The Franco-Tunisian writer Albert Memmi, who died in Paris on 22 May at the age of 99, was possibly the last surviving member of the generation of French and North African writers who contributed to debates about the end of French colonialism in the countries of the Arab Maghreb in the 1950s and 1960s.
French psychiatrist Frantz Fanon is probably the best-known member of this generation today, especially in the United States where his writings on the Algerian War of Independence are widely read in post-colonial studies. But Memmi in a sense preceded him because he published his most famous contribution to such debates, the Portrait du colonisé, précédé de Portrait du colonisateur, his “portraits of the colonised and the coloniser,” immediately after Tunisian independence and even before the War in Algeria had reached its most violent phase.
Memmi was also of North African descent, unlike Fanon who was born in the Caribbean island of Martinique, then as now part of France. This meant that in his Portraits Memmi was able to write about what he called the “colonial situation” in North Africa from the inside, with the force of direct experience backing up his criticisms of French colonialism in the region and his support for independence.
At the same time Memmi retained a certain distance from the independence movements, and he sometimes expressed misgivings about growing nationalism in the Maghreb. While he thought it was necessary in order to mobilise the majority population behind the struggle to throw off French colonial rule, the danger was, like with other nationalisms before and since, that it could turn out to be less tolerant of minorities, including the Tunisian Jewish community from which he came.
Born in Tunis in 1920 and growing up among 12 brothers and sisters in a traditionally Jewish area of the city, Memmi attended a local Jewish school before attending the Lycée Carnot in Tunis, the most prestigious of the French colonial schools in Tunisia. It was his experience of growing up in Tunisia’s largely poor Jewish community, at the time numbering some 150,000, and then leaving it behind to study in French colonial schools that he recorded in his first novel, La Statue de sel (Pillar of Salt), which appeared in Paris in 1953 with a preface by French-Algerian novelist Albert Camus.
According to academic Annie Goldman, quoted in an obituary of Memmi in the French newspaper Le Monde, while La Statue de sel was part of a group of novels by Maghreb writers appearing in Paris in these years, among them works in French by Algerian writers Mohamed Dib, Kateb Yacine, and Assia Djebar, Memmi’s novel was something of a “clap of thunder” for Tunisia’s Jewish community. “People were both proud and shocked” by the novel, she said. “It was the first time that someone from Tunis, least of all a Jew, had had something published in Paris. But it was also the first time that someone had described the poverty” of this community and written so frankly about it.
A second novel, Agar, appeared in Paris in 1955, also drawing on Memmi’s memories of growing up in Tunisia, and the following year, with Tunisia’s independence negotiated between then French prime minister Pierre Mendès France and the country’s first post-colonial president Habib Bourguiba, Memmi settled permanently in Paris. After university studies in neighbouring Algeria he had lived in Tunisia in the years leading up to independence, and he had begun to publish pieces in Tunisian and French newspapers and magazines. However, according to Le Monde, it was also at this time that Memmi realised that the new Tunisian nation would “necessarily and legitimately be Muslim and Arab” and that his “real country” would be literature.
The Portraits, published in Paris in 1957 with a preface by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, are divided, as their name suggests, into two parts.
There is a portrait of the “coloniser,” in the case of the Maghreb of European origin and often, but by no means always, French, and a portrait of the “colonised,” often, but also by no means always, of Arab or Muslim descent. While the coloniser could be of Italian, Maltese, or other origin, particularly in Tunisia under French colonial rule, the colonised could also be of Berber or Jewish as well as of Arab or Muslim heritage.
What was important, Memmi thought, was the “colonial situation” that ranged the coloniser against the colonised, producing the kind of polarisation that could not be assuaged by dialogue and could only be ended by the colonised seizing independence.
Of the coloniser, Memmi writes that for him a colony was “a place where one earns more and spends less… Jobs are guaranteed, wages high, careers more rapid and business more profitable” than it was at home. For this reason, while “not all Europeans in the colonies are potentates or possess thousands of acres or run the government,” least of all in France’s North African colonies, the “small coloniser still defends the colonial system… because he benefits from it to some extent.” While he is the “dupe and victim” of a system that is almost as indifferent to his interests as it is to those of the colonised, he “also gets his share.”
Of the colonised, Memmi says that he has been robbed as much of his dignity and his identity as of his land and the opportunity to participate in the government of his own country. “The vast majority of colonised children are in the streets. And he who has the wonderful good luck to be accepted in a school will not be saved. The memory which is assigned him is certainly not that of his people. The history which is taught him is not his own. He knows who Colbert or Cromwell was, but he learns nothing about [pre-colonial Tunisian prime minister Mohamed] Khaznadar; he knows about Joan of Arc, but not about [7th-century Berber queen] El Kahena. Everything seems to have taken place outside his country. He and his land are nonentities or exist only with reference to the Gauls, the Franks, or the Marne.”
Both sides of the divide are necessarily damaged, the coloniser trapped on one side and the colonised on the other, with each representing half a common problem. Perhaps for this reason, while Memmi has harsh words to say for the “coloniser who accepts” the colonial situation, even investing in it by “attending all the military parades… and playing his part by dressing up ostentatiously,” he is scarcely more forgiving of the “coloniser who refuses.” This chapter of the book, thought to be criticising French-Algerian liberals such as Camus who had been trying to find a peaceful solution to the escalating crisis in neighbouring Algeria, implies that there is little difference to be drawn between “colonisers who accept” and “colonisers who refuse” the “colonial situation,” and neither can have a place in an independent nation.
“Colonial relations do not stem from individual good will or actions; they exist before his birth, and whether he accepts or rejects them matters little… Being oppressed as a group, the colonised must necessarily adopt a national and ethnic form of liberation from which he [the ‘coloniser who refuses’] cannot but be excluded,” Memmi wrote. This seemed to auger ill for the possibility of the kind of diverse and liberal society that Camus and others wanted to see develop in North Africa after independence, and Memmi’s “caricatures” of those who wanted to find approaches to decolonisation other than nationalism and escalating violence were bitterly criticised by some commentators at the time.
In later years, Memmi turned to other instances of oppression, including of his own community of North African Jews. In 1962, he published another portrait, this time the Portrait d’un Juif, which employed similar sociological-psychological methods but was also more autobiographical. Memmi says that this portrait “is in large measure my own,” and that it was conceived as part of a “long enterprise” that had to do not only with his own self-discovery but also with the better understanding of others.
“Starting from my own condition as colonised, and then from my condition as a Jew, I have discovered the meaning of other kinds of oppression and of the relationships that generate oppression, unfortunately one of the most permanent features of the human condition,” Memmi wrote, in an enquiry that he continued in later books including L’Homme dominé (1968) which extended the analysis to other oppressed classes including servants and women. Another book, La Libération du Juif, published in 1966, continued Memmi’s autobiographical investigations and announced his loyalty to the state of Israel.
Re-reading Memmi’s work from the 1950s and 1960s today plunges the reader back into the decolonisation movements of the period, especially the debates in France over North African independence and the Algerian War of Independence. It provides background to the writings of Fanon, especially the chapters on identity and national culture in Les Damnés de la terre and L’An V de la révolution algérienne, and it contrasts with writings by others similarly concerned with the independence movements of the time and North Africa’s future character and relationship with France, among them distinguished figures of French and French North African origin such as Camus, Jacques Berque, Jean Lacouture, Jacques Derrida, and others.
Memmi played no further part in the affairs of his native country after leaving it in 1957, and his account of North African and other post-colonial countries some half century later (Portrait du décolonisé arabo-musulman et de quelques autres) was generally not well received when it appeared in 2004. However, there is an intriguing story that appears in French academic Guy Degas’s magnificent critical edition of Memmi’s Portraits that may indicate that his contributions from the 1950s were not entirely forgotten.
Invited to the Algiers International Book Fair in 2006, Memmi discovered what seemed to be a pirated Algerian edition of his Portrait du colonisé with a preface by none other than then Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, this after Memmi had concluded that his work had been blackballed in the Maghreb. While undoubtedly tendentious from Memmi’s point of view, Bouteflika’s preface did at least give the book an official imprimatur, putting it back in circulation in Algeria and within the reach of ordinary readers.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly