Tunisian novelist and essayist Albert Memmi died in Paris on Friday night. He was 99:
Memmi was born nearly a century ago, in December of 1920, in Tunisia’s Jewish quarter. He studied at a French lycée in Tunis, from which he graduated in 1939. He enrolled in the University of Algiers, but his studies were interrupted by World War II, when anti-Semitic laws carried out by the Vichy government in France also applied to French North Africa. Memmi was expelled and sent to a forced labor camp in eastern Tunisia.
After the war, he continued his studies in Paris.
He published his semi-autobiographical first novel, La Statue de sel (The Pillar of Salt) in 1953, for which he received the Prix de Carthage and the Prix Fénéon. It was later translated to English by Edouard Roditi.
The book was critical of Tunisia’s small Jewish community and the failings of the tiny local bourgeoisie, as well as its colonizers and his Muslim fellow citizens. “The Pillar of Salt reads like a general indictment,” Memmi wrote in a new introduction to this 2013 edition.
Subsequent novels included Agar (1955), Le Scorpion (1969), and Le Désert (1977), the last of which was translated by Judith Roumani as The Desert.
Memmi was also an acclaimed sociologist, author of Portrait du colonisé, Portrait d’un Juif, and L’Homme dominé. Many of his critical works have been translated into English: The Colonizer and the Colonized, by Howard Greenfeld; Decolonization and the Decolonized, by Robert Bonnono; Racism, by Steve Martinot, and more.
Memmi has received numerous prizes, including Tunisia’s Commander of Ordre de Nichan Iftikhar and Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur.
Historian Youssef Ben Ismail remembered meeting him:
Albert Memmi died. In many ways he was the last thinker of the Sartre/Camus generation, the custodian of their intellectual tradition. I remember meeting him in Paris 10y ago with my father who was his publisher in Tunis. He was already an old man at the time.
— Youssef Ben Ismail (@Youssefbens) May 24, 2020
He continued: “Piles of books filled his small Parisian apartment from floor to ceiling. There was nothing particularly aesthetic about it, they were not “arranged” in any way – they were working tools rather than items of decoration.
“Many will paint Memmi as a Tunisian author to lend credibility to an imagined version of early 20th c. Tunisia: cosmopolitan, multi-confessional. In my opinion this is not only inaccurate, it runs against Memmi’s thought on the nuances of belonging and the workings of colonialism.
“@samym_m shared this quote from Camus’ preface to La Statue de Sel: “Voici un écrivain français de Tunisie qui n’est ni français ni tunisien (…) Que sera-t-il donc pour finir? On serait tenté de dire un écrivain.” That is probably the best way to think about Memmi, as a writer
“In Minima Moralia, Theodor Adorno writes that “to those who no longer have a homeland, writing becomes home.” I really think Albert Memmi’s life shows how much truth there is in that statement. Through his writings, he built a home for himself and for thousands of Tunisian Jews
“Que la terre lui soit légère.”