The Pillar of Salt

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The Pillar of Salt

by Albert Memmi


An autobiographical novel set in colonial Tunisia from 1920 to 1943; published in French as (La Statue de Sel) in 1953, in English in 1955.


A young Arab Jew in French-ruled Tunisia struggles with multiple identities related to religion, his family’s poverty and illiteracy, and his success in French colonial schools. In the World War II era, he confronts anti-Semitism and the Nazi occupation of Tunisia.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Born in 1920, Albert Memmi grew up in a religiously conservative Jewish family of humble origins in the old city of Tunis. His father was a saddler who barely earned enough to feed his wife and eight children; his mother was illiterate and spoke only the Judeo-Arabic dialect of Tunisian Jews. In his boyhood Memmi attended a traditional religious school to learn Torah and Hebrew, then a private school, Alliance Israélite Universelle, for a secular education. In 1932 he was chosen as a scholarship student at the Lycée Carnot, which educated mainly French or European boys. By the eve of World War II he had gained a post at his school and was pursuing university studies. During the 1942-43 German occupation of Tunisia, Memmi and other Jews were rounded up and sent to harsh labor camps in the countryside. Escaping the Nazis, he signed up to fight them with the Free French. After the war, at age 26, he left Tunisia for France, where he began to write his first novel, The Pillar of Salt. Based on his own experience, the novel was first published in a Paris revue, Les Temps Modernes, directed at the time by Jean-Paul Sartre. Appearing in four installments, then a single volume, the novel concerns the life of a mid-twentieth-century Tunisian Jew.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Education under the French Protectorate (1881-1956)

Invaded by the French army in 1881, the North African country of Tunisia became part of France’s African empire. French imperialism assumed a different form in Tunisia, however, than in neighboring Algeria, which was folded into France proper. In contrast, Tunisia became a Protectorate; its sovereignty appeared to remain intact and the local ruling family continued to occupy the throne. In fact, however, the French resident general actually wielded the most power in the country. France controlled Tunisia’s finances, public works, education, armed forces and security, and agriculture. The legal system and courts were, for the most part, also under French supervision.

Probably the most important change brought by France to Tunisia was modern education. While institutions offering European educational curricula had existed prior to the Protectorate, these were usually private, religious schools maintained either by Protestant or Catholic missionaries. In 1883 colonial authorities created the Directorate of Public Education, which established a more or less unified school system for French and other European nationals residing in the country, and for native Tunisians of the elite class. Known as Franco-Arab schools, these institutions used French as their language of instruction and otherwise patterned themselves after schools in metropolitan France. Successful completion of studies at a lycée, such as the Lycée Carnot in Tunis, could later lead to advanced studies either in French Algeria or in France itself. Only rarely were children of the indigenous Arab Jewish population admitted to these schools before World War II, particularly if they came from poor families.

The creation of private, largely secular primary schools by the Parisian organization Alliance Israélite Universelle in Tunisia and other North African countries during the 1860s brought modern French ideas in social, political, and cultural life into Jewish education. European teachers, modern textbooks, and Western curricula provided by the Alliance Israélite constituted a revolutionary break with the past for North African Jews.

Although the Alliance leaders were committed to the congruence of Western culture and a modern understanding of Judaism, Jewish learning was not at the center of their educational vision. Following the French primary system, the Alliance schools devoted their curriculum to French language and reading, arithmetic, natural science, geography, and local history.

(Hyman, p. 84)

Jews in North Africa

North Africa has long been home to different communities of Jews. They have inhabited the region at least since the Jewish Diaspora in 70 c.e., after the Roman emperor Titus destroyed the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. Some North African Jews even trace their roots to the Punic or Carthaginian period (circa 814 b.c.e.-146 c.e.). Under Roman, Byzantine, Vandal, and subsequent Arab Islamic rule (i.e., from late seventh century c.e. on), the Jews of North Africa resided both in the countryside and particularly in the cities and towns. Over the centuries, many became Arabized, while retaining their Jewish faith and cultural heritage; a smaller number were Berber-speakers (a family of Afro-Asiatic languages), residing mainly in the mountains or in remote oases on the edge of the Sahara Desert. By the late medieval or early modern period (1300-1500 c.e.), Arab and Berber Jews regarded themselves as native North Africans, although they developed their own vernacular language in an act of deliberate self-segregation from the majority Arab Muslim or Berber Muslim populations. The synagogue was the center of community life and children were sent to rabbinic schools for primary education; advanced studies were available at an institution of learning (or yeshiva) that trained the rabbinical elite. But, otherwise, the customs, attitudes, and lifestyles of North African Jewry hardly differed from those of their Muslim neighbors. Superstitions, such as the evil eye, were observed both by Jews and Muslims. The veneration of holy persons and organized collective pilgrimages to honor the “very special dead” were also prominent features of North African Jewish and Muslim cultures alike. Cults to venerate especially pious rabbis or Jewish sages constituted an important expression of North African Judaism. Often the tomb or burial place of the holy man attracted a following that evolved into a system of rituals as well as shared beliefs in his miracleworking abilities. According to one study, Morocco alone boasted some 600 Jewish holy persons, whose shrines became the focal points of local or regional pilgrimages (Weingrod, pp. 221-22).

