“I was sort of a half-breed of colonization, understanding everyone because I belonged completely to no one.”
― Albert Memmi
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
The Heresies of Albert Memmi: Jonathan Judaken, Tablet, June 24, 2020
Why Memmi Matters: Susie Linfield, Fathom Journal, June 2020
Telling the Whole Truth: Albert Memmi: Daniel Gordon, Jewish Review of Books, Spring 2018
Albert Memmi’s About-Face: Lisa Lieberman, Michigan Quarterly Review, Volume XLVI, Issue 3, Summer 2007
Can you sit shiva for someone you have never met? I ask because I’ve been in mourning since learning that Albert Memmi passed away on Friday, May 22. When I learned the news, I was in the midst of working through the copy-editing of The Albert Memmi Reader, available in December to celebrate Memmi’s centenary. The compendium condenses the library of one of the great heretical Jewish thinkers of the past century.
Memmi’s resistance to fallow binaries was woven into his cultural DNA. He was both Jew and Arab, Tunisian and French, African and European, born poor and yet privileged, Jewish but staunchly secular, a Zionist and critical of Israel, a leftist who highlighted the blindness of progressives, a prophet of national liberation whose viewpoint was internationalist. He died a socialist and anti-colonialist who was unafraid to highlight the failures of Third World postcolonial regimes.
Memmi is most remembered as the author of The Colonizer and the Colonized, published in 1957 just when the Algerian revolution was locked in the bloodbath memorably fictionalized in Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers. The book sealed the global reputation of a young writer, then 37. In it, he patiently showed how colonization rotted not only the colonized but also the colonial oppressor. To break the deadlock required a revolt that ultimately would free both parties from the chains that bound them.
Famously introduced by Jean-Paul Sartre, just as the French editions of his breakthrough novel, The Pillar of Salt, would be prefaced by Camus, Memmi was the last living representative of that suave generation of great existentialist thinkers living in Paris. Ultimately, he broadened their purview to consider how the dialectic of human recognition that figures so prominently in their work needed rewriting in a colonial context.
Memmi’s treatise on decolonization was about more than just the strictures of colonization. It is one of the great texts on the mot du jour on many college campuses: privilege. It established Memmi as one of the most insightful commentators on racism, a topic he rethought anew as “a native in a colonial country, a Jew in an anti-Semitic universe, an African in a world dominated by Europe.” … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
On 22 May Albert Memmi, the Tunisian-born writer, died in Paris at the age of 99. He was eulogised as the last of the generation of the intellectuals that included Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre – both of whom wrote introductions to his books; that generation also included thinkers like Maxime Rodinson and Isaac Deutscher, who, like Memmi, struggled with the question of Zionism, albeit in very different ways. Memmi is sometimes described as ‘neither right nor left,’ but this is a misnomer. He always considered himself a leftist: ‘I continue to think that socialism is the only honorable, probably the only effective, road open to humanity,’ he wrote in 1966. ‘We [Jews] were, in a way, condemned to the Left.’ Even after the Left’s rancor towards Israel became widespread, Memmi affirmed this attachment. Socialists, he wrote in 1975, ‘are my people, their ethics are mine, and I hope to build with them a world for all; it is among them that you will find the greatest number of Jewish intellectuals, and that is fine’. As far as I know, he never wavered in this commitment.
But his was a Left firmly rooted in the Enlightenment values of universal human rights. In this sense, I would place Memmi beside thinkers like Primo Levi and Jean Améry. In one of Améry’s last essays, he expressed a thought that clearly guided Memmi too: ‘Together with the skepticism that … rather ingeniously complements it, the benevolent optimism of the Enlightenment, with its constant values of freedom, reason, justice, and truth is our sole hope of making history … Enlightenment is … the constant illuminating dialogue that we are obliged to conduct with ourselves and with others.’ Memmi’s last book, Decolonization and the Decolonized (2004), was written in what I would call an Améryian spirit. In it, Memmi fiercely criticised the depredations of many post-colonial regimes, including dictatorship, torture, women’s oppression, religious fanaticism, economic exploitation, and intellectual sterility; this was not a departure from his leftism but a reaffirmation of it.
Memmi’s astonishingly long career as a writer and thinker – as essayist and novelist – contained multitudes; he wrote about colonialism and anti-colonialism, racism, the Jewish condition, Arabs and Jews, domination and dependence, among many other topics. Here I would like to concentrate on the quality of his thinking, from which I think we could learn so much today, and to place him in the context of several other thinkers.
Much has been made of Memmi’s insistence on his multiple ethnic, or national, identities. He was simultaneously Jewish, Arab, and French: ‘I do not think I have ever failed this triple agenda.’ (His political identities were also multiple and, he insisted, not in contradiction: He was a Zionist, an anti-colonialist, a supporter of Third World revolutions, a secularist, a socialist, a nationalist, a universalist.) But these national identities were not just an easy form of multiculturalism, as might be imagined today. In fact, they weren’t easy at all, and they existed in a constant dialectic: ‘All of my work has been in sum an inventory of my attachments; all of my work has been … a constant revolt against my attachments.’ Like the Lebanese-French writer Amin Maalouf, who insisted that ‘every individual is a meeting ground for many different allegiances,’ … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
“I continue to think, in spite of frequent hesitations, that I must tell not only the truth but the whole truth. And this will be not only my aesthetic signature . . . but my most important political contribution.” With this diary entry from 1956, the young Tunisian writer Albert Memmi summed up the attitude that has earned him both admiration and enmity over an intellectual career that has spanned more than half a century.
Memmi has defended Third World revolutions while condemning their tyrannical by-products ever since his native country drove out its Jewish population soon after attaining independence. The recently published Tunisie, An I (Tunisia, Year I) is Memmi’s diary from the years 1955 and 1956. This was when Tunisia ceased to be a French protectorate and became, as its new constitution stated, “an Islamic state.”
Born in 1920 and still active, Memmi grew up on the border of Hara, the Jewish ghetto of Tunis, and an adjacent Muslim neighborhood. His family spoke Judeo-Arabic at home, but he became a scholarship student at the best French schools. In the early 1950s, he emerged as a prize-winning French novelist, then turned his hand to political theory. In 1957, his most widely read and translated work, The Colonizer and the Colonized, appeared with a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre. Memmi’s book, with its far-reaching conceptions of colonial privilege and racism, was essential reading in radical theory until the 1970s, when he began to fall from grace in leftist circles, partly because of his defense of Israel, partly because of his criticism of the new Muslim nations of North Africa and the Middle East.
The seeds of Memmi’s separation from the Left are already evident in some of the diary entries in Tunisie, An I. Guy Dugas, a professor at the Paul Valéry University in Montpellier, is to be congratulated for editing the diary, and for including several articles by Memmi from the 1950s that dealt with the pressure faced by Jews in decolonizing North Africa. In one of these articles, an essay published in 1956, Memmi argued that how a polity treats its Jews is the best index of its level of freedom. “A society that wishes to liberate humankind must naturally liberate its Jews . . . At least in our historical era, the destiny of the Jew is consubstantial with the destiny of man.”
Memmi’s startling independence of mind has always been linked to his Jewish partisanship. His sensitivity to the persecution of Jews in political regimes of all types meant that he had no a priori attachment to socialism, nationalism, capitalism, or any other “ism.” He has combined, perhaps more than any other writer since World War II, the compassion needed to articulate the suffering of oppressed groups with the forthrightness needed to censure them for their own acts of oppression. “[I]f we are to help decolonized peoples,” Memmi wrote in 2004, “we must . . . acknowledge and speak the truth to them, because we feel they are worthy of hearing it.” … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
Decolonization and the Decolonized. By Albert Memmi. Translated by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Pp. 160. $17.95 paper.
