A fistful of salt
to blind evil
A piece of coal
to ward off glowers…
And on the parchment
the seven blessings
You may go in peace
You are protected now
But come back with haste
So that your mother may live
Albert Memmi, Le Mirliton du ciel (The reed pipe of the sky, 1990)
“I went down to the hold to sleep.” Thereby ends the final scene of the first novel by the great writer Albert Memmi, The Pillar of Salt, announcing the narrator’s departure toward new horizons. On May 22, 2020, Memmi, the son of a poor Jewish family from Tunis, himself “went down to the hold to sleep”, leaving behind a prolific and subtly provocative body of work that has consistently been met with an ardent mix of outrage and enthusiasm.
His largely autobiographical debut novel, which describes in minute detail the impossible existence of a Tunisian Jew of French culture, “straddling two cultures and two social classes,” served as the basis for an exiled perspective that defied political and geographic categorization. His thought reflected the often-complex relationship between the manifold nuances of his physical identity and his multiple ideological and political affiliations. This unique background gave rise to works which sought to find the right words to describe the mechanisms of oppression in all its forms, to pinpoint the salient details that illustrate how the oppressed have their “souls torn apart,” and to seek his own peace through frequent trips across space and time.
Did he attain the peace for which he so longed? The verdict that emerges from his works is categorical: this peace is impossible, and he was forever deprived of the father’s “reassuring breathing” in the first scene of his novel. An omnipresent feeling of powerless anger permeates his writing, from his disappointment with the “French universalist ideal,” which quite simply denied his existence as a Jew, to the fate reserved for post-independence Tunisia by his alter egos in arms, the “Arab Muslim natives,” and the betrayal of the Zionists with whom he identified. This anger is no doubt that of a love scorned by the unrealized “secular and universalist” emancipatory ideal in the communities to which he belonged by choice or by birth.
Yet, despite the controversies sparked by his works, a close examination of the divisions, moments of suffering and disappointments that marked his intellectual trajectory can, paradoxically, help us to understand the means by which victims of domination can achieve this seemingly unattainable peace.
From personal experience to the political
Like all the intellectual figures of the anticolonial struggle, from Franz Fanon to Edward Said, Aimé Césaire and many others, Albert Memmi belonged to a generation whose thought sprang from a body subjected daily to repeated, ongoing oppression and the fractured identity specific to the experience of “colonized subjects.” His novels and sociological essays depict imaginary and real lives, which intertwine and grow more complex with each trauma, deceit and misunderstanding between his characters and between the chapters in the long history of how a country, Tunisia, mutated from colonialism to independence. Memmi’s prose is vibrant, spirited, and replete with comical situations and pithy retorts, while also immersing readers in anguished introspection, perpetual scorned love, and a continual state of dissatisfaction revealing the impossibility of “existing” under an oppressive colonial regime, both on a personal and a political level.
In his first two novels, The Pillar of Salt (1953) and Agar (1955), now classics of francophone literature, Memmi interweaves his own past with his characters, who embark on a grueling quest as they continue to suffer at the hands of colonialization, despite their efforts to break free. Readers are confronted with two central underlying themes which would later come to the fore in his political and sociological essays: the relationship between classes and the relationship between peoples. This moving passage from The Pillar of Salt describes with rare eloquence the world of poverty and the inevitability of social reproduction, as well as the painful debt and guilt of those who are able to overcome both:
I paid for your food and clothes, and I permitted you to go ahead and study when the sons of all my colleagues were already working in their father’s shops and getting calloused fingers from handling the leather.
He could not pretend that he was paying for my studies and that he lacked this last argument made him all the more angry. But he was claiming returns now for all the years I had failed to earn my living and for my childhood too. This made me so furious that I could find no reply. He was handing me the check, that was all:
➞ Who was responsible for your upbringing?
➞ Yes, you were,” I admitted. “But your father was responsible for yours, and you had a debt to pay. I’ll bring up my own kids in turn, and then I’ll be quits.
Later in Agar, his depiction of the difficulties of a mixed couple—Marie, a French Christian, and her Tunisian Jew husband—provides a stunningly accurate portrayal of how the utterly explosive combination of cultural differences and dominance relationships between peoples interfere with the most intimate sphere of personal life. Here again, Memmi’s verdict is unflinching as he describes the impossible relationship between the colonized and the colonizer. The sole possible outcome is the mutual destruction of the two protagonists:
Yes, I hate them, I hate them! They’re savages! I hate their medieval customs and their primitive religion! … And they dare spurn me! […] But you think like them! You spurn me! By defending them, you become like them!
Oh if only I could become like them again! […] My misfortune is that I’m not like anyone anymore. I don’t even know how to defend myself against this disgust for myself that she has laid bare. I’m beset by it and I approve of it.
The mechanisms of domination
The wealth of experiences in Memmi’s life, some of which is portrayed in his novels, served him in his theoretical quest for what he called “the truth” about issues such as colonization, alienation, dependence and racism. Fascinated by Enlightenment writers and philosophers, Memmi sought to follow in their footsteps by taking a scientific approach to reconstructing this truth.
However, upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that there was nothing absolute or objective about his truth, as Enlightenment language would postulate. It took on different forms and was inseparable from the burdens of life in the flesh and the twists and turns of history. His truth is one of suffering and anger, at times controlled, at others not, confronting the cold objectivity of the mechanisms of oppression and colonialism. From The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957) to Dominated Man (1968)—which considers the plight of the colonized, Jews, blacks and women—and his synoptic essay Racism (1982), Memmi utilized both factual descriptions and sensory experiences to describe the mechanisms of domination in all their sensory and material guises.
His major work is unquestionably The Colonizer and the Colonized, a classic of anticolonial literature. The first original contribution of the 1957 book lies in its articulate analysis of colonization as an enterprise of economic and political exploitation, as well as of its cultural and psychological impact on the colonized and colonizers. The book explains precisely how this enterprise encompasses not only economic servitude, but also cultural and psychological annihilation: “Colonization is not only a relationship from class to class, but one from people to people.” He sets forth three key dimensions—profit, privilege and Nero as the archetypal usurper figure—to show with singular incisiveness how the colonized and colonizers are constructed, and how their respective patriotism and arrogance leads in fine to their mutual destruction. This combined analysis of class and people (race) would later become central to the framework of postcolonial and decolonial studies.
The second major contribution is the book’s detailed depiction of the “pyramid of petty tyrants,” which distinguishes between “left-wing colonizers” who do not view themselves as such, those duped by colonization (Italians and Maltese Tunisians), candidates for assimilation (most Jews), the recently assimilated (Corsicans in Tunisia, Spanish in Algeria), and agents of the authority recruited from among the colonized:
For better or for worse, the Jew found himself one small notch above the Moslem on the pyramid which is the basis of all colonial societies. His privileges were laughable, but they were enough to make him proud and to make him hope that he was not part of the mass of Moslems which constituted the base of the pyramid.
In describing the geometry of the economic and symbolic violence that governs the relationships between these various groups, Memmi reveals the role of this pyramid in maintaining the system of privilege integral to any colonial system, as well as its devastating impact on the colonized, who are denied their existence.
He concludes the work by affirming that it is impossible to resolve the relationship between the colonized and the colonizer, specifying that colonization, like any other form of domination, “carried an inherent contradiction which, sooner or later, would cause it to die.” While it brings him no joy to say so, he asserts that assimilation is destined to fail because it is incompatible with the colonial relationship:
Assimilation is also the opposite of colonization. It tends to eliminate the distinctions between the colonizers and the colonized, and thereby eliminates the colonial relationship.
This core idea laid the groundwork for his later essays and remains extremely relevant in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a powerful reminder that policies promoting assimilation to western society or cultural diversity are helpless against the spectacle of death and the exploitation of oppressed and racialized groups. The thesis defended by Memmi and others is that the act of reclaiming one’s existence precludes any compromise with dominant forces and can only be achieved by unconditionally putting an end to the objective, material relationship of domination and the privileges therein.
The disillusionment of the ex-colonized
So how could someone who so brilliantly described the agony of the colonial enterprise support the Zionist colonial enterprise? How could someone who so brilliantly detailed the deep wounds that colonialism inflicted on indigenous peoples be so intransigent with regard to post-independence states?
Fifty years after states gained their independence, Memmi wrote his most controversial book and surely the one which stoked the most furor in Arab countries: Portrait du décolonisé arabo-musulman et de quelques autres (“Portrait of the decolonized Arab Muslim and a few others”, 2005, published in English as Decolonization and the Decolonized), in which he attempts to paint a picture of the new citizen that emerged after independence. He expresses his disillusion and anger toward the corruption and lack of democracy, particularly in Arab countries. While Memmi places the brunt of the responsibility for these failures on the countries’ political and intellectual elite, he vigorously downplays the role of their colonial past. He provides purely essentialist explanations that attribute the ills of the “third world” to its cultural and religious traditions, which are said to bar access to the best qualities of western modernity that should have served as an inspiration: individual liberties, universalism and secularism.
While it is very tempting to interpret the book as a contradiction in Memmi’s line of reasoning, his deterministic explanation is clearly neither original nor unique to the author—it is widely held among the “modernist” elites in the Global South who led the anticolonial struggles. While many of these elites—from Léopold Sédar Senghor to Habib Bourguiba, Albert Memmi and Samir Amin—established the intellectual framework for the anticolonial movement, their ideal of western modernity remained the insurmountable goal of emancipation, despite the vast body of evidence demonstrating its tragically mythological nature.
Paradoxically, it’s the author of The Colonizer and the Colonized who can help us deconstruct his final, problematic analyses. Can one truly speak of the “ex-colonized” given that the colonial situation which bound the colonized to the colonizer—a bond that had to be destroyed to achieve dignity—merely evolved into formal independence without true economic and political sovereignty? Do the wars waged by the western powers and their regional allies not demonstrate the breadth of their domination of the Arab world? Can the difficulties of the Arab world be ascribed to culture and traditions when Memmi himself stressed time and time again that identity and culture were the sole means of survival for the oppressed? Can objective analysis of the material structures of oppression be shunted aside to make way for a purely culturalist analysis? According to Memmi’s first work, the answer to all these questions is clearly no.
How, then, does one explain the violence of Decolonization and the Decolonized? Developments in the real world posed a predicament for the thinker who posited that the “pyramid of petty tyrants” established by colonialization might not leave room for the Jews, pieds noirs and others to peacefully co-exist in post-independence Tunisia. Tunisian society struggled not only with the ravages of colonialism, but with the repercussions of Zionism. The main victims are the Palestinians, to be sure, but Arabs and Berber Jews from North Africa were violently forced into exile.
Confronted with this painful reality, and on a perpetual quest for a place he was regularly cheated out of by the tyranny of history, Memmi chose to be a Zionist. In Jews and Arabs (1974), he asserts that antisemitism in the Arab world is not only a consequence of Zionism, but that “Israel is the response to the repression that Jews have faced across the world, including the repression that we as Jews from Arab countries have had to endure.” While he criticized the Israeli occupation policy and the Israeli right, which is at odds with his universalist and secular ideal, he failed to mention the colonial dimension of the Zionist project and its impact on the Palestinian people, as well as the violence inflicted by Israel across the Arab world, from Lebanon to Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia. This time, the scorned love is felt by readers of Memmi who defend the Palestinian cause.
How should we look back at this equally engaging and provocative journey? What emerges is that identity, as Mahmoud Darwish has written, is primarily a self-defense mechanism for those who, like Memmi, belong to the “victim’s interrogation”:
And your identity? Said I.
His response: Self-defense . . . Conferred on us at birth, in the end it is we who fashion our identity, it is not hereditary. I am manifold . . . Within me, my outer self renewed. But I belong to the victim’s interrogation.
Mahmoud Darwich, « Contrepoint »]].
Contradictory at first glance, this political and intellectual evolution makes perfect sense when examined in light of his initial intuition: the impossibility of aligning the fate of Arab Berber Jews with that of Arab Muslims so long as the neocolonial order continued to prevail in the Arab world. Only the destruction of this political and economic order would enable the two groups, which have long been carefully separated, to put an end to their domination and chart a path to their inevitably common fate, to restore their dignity.
At a time when Israel is planning another annexation of sections of the West Bank, the works of Memmi and other anticolonial authors remind us that the only way to end the oppression of Palestinians and other ethnic and religious minorities is to dismantle all structures and institutions underpinning Israel’s colonial practices, which enshrine a racialist democracy under the banner of a “Jewish state.” Otherwise the Palestinians will be left with no choice but to pursue their tireless struggle for dignity and yet again realize the words of Albert Memmi in Dominated Man (1963):
For he who has been so unjustly crushed and humiliated, retaliation must transcend all justice.