An Albert Memmi Anthology in Three Genres:
Essay, Interview, and Poetry

Translations by Ralph Tarica
Interview by Dov Maimon

Essay: Growing Up as a Minority Child
by Albert Memmi1

I don’t believe that there is anything specific about the childhood of a Jewish child in Muslim countries of the Mediterranean.  When I came to Europe, I discovered many similarities between the situation of such a child and that of Jewish children in Germanic and Russian countries.

With local variations, of course.  We spoke a Judeo-Arabic, stuffed with French and Italian plus Hebrew, which remained a living and secret treasure, whereas they spoke Yiddish.  But in our case, our relation to the dominant language, French (it could have been Italian if Italy had replaced France in North Africa), was, in their case, their relation to Russian or German.

But in either case we had two languages, the dominant language, that of the majority, and a dialect.  From primary school onwards, I had to master French fairly quickly.  Perhaps that is why I became a writer: it was a way to master and become intimate with European culture and power.

Our relations with the Muslims were of another kind entirely.  We shared most cultural characteristics with them: food, music, close family ties, etc.  But at the same time we were wary and even fearful of them.  Besides, occasionally some explosion would remind us of our status, which is to say at the same time a permanent feeling of threat and the resulting withdrawal into ourselves.

What I have just suggested is basically a definition of minority status.  Indeed, if I had to characterize the situation we lived in at the time, I would say that we were essentially minority people.  Moreover I think that this is one of the characteristics of being Jewish, anywhere in the world.

The probable result of which is a certain number of types of behavior to deal with it or to rise above it.  Certain professions, for example: medicine, which allows one to carry one’s knowledge about and to use it anywhere.  Or (and people do reproach us for it often enough) our efforts at achieving economic success.

I have never left this childhood sensation of being caught in between two cultures, both of them dominant, each in its own way.  My native land and my impressions of childhood can be found in half my books, even today, and I remain deeply attached to the fate of formerly colonized peoples.  Many of my friendships and affections lie there.  And moreover, the battle to master the French language and European culture requires a constant effort on my part.

Interview with Albert Memmi2 By Dov Maimon

1.  DM:  To begin, could you give a summary of the basic trends in your intellectual biography?  Today, with novels such as Agar [Strangers] (1955) or La Statue de sel [Pillar of Salt] (1953) [both available in translations from French into English, Hebrew, and many other languages] attaining the highly enviable status of ‘classics’, I’d like to know what place creating novels holds in your life.

AM:  My work extends in two directions: creating novels and writing essays that take stock of reality. Taking stock of the real, of individuals or groups, has led me to consider two principal realms that are shared in our lives, and perhaps in those of animals: dominance and dependence.

a.)  Dominance is the attempt to master others so as to take some advantage of them, real or fictional.  That is why racism or heterophobia (a concept I created) would be a good illustration of this (see in particular my book on racism).

b.)  Colonization, a subject to which I have devoted numerous texts, is also a good illustration of this collective phenomenon.  The situation of being a Jew is another (see my Portrait d’un juif [Portrait of a Jew] (1962)where I created the notion of Judéité).  But also the situation of being a woman, or of being black.  And so I discovered resemblances between all these states of being and specific characteristics for each.

c.)  After thirty years or so of research on dominance, I have discovered the importance of “the need we have of others,” whether it be the love relationship (the notion of the duo), the relationship between parent and child, the dependence on work, etc., but also the dependence on the imagination, mainly art or religion.  Here, too, the mechanisms that regulate our dependence on drugs, alcohol and tobacco and those that regulate our relations with art or religion are perceptibly the same: we are their captives and they bring us pleasure.

d.)  But no conceptual analysis can exhaust the real, whether individual or collective; it almost always possesses an imaginary dimension (one loves a woman for what she is and also for the way we imagine her).  The same is true for one’s community or country.  I therefore need to devote myself sometimes to conceptual analysis and sometimes to fictional construction.  For me, writing novels remains unavoidable.

2.  DM:  As you have shown often enough, Zionism is not a colonialist phenomenon but purely and simply a movement of national liberation.  And yet, how do you explain that the criticism of Israel so conspicuous in Europe seems increasingly to find nourishment in a source of anti-imperialist ideology such as is today incarnated notably in a movement that some, such as P. H. Taguief and A. Finkielkraut, consider proper to call neo-Leftism?

AM: Because the European Left remains impregnated with Stalin-like and Soviet Manichaeanism.  The Arabs, because they were dominated by the West and are still not out of the grasp of the West, seem to remain victims.  The same thing happens in Israel.  We come up against Arab feudal systems (by some miracle thought to be progressive) and oil money which will weigh more and more heavily on the politics of Europe.

3.  DM:  As an early militant for decolonization, how do you see the evolution of societies in the Maghreb, especially in view of the fundamentalist threat?

AM:  I am not reassured, either for the Maghreb or for the whole Arab world.  Indeed, the Arab world is passing through a stage that I have called the return of the pendulum.  As long as the memory of colonization and its after-effects, and the socio-historical decline of the Arab/Muslim world, have not faded, the pendulum risks swinging as far as possible to one side; hence the attractions of past glories, of nationalism, the efforts to recover power in the process of which violence and terrorism appear as the most efficacious tools – instead of latching on bravely to democratization and the adoption of contemporary knowledge.

4.  DM:  In the spectrum of French Judaism, you incarnate the non-religious, cultural, progressive and identity position.  Do you think that a Judaism that is purely secular – not only stripped of its ritual practices but oblivious of the great ethical and metaphysical questioning conveyed by the old Hebrew wisdom – is possible or even simply desirable? 

AM:  I don’t find fault with rituals, whether individual or group.  They are comforting by marking the rhythms of time; they contribute to the unity of the group.  On the other hand I do find fault with making them sacred, the pretension of rabbis and priests in general to be the spokespersons of some divinity rather than dabblers in history. Neither do I find fault with ethical or even metaphysical questioning, if there is such a thing as metaphysics.  I do find fault with clerical and mythological answers to these questions.  No god can allay our fears, at least not for me.  The Bible, like all writing said to be holy, is literature, excellent literature in fact.  Somewhere or other I proposed this turn of phrase: “Religion is literature gone mad.”

5.  DM:  Does the solution that the Israeli intellectual Left has favored for a long time – I mean the partition of the land into “two states for two peoples” with Jerusalem as capital both for the Palestinian state to the east and for the Hebrew state to the west – still seem operable to you, after the clear failure of the Oslo accords, which were conceived on this basis?

AM:   As long as people have not become more reasonable, I am in favor of partitioning Palestine into two states and two peoples.  But I am not sure that the Zionist dream has really disappeared, nor whether the Arabs are resigned to the existence in their midst of a [Jewish or Israeli] national identity.

6.  DM:  What is your view of the relationship that Diaspora communities maintain towards the State of Israel?

AM:  Decisive, in both directions.

Postscript, February 2011: Albert Memmi summarizes his answers to the same questions that Sephardic Horizons presented to the other two Tunisian Jewish writers in this issue:

AM: Your questionnaire would require extended answers. Overall, let’s state that there are no longer any Jews living in Arab countries. So it is not useful to ask about the relations of Sephardim with the Muslim Arab world. Many of you used to believe that collaboration would be possible, but the new governments of the Arab countries did not want it.

As for the Jasmine Revolution, there is a lot of delirium in it. What is very positive is that the Muslim Arab intellectuals can now express themselves, but the basic problem remains intact: corruption, tyranny, and above all the impossibility up to now of separating religion from politics. As long as the Muslim Arab world has not made this separation, I am afraid that things will not change very deeply. That, dear friend, is basically what I think…

Three Unpublished Poems by Albert Memmi

The unknown in love

Nothing can be compared
to the happiness of lovers
where what is known delights
and what is unknown surprises
where the unknown remains
at the heart of what we know most

Always the same

Like the sailors on the high seas
who go from port to port
seeking a woman
each time different
basically always the same
thus in each woman
it’s you I’m looking for
Keep this in reserve: I have never
loved anyone but you

How it was before

I can no longer remember
how it was before
Before I knew you
everything was just gray

As soon as you appeared
sun in the storm cloud
I can barely remember
how it was before

You led me to discover
the dance of colors
You made the effects
of light explode

Was I living in limbo
Was I up to now just
sleeping while waiting for you
Was there ever a before

Poems translated by Ralph Tarica

Two Previously Published Poems3

Yesterday he wrote to me again

I will make a holiday for you
a whole day, dear friend
you will wear my best clothes
gold buckles and chain
my long cane, my shoes
and go through the streets
greeting neighbors and traders
like a bey on his stroll
come back won’t you dear friend.

In the sukka of palm leaves

In the sukka of palm leaves
and feathery reeds
draped with white sheets
and silken scarves
my mother has hung
seasonal fruits
my brother Menahem
has made lamps
in oil pots
my sister Nin is stupidly
standing on one foot
I am eating fried bread
with honey and waiting for God
he’ll come soon
father has promised

These two poems are translated by Judith Roumani


1 “L’Enfance d’un minoritaire,” unpublished essay. Albert Memmi was born and grew up in the then-French protectorate of Tunisia. Though he was active in the postwar Tunisian independence movement, he later moved to Paris. He is the author of a large number of philosophical/sociological essays, and is particularly known for his groundbreaking studies of the predicament of the colonized (in The Colonizer and the Colonized, 1973), of anti-Semitism, and of racism, developing a theory of domination. He was the first postwar North African novelist to write in French, with his Pillar of Salt (1953), which won the Prix de Carthage, followed by Strangers (1955), and The Scorpion (1969), all set in Tunisia. In 1984 President Bourguiba personally bestowed on him membership in the Order of the Tunisian Republic and in 2004 the Académie Française awarded him the "Grand prix de la Francophonie" for his work as a whole. We are grateful to Memmi for providing us with this unpublished essay and the three unpublished poems.

2 Most of this interview by Dov Maimon was conducted in France in 2008. It was published in French and is reproduced with the permission of Covenant Global Jewish Magazine. The translation is by Ralph Tarica. The last two paragraphs, which are Memmi’s responses to the 2011 questionnaire also sent to Claude Kayat and Marco Koskas, are translated by Judith Roumani.

3 These two poems were previously published in English translation in Midstream, May, 1984. They are reproduced by kind permission of the editor.

Copyright by Sephardic Horizons, all rights reserved. ISSN Number 2158-1800