Heir to a triple culture – Jewish, Tunisian and French -, the writer and researcher Albert Memmi, who died on May 22 at the age of 99 in Paris, will have tried all his life to build bridges between East and West and between Jews and Arabs.
It was born in 1920 in colonial Tunisia. His talent had been recognized very early on by Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre who had prefaced his first works. “The Salt Statue” (novel, 1953) first where he marveled while suffering from having several identities, like his main character, Alexandre Mordekhaï Benillouche.
The “Portrait of the colonized”, preceded by the “portrait of the colonizer” then, an essay published in 1957, in which it expressed the interdependence existing between the colonizer and the colonized. A book, whose Nobel prize winner Nadine Gordimer had prefaced the English translation and whose Léopold Sedar Senghor said he was “enthusiastic”. “A document to which historians of colonization will have to refer,” predicted the first Senegalese president.
Albert Memmi was born in Tunis, the second child of thirteen siblings, into a very modest Arab-speaking Jewish family. He attended very young rabbinical school and then the primary school of the Israelite Alliance where he learned French. A brilliant student, he then received a scholarship which enabled him to join the French lycée in Tunis.
During the Second World War, just after the Allied landings in Algeria in 1943, the Germans invaded Tunisia and he was sent to a forced labor camp.
At the end of hostilities, he left for Algiers to study philosophy, studies which he would pursue at the Sorbonne in Paris.
He married a French woman and settled with her in Tunis where he ran a psycho-sociology laboratory, taught philosophy and directed the cultural pages of the weekly L’Action (the future Young Africa).
But after the independence of Tunisia in 1956, and although it supported the movement of emancipation of its country, Memmi can no longer find its place in this new state which has become Muslim.
He then left for Paris where he became a professor of social psychiatry at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and a research fellow at the CNRS.
– Exclusion and commitment –
There, torn between his different cultures, he will not find his place either, him, the poor child, the despised Maghrebian.
He describes this painful “in-between” in a passage from “The salt statue” as he passes the Philosophical Degree, his stomach screams famine and he feels uncomfortable, helpless, excluded among all these affluent bourgeois sons who talk in a pedantic tone of abstract questions … He then understands that he will be “at home” but never “one of their own”.
He enjoyed international recognition when he published his essay “Portrait of the colonized” in 1957, the day after the independence of Tunisia.
But France was then in the midst of the Algerian war and he encountered serious difficulties with the government which criticized him for his commitment to the “colonized” and refused him French naturalization.
He could only get it in 1973 with the help of Edgar Pisani, also born in Tunis.
At the publisher Maspéro, he directs the collection “Domaine maghrébin”. Memmi will also publish from 1965 an “Anthology of Maghreb literatures”.
In the early 1970s, he reflected on his Jewish origins and then founded the concept of “Jewishness” as the basis of his exploratory work, a concept that would later be used by many intellectuals.
He also founds the concept of “heterophobia” which he develops in his book “Racism” as “the refusal of others in the name of any difference”.
He also published numerous essays: “Portrait of a Jew”, “The liberation of the Jew”, “The dominated man”, “Jews and Arabs”, “Dependence”.
More recently, Albert Memmi had not shared the enthusiasm of many of his contemporaries on the emergence of the “Arab Spring” in 2011. “If the Arab-Muslims do not want secularism, and the problem is never tackled , it will not be serious (…) and if we do not tackle corruption, it will be gossip “, he said in a television interview, laughing at” the kind of delirium that s ‘grabbed intellectuals and journalists. “