Augmenting the contingent of Jews in Tunisia was a second group from Spain. These Spanish Jews (called Sephardim) arrived in waves between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries as refugees during the Reconquista of Spain and Portugal, the campaigns by Christians to recover territory that had been taken over by Muslims. Later, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Jews from Italy—mainly from the region of Livorno—moved to Tunisia, making a place for themselves here as commercial and financial middlemen between Europe and the ruling elite of Tunisia.

Italian vs. Tunisian Jews

The Italian Jews generally thought of themselves as superior to Tunisian Jews, an idea encouraged by basic legal and social distinctions. Speaking European languages, the Italian Jews frequently enjoyed the protection of a power like Italy, France, or Great Britain that had interests in Tunisia. In general, non-Tunisian Jews were not governed by the laws of the Arab Muslim Tunisian state but rather by the laws of whichever European nation had extended diplomatic protection to them.

On the other hand, Tunisian Jews were subjects of the beys (princes or regents ruling in the name of the Ottoman sultan) or of native-born rulers who governed in accordance with Islamic law and custom. These Jews held a socio-legal status inferior to that of Muslims and suffered both informal and official discrimination—for example, they had to pay special taxes and observe sumptuary laws governing the wearing of certain types of clothing. Their situation improved after 1857, when some of these restrictions were lifted.

Other differences encouraged the distinction between North African and European Jews. While the Italian Jews were more or less secularized by the mid-nineteenth century, the Tunisian Jews remained deeply religious. Intermarriage between the two groups was rare, though not completely unknown. In the socioeconomic realm, European Jews tended to occupy a higher status than Tunisian Jews due to trade connections with Europe. While some Tswana, or Tunisian Jews, achieved middle-class status, the group generally belonged to the least privileged stratum of society. Like most of the European Jews, the few prominent Tunisian Jews resided in or near Tunis. Meanwhile, micro-communities of poorer indigenous Jews were scattered around the country: in the deep south; on the island of Djerba; in towns along the Mediterranean coast; and in the ghettolike hara in Tunis.

By the time Memmi’s novel opens in the 1920s, uneven modernization had turned the capital into a divided city. Resembling urban areas in France, the recently built European zone was organized in a regular gridlike pattern with wide boulevards, cafes, theaters, and restaurants. The few wealthy European Jews, or even those of middling means who had acquired European citizenship, lived in the modern neighborhoods of the ville nouvelle (“new city”). Secular education, Western dress, and facility in the French language continued to set them apart from other Jews.

Modern Tunis contrasted starkly with the ancient medina (the old or traditional city), which was characterized by narrow winding streets, covered bazaars, and crumbling ramparts; by 1920, the medina had come to symbolize blind tradition, backwardness, and abject poverty. When Memmi was growing up, poor Tunisian Jews like his family still resided in or near the hara in the old city. The hara was not exactly synonymous with European-type ghettos because Tunisian Jews (only 2.7 percent of Tunisia’s population at the time) were not obliged by law to reside there (Abitbol, p. 1520). Even a few non-Jewish families lived in the hara. In any case, the Jewish population there as elsewhere rose over time. The total Jewish population, both Arab and Iberian-Italian, expanded during the twentieth century, peaking in the World War II era at between 71,000 and 85,000 (Audet, pp. 4-7; Abitbol, p. 1520).

Anti-Semitism and the rise of fascism in Tunisia

The worldwide economic depression of the 1930s brought misery to many in Tunisia’s countryside and cities. Meanwhile, the decade saw the rise of an increasingly assertive Tunisian nationalist movement, which became linked with organized labor and trade unions and resorted to tactics such as strikes and demonstrations against the French colonial regime. These tactics led to violence and loss of life, in part because the French government in Paris felt little inclined to negotiate with Tunisian nationalists, given the menacing political situation in Europe after 1936. The rise of fascism and Nazism portended yet another major global conflict on the horizon. Complicating matters was the fact that the single largest European settler group living in Tunisia was comprised of Italian nationals, including 5,000 Jewish Italian nationals (Abitbol, p. 1522). For the most part, these Italian nationals were politically and culturally associated with fascist Italy. Italian leader Benito Mussolini’s rise to power and his public renunciation of the terms of the French Protectorate over Tunisia caused French officials to become increasingly harsh in their treatment of the colonized, particularly


T o the victims of the Anglo-American bombardments: The war has been desired and prepared by international Jewry. The population of Tunisia, French, Italian, and Muslim, has suffered cruelly from the war due to the bombings of these past days. This is why I have decided to levy a fine upon the Jews of Tunisia amounting to twenty million francs. This sum will be used to provide assistance and succor to the civilian victims of the bombings.”

Signed: Tunis, 23 December 1942

The Commanding General of the Axis Forces

(Attal and Sitbon, pp. 186-187; trans. J. Clancy-Smith)

of the Tunisian Muslims and Jews who were involved in the nationalist movement. French colonial authorities feared that Tunisian nationalists would throw in their lot with Italy against France.

Once France fell to Germany in 1940 and the puppet Vichy regime was installed as the French government, anti-Semitic laws and policies were enacted in both France and Italy. These policies “did not apply automatically to their overseas colonies but they went through great pains to have similar legislation adopted in those territories, especially in North Africa where there were important Jewish communities” (Audet, p. 39).

In Tunisia efforts were made both by local French colonial officials, particularly by the Resident General, Admiral Jean-Pierre Estéva, and by the Tunisian ruler, Sidi Muhammad Munsif Bey, to limit the application of anti-Semitic laws to Jews, whether native Tunisian or European. Until March 1942, both Esteva and the Bey were able to block the implementation of major anti-Jewish decrees, such as laws authorizing the seizure of Jewish properties. New laws in the spring of 1942 severely curtailed the professional and economic activities of all Jews in Tunisia, but these measures too were not immediately implemented.

This changed abruptly in December of 1942 when Tunisia was occupied by German and Italian troops. Allied armies began advancing upon Axis-occupied Tunisia and fighting broke out during the winter of 1942-43. The German occupation of Tunisia posed great dangers not only to Tunisian Jews but to all Jews of whatever nationality residing in the country. The Germans set up headquarters in Tunis as well as along the Mediterranean coast in the region of Nabeul. In the capital they immediately began to round up Tunisian Jews from the hara and from the central synagogue not far from Memmi’s home. The Alliance Israélite schools were also targeted. Under the auspices of the Jewish Community Board, headed by Moīse Borgel, members of the Jewish community in Tunis agreed to provide labor for the German army from the ranks of their young men, if Jewish women, children, and the elderly or infirm were spared. The Gestapo seized private and communal property, imposed collective fines, and took Jewish hostages as “security” against this pledge to form a labor force.

Despite German promises, some Tunisian Jews suffered rape, beatings, and/or summary executions. In contrast to their harsh treatment, as Daniel Carpi has pointed out, “the small community of Jews holding Italian citizenship had enjoyed preferential treatment throughout the entire period—in practice, if not in principle— thanks to the protection granted them by the Italian authorities” (Carpi, p. 239). Finally, on May 7, 1943, the British Seventh Division entered Tunis and the American Ninth Division took the port of Bizerte. By May 13, Tunisia was completely liberated, whereupon all anti-Jewish legislation was abolished.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Told in the first person, The Pillar of Salt is divided into three main parts. Arranged chronologically, they reflect the author’s life in Tunis from birth in 1920, through childhood and early manhood, to the Nazi occupation in 1942 and 1943. Each part concerns a different identity imposed upon, developed by, or assumed by Alexandre Mordekhai Benil-louche. Alexandre struggles unsuccessfully to reconcile his African, Jewish, and Arab-Berber identities with a fourth overlay of French knowledge and culture.

In the prologue that opens the novel, the narrator is Alexandre as a young man in the 1940s. Having managed to survive the war and continue his studies, he sits for entrance examinations to the University of Algiers, which may lead to a life in France. The exam represents a long-coveted academic future. By successfully answering the exam’s question in philosophy, Alexandre can finally achieve his goal—to become something he is not. Instead, he rebels and spends seven hours in the examination hall writing the story of his life in retrospect. “At the close of this exhausting session, I had some fifty pages to carry away with me. Perhaps, as I now straighten out this narrative, I can manage to see more clearly into my own darkness and to find a way out” (Memmi, The Pillar of Salt, p. x).

Part One: The Blind Alley. Part One, set in the Impasse Tarfoune in the old city of Tunis, is mainly concerned with Alexandre’s early childhood, family relations, and participation in Jewish communal activities. Though told in first-person narration, the part employs several voices. Time is fractured. We hear the voice of the young boy but also that of the man and writer he will become. Privy to his daily life and routine, the reader follows the boy from the safety of his family’s humble dwelling, to the streets, to school and summer camp, through his ritual coming-of-age ceremony, or bar mitzvah, to the threshold of another existence.

Alexandre’s neighborhood is one of the most densely populated quarters of the old city; its denizens eke out a meager living as artisans, butchers, or peddlers. While traditionally the artisan class, whether Jewish or Muslim, had earned a decent wage and thus had been respected in Tunisian society, modernization and the inroads of the world economy had undermined artisans and handicraft workers, so that by the interwar period their social rank had fallen. Most scrambled to earn a wholly inadequate income. Because they are poor, Alexandre’s family shares part of a ground-level apartment with another equally impoverished Jewish family; cooking and bathroom facilities are common areas. Since the memory of attacks upon Jews is still fresh in the family’s mind, they bar the windows and door at night.

Alexandre’s ailing father is an artisan, a saddle-maker who barely earns enough income to feed and house his family. The narrator’s mother is an illiterate Berber Jew from the countryside (likewise many Jews living in the old Jewish quarter in Tunis were illiterate, though most boys and a few girls learned a bit of Hebrew from the rabbi). “She was a primitive and unsophisticated woman who had never learned to count or to speak a word that was foreign to her native dialect” (Pillar of Salt, p. 27). His father’s family had emigrated from Italy to Tunisia several generations back. “I was not born in the ghetto. Our alley was at the frontier of the Jewish quarter of Tunis, but this was enough to satisfy my father’s pride” (Pillar of Salt, p. 20). Here the narrator refers to the fact that only the poorest Jews live in the Jewish quarter; residing just outside it gives his family a slightly higher social status. Also his father takes great pride in being an artisan with his own shop, though clients for handmade saddles are growing ever scarcer.

A defining moment in the first part occurs when Alexandre learns the meaning of class differences. Oblivious to his own poverty, he taunts an even poorer Jewish boy for wearing secondhand clothes. Furious, his mother reprimands him; all his clothing, she points out, is cast-off, hand-me-downs from more affluent relatives. In due time, at the Alliance school, Alexandre mingles with more prosperous Jewish boys who come to class in new clothes, with plenty of money to buy chocolates that they throw away without eating: “Up till then, I had never experienced the revelation of jealousy and envy. I had envied Saul his fine clothes and his pocket money, but it had been without any true bitterness or animosity. Later, I began to hate the Sauls of life, but the power of the rich, at that time still inspired in me some respect” (Pillar of Salt, pp. 39-40).

Also in Part One, Alexandre’s education and growing involvement in the world beyond the Jewish quarter erodes his respect for his parents. “I must have been about ten years old and already in the fourth grade when I suddenly ceased to believe in my father” (Pillar of Salt, p. 43). The first inkling of his parents’ inferior social status, their lack of refinement, their powerlessness, comes when Alexandre’s school decides to send the poorest boys away to a free summer camp in the mountains of Tunisia. While the prospect of camp seems like a great adventure to the young boy, to his parents it means that he will live for weeks among non-Jews and, worse, that it will cost them money they can ill afford: “I was expected to take with me a number of things we didn’t own, a toothbrush, tooth paste, pajamas, and other items of which we had only a single sample for the whole family: a comb, a towel, a shoeshine kit” (Pillar of Salt, p. 45). As Alexan-dre and his parents wait in modern Tunis for the truck to transport the boys to camp, he compares his mother and father with the assembled crowd of European families also bidding farewell to their sons bound for the same camp:

We were alone in a crowd of Europeans who were waiting in the shade of the trees and joyously shouting remarks from group to group. The loneliness of my parents, silent and scared, moved me even more than my own. I was seeing them, for the first time, uneasy and ashamed, with all their prestige left behind them in our blind alley. They spoke in muffled tones, probably ashamed of their dialect which, to me, now seemed vulgar and out of place.

(Pillar of Salt, p. 45)

Alexandre begins to fully comprehend the colonial order of things, which automatically places Europeans of whatever social background in a higher social category than Tunisians. Living among Muslim and Christian boys at the camp, which is run by the French army, Alexandre also comes into contact for the first time with anti-Semitism and the “device of explaining a defect or a fault in an individual by referring it back to his Jewish faith” (Pillar of Salt, p. 48).

The last two chapters in the first part bring childhood to a close and suggest momentous changes ahead. Since Alexandre has excelled in his studies, he is nominated for a scholarship that will permit him to continue his education in the French school. Upon the recommendation of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, the Jewish community of Tunis is prepared not only to underwrite his high-school studies but also his university career as well. The opportunity threatens to deprive his parents of the income he would have earned at a menial job. Reluctantly they agree to the scholarship, unable to foresee the intense ruptures that a French education will bring to family life and relationships.

Our alley and the Alliance School belonged to one society, but the European sections of town and the high school to another. Above all, I was setting forth on the adventure that leads to knowledge …. Knowledge was the very origin, perhaps, of all the rifts and frustrations that have become apparent in my life. I might have been happier as a Jew of the ghetto….

(Pillar of Salt, p. 82)

Part Two: Alexandre Mordekhai Benillouche. In Part Two the narrative style assumes the quality of a confession as Alexandre tries to rid himself of “obsession” (Roumani, p. 19). Alexandre consciously contends with his own “inferior” identities—African, Jew, Oriental, and poor—as revealed to him by the racism of the French high school. Even the sound of his name elicits snickers from his classmates; he begins a vain attempt to discard his heritage, to deny his family origins, and to stop using the name Mordekhai. His efforts to master the French language provoke mirth from wealthy classmates, since his pronunciation of French words are deformed by the “nasal ghetto accent” (Pillar of Salt, p. 104). Excluded from the social company of his peer group, he throws himself violently into learning as revenge for ceaseless humiliations. As he embarks upon a form of “hand-to-hand struggle” with the French language, he experiences the terrible yet marvelous joy of writing, the power of words, of committing thoughts to paper (Pillar of Salt, p. 108). It is in this period that he believes he can abandon the East for the West by embracing European learning, culture, and civilization as enunciated, above all, by French philosophers.

However, his steady scholarly triumphs at school estrange him from his immediate and extended family: “I could see their increasing bitterness and disapproval of the turn my life was taking” (Pillar of Salt, p. 114). As Alexandre immerses himself in modern science, the daily and weekly Jewish rituals and observances become increasingly irritating to him, and eventually they appear totally irrational. When electricity is introduced to his neighborhood, the faithful consult local rabbis regarding its lawfulness, anxiously demanding whether Jews can legally turn off a light switch during Sabbath, or whether this constitutes “work,” from which they are obligated to abstain. The protagonist, who keeps long nightly vigils studying, loses patience one Sabbath and turns off the electric lamp himself—much to the horror of those around him. Finally, things come to a boil at home and a family member hurls the gravest of charges at Alexandre: “It’s all the same to him, he’s not a Jew!” (Pillar of Salt, p. 146).

Rejected by his own kin, Alexandre is likewise not accepted by European or French society; from that moment on, he straddles two social worlds, two cultural universes, belonging to neither. “In my effort to break the mythical ties that I feared while believing that I merely despised them, I used to experience transitory moments of happiness as well as sudden defeats” (Pillar of Salt, p. 166). Disappointed in love as well, his only solace at this stage is books and learning, particularly philosophy. His sole friendships with Europeans are intellectual ties with some of his professors; one French man named Poinsot, who befriends him and impresses the boy with his knowledge, will ultimately betray his prize pupil’s trust during the German occupation.

Part Three: The World. The politics of fascism, Nazism, and anti-Semitism intrude ever more violently into Alexandre’s world in Part Three. A pogrom breaks out in the ghetto of Tunis, bringing death to one of the narrator’s boyhood friends. Whether the novel is referring to the actual anti-Jewish attacks of 1938 is uncertain; historically accurate in any case is the suggestion that the rise of European anti-Semitism had an impact on French-controlled Tunisia. As the Jewish community emerges from their hiding places behind locked doors and in barricaded homes, they search for explanations for this outbreak of hatred. Uncertainty as to the identity of the perpetrators or their motivations only adds to the pervasive sense of fear. The rumors that abound reflect the deteriorating political situation of the period. Some say that Arab Muslim troops, called up to fight in Europe, descended upon the hara to pillage, kill, and rape before being shipped off to an uncertain fate across the Mediterranean. Others argue that the French colonial government in Tunisia fomented the pogrom to deflect public attention from its own shortcomings. In either case, Alexandre’s position in the French school becomes more and more difficult: “It was in high school that I discovered how painful it is to be a Jew” (Pillar of Salt, p. 255). Growing anti-Semitism in Europe at the time is reflected in the behavior of the schoolboys from various European countries. Papachino, a classmate of Italian origins whose family has only recently become naturalized French citizens, accuses the Jews of “ruining France” (Pillar of Salt, p. 257). Nor are the professors immune—one of the history instructors expounds in his lectures on the scientific basis for racial prejudice and anti-Semitism; later this particular teacher will actively collaborate with the Axis occupiers of the country. The mathematics teacher, originally from Alsace in eastern France, constantly denigrates not only the Tunisian Jews but also the Tunisian Muslims in his class. Still Alexandre obstinately clings to his belief in the superiority of France and French civilization, thinking that his salvation and that of other culturally assimilated Jews rests with Europe.

However, military events elsewhere in North Africa and in war-torn Europe soon overwhelm Alexandre, the Jewish community, and all Tunisians. Unable to achieve a decisive victory over the Axis powers in Europe, the British and American Allies decide to land troops in Morocco and Algeria and to use North Africa as a base against Italy and Germany. In November 1942, British and American troops land in Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers, in what is called “Operation Torch.” In response, Germany occupies Tunisia; Italian troops also pour into Tunisia from adjacent Libya.

“And then, all of a sudden, one day we found ourselves right in the middle of the tragedy” (Pillar of Salt, p. 271). German war planes land in Tunis and the Kommandatur (German military high command) passes its first anti-Jewish measures. Hostages are taken; then come murders, deportations, requisitions of supplies and animals, and rapes. In Tunis, the Arab Jews, being the weakest of the Jewish communities, are targeted. The leaders of the Tunisian Jews are ordered to assemble all men between the ages of 18 and 40. Italian or European Jews are left alone for the most part. Erroneously believing that France as the colonial power in Tunisia will protect them, Tunisian Jewish leaders send a delegation to the French resident general begging for protection. The most potent man in the French colonial edifice in Tunisia replies that he is powerless to help; German orders must be obeyed. Even Alexandre’s former teacher and friend, the Frenchman Poinsot, whom Alexandre so admires, proves unwilling and unable to lend a helping hand. Alexandre begins to dimly comprehend that the high-minded philosophical principles that he has learned are hollow.

Although he could have escaped the work camps because of his fragile health, Alexandre enrolls voluntarily and is transported to the countryside. There, amid horrific human suffering, he begins to find peace within himself; he who had rejected Judaism in all its manifestations even organizes a Sabbath prayer service. As the German army starts to lose ground to the advancing Allied armies, the labor camps are continually moved about; soon it becomes clear that the Jewish workers will either be deported to Germany or massacred by their captors. Alexandre organizes some of his comrades and they make a daring escape back to Tunis, during which they are nearly caught in the crossfire between the Anglo-American military and the retreating Axis soldiers.

Back in liberated Tunis, Alexandre begins to pick up the pieces of his shattered life and even begins “to doubt the treason of France” (Pillar of Salt, p. 315). He tries to forget that French officials, as well as close friends, refused to help the Tunisian Jews during the Nazi occupation. This leads him to the recruiting office of the French army, which has been exhorting all Tunisian males to enroll with the Free French forces to continue the battle against the Axis powers in Europe. Here, at last, Alexandre is forced to face the full extent and meaning of his own betrayal by his beloved France. As the recruiting officer asks the narrator to sign his name to the register, Alexandre lets slip that he is an African Jew. The officer, embarrassed, makes it clear that in order for him to enlist, he must hide his Jewish identity; it is even suggested that he could assume a Muslim name and thereby be accepted into the army. Alexandre walks out of the recruiting center:

I would never be a Westerner. I rejected the West. Still, my ideas were too confused and my heart too passionately involved in all that happened, so that I could not fully realize my position or draw practical conclusions from it. I had rejected the East and had been rejected by the West. What would I ever become?

(Pillar of Salt, p. 321)

Alexandre begins to confront this agonizing question only when the novel comes full circle. In its second to last chapter, he takes the train to Algeria in order to sit for the university entrance examinations in Algiers. In a tense moment, he deliberately chooses to fail them by writing his life story instead of expounding on a pre-selected topic—the influence of Condillac on the British philosopher John Stuart Mill, an arguably absurd question, since the eighteenth-century French sensualist philosopher Condillac probably exerted little, if any, influence on the British economist Mill. On the long train ride home, he decides to leave Tunis with his best friend, Henry, who longs to go to Argentina. Before setting off, Alexandre Mordekhai Benil-louche destroys the eight big notebooks making up his diary.

Labor camp experience

Like Alexandre, young men were interned in brutal labor camps in Tunisia for months. It is estimated that about 5,000 Jews, mainly Tunisian, were forced into over 30 labor camps scattered around the country and mainly located along the shifting military front lines created by the Allied armies’ advance from eastern Algeria into Tunisia. While the board attempted to select Tunisian Arab Jews from all socioeconomic classes to serve in these camps, it became increasingly apparent that young men from the poorest classes, above all from the Tunis ghetto, were being recruited in the largest numbers. By far the largest and the worst camp was that in the city of Bizerte on the Mediterranean Sea. As many as 500 Jews, under the surveillance of the German army, were subjected to arduous work assignments for up to 14 hours per day. As the Allies advanced across western Tunisia, disorder broke out in the sectors controlled by the Italian, German, and Vichy French military forces. The mayhem allowed many Jewish labor conscripts and prisoners to flee the labor camps. This helps explain why by early May 1943, when Axis control of Tunisia collapsed, only about 1,600 of the total 5,000 Jewish forced laborers remained in the camps (Abitbol, pp. 1522-23). Around 20 additional Tunisian Jews had by then been deported from Tunisia and sent to their deaths in extermination centers in Europe (Abitbol, p. 1523).

Sources and literary context

In the 1965 preface to the American edition of The Colonizer and the Colonized, Memmi refers back to his first book, The Pillar of Salt, noting that it was a “life story which was in a sense a trial balloon to help me find the direction of my own life” (Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized, p. vii). The autobiographical novel as “life compass” is a genre that has attracted other writers from North Africa. When Memmi was composing his work during the 1950s, his friend and literary companion, Albert Camus, was also struggling to come to grips with similar issues of identity and origins. Born in Algeria in 1913, Camus, like Memmi, was from a poor working-class family, although the fact that his father was French meant that Camus’s social position was slightly superior to Memmi’s. Known for his philosophical works and his pivotal role in the French existentialist movement, Camus was in the midst of writing a piece of autobiographical fiction when he was killed in a car accident in France in 1960. Posthumously published only in 1994 as Le Premier Homme (The First Man), this unfinished work relates the story of Jacques Cormery, a child who leads a life very similar to that of its author. Taken together, Albert Memmi’s The Pillar of Salt and Albert Camus’s Premier Homme offer readers intensely personal and evocative portraits of the complexities of the French civilizing mission on the African shores of the Mediterranean. At the same time, they pose universal and timeless questions about memory and identity, about the truths and deceptions of childhood, and about moral courage and cowardice.

Many details in The Pillar of Salt correspond with Memmi’s own life. His family home was adjacent to but not located in the Jewish quarter, where indigent Jews resided in misery and squalor. Memmi, like his protaganist, was selected to become a scholarship student and he too developed a passion for philosophy. Memmi, however, completed his education, taking a teaching post in Tunisia in 1951, in his former school, the Lycée Carnot. In addition, he directed a center for psychology and served as editor for the literary section of the Tunisian French-language weekly L’Action.

As Judith Roumani has pointed out, The Pillar of Salt’s short chapters are “similar to the traditional Middle Eastern way of teaching a moral lesson based on practical wisdom through stories” (Roumani, p. 8). The novel’s structural arrangement can be viewed as drawing upon this old narrative and literary tradition. Moral lessons were often orally transmitted by Tunisian storytellers, and many of the short chapters in the novel end with some moral insight. For example, in one chapter Alexandre recounts his first disappointment in love to his friend Henry, who fails to comfort the lovelorn narrator. Alexandre concludes the chapter with a moral-like observation: “I decided that great joys, like great losses, can never be shared” (Pillar of Salt, p. 191).

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Muslim-Jewish alliance

France relinquished colonial control over Tunisia only in 1956, after decades of nationalist protest. In the early years of the nationalist movement, educated Tunisian Jews agitated alongside Muslims for more political freedoms and better representation under France’s Protectorate. One early Tunisian nationalist was a Jewish woman named Gladys Adda, who was born in 1921 in Gabes on the southern Mediterranean coast of Tunisia. Adda recounts in her memoirs that a pogrom fomented by Italian fascists broke out in Gabes in 1938, during which several Jews were killed. During the pogrom, many of their Muslim neighbors attempted to shield the Jews from harm. Pogroms, or organized attacks upon Jews and upon Jewish property, were relatively rare in Tunisia during this period, although in 1917-18, during and just after World War I, there had been pogroms in several cities. In Tunis, the capital, Tunisian Jews and Muslims, joined by some sympathetic Europeans in the Socialist or Communist parties, demanded complete independence from France during the inter-war period and particularly in the years just after World War II. In the 1920s Jewish and Muslim intellectuals in Tunis established the Alliance judéo-Musulmane (Jewish-Muslim Alliance) as part of their cooperative nationalist project.


The novel’s title is taken from the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament of the Bible, which relates the story of Lot and the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. After Lot and his family flee from the wickedness of Sodom, these cities are visited by divine retribution. Lot’s wife disregards God’s command to not look back as the family leaves: “But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt” (Genesis 19:26). Various interpretations can be ascribed to Memmi’s choice of this biblical passage for the title. One interpretation connects the passage to the unresolved question of the protagonist’s cultural identity. Through his French education, Alexandre Mordekhai Benillouche seeks to escape his family’s poverty and their doubly marginalized status as Jews and as Arabs colonized by France. By not “looking back” to his humble origins, he hopes to become French—an impossible quest. When he looks back, he sees his multiethnic origins and is forced to acknowledge the impossibility of the quest.

However, the rise of political Zionism and events in Palestine as well as the Holocaust caused a major split between Tunisian Jewish nationalists and their Arab Muslim counterparts in the independence movement. Until the Holocaust many Tunisian and North African Arab Jews were hesitant to embrace Zionism, with its objective of creating a Jewish state in Palestine. However, once they learned of Nazi atrocities, many North African Jews became convinced that only a Jewish state could bring them real security and freedom from persecution. By embracing Zionism these Jews alienated their Muslim counterparts in the nationalist movements, since the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine meant the forced exile of the Arab Palestinians.

With the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the position of both native and European Jews in North Africa became precarious; sporadic attacks against Jews occurred in Morocco, forcing many to emigrate from there. Tunisia’s independence from France in 1956 and uncertainties surrounding the status of Jews in a Muslim state caused many Tunisian Jews, especially the French acculturated elite, to emigrate as well. Tunisia’s Jews often opted to move to France, as Memmi did at this time. “Jews began leaving Tunisia in large numbers in 1961, with twenty-five thousand emigrating in the course of two years” (Hyman, p. 194). Between 1948 and 1970 about 40,000 Tunisian Jews immigrated to Israel; a few hundred moved to the Americas, particularly to Canada. Tunisia’s ancient Jewish community was nearly erased by the intersecting forces of colonialism, anti-Semitism, and nationalism. After World War II nationalist leaders defined Tunisian political identity more narrowly, basing it on being Muslim as well as Arab, which left little room for indigenous Tunisian Jews in the country’s future. Today there are fewer than one thousand Jews, mainly elderly, living in Tunisia.


The Pillar of Salt was received with acclaim by North African Francophone writers and by the Parisian literary establishment. Albert Camus, a contemporary of Memmi, characterized it as a beautiful book and wrote the preface to one of the French editions. The philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre was equally enthusiastic in his praise. In 1957 he wrote an essay in Les Temps Modernes extolling Memmi’s works for their authentic voice, attributed to the writer’s triple identity as a colonized African Arab Jew who had experienced the contradictions and racist dimensions of colonialism (Sartre, p. 289). According to a London review, The Pillar of Salt is one of a growing number of North African novels to receive critical applause in France. The novel, says the review, deserves praise for its description of the hero’s reactions, which “are conveyed with complete conviction and an intelligent lack of self-pity”; the novel is not faultless but “this is one of those books … that are in a sense beyond criticism due to the painful subject and the honesty with which it is exposed” (London Magazine, p. 62).

—Julia Clancy-Smith

For More Information

Abitbol, Michel. “Tunisia.” In Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Vol. 4. New York: Macmillan, 1990.

Attal, Robert, and Claude Sitbon, eds. Regards sur les juijs de Tunisie. Paris: Albin Michel, 1979.

Audet, Caroline. “French and Italian Policies Toward Tunisian Jewry During W.W.II.” Master’s thesis, University of Durham, U.K., 1997.

Carpi, Daniel. Between Mussolini and Hitler: The Jews and the Italian Authorities in France and Tunisia. Hanover, Mass.: Brandeis University Press, 1994.

Hyman, Paula E. The Jews of Modern France. Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1998.

Laskier, Michael M. North African Jewry in the Twentieth Century: The Jews of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. New York: New York University Press, 1994.

Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized. Trans. Howard Greenfeld. New York: Orion Press, 1965.

_____. The Pillar of Salt. Trans. Edouard Roditi 1955. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

Perkins, Kenneth J. Tunisia: Crossroads of the Islamic and European Worlds. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1986.

Roumani, Judith. Albert Memmi. Philadelphia: Celfan Edition Monographs, 1987.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Les Livres.” Les Temps Modernes, nos. 137-138 (1957): 289-292.

Review of The Pillar of Salt, by Albert Memmi. The London Magazine 3, no. 10 (Oct. 1956): 62.

Weingrod, Alex. “Saints and Shrines, Politics, and Culture: A Morocco-Israel Comparison.” In Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination. Eds. Dale F. Eickelman and James Piscatori. London: Routledge, 1990.