Memmi, Albert 1920–

views updated May 21 2018

Albert Memmi 1920


Studied in Tunis and Paris

Settled in France

Lectured in the United States

Selected writings


Eminent North African writer Albert Memmi is best known for his two autobiographical novels from the 1950s, Pillar of Salt and Strangers. Each examines the quandary of being a Jew in a predominantly Muslim land, and a North African in Europe, and are known in English translation. A highly respected sociologist, Memmi has also written a number of nonfiction works on racism and the legacy of colonialism in Africa.

Memmi was born in 1920 in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. His father was a saddle maker with a workshop that Memmi liked to visit as a boy. The family lived near to, but not directly within, Tuniss Jewish ghetto, known as the Hara. Tunisia was a predominantly Arab Muslim country, but at the time of Memmis childhood there was a thriving Jewish minority of about 50,000. Tunisia was also home to a similar number of French, who came from Europe after the small country, wedged between Algeria and Libya, became a French protectorate in 1881; some Italians and Maltese also made the city their home. There were long-simmering tensions between Tuniss Muslims and Jews, however, and one of Memmis novels, La Terre intérieure (The Interior Land), relates a notorious incident from 1857 when a Jewish man named Samuel Sfez had a heated argument with a Muslim, and was sentenced to death.

Studied in Tunis and Paris

During Memmis younger years, Tuniss Jews were quietly assimilating into its French colonial culture. Memmi was sent to a Hebrew school at the age of four, but at seven began classes at a school run by the Alliance Israélite Universelle, a Paris-based organization that aimed to merge Jewish traditions with modern European educational principles. At 12, Memmi began studies at a French lycée in Tunis, from which he graduated in 1939 with the top philosophy prize. He then enrolled in the University of Algiers, but his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. The anti-Semitic laws carried out by the Vichy collaborationist government in France also applied to French North Africa, and Jews there were imperiled. Memmi was expelled from the university and sent to a forced labor camp in the eastern part of Tunisia.

Memmi had already begun writing for Jewish newspapers, and following the war he moved to Paris for further university study in 1946. He began writing his first novel during this time, and married a French Catholic woman, Marie-Germaine Dubach. They returned to Tunis in 1951, where he taught at his former lycée. His first novel, La Statue du sel, appeared in 1953 and in English translation two years later as Pillar of Salt. The title of Memmis novel is a reference to the biblical tale of Lots wife, who turns into a pillar of salt when she looks back as her family is fleeing from Sodom. Its plot centers around Alexandre Mordekhai Benillouche, who grows up in Tuniss Hara district, part of a loving family and a close-knit community. His dilemma begins when he enrolls in the esteemed French lycée and begins to harbor ambitions for the larger world. He comes to believe his familys Judaism is not authentic, and sees the great distance between himself and his French classmates. Little by little, Mordecai discovers that his native culture, inbred con-

At a Glance

Born on December 15,1920, in Tunis, Tunisia; son of Francois (an artisan) and Marguerite (Sarfati) Memmi; married Marie-Germaine Dubach, 1946; children; Daniel, Dominique, Nicolas Education: University of Algiers, licence des philosophie, 1943; Sorbonne, University of Paris, Dr. es lettres, 1970

Career; High school teacher of philosophy in Tunis, Tunisia, 1953-56; Center of Educational Research, Tunis, director, 1953-57; National Center of Scientific Research, Paris, France, researcher, 1958-60; University of Paris, Sorbonne, École practique des hautes etudes, assistant professor, 1959-66, professor of social psychology, 1966-70; University of Paris, Nanterre, France, professor of sociology, 1970-; School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences, conference director, 1958, director of department of social sciences, 1975-78; Walker Ames Professor, University of Seattle, 1972.

Member: Societe des Gens de Lettres; International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists, vice-president of French chapter, 1977-80; Academie des Sciences dOutremer.

Awards: Commander of Ordre de Nichan Iftikhar (Tunisia); Chevalier de la Legion dHonneur; Officier of Tunisian Republic; Officier des Arts et des Lettres; Officier des Palmes Academiques; Prix Carthage (Tunis), 1953; Prix Fénéon (Paris), 1954; Prix Simba (Rome).

Address: Home Paris, France. Office University of Paris, 92 Nanterre, France.

ditioning, basic way of life, and humble ghetto dialect have all created a gulf between himself and the world he strives to enter, noted an essay by Guy Dugas in African Writers.

Pillar of Salt took two prestigious prizes when it first appeared: the Carthage Prize in 1953 and the Fénéon Prize in 1954. Nearly forty years later, the book was still earning critical praise: a Publishers Weekly review of a 1992 English-language edition asserted that it was a work that powerfully distinguishes itself through its unblinking examination of the contradictions that thwart even Alexandres most altruistic ambitions. Memmis second novel, Agar, was published in 1955 and translated into English in 1958 as Strangers. Its protagonist is anonymous, but seems to be Alexandre at a later age. Like Memmi, the hero has married a French Christian woman, and their union is testedalong with the husbands sense of selfwhen they move to Tunis and she questions her husbands criticisms of his culture. The novel was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt, Frances top literary honor.

Settled in France

In both of these books, Memmi was attacked by some for his portrayal of Tunisian Jews. When he wrote an article advocating the destruction of the Hara, he was further slandered. Many Jews in Tunisia, however, began emigrating when the country was granted its independence in 1956, fearful of the secular, though predominantly Muslim, new order coming into power. Many, like Memmi and his wife, settled in France. He published his first nonfiction work, Portrait du colonise precede du portrait du colinisateur, in 1957, and it appeared in English translation eight years later as The Colonizer and the Colonized. The book caused a stir in both North Africa and France for its provocative essays, because France was engaged in a bitter war with Algeria over independence, and questions of French domination and Arab sovereignty were hotly debated at the time by politicians, in the press, and among the public. In his book, Memmi dismissed the leftist dogma, then in vogue, that such independence struggles followed a Marxist model. He argued instead that the oppressed and the oppressor, regardless of place, were indissolubly linked within a system that took the shape of a pyramid of petty tyranny, according to Dugas in the African Writers essay. Within that pyramidal structure, the oppressor and the oppressed enjoy small advantages, minor privileges that result in each participant dominating someone else.

Memmis work also attracted controversy over his assertions about Jews in Tunisia. He reflected in The Colonizer and the Colonized that, unlike the Muslims, they passionately endeavored to identify themselves with the French. To them the West was the paragon of all civilization, all culture. The Jew turned his back happily on the East. They chose the French language, dressed in the Italian style, and joyfully adopted every idiosyncrasy of the Europeans. The author and his book also earned the enmity of writer Albert Camus, with whom he was sometimes compared; the French writer, born in Algeria, wrote extensively on North African-French culture, and had penned the introduction to a second edition of Memmis debut novel. Camus was reportedly angered over a chapter in The Colonizer and the Colonized titled The Well-Meaning Colonialist that he felt was a veiled portrait of himself, but he was killed in an automobile accident in 1960 before his friendship with Memmi could be restored.

In France Memmi enjoyed an impressive academic career as a sociology researcher. Over the years he was affiliated with the National Center of Scientific Research, the Sorbonne, and the university in Nanterre. His increasing scholarship, especially on the topic of the sociology of literature in a colonial and post-colonial time-frame, brought invitations from French publishers to write introductions for books by African-American writers. He did so for the French translation of The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, as well as subsequent works. In these texts he drew parallels between the conditions of Jews, African Americans, and colonized peoples, noted Dugas, for all were classifiable as oppressed minorities.

Lectured in the United States

Memmi made a lecture tour of the United States in 1966, during a time when the post-civil rights quiet had evaporated in favor of a more politicized climate among American blacks. He also wrote another work of nonfiction, LHomme dominé, published in France in 1968 and in the United States as Dominated Man: Notes Toward a Portrait. A New York Times article by Richard Locke described it as a collection of essays that sketched a generalized portrait of victims of social and psychological oppression.

After a long absence, Memmi also returned to writing fiction with the publication of Le Scorpion ou la confession imaginaire in 1969. It appeared in English two years later as The Scorpion or the Imaginary Confession. The work takes place during the time of Tunisias move toward independence in the mid-1950s and centers on two brothers, Emile and Marcel. Emile has disappeared, and when his brother begins sorting through the papers he left behind, he realizes that his brother was writing a novel about a disturbed Tunisian Jew who has killed his authoritarian saddle-maker father. Emile has apparently uncoveredor perhaps fabricateda fascinating genealogical portrait of his familys ancestry, going back several centuries to the Roman era. Both novel and life begin to blur for Marcel, as political developments make him begin to question his identity as well.

In his review of The Scorpion or the Imaginari; Confession for the Neu; York Times, Locke described the complex work as a novel-within-a-novel with several other narrative digressions, and concluded: But ultimately it is Memmis heart, not his skill, that moves you: the sights and sounds of Tunis, the childhood memories, the brothers sympathetic and contrasting voices, their all-too-human feelings, have a resonance that re-awakens for a while the ghost of European humanism.

Memmi has been a professor of sociology and is active in Frances chapter of the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN). He published another seminal work in 1982, La Racisme: Description, définition, traitement, which appeared in English translation as Racism. The work delves into the underlying issues behind both subtle and overt forms of prejudice, and the author asserted that the temptation of racism is the most commonly shared thing in the world. Memmi has also written about Islamic fundamentalism in his 1993 work Λ contre-courants (Against the Tide), in which he observed, We are witnessing the return in insolent strength of fascism and fundamentalism. Against such demons there is only one untainted banner for us to march under, and that is the banner of secular humanism.

Memmi is the recipient of numerous honors, including Tunisias Commander of Ordre de Nichan Iftikhar and Chevalier de la Legion dHonneur. His brother, Georges Memmi, is also a novelist.

Selected writings

La Statue du sel (novel), introduction by Albert Camus, Correa, 1953, translation by Edouard Roditi published as Pillar of Salt, Criterion, 1955, reprinted, OHara, 1975.

Agar (novel), Correa, 1955, translation by Brian Rhys published as Strangers, 1958, Orion Press, 1960.

Portrait du colonise precede du portrait du colini-sateur, introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre, Buchet/Chastel, 1957, translation by Howard Greenfield published as The Colonizer and the Colonized, Orion Press, 1965, reprinted, Beacon Press, 1984.

Portrait dun Juif, Gallimard, 1962, translation by Elisabeth Abbott published as Portrait of a Jew, Orion Press, 1962.

La Liberation dun Juif, Gallimard, 1962, translation by Judy Hyun published as The Liberation of a Jew, Orion Press, 1966.

LHomme dominé (essays), Gallimard, 1968, new edition, Payot, 1973, translation published as Dominated Man: Notes Towards a Portrait, Orion Press, 1968.

Le Scorpion ou la confession imaginaire (novel), Gallimard, 1969, translation by Eleanor Levieux published as The Scorpion or the Imaginary Confession, Grossman, 1971, 2nd edition, J. Philip OHara, 1975.

Juifs et Arabes, Gallimard, 1974, translation by Levieux published as Jews and Arabs, J. Philip OHara, 1975.

La Terre intérieure (title means The Interior Land), Gallimard, 1976.

La dependance: esquisse pour un portrait du dependant, Gallimard, 1979, translation published as Dependence, Beacon Press, 1983.

La Racisme: Description, définition, traitement, Gallimard, 1982, revised edition translated by Steve Martinot as Racism, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis), 2000.

À contre-courants (title means Against the Tide), Nouvel Objet, 1993.



African Writers, Vol. 2, Charles Scribners Sons, 1997, pp. 467-477.


Canadian Journal of Sociology, Winter 2001, p. 127.

New York Times, May 22, 1971.

Carol Brennan

Memmi, Albert

views updated May 18 2018

Albert Memmi

Writer, educator, and sociologist Albert Memmi (born 1920) is the author of the novels Pillar of Salt and Strangers, works praised as among the best fiction published in post-World War II Europe. Not only respected in the world of fiction, Memmi has authored several sociological works, among them The Colonizer and the Colonized, that focus on racism and African colonialism, both of which he experienced first-hand as a Jew growing up in a predominantly Muslim Tunisia. Translations of Memmi's works have been published in Israel, Italy, Germany, England, Spain, Argentina, Yugoslavia, Japan, and the United States, where they have been well received.

Memmi was born on December 15, 1920, in the Tunisian city of Tunis. The son of artisan and saddlemaker François Memmi and his wife Marguerite (Sarfati) Memmi, the boy grew up in a traditional Jewish household, spending a great deal of time in his father's saddle-making shop. The Memmi family lived near Tunis's Jewish ghetto, known as the Hara. During the early 20th century Tunisia, a colony of France, had a thriving Jewish minority that numbered about 50,000 people, although age-old tensions between the country's Jews and its Muslim majority continued to simmer, particularly in Tunis. During Memmi's childhood, Tunisian Jews focused their efforts on assimilating into the French colonial culture of the region.

Roots in Jewish Tunisia

At age four Memmi was sent to Hebrew school and by age seven he began classes at a school run by the Alliance Israelite Universalle. The Universalle was an organization that merged Jewish tradition with modern European education, a system in keeping with the colonialism of the Tunis Jews. At age 12 Memmi began studies at a French lycée in Tunis, graduating in 1939 with the school's top prize in philosophy.

Memmi enrolled at the University of Algiers, but his studies were soon interrupted by the onset of World War II. North African Jews were soon imperiled by the Vichy collaborationist government in France and its support of Nazi Germany's anti-Semitic laws. As a Jew, Memmi was expelled from the University of Algiers and sent to a forced labor camp in eastern Tunisia. Finally released, he returned to the University of Algiers in 1943 and received his licence es philosophie. By this time, he had already begun writing for Jewish newspapers.

Two Novels Critically Acclaimed

In 1946 Memmi moved to Paris, France, intending to continue his academic studies. He also started writing his first novel, and also married a French-Catholic woman named Marie-Germaine Dubach, with whom he would have three children. In 1951 Memmi returned to Tunis with his wife, and got a job teaching at his former lycée. Two years later he published his first novel, La statue de sel—translated as Pillar of Salt—which is a largely autobiographical account of the 30-year-old author's life. The novel also examines Jewish life in a predominantly Muslim land, and also views circumstances from the point of view of a North African living in Europe. Pillar of Salt took the Carthage Prize the year it appeared, and also received the Feneon Prize in 1954. In 1955 the novel appeared in English translation.

Beginning in 1953, Memmi taught high school in Tunis, and continued at this job for three years. From 1953 to 1957 he also served as the director of the city's Center for Educational Research. In 1955 he published his second novel, AgarStrangers—which explores mixed marriages. Highly popular, Strangers was shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt, France's top literary honor. Like Pillar of Salt, Strangers is also highly autobiographical, and explores similar themes regarding the problems of Jews living in a Muslim society. In Memmi's La terre interieureThe Interior Land—he relates an incident from 1857 when a Tunisian Muslim and a Tunisian Jew have a heated argument and the Jew is sentenced to death.

Succeeded in Nonfiction

When the French colonial government left Tunisia in 1956, many Jews also decided to leave the country, fearing reprisals from the predominantly Muslim government that stepped into power. Memmi and his wife immigrated to France, and the following year he published his first nonfiction work, Portrait du colonise precede du portrait du colinisateur. Translated in the mid-1960s as The Colonizer and the Colonized, the book explores theories of colonization, and its provocative essays caused an immediate stir throughout North Africa and in France. The book caused an upheaval in its author's personal life as well, when writer Albert Camus took affront at an article in the book titled "The Well-meaning Colonialist." Convinced that it was a couched portrait of himself, Camus ended his friendship with Memmi, and his death in 1960 prevented the rift between the two writers from ever being bridged.

The Colonizer and the Colonized proved to be a highly influential—as well as highly controversial—work. Citing colonization as a variant of fascism, Memmi especially reacts to the decolonization of North Africa in 1956, but states that the dynamics are similar in any colonial system. In his view, although minority populations are exploited under colonial governments, once they gain their freedom and gain political and economic power they in turn become the exploiters.

Taught in France

In 1958 Memmi became a researcher for the National Center of Scientific Research based in Paris, France, and remained there until 1960. He also became conference director of the School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences. From 1959 to 1966 he was an assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Paris, Sorbonne. He also began working toward an advanced degree, which he would earn in 1970.

During and after his professorship in Paris, Memmi continued writing. 1962 saw the publication of Memmi's Portrait d'un JuifPortrait of a Jew—a theoretical work which further explores the exploitation of minorities. In 1962 he also published La liberation d'un Juif, which was translated as The Liberation of a Jew. He made a lecture tour of the United States in 1966, the same year he gained his professorship at the Sorbonne, and in 1968 he published the essay collection L'homme domineDominated Man—which explores victims of social and psychological oppression.

Continued Penning Fiction and

In 1969 Memmi returned to fiction with the publication of Le scorpion ou la confession imaginaire, published in translation in 1971 as The Scorpion; or, The Imaginary Confession. This novel, like Memmi's previous fiction, is autobiographical, and also contains commentary, parables, and a fictional storyline. In 1970 Memmi finally completed his doctorate in letters at the Sorbonne, and after receiving his degree decided to move from the city where he had lived for over a decade. He became a professor of sociology at the University of Paris in Nanterre, France, and in 1972 traveled to North America to become Walker Ames Professor at the University of Seattle. In addition to his degree from the Sorbonne, Memmi earned a Ph.D. from the Universitéde Beer Scheba.

Continuing to publish during the 1970s, Memmi also continued his role as educator. Returning to France, from 1975 to 1978 he served as director of the department of social sciences at the French School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences. In 1977 he became vice president of the French chapter of the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN), which position he retained until 1980. Throughout his writing career Memmi was an active presence in the French chapter of PEN.

Memmi published La dependance: esquisse pour un portrait de dependant—translated as Dependance—in 1979 and followed it three years later with one of his most noted works, La racisme: description, definition, traitment. Published in English translation as Racism after it went into a second edition, the book focuses on the issues behind subtle and overt prejudice. Discussing the book in the Canadian Journal of Sociology, Sean P. Hier explained that in Racism Memmi "argues that racism is a 'lived experience' arising within human situations." Noting that racism is destructive to all human societies, he contends that "the magnitude of racism is contingent on how the concepts of race and difference are generalized and accepted as social knowledge."

Into his seventies Memmi continued to write, publishing A contre-courantsAgainst the Tide in 1993. In this work he warned of the rising tide of fascism he perceived in Western society, and promoted secular humanism as an antidote. In 1994 he was honored with the Prix de Ratoinalist and in 1995 he received the Union Prize of the Magreb Foundation in Noureddine. Memmi's brother, George Memmi, is also a novelist.


Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 37, Gale, 2003.

Contemporary World Writers, second edition, St. James Press, 1993.


African Writers, Volume 2, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1997.

Canadian Journal of Sociology, December-February, 2000.

Research in African Literatures, Volume 1, number 1, 1970.

Memmi, Albert

views updated May 11 2018

MEMMI, Albert

Nationality: Tunisian. Born: Tunis, 15 December 1920. Education: University of Algiers, license in philosophy 1943; Sorbonne, University of Paris, D.Litt. 1970. Family: Married Germaine Dubach; two sons and one daughter. Career: High school teacher of philosophy, Tunis, 1953-56; director, Center of Educational Research, Tunis, 1953-57; researcher, National Center of Scientific Research, Paris, 1958-60; assistant professor, 1959-66, and professor of social psychology, 1966-70, Sorbonne, University of Paris. Since 1970 professor of sociology, University of Paris, Nanterre. Conference director, 1958, and director of department of social sciences, 1975-78, School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences; Walker Ames Professor, University of Seattle, 1972. Contributor, L'Action newspaper, Tunis, 1950s. Awards: Prix Carthage (Tunis), 1953; Prix Feneon (Paris), 1954; Prix Simba (Rome). Commander of Ordre de Nichan Iftikhar (Tunisia); Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur; Officier of Tunisian Republic; Officier des Arts et des Lettres; Officier des Palmes Academiques. Member: Société des Gens de Lettres; Academie des Sciences d'Outremer. Address: Office: University of Paris, 92 Nanterre, France.



Le Statue du sel. 1953; as Pillar of Salt, 1955.

Agar. 1955; as Strangers, 1958.

Le Scorpion ou la confession imaginaire. 1969; as The Scorpion or the Imaginary Confession, 1971.

Le Desert: Ou, la vie et les aventures de Jubair Ouali El-Mammi. 1977.

Le Pharaoh. 1988.


Le Mirliton du ciel. 1989.


Portrait du colonisé [Portrait of the Colonizer]. 1956.

Portrait du colonisateur [Portrait of the Colonized]. 1957.

Portrait d'un Juif. 1962; as Portrait of a Jew, 1962.

La Libération d'un Juif. 1962; as The Liberation of a Jew, 1966.

La Poésie algérienne de 1830 a nos jours: approches sociohistoriques. 1963.

Les Francais et la racisme, with Paul Hassan Maucorps. 1965.

Ecole pratique des hautes études. 1965.

L'Homme dominé (essays). 1968; as Dominated Man: Notes towards a Portrait, 1968.

Juifs et Arabes. 1974; as Jews and Arabs, 1975.

Albert Memmi: Un entretien avec Robert Davies suivi d'itineraire de l'expérience vecue a la théorie de la domination. 1975.

La Terre interieure entretiens avec Victor Malka. 1976.

La Dependance: Esquisse pour un portrait du dépendant. 1979; as Dependence, 1983.

La Racisme. 1982.

L'Ecriture colorée. 1986.

Editor, Anthologie des ecrivains maghrebins d'expression francaise (2 vols.). 1964; revised edition, 1965.


Critical Studies:

"Works in Progress/Albert Memmi" by Harold Flender, in Intellectual Digest, 3(4), December 1972, pp. 6-14; "Du scorpion au Désert: Albert Memmi Revisited" by Isaac Yetiv, in Studies in Twentieth Century Literature, 7(1), 1982, pp. 77-87; Albert Memmi by Judith Roumani, 1987; Albert Cohen, Albert Memmi, and Elie Wiesel and the Dilemma of Jewish Identity in French Literature and Culture (dissertation) by Héléne Golencer Schroeter, University of Utah, 1989; "Albert Memmi and Alain Finkielkraut: Two Discourses on French Jewish Identity" by Judith Morganroth-Schneider, in Romanic Review, 81(1), January 1990; "Irreconcilable Differences" by Gary Wilder, in Transition, 71, 1996; "Oppression, Liberation, and Narcissism: A Jungian Psychopolitical Analysis of the Ideas of Albert Memmi" by Lawrence R. Alschuler, in Alternatives, 21(4), 1996.

* * *

Albert Memmi was born in 1920 in the Jewish ghetto of Tunis, the son of a poor saddler-cum-leather worker. A gifted student, he received grants and awards that allowed him, first, to go to the Lycée Carnot and, later, to study philosophy at the University of Algiers. In 1943 he was deported to a labor camp, but he escaped and after the war completed his studies in philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. In the early 1950s he returned to Tunisia, where he wrote the literary page for L'Action, the first Tunisian daily, and became the director of the Center for Child Psychology. In 1956 Tunisia became a Muslim state, and 95 percent of the Jewish population left, including Memmi. Back in Paris, he published two major texts, written in 1956 and 1957, that brought him to the attention of the world: Portrait du colonisé (Portrait of the Colonized ) and Portrait du colonisateur (Portrait of the Colonizer ). Together they are a methodical survey of the always corrupting relationship between the colonized and the colonizer. These were followed in 1962 by Portrait d'un Juif and in 1973 by L'Homme dominé (Dominated Man ), which bears the clarifying subtitle The Black, the Colonized, the Jew, the Proletariat, the Woman, the Servant, and Racism. These texts became the starting and reference point for a reflection on colonization so deeply needed during the many political movements of decolonization in the 1960s and 1970s. In Paris, Memmi became professor of social psychiatry at the École Pratique des Hautes Études and director of the collection Domaine Maghrébin for the publisher Maspero.

Memmi published extensively as a novelist (Pillar of Salt, Agar, The Scorpio, The Desert, The Pharaoh ), as a social and political analyst, and as a thinker. Taking the example of his own experience, so delicately described in Pillar of Salt, he describes how colonization is not simply a political state but also an internalized means of seeing and living the social experience. He was the first to recognize and denounce racial and ethnic policies in the terms of the political and sociological views of the second half of the twentieth century. He did this by analyzing the life experiences of those imposing and those suffering racism. His psychosociological views made the experience of racism vivid to a Western world often at a loss to understand the painful reality of its "civilizing mission" in the Third World.

Memmi experienced all of the forms of rejection and racism, individual and social, about which he wrote. A Jew raised in an Arab environment, he embraced classical French and Western culture only to be betrayed by the French political system. Poor, he was seen as an outcast by bourgeois Jews and Christians. Living the experience of the colonized, he came to understand the plight of oppressed nations. His education built an unbreakable wall between himself and his family, and his humanism built a wall between himself and other Jews. All of these experiences of rejection give his literary and scientific texts a unique depth.

Memmi's books were an attempt to understand his own life. As he said, "In the novel, I describe my life; in the essays, I try to understand it." Thus, his works are to be taken as a totality, each text mirroring another. His existence and his books were marked by a search for identity and self-justification. His constant return to his origins rooted him deeply in the context of the Maghreb and in Judaism, while never explaining his experience totally. Indeed, he transcended his own experience and projected a universal perspective on the cruel exploitation of the minority and the weak. He succeeded at transforming his own specific and local experience into a blueprint for universal understanding.

Deeply humanist, Memmi affirmed his position as a Jew without religious belief or practice. He found in his respect for the other, including believers, the ultimate sign of tolerance, although it is seldom returned by believers.

—Alain Goldschlager

See the essay on Pillar of Salt.

Memmi, Albert

views updated May 17 2018


MEMMI, ALBERT (1920– ), French author and sociologist. Memmi, a native of Tunis, fought with the Free French during World War ii. After completing his studies he returned to Tunis, where he became head of a psychological institute. In 1959, he joined the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, and became a teacher at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes where he was appointed a professor in 1966. He specialized in the social effects of colonization, finding a similarity between the situation of the Jew and that of colonized peoples. Though an advocate of independence for the countries of the Maghreb, he was well aware that one of its consequences would be the mass exodus of North African Jewry. Memmi's first two books were novels, both largely autobiographical. La statue de sel (1953; Pillar of Salt, 1955), is the story of a North African Jew's emergence from a narrow Jewish society through the discovery of French culture, and his eventual disillusionment with an idealized Western humanism. Agar (1955; Strangers, 1958) describes the isolation of a Tunisian Jew, rejected by both Frenchmen and Arabs. Memmi was still dealing with the same problem a decade later in essays such as Portrait d'un Juif (1962; Portrait of a Jew, 1963) and its sequel, La libération du Juif (1966; The Liberation of the Jew, 1966). He portrays the Jew as a "shadow figure," neither wholly assimilated nor anxious to lose his distinctiveness, concluding that "Israel is our only solution, our one trump card, our last historical opportunity." Memmi's sociological studies appeared in various journals and in Le Français et le racisme (1965). He published an Anthologie des écrivains nord-africains (1964) and a Bibliographie de la littérature nord-africaine d'expression française 1945–1962 (1965). He also wrote essays on Jewish subjects for L'Arche, Evidences, and Commentary. His later works include Dictionnaire critique à l'usage des incrédules (2002) and a conversation volume with Catherine Pont-Humbert, L'individu face à ses dépendances (2005).


Sartre, in: Les Temps Modernes, 137–8 (1957), 289–92; Camus, in: A. Memmi, La statue de sel (1953), preface; A. Khatibi, Le Roman Maghrébin (1968); Di-Nour, in: Dispersion et Unité, 8 (1967), 81–92.

[Jacqueline Kahanoff]

About this article

Albert Memmi

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic