistencies should not merely focus on the consolidation of approaches within one tradition and linguistic context, but rather aim to integrate divergent perspectives with their manifold points of reference into one common narrative.

[1] An issue, on which I have presented a paper during another HISDEMAB workshop.

[2] I refer here to Derrida‘s work Le monolingualisme de L’autre: ou La prothèse d’origine. The title of this reflection is also a quote from this book.

September 20-24, 2022: After a week in Berlin, I was off to my next conference – this time in beautiful Tunis! Together with my dear HISDEMAB colleague Ahlem Hajaji I’ve co-organized a panel titled “Institutions in Crises: Reflections on Possible Democratic Practices and Organizations” at the Insaniyyat 2022 conference. There, I also gave a talk on my PhD research and visited several other panels of relevance for my own project touching political theory, philosophy, and, of course, history. It goes without saying that the beautiful city of Tunis was highly conducive for such an intellectually rich experience. Thanks to our Tunisian partners, our group was also able to visit both the Tunisian National Library Manuscript Collection as well as the Tunisian National Archive through which we received a rare glimpse not only into the inner workings of these institutions but also their splendid source collections. And finally, only to add to these amazing experiences: I’ve lived merely a stone throw’s away from Ibn Khaldun’s birthplace and childhood home in the Tunisian Medina – what a fantastic place to reflect on historicity!

In the Tunisian National Archive

September 12-17, 2022: Unfortunately, I had to leave Cairo yet again, merely days after my arrival at the AUC – but for a good cause: the DOT 2022 [Deutsche Orientalisten Tage] held in Berlin. Our project was present with two amazing panels, and I was lucky enough to be able to give a talk within both of those. My first presentation was titled “Iconoclasm and Memory: the Discussion on Germany’s belated intellectual tradition” and dealt with how discussions on decolonization (particular of the German philosophical canon and Immanuel Kant) took place within German public discourse. The talk was based on an earlier chapter of mine but this time, in accordance with the panel’s main themes, approached the topic through the lens of historicity as well as memory. My second talk carried the title “Deliberation in the Name of the People? Assessing the role of the Cairo Diwan, 1798-1801.” Similar to my talk at PTIH 2022, I’ve explored what role notions of shura and mushawara played for the inner workings of the Cairo Diwan under French rule in 1798-1801. Beside these two panels the DOT offered ample opportunities to exchange ideas, research topics, differing views on sources and theory – an invaluable experience for any junior scholar navigating the ups and downs of writing a PhD!

During my talk “Iconoclasm and Memory” at DOT 2022

August 2022 – January 2023: In late August 2022, a small dream of mine came true. The last couple of months were, next to the usual scientific and administrative work, dedicated to organize my archival research trip to Cairo, Egypt. Thanks to the unique opportunities provided by my Graduate School (BGSMCS), the financial support of my University (FU), and of course the help of my supervisors and colleagues, I’ve managed to obtain an affiliation with the American University in Cairo within the framework of a PhD exchange program. While my initial idea was to seek a loose partnership with a local Egyptian academic institution to help with the usual logistical challenges of conducting archival work in a foreign country, I was fully registered as one of AUC’s graduate students and able to enrol in their fall semester program thanks to a scholarship kindly provided by the FU’s Erasmus funds. Ever since I was in Cairo for the first time during my bachelor’s and visited the AUC’s interesting historical campus next to tahrir, I was wondering I would ever be able to visit this site as one of the university’s very own students. And now about 8 years later, this dream turned into reality. As such, I enrolled in the AUC’s prestigious Arabic intensive program. From September to January, I had daily advanced Arabic courses with the AUC’s amazing teaching staff at tahrir campus in the heart of Cairo. What a truly amazing experience!

AUC’s Campus in New Cairo
AUC’s historical Campus in Taḥrīr

While I was in Cairo I was able to seek an affiliation with another institution: the Insitut dominicain d’études orientales ( I was lucky enough to live in IDEO’s maison des chercheurs for the duration of my stay, where I made a plethora of interesting acquaintances with historians, philosophers, scholars of religion, and political scientists from all over the world. A big merci to the brothers for hosting me so graciously over the last couple of months.

IDEO in Cairo. Left: the Dominican Convent. Right: the Maison des Chercheurs. In front: IDEO’s research library.

June 28, 2022: Today I’ve had the opportunity to present a first draft chapter of my thesis during a PhD colloquium at the ZMO. Thanks to the valuable feedback of all my peers (and of course my supervisors) I’ve gained a clearer picture where my work is headed. With this, finally the writing phase of my PhD has begun. Only 5 other chapters to go!

June 17 – 20, 2022: Over the last couple of days, I’ve participated in another of HISDEMAB’s international workshops, this time at the fantastic IFPO in Amman, Jordan. Under the title of “Approaches to Political Participation in the 20th century” the workshop gathered, next to our HISDEMAB research group, several experts from local institutions working on history and questions of political science. I was fortunate enough to explore the concept of historicité in more theoretical detail. During my talk “«Democracy was the worst of all Political Evils»: Reflections on Concept Innovation and Historicity” I’ve approached the topic from the angle of the German intellectual tradition touching on Hegel’s and Heidegger’s notion of Geschichtlichkeit and its relevance for our work. Beside the academic program of the workshop, our group also had the opportunity to explore Amman and the surrounding area enjoying beautiful vistas, great food, and historical landmarks. A big shukran to all involved of HISDEMAB and IFPO for organizing this amazing workshop!

Studio Giftig’s Mural in Omar Bin al-Khattab Street overlooking the City of Amman

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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