In The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957), Albert Memmi remarked that “the benevolent colonizer can never attain the good, for his only choice is not between good and evil, but between evil and uneasiness.” Evil and uneasiness are a fair description of the choices faced by Leah Shakdiel, an Israeli peace activist featured in the documentary Can You Hear Me?: Israeli and Palestinian Women Fight for Peace. Born in a house that once belonged to Arabs, she rejected the crusading Zionism of her parents, choosing instead to live in a small town in the Negev desert and to work for social justice. But in order to visit her daughter, who lives in a West Bank settlement, she must travel on what she calls an “apartheid road”—a highway open only to Israelis; her daughter’s decision, Shakdiel confesses to the filmmaker, makes her feel like a failure as a mother. All the same, she loves her daughter. What can she do?
The fatal ambiguities of Shakdiel’s situation are brought home in a wrenching scene where she meets with a Palestinian peace activist, Maha Abu Dayyah-Shamas, and finds that her years of dedication to the cause of coexistence count for nothing in the other woman’s eyes. Abu Dayyah-Shamas runs a legal aid and counseling center for women in Beit Hanina, a Palestinian village northwest of Jerusalem cut in half by the separation wall. To get from her house to her office across the street, she must travel eight miles and pass through a checkpoint. Life for the three thousand inhabitants of Beit Hanina is plagued by such ordeals, and Abu Dayyah-Shamas does not distinguish between the Zionism of the Israeli settlers whose protection requires the wall and the well-intentioned Shakdiel who, as she calmly points out, is in a position of power whether she chooses to exercise it or not. “No matter how he may reassure himself,” Memmi wrote, “[the well-intentioned colonizer] suspects, even if he is in no way guilty as an individual, that he shares a collective responsibility by the fact of membership in a national oppressor group.”
Critics of Zionism have been applying the lessons of The Colonizer and the Colonized to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the early 1970s, although Memmi has always resisted this analogy. “Israel . . . is not a colonial settlement,” he asserts again in his new book, Decolonization and the Decolonized. “Aside from its domination of the Palestinians, which is unacceptable, it has none of the characteristics of such a state.” Zionism, in Memmi’s view, has more in common with the nationalist movements for self-determination that he championed as a young man alongside Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon, the independence of his native Tunisia chief among them. Like other oppressed peoples, Jews were entitled to liberation, to sovereignty; Israel was as legitimate as any of the new states that emerged in the postwar era and had the same right to defend its existence. “I approve and continue to approve of the liberation and the national development of the Arabs. Why should I not wish for the same things for my own people?” he demanded in an essay he published after the Yom Kippur war, the defensive tone a clear indication of the widening rift between Memmi and his erstwhile leftist and third-worldist comrades. … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
FOR FURTHER REFERENCE:
The Colonizer and the Colonized: Albert Memmi, Boston: Beacon Press, 1965 — It would be untrue to say that I foresaw the full significance of this book in 1957 when I wrote it. I had written a first novel, The Pillar of Salt, a life story which was in a sense a trial balloon to help me find the direction of my own life.
En 1967, Albert Memmi décortique la condition juive contemporaine: Archives RCI, Radio Canada, YouTube, June 1, 2020 — Albert Memmi (1920-2020), écrivain et sociologue français d’origine tunisienne explore sa judéité et la condition juive en général dans le cadre d’une entrevue de fond avec Fernand Seguin. Il raconte les grandes étapes de sa démarche intellectuelle. Entre autres sujets abordés : les divers moyens de se refuser comme Juif; le processus qui mène à l’antisémitisme; l’explication du phénomène du Juif antisémite; la démarche vers l’acception de soi pour un Juif; la position des partis de gauche sur la question des Juifs; la solution pour libérer le Juif de toutes les dominations et le rôle de l’État d’Israël dans cette libération.
Albert Memmi: Zionism as National Liberation: Susie Linfield, Fathom Journal, June 2019 — A Jew. An Arab. An African. A nationalist. An internationalist. A secularist. A socialist.
Albert Memmi: The Syndrome of Self-exile Isaac Yetiv, University of Hartford, June 6, 1974— Among the native writers of the Maghreb, Albert Memmi seems to best represent the general trend in the evolution of North-African literature of French expression: from ethnocentrism to universalism