Albert Memmi, author, essayist, philosopher, and public intellectual, born in Tunis on 15 December 1920 and self-exiled to France upon Tunisia’s independence, died in Paris on 22 May 2020, just a few months short of his one-hundredth birthday.
Memmi’s writing life was intertwined with the grand themes that shaped his century: global war, colonization and decolonization, racial inequality, oppression, and the abuse of power in all its forms. Though he ceased living in North Africa after 1956, Memmi remained a Maghrebi at heart, maintaining an intimate connection to his place of birth, its people, politics, and literary culture. With a spirited temperament and never lacking for words, Memmi stirred controversy and reveled in debate; yet he consistently adhered to a set of contradictions and core values acquired during his North African youth that he carried forward into his long and productive intellectual journey.
Memmi was born in the Hara, the Jewish section of the old medina in Tunis. His father, Fraji, was a saddler whose family came from in Livorno; his mother, Maira, was from a rural Tunisian family. In his writing, Memmi exoticized her humble origins, claiming that her ancestors were Berber aristocracy converted to Judaism. In reality, this fantasy diverted sharply from his actual life situation. The second of twelve children, Memmi was surrounded by a large extended family surviving on the fringes of poverty. Memmi’s mother tongue was the language of the medina, the Tunisian dialect of Arabic.
Memmi’s education began at the age of four, when he was sent to a neighborhood Hebrew school to learn the holy script and the traditional prayers. Three years later, he entered the school of the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU), a French philanthropic and educational association, where he spent the next seven years absorbing the fundamentals of French language and culture through lessons specially designed to bring Jewish youth of the “Orient” into the modern world. Memmi thrived at the AIU school and at the age of thirteen, he received a full scholarship to the state-run Lycée Carnot, where for the first time he encountered the steep ladder that organized colonial society: the sons of European settlers at the top, followed by the offspring of the Muslim bourgeoisie, and at the lower rungs, boys from the “better” Jewish classes. Here Memmi suffered a thousand cuts—from anti-Semitic barbs, to shame about his poverty and lack of social graces. Humiliated because of his marginality, Memmi flourished intellectually, drawing close to several of his teachers, among them the poet Jean Amrouche, a Berber intellectual whose family had roots in the Algeria Kabylia. During his high school years, Memmi, always the outsider, struggled to find his footing in a hostile colonial society where racial and class bias had the upper hand.
In 1939, just as World War II broke out, Memmi left Tunis for the University of Algiers. However, within a few months, France had fallen and a pro-Fascist, collaborationist government was established at Vichy. The stringent adoption of anti-Jewish race laws in Algeria soon followed, and Memmi, along with other Tunisian Jewish students, was dismissed from the university and sent home.
After the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942, Tunisia entered its own time of travail. Tunisia became a battleground between German and Allied forces, and for six months, Tunisian Jews lived under Nazi rule. Young men were rounded up and sent to forced labor camps where they worked under extremely harsh conditions; others were deported to Eastern Europe and never returned. The German army was finally driven out of Tunisia in May 1943. In the intervening months, Memmi made critical transitions. At first, he sat behind a desk keeping track of supplies, but soon he was struck by a bad conscience and volunteered to go to a labor camp, where he found comradeship, purpose, and a renewed attachment to his Jewish roots. The ardently secular Memmi led prayer groups and gave lectures on Zionism, an ideology to which he himself was only vaguely attached. His wartime experiences grounded him, solidified his views on his Jewishness, and confirmed his suspicions about the infidelity of France. It also gave him greater clarity about the dynamics of oppression that he later used to construct his brilliant analysis of the colonial system.
After the war, Memmi continued his studies in sociology and psychology at the Sorbonne, with the aim of acquiring a teaching degree. Certificate in hand, he returned to Tunis, where in addition to his teaching duties, he began to write for newspapers and literary magazines and became a founding contributor to Jeune Afrique. Memmi also began writing his own life story. His first novel, published in 1953, was The Pillar of Salt (La Statue de sel), an exercise in “autofiction” in which the “facts” of Memmi’s life were shaped to fit his literary imagination. This thinly veiled autobiography depicted in full color the tensions in Memmi’s childhood, his troubled relationship with his family, his social marginalization, his struggle for self-knowledge. The book also projected his anxiety about an unsettled future, for it was precisely at that moment when Tunisians—along with the rest of the people of the Maghreb—were teetering on the edge of a nationalist revolution.
The Pillar of Salt was a sensation because of its emotional intensity and its scenes of native life from the perspective of an oppressed minority. The book had a special éclat among Tunisian Jews, who were experiencing a period of acute existential crisis, caught between remaining in a country where they no longer felt “at home” and migrating elsewhere. Moreover, whether he knew it or not, through his writing Memmi was also helping to define a new genre of “Francophone” literature consisting of works written in French by authors outside of France. Over the next half-century, work under this rubric would capture the attention of the scholars of post-colonialism as well as the general reading public, creating a new category of writing that would become one of the most provocative and fervently admired in the French-speaking world.
At that moment, Memmi decided to take the road of exile, moving to France in the autumn of 1956 with his French wife Germaine, the other half of a “mixed marriage” that lasted more than sixty years. His union with a non-Jew was simultaneously unsettling as well as liberating. He dissected it closely in his next book, The Colonizer and the Colonized, a psycho-sociological study published in 1957 that assured Memmi’s standing among a new generation of Maghrebi authors living in France. Drawing on his own experience, Memmi’s purpose in writing this work was to "reproduce, completely and authentically, the portraits of the two protagonists in the colonial drama and the relationship that binds them." The title of the book in French, Le Portrait du colonisé precede d'un portrait du colonisateur, captures its novelty: first, the depicting of the two main actors as actual personality types, rather than as vague abstractions, and second, the idea that these two types were locked in an interdependent "duo," each one modeling and defining the other.
The Colonizer and the Colonized appeared during the height of the Battle of Algiers, the bloodiest episode in the eight-year-long Algerian war for independence. The book not only created a literary sensation, but it also presented a war-weary French public a framework for understanding the violence of the conflict, as well as foreshadowing its outcome. Memmi invited his friend Jean-Paul Sartre to write an introduction to The Colonizer. Sartre’s earlier foray into the “Jewish question” set out in his essay Anti-Semite and Jew (English version, 1948) set the stage for understanding racial prejudice as a psychic disorder. Sartre was already attuned to the problem of discrimination, and he was a perfect choice. In his introduction, he noted that Memmi’s argument vis-à-vis the colonial encounter went far beyond it, and “transcended into the direction of the universal.”
Almost immediately, The Colonizer and the Colonized found its place in the canon of French post-colonial literature, read by people around the globe. Alternative theories of colonial domination such as Orientalism and subaltern studies competed for attention, but Memmi’s sensitive portrait of the fractured soul of the marginalized native kept his book alive. When the first American edition appeared in 1965, Memmi dedicated it to “the American Negro,” underscoring Sartre’s point that the colonial oppression described in The Colonizer could easily be mapped onto other situations where one group of people brutally subjugated another.
Almost thirty years later, in 1990, Beacon Press, a small, left-leaning Boston publishing house, decided to produce a new edition of The Colonizer. The Press learned there was a “specialist” on the Maghreb in the neighborhood, and asked me to write an afterward for the new edition. There was no stipend involved. My compensation would be my name printed on the cover of the new edition just below that of Jean-Paul Sartre’s. I immediately agreed.
A few weeks later, I interviewed Memmi at his home on Rue Saint-Merri in the heart of the Marais. Memmi was a gracious host, first introducing me to his wife and then inviting me to join him in his tiny, book-cluttered office tucked under the eaves of his apartment building. Memmi was an attractive man, even in his early seventies, with a shock of grey hair, a trimmed goatee, a jaunty foulard over his shirt collar. I have lost my notes from the interview, but the substance of our conversation comes out in The Colonizer's afterward. Memmi was most concerned that in the thirty-five years since its first publication, some of the ideas in the book had become obsolete. He was especially troubled by his deprecating comments about European women, whom he had described in the book as ardent colonials, “less concerned [than a man] about humanity in the abstract sense.” Other unflattering references disturbed him as well, and he wished they could be excised, but alas, I had to give him the bad news that the publisher was reproducing the texte intégrale and no changes could be made. I reassured him that times had changed, and history would be kind to him (though I was not completely convinced of that myself). It would have been difficult in 1957 to predict the feminist revolution of the intervening years. We parted as friends, but unfortunately, we never had the opportunity to meet again.
Memmi continued to write well into his eighties: anthologies of Francophone literature, fiction, political commentary, a strange volume entitled Jews and Arabs that brought little to the subject that was new. Memmi had made his choice: he was now more French than anything else; though his Jewishness was indelible, and his Arabness was much less so. Unlike Iraqi Jewish writers such as Shimon Ballas, Sami Michael, and Sasson Somekh, Memmi had never mastered literary Arabic; he confessed that with his Arab and Arabic-speaking counterparts, he had “nothing in common.” Moreover, unlike other scholars of Jews of the Islamic world, he refused to romanticize a golden past of “convivencia.” Instead, Memmi moved with the literary currents of the day, enjoying increasing amounts of attention as one of the godparents of Francophonie, along with Mouloud Mammeri, Driss Chraibi, Mouloud Feraoun, Assia Djebar, and Tahar Ben Jelloun, and more recently, with a whole new cohort of Maghrebi-related writers led by Leila Slimani, Fouad Laraoui, and Kemal Daoud, among others.
Memmi’s Jewish roots continued to haunt him, and he was frequently called on to adopt a public position on the Palestinian-Israel conflict. He viewed it as a chronic affliction immobilizing both sides, but for the Palestinians, even more. “The Palestinians are dominated by the Israelis,” he wrote in 2004 in Decolonization and the Decolonized; “No people has the right to dominate another, and cannot succeed in doing so forever.” He urged Jewish nationalists to “give up their dream of creating a Jewish state throughout Palestine.” Yet he was often accused of being a pro-Zionist. If this was true, he was an extremely reluctant one. Memmi rejected the hyper-nationalism adopted by many of his fellow North African Jews and openly dissented from joining their political organizations. At the same time, he distanced himself from left-wing Arab Jewish intellectuals such as Yehouda Shenhav, who called on Israelis to rethink the Nakba in terms of their own culpability. Judging him in hindsight on this issue, it would be easy to accuse Memmi of moral ambiguity. In reality, his position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict did not endear him to either side, and in this domain, he was unloved by all.
Yet his achievements endure, in spite of his evasive politics, largely due to his marvelous contributions to world literature. Even late in life, his charm, his man-about-town air, and his passion for life permeated his personality and his writing. Nor did he ever completely set aside the fundamental contradictions that were the starting point for his literary success. In 1988, when his novel Le Pharaon (“The Pharaoh”) first appeared, Memmi made the following observation, according to historian Lucette Valensi: “…it is true,” he said, “that you could read my books from the perspective of rupture and conflict, but you could also read them from the perspective of an effort to resolve these ruptures and conflicts.”
Albert Memmi’s work has been translated into more than twenty languages, and dozens of theses and other scholarly works are dedicated to him.