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Reviewed by:
  • Decolonization and the Decolonized
  • Françoise Vergès
Decolonization and the Decolonized. By Albert Memmi. Translated from the French by Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota press, 2006.

In Decolonization and the Decolonized, Albert Memmi addresses what he sees as central issues of postcoloniality: what explains the “great disillusion” of national independence, the ongoing poverty of postcolonial states, the failure of intellectuals, and the integration of immigrants from former colonies in European countries? The text is an indictment of Arab intellectuals and of the Arab-Muslim world which Memmi sees as caught into a prison of bitterness, resentment and blindness to its own responsibilities and failings.

This is not Memmi’s first book on the dilemma of the colonized. Memmi belongs to the generation of men born in the 1920s who, like Frantz Fanon, contributed by their actions and their writings to the struggle against colonialism and the movements of national independence. Born in 1921 of parents living in a poor Jewish section of the capital city of Tunisia, then under French colonial domination, Memmi studied at French schools. His anomalous position of a Jew among Muslims, an Arab among French, an educated among poor illiterates, gave him an experience of inter-culturality that he carried in his life and his writings. He published his first novel La statue de sel (translated as “The Pillar of Salt”) in 1953 with a preface by Albert Camus. It was not unusual for young colonized to turn to the genre of poetry or the novel to express their alienation and denounce colonialism. Aimé Césaire, Leopold Sedar Senghor, or George Padmore had already shown the way in the 1930s. In his first novel (1953) La statue de sel, Memmi explored the experience of Alexandre MordekhaÃ̄ Benillouche, a poor young Jewish man who feels gradually estranged from his family, friends and neighborhood. He finally chooses voluntary exile but is unable to integrate either the Western world which fascinates him or the nascent independent nation of Tunisia. The character, which was partly based on Memmi’s adolescence, is caught between nostalgia for a present that could have been and a rational, cold appraisal of past weaknesses (cultural, social) that led to a depressing present. Memmi’s political horizon remains a strong humanism with its universal values based on his childhood triple culture, which, for him, guarantees freedom from the prison of “pure” origins. In his successive novels and essays, Memmi continued to affirm his desire to see, to dissect the event with the look as reason. The question of postcolonial identity is set within this universalism. First published in French in 1957, The Colonized and the Colonizer1, Memmi’s most famous essay, analyzed the psychic and political contradictions, which he saw as practically irresolvable, of the bounded actors of the colonial drama. Universal humanism was the answer, certainly not violence and he was quite critical of Frantz Fanon’s writings advocating violence against the colonial power.

Decolonization and the Decolonized is thus deeply a Memmi’s book. The French title2 is closer to its content: it is in fact a portrait of the Arab-Muslim decolonized. Memmi looks at the Muslim world after 9/11 and sees few encouraging things but poverty, corruption, violence, chaos, greedier ruling classes than the colonial class. Arab intellectuals have failed their mission. They too often “justify the unjustifiable” (33), do not fight against the rampant anti-Semitism of the Arab public. The Arab-Muslim world has become so devoid of intellectual life that its literature is worthless (37). Postcolonial states have been unable to guarantee peace. “War is endemic to Black Africa, and international or interethnic conflicts have created more victims than colonization” (52). To Memmi, the “Nation was born too late” (54), the “apathy caused by colonization” combined with the “persistent lethargy of the people” had hindered the development of democracy which “remains foreign to the political practices of the third world, especially the Arab-Muslim world” (59). Migrants in European countries fare no better because they refuse to integrate, preferring the comfort of the ghetto. To Memmi, the battle for the head scarf embodied the incapacity to embrace a new identity. All religious...

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