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Albert Memmi, RIP

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Photo credit: Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons

Albert Memmi, the Franco-Tunisian writer, died on May 22. Memmi is best known for his meditations on colonialism, racism, and Jewishness. Born in Tunis, educated within the French system, sent from the University of Algiers to a forced labor camp by Vichy anti-Semitic laws, Memmi supported the decolonization struggles in North Africa even as he left Tunisia for Paris in 1956. We often read his anticolonial work alongside Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire—like Fanon’s 1961 Wretched of the Earth, the first French edition of The Colonizer and the Colonized in 1957 was prefaced by Jean-Paul Sartre. Memmi articulated colonization as a system of fear and illegitimate privilege that could not be overcome (as promised by colonizers) by “evolution” or assimilation:

Revolt is the only way out of the colonial situation, and the colonized realizes it sooner or later. His condition is absolute and cries for an absolute solution; a break and not a compromise.

Memmi remains controversial for his views on Israel and his pessimism about the near development of postcolonial states (and, later, the Arab Spring). In his time, he was also heterodox for asserting that colonialism needed to be understood as much for its racist ideology as for economic inequality:

Racism appears then, not as an incidental detail, but as a consubstantial part of colonialism. It is the highest expression of the colonial system and one of the most significant features of the colonialist. Not only does it establish a fundamental discrimination between colonizer and colonized, a sine qua non of colonial life, but it also lays the foundation for the immutability of this life.

For more, I highly recommend Daniel Gordon’s 2018 overview of Memmi’s works.

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