Adam Shatz in the LRB:
In 1957, Albert Memmi published a slender but explosive book, Portrait du colonisé précédé de Portrait du colonisateur, later translated as The Coloniser and the Colonised. Memmi was a Jew from Tunisia; he was in his late thirties and firmly on the left. At the time of publication, France had entered the fourth year of an undeclared war against nationalist insurgents in Algeria; it had lost its imperial foothold in Indochina in 1954 and was now determined to hang on to its possessions in Africa. Most French critics of colonial rule focused on land expropriation, the exploitation of indigenous labour and violent repression. To Memmi, however, these were symptoms of a broader, structural malaise. He depicted colonialism in North Africa – and elsewhere – as ‘a pyramid of privilege’ in which European settlers stood at the top, and the Arab Muslim majority at the absolute bottom. Even the poorest of Europeans – the so-called petits blancs or little whites – had an advantage over the wealthiest of Arabs, as members of the colonising population. As for Jews like himself, they too were colonised, yet they were a notch above the Arabs, and looked to France and the French language as potential sources of emancipation.
As a young man, he had defied his own community by allying himself with Arab nationalists fighting against French rule, but once Tunisia was liberated in 1956, he settled in France. While he believed that Tunisian Muslims had every right to expel the French who’d ruled their country as a protectorate since 1881, he had no wish to live under a government that he expected to be strongly influenced by Islam. Memmi, who died in late May, spent the rest of his life in Paris, in an apartment in the Marais, but he remained preoccupied with the question of the ‘lived experience’ of colonial domination, racism and other forms of oppression.