Obituary: Tunisian author Albert Memmi

Adieu, Albert!

Albert Memmi, Tunisian author and pioneer of a sociology of de-colonisation, died on 22 May 2020 in Paris. He was nearly 100 years old. He was the last of a generation of Maghreb novelists writing in French. A personal obituary by Regina Keil-Sagawe

It was Sartre and Camus who once introduced Albert Memmi to the Parisian literary milieu. Today, Memmi’s essays on colonialism, dominant behaviour and racism are sociological classics inspired by his own personal suffering. In 1942, as a young student of sociology, he was expelled from the University of Algiers by the Vichy regime and held captive until 1943, during the German occupation of Tunisia.

He is probably most famous for his "Portrait du colonise suivi du portrait du colonisateur", a searing criticism of the colonial system. Published in Paris in 1957 with a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, "The Coloniser and the Colonised" put wind in the sails of resistance fighters in the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62). The book was secretly circulated throughout the nation, even in prisons, and together with Frantz Fanon’s 1961 essay "The Wretched of the Earth", is regarded as a key anti-colonial manifesto.

The inner strife of the post-colonial individual

Albert Memmi got the measure of the entire twentieth century with its identitarian strife, wars and colonial conflicts, repression and imbalances of power. For example, his first autobiographical novel "La Statue de Sel" (The Pillar of Salt) published in 1953 with a preface by Albert Camus, reflects on the conflict of identity experienced by Maghreb Jews in colonial constellations:

"I will always rediscover myself as Mordechai, Alexander, Benillusch. Native of a colonial country, a Jew in an anti-Semitic universe, an African in a world dominated by Europe. (...) How can a synthesis arise from so many contradictions?"

He pursued this very question throughout his life. As a Tunisian Jew, Albert Memmi, co-founder of the newspaper Afrique Action (later Jeune Afrique) together with Bechir Ben Yahmed in 1955, and one-time friend and ally of the later Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba – no longer found his place in post-colonial Tunisia. Together with his wife, the Alsace-born German scholar Germaine Dubach, he emigrated to Paris in 1956.

As the distinguished professor of sociology at the University of Nanterre, as co-founder of the International Association for Sociology in the French Language (1959) and winner of the "Grand Prix de la Francophonie" awarded by the Academie Francaise (2004), he represents an imposing body of work on the issue of the inner strife experienced by the post-colonial individual between Orient and Occident.

Cover of Albert Memmi's "The Pillar of Salt" (published by Beacon Press)
In his first novel "The Pillar of Salt", Albert Memmi tells his own story. Alexander Mordechai Benillusch, the hero of the book, makes his way out of the confines of the suburbs of Tunis and into the world. The son of a Berber woman and a Jewish father, raised in the educational world of the French high school, he describes being torn between different worlds: between Jews and Muslims, Tunisians and French

Born on 15 December 1920 in Tunis, the avowed atheist Albert Memmi died on 22 May 2020 in Paris – a Sabbath between the Ramadan Night of Destiny and Eid ul-Fitr, the "Sugar Feast".

In his writing garret

There was always a small dish of nibbles on hand whenever interviewers came to visit Memmi in his writer’s wigwam, a rambling garret up in the loft of an old Parisian rear-courtyard house in Rue Saint-Merri in the Marais quarter, stuffed with souvenirs from his childhood in Hara, the poor Jewish neighbourhood of Tunis.

Memmi observed the world with an alert gaze to the last, but his analyses were not always well-received.

When he issued a bleak prognosis on French television in 2011, during the first euphoric rush of the Jasmine Revolution, he came under bitter attack.

When, in "Portrait du Decolonisé" (2004), he read the riot act to the rulers of the post-colonial era and – half a century after independence – blamed them and not the former colonial rulers for corruption, poverty and totalitarianism, he seriously ruffled some feathers.

Condemned to an existence as "inert nomad" having suffered a femoral neck fracture in a fall, Memmi – in accordance with the title of his autobiography ("Le nomade immobile", 2003) – tended to receive visitors to his salon in a swivel chair propped up on several volumes of the French "Encyclopaedia Universalis".

Memmi’s definition of racism was included in this universal lexicon.

The coincidence could not have been more symbolic: a sage old man, who during his lifetime felt an affiliation with the stoics Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca the Younger, now sat enthroned above everything, a serene smile on this face, taking stock of an entire century.

More on this topic