Albert Memmi

French writer of Tunisian-Jewish origin

Albert Memmi (Arabic: ألبرت ميمي‎; born 15 December 1920, in Tunis, died 22 May 2020 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France) was a Tunisian Jewish writer and essayist who migrated to France. His most famous work is The Colonizer and the Colonized.

Albert Memmi (1982)
by Claude Truong-Ngoc


  • Racism... is the highest expression of the colonial system and one of the most significant features of the colonialist.
    • The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957).
  • We would have liked to be Arab Jews. If we abandoned the idea, it is because over the centuries the Moslem Arabs systematically prevented its realization by their contempt and cruelty. It is now too late for us to become Arab Jews.
    • "Who is an Arab Jew?" (1975)
  • As far back as my childhood memories go – in the tales of my father, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles – coexistence with the Arabs was not just uncomfortable, it was marked by threats periodically carried out.
    • "Who is an Arab Jew?" (1975)
  • The Jews were at the mercy not only of the monarch but also of the man in the street. My grandfather still wore the obligatory and discriminatory Jewish garb, and in his time every Jew might expect to be hit on the head by any Moslem whom he happened to pass.
  • This pleasant ritual even had a name – the chtaka; and with it went a sacramental formula which I have forgotten.
    • "Who is an Arab Jew?" (1975)
  • Never, I repeat, never – with the possible exception of two or three very specific intervals such as the Andalusian, and not even then – did the Jews in Arab lands live in other than a humiliated state, vulnerable and periodically mistreated and murdered, so that they should clearly remember their place.
    • "Who is an Arab Jew?" (1975)
  • I have described in Pillar of Salt how the French authorities coldly left us to the Germans. But I must add that we were also submerged in a hostile Arab population, which is why so few of us could cross the lines and join the Allies. Some got through in spite of everything, but in most cases they were denounced and caught.
    • "Who is an Arab Jew?" (1975)
  • It must be acknowledged that not many Jews took an active part in the struggle for [Tunisian] independence, but neither did the mass of Tunisian non-Jews.
    • "Who is an Arab Jew?" (1975)
  • I continued to defend the Arabs even in Europe, in countless activities, communications, signatures, manifestos. But it must be stated unequivocally, once and for all: we defended the Arabs because they were oppressed.
  • But now there are independent Arab states, with foreign policies, social classes, with rich and poor. And if they are no longer oppressed, if they are in their turn becoming oppressors, or possess unjust political regimes, I do not see why they should not be called upon to render accounts.
    • "Who is an Arab Jew?" (1975)
  • I arrived in France, and found myself up against the legend which was current in left-wing Parisian salons: the Jews had always lived in perfect harmony with the Arabs. I was almost congratulated for having been born in such a land where racial discrimination and xenophobia were unknown. It made me laugh.
    • "Who is an Arab Jew?" (1975)
  • The Arab Jews are much more distrustful of the Moslems than are the European Jews, and they dreamed of the Land of Israel long before the Russian and Polish Jews did.
    • "Who is an Arab Jew?" (1975)
  • [This] argument stems from the cogitations of a part of the European Left: the Arabs were oppressed, therefore they could not be anti-Semites. This is ridiculously manichaeistic – as though one could not be oppressed and also be a racist! As if workers have not been xenophobic!
    • "Who is an Arab Jew?" (1975)
  • Even today the official position of the Arabs, implicit or avowed, brutal or tactical, is nothing but a perpetuation of that anti-Semitism which we have experienced. Today, as yesterday, our life is at stake. But there will come a day when the Moslem Arabs will have to admit that we, the “Arab Jews” as well – if that is how they wish to call us – have the right to existence and to dignity.
    • "Who is an Arab Jew?" (1975)

Racism (1982)

  • Racism rests upon and functions as a kind of seesaw: the persecutor rises by debasing and inferiorizing his victim.
  • There is a strange kind of tragic enigma associated with the problem of racism. No one, or almost no one, wishes to see themselves as racist; still racism persists, real and tenacious.
  • Racism does not limit itself to biology or economics or psychology or metaphysics; it attacks along many fronts and in many forms, deploying whatever is at hand, and even what is not, inventing when the need arises.

Decolonization and the Decolonized (1957)

The Colonizer and the Colonized. Earthscan. 2003. ISBN 978-1-84407-040-4. 
  • The most serious blow suffered by the colonized is being removed from history and from the community. Colonization usurps any free role in either war or peace, every decision contributing to his destiny and that of the world, and all cultural and social responsibility.
    • p. 137
  • Israel, however, is not a colonial settlement, which would therefore be legitimate to destroy, an idea the Arab states have tried to promulgate. Aside from its domination of the Palestinians, which is unacceptable, it has none of the characteristics of such a state. Nor is it a product of the Crusades, a religious excrescence of Europe, destined sooner or later to vanish off the map from Christianity's lassitude.
  • Like Palestine for the Palestinians, Israel is a national fact, the response to an untenable condition and a collective desire, with its own imaginary, binding it, rightly or wrongly, to this earth. This is how the United Nations viewed the situation when it determined the constitutions of the two sovereign states.
  • When seen in its proper context, compared to the magnitude of the problems—demographic, economic, political, social, cultural, and religious—that now face the Arab world, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict turns out to be a minor drama in a small corner of the world, just one among many.
  • Obviously, the misfortune of the Arabs does not arise from the existence of Israel; even if the country didn't exist, none of these problems would be resolved.
  • There is no mystery to the Arab texts used for domestic consumption; they openly discuss the destruction of Israel. Didn't the first president of the Algerian republic, Ben Bella, go so far as to declare that, if he had had an atomic bomb, he would have launched it against Israel, which had become a kind of absolute evil?
  • To speak of Israel in terms other than as a historical, even metaphysical, disease that the Arab world needed to be cleansed of became a form of blasphemy that had to be punished. Giving it a place on a map was a sacrilege, a felony. As if, by denying its existence, it could magically be made to disappear. This effort was facilitated by the fact that the Jews served as an excellent scapegoat for the problems of others. Israel's existence was far too convenient.
  • There no longer exists, if there ever did in the Arab-Muslim world, that great public tribunal characteristic of democracy, where everyone can publicly give his opinion without unnecessary risk. True controversies are rare, except possibly for unimportant details, where disagreements occur against a background of underlying unity. As a result, any condemnation of wrongdoing and scandal always comes from the exterior, from those outside the community, leading to suspicions of bias or perversity.
  • Hardly a word about the condition of women is heard. Not a single statement about the fate of minorities, some of whose members have contributed to the independence of their country at the risk of their life; not a sign of recognition. On the contrary, they most often find themselves being gradually eliminated from the country's civil-service bureaucracy. In this way a great occasion is lost to build, at least in words, an open and multicultural nation, one that includes the Algerian Kabyles, the Egyptian Copts, Jews and Christians … precisely what intellectuals living in the West demand for themselves in their host countries!
  • If you raise a baby crocodile in your apartment, one day he will eat you. The Americans gave aid to the Taliban in fighting the Russians and later went to war with them. The Israelis initially encouraged the Palestinian fundamentalists in Hamas, who then turned against them. The ruler knows this; he knows that if the fundamentalists gain power, he will be eliminated. To avoid this he will practice a balancing act, sometimes granting them favors, sometimes tightening the screws. The Islamic veil, the beard, the mosques, the confraternities serve as escape valves, but all the Arab governments know they are raising crocodiles in their midst. This providential aid, granted through the intermediary of the priests, is not disinterested. It is a poisoned alliance, where everyone, using his own weapons, tries to neutralize, then despoil, the others.
  • The suicide bomber denies the rules so painfully acquired by human societies, the outline of a moralization of war. It is a reversal of the gradual humanization of human societies. They cut the throats of journalists, who are only doing their job, abduct or machine-gun tourists, who have arrived from another part of the world and had the misfortune to want to amuse themselves. A tract that appeared in Casablanca before a horrendous attack, one that was distributed only in the mosques, exhorted its readers to make no exceptions for women or children—all of them were considered guilty and deserved to die. The same justification has been advanced by Palestinian leaders: all Israelis without exception must be attacked. Islamic terrorism appears to have declared war on the entire world, including the Arab countries that fail to align themselves with its objectives. Tunisia, Morocco, even Saudi Arabia, the leading sanctuary of the Arab-Muslim world, have been struck. Until recently, Palestinian bombers concentrated on Israeli or Jewish targets; now the battle has extended to the world at large.
  • One of history's ironies is that Kosovo, a Muslim territory, owes its survival to the assistance of the Americans, just as Nasser's pseudo-victory against France, England, and Israel was obtained through the intervention of the Americans and Russians.
  • It was as if, by denouncing their rulers, I had insulted the people, which was exactly the opposite of my intent. For by illuminating these lapses, I believe, rather, that I have helped to demystify the situation. Therefore, I devoted exactly four pages to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The subject is inexhaustible and convenient. I pointed out the deplorable situation of the Palestinians and urged the creation of a Palestinian state—something I have done for thirty years, even when no one else was willing to do so, including the Arab states (see my Juifs et Arabes [Jews and Arabs], Gallimard, 1967). But I wondered why there had been such emphasis on the conflict, with its four thousand dead—deplorable like all deaths but hardly comparable to the millions of deaths in Africa, for example. As I write this afterword, a massacre in Darfur has left thirty thousand dead and displaced close to a million people. I have suggested that such chaos has been one of the most effective pretexts for tyrants to excuse their hold on power and the state of catalepsy in which they maintain their populations.

Quotes about Memmi

  • There has never been a moment when reading Freire that I have not remained aware of not only the sexism of the language but the way he (like other progressive Third World political leaders, intellectuals, critical thinkers such as Fanon, Memmi, etc.) constructs a phallocentric paradigm of liberation-wherein freedom and the experience of patriarchal manhood are always linked as though they are one and the same. For me this is always a source of anguish for it represents a blind spot in the vision of men who have profound insight.
    • bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994)
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