Sunday, May 24, 2020

Albert Memmi (1920 - 2020)

Albert Memmi, the great Tunisian-Jewish anti-colonial writer and theorist, has passed away at age 99.

Late last year, a friend and I had the early sketches of a plan to host a conference in honor of Memmi's 100th birthday (at the time, the most common response to this idea was for people to exclaim "he's still alive?"). That was put on brakes after the coronavirus hit, but there's no question Memmi remains worthy of study and (now) memorialization.

Albert Memmi was born in Tunis in 1920. In his early life he was involved in socialist youth movements, and during the Nazi occupation of Tunisia he was interned in a slave labor camp (from which he escaped). After the war, he became one of the leading intellectual lights of the movement to free Tunisia from French colonization. What Fanon was to Algeira, Memmi was to Tunisia, and for many years Memmi's book The Colonizer and the Colonized was read alongside Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth as cornerstone texts of decolonial theory. That is much less true today, possibly because Memmi's later work was more conservative, possibly because Memmi was emphatic throughout his career that he viewed Zionism as the decolonization movement of the Jews.

Unfortunately, following independence Memmi found that Tunisia had little place for Jews, and he exiled himself to France where he spent the remainder of his life. He wrote a trilogy of books -- Portrait of a Jew, Liberation of the Jew, and Jews and Arabs -- which have been widely overlooked but which I think are each superb explorations of the Jewish condition that continue to resonate to this day (many excerpts from these books have been featured on this blog). He continued to write prolifically, culminating in a follow-up to The Colonizer and the Colonized titled Decolonization and the Decolonized in 2006. This book was controversial, as Memmi evinced a marked conservative turn, and there are parts of it that made me wince as a reader. But that does not mean it is not worth reading, as is the broader corpus of Memmi's amazing life's works.

While Fanon famously died extremely young, Memmi's career as a writer spanned well over a half-century, witnessing tremendous revolutions in his homeland and in the disciplinary areas he wrote upon. Hence, I've sometimes described Memmi as the version of Fanon who got to watch the decolonization story actually unfold. By itself, that makes him a fascinating character. But Memmi deserved to be read and praised in his own right, not simply as a shadow of Fanon.

May his memory be a blessing.

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