In 1957, Albert Memmi published a slender but explosive book, Portrait du colonisé précédé de Portrait du colonisateur, later translated as The Coloniser and the Colonised. Memmi was a Jew from Tunisia; he was in his late thirties and firmly on the left. At the time of publication, France had entered the fourth year of an undeclared war against nationalist insurgents in Algeria; it had lost its imperial foothold in Indochina in 1954 and was now determined to hang on to its possessions in Africa. Most French critics of colonial rule focused on land expropriation, the exploitation of indigenous labour and violent repression. To Memmi, however, these were symptoms of a broader, structural malaise. He depicted colonialism in North Africa – and elsewhere – as ‘a pyramid of privilege’ in which European settlers stood at the top, and the Arab Muslim majority at the absolute bottom. Even the poorest of Europeans – the so-called petits blancs or little whites – had an advantage over the wealthiest of Arabs, as members of the colonising population. As for Jews like himself, they too were colonised, yet they were a notch above the Arabs, and looked to France and the French language as potential sources of emancipation.
As a young man, he had defied his own community by allying himself with Arab nationalists fighting against French rule, but once Tunisia was liberated in 1956, he settled in France. While he believed that Tunisian Muslims had every right to expel the French who’d ruled their country as a protectorate since 1881, he had no wish to live under a government that he expected to be strongly influenced by Islam. Memmi, who died in late May, spent the rest of his life in Paris, in an apartment in the Marais, but he remained preoccupied with the question of the ‘lived experience’ of colonial domination, racism and other forms of oppression. He was especially concerned with the disfiguring effects of oppression on the minds of the oppressed: as he wrote in his preface to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, ‘injustice, injury, humiliation and insecurity can be as unbearable as hunger.’ While he insisted on the specificity of each form of oppression – analysis had to begin with ‘le vécu’, the concrete, unique experience of the dominated, rather than abstractions – he captured what they have in common: the humiliating denial of dignity, the compulsion to assimilate the norms of one’s oppressors. Nurtured ‘in institutions and ideologies, in education and in culture’, racism was driven less by hatred than by what he called ‘heterophobia’, the fear of difference. When the dominant society ‘integrated’ members of racially oppressed groups who assimilated, this wasn’t a victory against racism so much as a capitulation to its heterophobic logic. He believed that the victims of racism should proclaim their rights to be accepted as they are, ‘with their differences’, rather than to prove their ability to be honorary whites. Léopold Sédar Senghor, the Négritude poet and independent Senegal’s first president, praised him as ‘the African who most lucidly analysed our situation as colonised, and who has offered the most fruitful solutions’.
In recent years, however, Memmi has become an unfashionable figure. Although he wrote one of the greatest French-language novels about colonisation, La Statue de sel (The Pillar of Salt), a bildungsroman published in 1953, he isn’t read in Tunisian classrooms, or much remembered in Tunisian intellectual circles, except among Tunisian Jews in the diaspora. In a sense, he’s been reduced to his status as a ‘minority’ North African Jewish writer. Memmi’s attachment to Israel is partly to blame: his failure, or refusal, to see the colonial nature of Zionism did little to raise his standing among anti-colonial intellectuals. Nor did the unforgiving tone of his writing about the post-colonial condition: like V.S. Naipaul when he wrote about the Caribbean, Memmi seemed to flaunt his disappointment with, and estrangement from, the world he’d left behind.
Yet Memmi’s decline also reflects a strength of his work: its refusal of consolations (among them inspirational heroism), and its sense of tragedy. Born in 1920, between the poet Aimé Césaire (1913) and Frantz Fanon (1925), Memmi shared their opposition to colonial domination and took part in the anti-colonial struggle. But unlike Césaire and Fanon, whose writing celebrated revolt, Memmi saw little poetry or utopian promise in anti-colonial struggle. The face of revolt, he said, ‘isn’t pretty’ and can also lead to injustice, since ‘everyone ... looks for an inferior echelon in relation to which he can appear dominant and relatively superior ... Racism is a pleasure within reach of everyone.’ Tunisian independence, he predicted, would leave the country’s Jewish community with little choice but to leave, thanks in part to the otherwise ‘laughable’ privileges they had enjoyed under the French. (On the eve of independence, there were more than 100,000 Jews in Tunisia; today, hardly a thousand remain.) While he didn’t criticise the colonised for using violence, and mocked European liberals who did so, he didn’t see violence as shock therapy: ‘You don’t get out of oppression so easily.’ It was one thing to remove the external barriers that had confined the oppressed, quite another to remove the more crippling psychological ones. Only a severe and unyielding labour of reflection could pave the way to freedom.
Writing was Memmi’s way of freeing himself from the long shadow of colonisation. Like Gide, an early model, he was an intensely confessional writer, both in his fiction and his essays. While he considered autobiography ‘a false genre: a life cannot be recounted’, he admitted that he had ‘devoted my entire work to writing my life’. One of 13 children, only eight of whom survived, he grew up on the edges of El Hara, the Jewish ghetto in Tunis. The Jews of Tunisia were comprised of two communities: the ‘Grana’, prosperous Jews of Italian origin, mostly from Livorno; and the ‘Touansa’ (‘Tunisians’ in Judeo-Arabic dialect), poor artisans who had migrated from Palestine in the first and second centuries. Although some of his ancestors may have come from Italy, the Memmis belonged to the latter group. ‘Memmi’ means ‘little man’, and the Memmis were little people who seldom strayed from the ghetto, which both confined them and provided sanctuary.
Albert Memmi, however, showed signs of academic excellence that exposed him to the world outside. Aged seven, he received a scholarship to the Alliance Israelite Universelle, a French-language school for Jews established by European philanthropists. While learning French, his third language after Judeo-Arabic and Hebrew, Memmi began to see what life might be like beyond the ghetto. But this emancipation came with a growing alienation. In The Pillar of Salt, Memmi’s young hero Alexandre Mordechai Benillouche realises he’s ‘trying to pronounce a language that wasn’t mine’ and ‘would perhaps never be completely mine, and that was, at the same time, indispensable to the conquest of all my dimensions’. His struggle to create a coherent identity ‘out of so many disparities’ is symbolised by his name, an unwieldy composite of French, Hebrew and Arabic. Colonialism, Memmi wrote, creates a ‘linguistic drama’ for the colonised – not least for writers for whom the coloniser’s language is a passport to a wider world.
At the prestigious Lycée Carnot, Memmi studied with the poet Jean Amrouche, a Berber Christian from Algeria, and the French philosopher Aimé Patri. In The Pillar of Salt, the teacher Professor Marrou, based on Amrouche, at first strikes Benillouche as ‘an image of salvation’, proof that ‘it was possible to be born poor and African and to transform oneself into a cultivated and well-dressed man’ and that one could ‘master a language that wasn’t one’s mother tongue’. Benillouche admires Marrou’s eloquence, and his long and elegant fingers, yellowed at their tips by the Oriental tobacco he smokes as he lectures on Racine and Pascal. But he fears becoming like Marrou, a man who, for all the praise he’s received in Parisian literary circles, can’t extricate himself from North Africa. Desperate to remake himself as a Westerner, Benillouche embraces another model: Poinsot, the philosophical rationalist inspired by Patri, who represents France and an escape from the ‘Eastern’ world of his father.
That model began to crumble after the fall of France, when Memmi, by then a student in philosophy at the University of Algiers, was expelled from school under Vichy’s antisemitic laws. As his alter ego reflects: ‘I wanted to reject with all my indignation this new image of France, but, after all, the gendarmes were as French as Descartes and Racine.’ Memmi was thrown into a labour camp, along with other poor Jews from the ghetto (the Grana escaped). In The Pillar of Salt, Benillouche tries to ingratiate himself with his fellow inmates, but they refuse to welcome him as one of their own. French is now his language, and his pitiful attempts to address them in Judeo-Arabic only remind him ‘how much more intimate our conversations would have been if I had spoken their language’. (As Jacques Derrida, a Jew from Algeria, put it: ‘I have only one language, and it is not my own.’)
Memmi escaped the camp, and after the war went to Paris to study philosophy at the Sorbonne. When a rumour spread that, as a Tunisian ‘native’, he might not be permitted to sit the examination, he asked the president of the jury if this was true. ‘It is not a right,’ he was told. ‘Let us say that is a colonial hope.’ Memmi soon grew disenchanted with academic philosophy. ‘I was arriving from North Africa in full torment, I was penniless, I was hungry, and I fell on what? The transcendental game in Kant!’ He was ‘furious: for me, philosophy was blood, death, war, the human condition.’ Instead he studied psychology and sociology, and began a correspondence with Jean-Paul Sartre, whose work – especially his Réflexions sur la question juive – impressed him for its commitment to the ‘bloody concrete of the world of men’.
In 1949, Memmi returned to Tunis with his wife, Marie-Germaine Dubach, a Catholic from Alsace, and their son Daniel. He began teaching at the Lycée Carnot and established a centre for educational research. In 1953 he published The Pillar of Salt, which launched a revolution in French literature from North Africa, soon followed by the novels of Driss Chraïbi in Morocco and Kateb Yacine in Algeria. ‘Here is a French writer from Tunisia who is neither French nor Tunisian,’ Albert Camus wrote in his preface. ‘He’s hardly a Jew since, in a sense, he doesn’t want to be one.’ Camus praised him for his ‘incapacity . . . to melt into the anonymity of a class or a race’ – his refusal of the comfort of collective belonging.
The refusal took a toll on Memmi – all the more so since he had returned home with a European Christian wife who felt out of place in the Arab Mediterranean, and who was terrified by the revolt against French rule. In his 1955 novel Agar, a portrait of a mixed marriage like his own, an assimilated Tunisian Jew and his French wife settle in Tunis, only to find themselves bitterly at odds. The more she complains about his family’s traditional ways and proclaims the superiority of France, the more furiously he rises to the defence of customs he’d prided himself on rejecting, and the more resentment he feels towards his adoptive French culture. As Memmi put it: ‘I discovered the couple is not an isolated cell, a forgotten oasis of light in the middle of the world; on the contrary, the whole world is in the couple.’
His marriage, unlike that of the couple in Agar, survived. The colonial world that had fostered its antagonisms was coming apart for good. Memmi helped contribute to its dissolution, both as a militant in the independence movement led by Habib Bourguiba, and as a founder of the nationalist newspaper Action, edited by Bourguiba from his prison cell. But he undertook his commitments with a growing ambivalence, described in the journal he kept during the last year of French rule in Tunisia. Published a few years ago in France as Tunisie, An I, Memmi’s diary is an extraordinary chronicle of decolonisation as experienced by a Jewish supporter of independence who recognises that the end of French rule may compel him to leave.
At a dinner hosted by a Muslim doctor, Memmi asks: ‘Why should the solidarity of Afro-Arab nations be founded on religion, on the past? Why not on common conditions (political oppression and economic demands), and on the search for a common future, for freedom?’ His host replies: ‘You have to speak for people in the language they understand today in Muslim countries, and the language understood by everybody is religion.’ Memmi is not insensitive to this argument: the country’s oppressed majority are keen to assert themselves as Arabs and as Muslims, and their demands are just. But justice and freedom – at least freedom as he understands it – aren’t the same thing. As a ‘Tunisian Jew of French culture on the left’, he writes, ‘I belong to a French culture and it’s too late for me to change that.’ For all his opposition to colonialism, ‘I neither wish to nor can allow myself to embrace a hatred or pure anti-French passion that I don’t feel ... To deny these difficulties, to not see them, is to close one’s eyes.’
The revolt exacerbates his tensions with Germaine, who worries that she’ll be shot in the street ‘because of the colour of my hair’. Reading of the killing of women and children by Tunisian rebels, she blurts out: ‘They’re savages.’ ‘I don’t contradict her,’ Memmi writes. ‘As much as I myself find these acts truly useless.’ He replies that the violence of the oppressed has to be understood from a clinical, psychological point of view, that it’s ‘provoked by the still fresh memory of European atrocities’. At the same time, he’s troubled by his own silence about anti-colonial atrocities, and fears that he has betrayed his own ethical stance for the sake of the cause, since he never hesitates to condemn colonial repression.
‘There are impossible historical situations beyond justice and injustice,’ he realises. This impossibility is what, in his view, his comrades on the Tunisian left – many of them Jews from Italian backgrounds more privileged than his own – refuse to face. ‘There is a wager in the left’s position on the new nationalisms: that these nationalisms will turn neither towards xenophobic chauvinism, nor towards fascism, nor towards racism . . . This is a dangerous wager. For there is less distance between nationalism and fascism than there is between nationalism and revolution.’ Memmi did not see this as a reason to revoke his support for the liberation of North African Muslims from French domination. It was unfair to ‘ask people who’ve been rejected as non-European and non-Christian for so long to open their arms to non-Muslims and non-Africans’. But one had to be clear-eyed about the likely price of engagement. ‘We have to help the North Africans win their freedom, even if this freedom not only doesn’t benefit us, but even risks injuring us. Historical responsibility and interests don’t always coincide. The rest is infantilism.’ Memmi, in the orbit of the Communist Party but never a communist himself, grasped the paradox of Marxism for left-wing Arab Jews: while the embrace of proletarian internationalism brought them politically closer to the Muslim masses, as a secular Western ideology it intensified their Europeanisation, and therefore their cultural alienation from the masses.
In June 1956, a few months after Tunisia won its independence, Memmi and his family moved to Paris. That winter, against the backdrop of the Battle of Algiers, he met with Sartre, and gave him a copy of an essay, ‘Portrait du colonisateur de bonne volonté’, a ‘portrait of the good-willed coloniser’. The essay, a scathing critique of the European liberal who doesn’t see himself as a coloniser yet refuses to embrace the revolt of the colonised, struck a chord with Sartre, who published it in Les Temps Modernes. It’s not hard to see why. Memmi echoed Sartre’s own writings on ‘bad faith’ and vindicated his deepening conviction that the left would have to move beyond protesting against French repression and torture in Algeria, and give its full backing to the rebels of the Front de Libération Nationale, however bloody their tactics. Sartre may also have read it as a swipe against Camus, who – out of loyalty to his mother and the petits blancs of Algeria, and revulsion at the FLN’s killings of civilians – refused to endorse independence, holding out for a ‘federal’ solution that would leave the country attached to France. Camus evidently interpreted it that way, identifying a veiled portrait of himself in the liberal coloniser who ‘participates in and benefits from those privileges which he half-heartedly denounces’. Their relationship never recovered.
Yet Memmi didn’t spare himself in his account of leftists horrified by the grim and often ugly realities of the anti-colonial struggle they otherwise welcome. Formed by a Western Marxist tradition that condemns terrorism, Memmi writes, the left-wing coloniser recoils from the violence of the colonised. He also fears that when liberation comes the new nation will impose Islamic law. To remain committed to the cause, he has to ‘temporarily forget that he is a leftist’. His choice is ‘not between good and evil, but between evil and uneasiness’, the dilemma Memmi himself faced.
‘He represents no one,’ Sartre wrote of Memmi in his preface to Portrait du colonisé, ‘but since he is everyone at once, he will prove to be the best of witnesses.’ Anticipating some of the themes of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, published four years later, Memmi described colonialism as a ‘diseased’ situation that ‘manufactures colonialists, just as it manufactures the colonised’, its ‘century hardened face . . . nothing more than a mask under which it slowly smothers and dies’. Coloniser and colonised, he argued, were locked in an ‘implacable dependence’ that ‘fashioned their respective traits and dictated their behaviours’. Their conduct was contradictory to the point of being pathological. Drawing on his own ‘lived experience’ in Tunisia, he noted that a coloniser could attend to his workers’ needs while also periodically machine-gunning a crowd of the colonised. And the colonised could ‘at the same time detest the coloniser and admire him passionately (an admiration that I felt, in spite of everything, in myself)’.
At the heart of the colonial relationship was privilege, which he insisted ‘is not solely economic.’ Privilege was a reflection of one’s personhood, not just one’s property or location in the class structure. The essential horror of colonial subjugation was not being deprived of land, but being deprived of humanity, reduced to objecthood (‘a fundamental and complete immobility’), and subjected to a foreign system of values, that of ‘the white man, the non-Jew, the coloniser’. Contrary to Camus, who claimed poor whites like his own family in Algiers were no better off than their Muslim neighbours, Memmi wrote that ‘all Europeans in the colonies are privileged’, and that ‘even the poorest coloniser thought himself to be – and actually was – superior to the colonised’. The pyramid could not be destroyed so long as France remained in North Africa: ‘only the complete liquidation of colonisation permits the colonised to be free.’
In France in 1957, these were fighting words. Morocco and Tunisia had become independent, but Algeria remained part of France and the entire French establishment opposed independence. When Memmi requested French citizenship, he was told he’d never get it because Portrait du colonisé was ‘damaging to France’. (Thanks to interventions by a ‘few well-placed friends in Paris’, he became a citizen in 1973.) He taught in the department of sociology in Nanterre, but remained a loner, and felt little sympathy for the soixante-huitards, whom he dismissed as the coddled children of the liberal bourgeoisie, play-acting at revolution. Memmi received proofs of L’homme dominé as the uprising broke out. The book could hardly have been less timely, given its preoccupation with identity, racism and the oppressive force of whiteness, rather the overthrow of capitalism, the society of the spectacle or the cultural revolution in China.
L’homme dominé applied Memmi’s arguments about colonial privilege and domination to other groups, notably black Americans. In an essay on Martin Luther King, James Baldwin and Malcolm X, he argued that black Americans confronted not merely exploitation and disenfranchisement, but coercive pressure to ‘simulate the white to the point of becoming him, in order to become, at last, a perfect American citizen, in other words a white American’ – a quixotic aspiration, in any case, since ‘the deep desire, hidden or admitted by the white man, is to totally exclude the black man from his horizon.’ Racism, he wrote, would disappear only when ‘the oppressed person has ceased to be oppressed’, and when they could affirm their identity, since ‘heterophobia’ was as crucial a mechanism of domination as privilege. What Sartre, who ‘spoke as a white man and as a non-Jew’, had failed to understand is that for blacks, Jews and other minorities, collective identity is a positive good, and not simply a provisional response to oppression. And though Memmi was not an advocate of racial separatism, he had more sympathy for it than Fanon, who, like Sartre, saw black consciousness as a stage that would have to be surpassed in the name of larger, more revolutionary forms of solidarity among the peoples of the ‘Third World’.
Memmi’s view was bleaker: while ‘all the oppressed are alike in some ways,’ they have to fight on their own, free of other people’s expectations or agendas. This had nothing to do with sentimental ethnic pride, which he considered ‘spurious’: ‘I’ve known for a long time that identity is never identical to itself, neither in space nor in time, neither in an individual nor in a group, that this whole business is largely imaginary.’ But history had turned this imaginary marker into something real, or as he put it, ‘concrete’, and he doubted it could be transcended. His experience of the tensions between colonised Arabs and Jews in Tunisia had led him to look askance at liberationist rhetoric, and at the prospects for alliances between oppressed groups whose histories were distinct and sometimes clashing. As Memmi saw it, oppression divided more than it united its victims; the psychic damage it inflicted would be a lasting obstacle to those who, like Fanon, dreamed of creating a ‘new man’ in the Third World. Although his political sympathies were with the dominated, Memmi described their condition as nearly inescapable, thanks to the limitations imposed by the concrete. In the case of women, he argued, the concrete was not simply a fact of history but of biology. In his essay on Simone de Beauvoir, he wrote (with a condescension of which he was altogether oblivious) that in spite of her ‘intense cultural life, prestigious companion, money, and literary and social success’, she failed to ‘achieve the summit of the feminine condition’ because she never had children. The refusal of feminists like Beauvoir to bear children, he claimed, had caused their thinking to ‘fall into abstraction’.
This was also his quarrel with Fanon, whom he accused of succumbing to ‘revolutionary romanticism’. Memmi never met Fanon, who arrived in Tunis a few months after he’d left for Paris. But they had a number of things in common: friendship with Sartre, a fascination with the psychology of colonisation, involvement in North African independence movements. Fanon, however, had a more dynamic sense of historical possibility; he wanted to revolutionise the anti-colonial revolt, to push it beyond a narrow nationalism, even to create a kind of United States of Africa. Unlike Memmi, he said little about Islam’s importance in North African nationalism and hoped that the commitment European and Jewish militants had shown to the independence struggle would insure Algeria’s future as a multi-ethnic society. This was a vision he shared with a small but influential group of leftists in the FLN, and with Tunisian-Jewish communists whom both he and Memmi had known in Tunis.
For Memmi, this vision rested, again, on a denial of the concrete: the ‘self-hatred’ and ‘mutilation’ of the colonised, and their desire to reclaim and assert their identities, religious and national, rather than initiate a socialist revolution. When he revisited Fanon’s work on the tenth anniversary of his death in 1971, Memmi argued that Fanon should have gone back to Martinique, rather than try to reinvent himself as an Algerian. He was a black man, after all, not a white African; he ought to have known his limits and respected them. Instead of making common cause with North African Muslims who would never accept him as one of their own, he could have helped ‘his’ people, as Aimé Césaire had done.
The irony of this indictment was that Memmi himself had chosen to live in France, not in Israel, among ‘his’ people. Still, his critique of Fanon was coloured by his Zionism, which he described as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. The struggle over Palestine, he said, was ‘a minor drama in a small corner of the world.’ Although he supported the creation of a Palestinian state, he didn’t raise his voice against practices of repression that he had condemned in colonial North Africa – or against the exclusionary system of ethnic privilege and domination on both sides of the ‘green line’ between Israel and the Occupied Territories. Memmi might have replied, in his defence, that the face of the oppressed is seldom pretty; he knew that victims could become perpetrators. He was also bitter at the exodus of North Africa’s Jews after independence. Still, a writer so attuned to paradox, ambiguity and historical contingency – and to the bad faith of the left-wing coloniser who refuses to support the liberation struggle – might have made something of the fact that, at the very moment the colonial empires of Europe were falling, the victims of Western antisemitism had driven another semitic people into exile and established a highly militarised colonial settler society permeated by racial discrimination. But he refused to apply his own analysis of colonial privilege and heterophobia to the question of Palestine. In one of his last television appearances he remarked that while the two thousand Palestinian civilians whom Israel had killed during the Second Intifada were ‘two thousand too many’, the number hardly compared to the million killed in Rwanda, a country that had never previously elicited his concern.
In his 2004 Portrait du décolonisé arabo-musulman et de quelques autres (Decolonisation and the Decolonised), Memmi proclaimed his ‘great disillusionment’ with the post-colonial world. ‘There has been a change of masters, but, like new leeches, the new ruling classes are often greedier than the old.’ Post-colonial authoritarianism and corruption, he argued, were driving the decolonised citizens of the developing world into ‘a zigzag march between an increasingly frayed national present and a distant utopian future’. Those lucky enough to obtain visas had emigrated to the lands of their former masters, who needed them in factories but lacked the capacity, or will, to absorb them as fellow citizens: immigration, the ‘punishment for colonial sin’, was generating a new and intractable conflict between the decolonised and their European ‘hosts’. Far from crossing ‘from purgatory to paradise’, the decolonised immigrant
discovers that he has moved from one purgatory to another, one that is more comfortable, but one to whose laws he must submit. From now on, rather than simply demanding the complete citizenship so often talked about, he will keep his distance. He is expected to be transparent; on the contrary, he will become more opaque, he will become part of the ghetto.
Still more alienated were his children, especially his sons, for whom Memmi mustered decidedly less sympathy. Memmi described the ‘son of the immigrant’ as
a kind of zombie, lacking any profound attachment to the land in which he was born. He is a French citizen but does not feel in the least bit French; he shares only partially the culture of the majority of the population and certainly not their religion. For all that, he is not completely Arab. He barely speaks the language, which is still used by his parents, to whom he answers in French or some blend of the two incomprehensible to outsiders . . . If he travels to his parents’ homeland, he discovers the extent to which it is not his own. And he would never dream of moving there, as if he were the inhabitant of another planet. And, in truth, he is from another planet: the ghetto.
A year after the publication of Memmi’s book, the children of France’s ghettos, banlieuesards furious over police violence, racism and poverty, set fire to their cités. But Memmi had little to say about these structural conditions and seemed more troubled that ghetto residents had fallen prey to Islamic fundamentalism, antisemitism and what he called ‘dolorism’ – a ‘tendency to exaggerate one’s pains and attribute them to another’. While he admitted that the children of postcolonial immigration experienced ‘a form of stationary dismemberment, torn and pulled from every side’, he argued that if they wished to advance in their ‘host’ society, they would have to stop their antisocial behaviour – by which he meant everything from drug-dealing and singing violent hip-hop lyrics to outward signs of piety such as the hijab – and assimilate. ‘We must say again that one cannot live with resentment for ever, especially if you wish to live elsewhere than your homeland.’ The defender of the right to difference seemed to have succumbed to the ‘heterophobia’ he had once denounced. The book’s title referred to ‘the Arab-Muslim decolonised’: it did not discuss decolonised Arab Jews like himself; or, for that matter, the religious fundamentalism and militarism that Israel shared with post-colonial Arab states.
As Lia Nicole Brozgal argued in Against Autobiography: Albert Memmi and the Production of Theory (2013), he now stood ‘resolutely separated from the object of his description’. Addressing himself to that object, he wrote sternly: ‘we must . . . speak the truth to them, because we feel they are worthy of hearing it.’ He spoke as a French citizen, committed to the model of laïcité, and ‘they’, the descendants of North African Muslims, the people with whom he’d grown up and for whose independence he had fought, would have to conform. While there was a certain honesty to Memmi’s refusal to speak from the perspective of a formerly colonised man, an acknowledgment that his status had irrevocably changed, his lack of empathy left a sour taste. When Tunisia’s young rebels overthrew the Ben Ali dictatorship, he dismissed the Jasmine Revolution as a collective ‘delirium’.
In some respects, Memmi had realised the dream of his hero Alexandre Mordechai Bennilouche to become a Westerner like his lycée teacher Poinsot. Yet he never quite succeeded in turning his back on North Africa. His attic in the Marais was a library of Tunisian books, paintings and memorabilia: his petit pays portatif, or little portable country, he called it. He continued to call himself ‘a child of the Hara’, even if in the eyes of some he’d become a mandarin. Neither a lifetime in France nor French citizenship could make him a Frenchman: France was his home, but his real country, he said, was the French language. He continued to write novels set in Tunisia, and also dedicated himself to expanding imaginative and geographical boundaries by editing anthologies of ‘North African writers of French expression’. If the Swiss Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Belgian Henri Michaux could be considered French writers, he said, so could the great ‘Francophone’ writers of Africa. In his commitment to North African literature in French, Memmi helped free French literature from its own provincialism, its nombriliste focus on the lives of the French white middle classes.
In his 1985 essay Ce que je crois, he said that when French friends told him
‘Let’s forget the past (they mean: colonisation, racism, foreignness, poverty), you’re one of us now,’ I think: yes, now, maybe; but am I sure of this? I’m not even sure of myself; I no longer even know if I still want to be one of you.
The ‘old aggression’ of colonisation had ‘almost ended’, but Memmi was the first to admit that he still ‘carried the wound in myself’. It was this candour about his inner struggle – the unease of the colonised that, unlike colonialism, he never escaped – that distinguished his best work. In a preface to one of his anthologies, he looked forward to a day when a person ‘can belong to two or even three communities without being considered a traitor or a monster’. Memmi himself had experienced being a ‘métis [mongrel]of colonisation’ mostly as a stigma and a burden, but his writing showed that having multiple identities can be an epistemological advantage, even – in a world still struggling with the legacies of colonialism and white supremacy – a kind of privilege.