I remember reading a short news blurb back in 1998. It said something about a popular Algerian folk singer being murdered. Though I hadn’t a clue who the singer might be (his name was not mentioned), I felt a pang in my chest; my gut told me that humanity had suffered a great loss.
Only years later did I learn that the murdered singer was Matoub Lounes/ Lounes Matoub – and that a more correct term for his killing would be “martyred.”
No, today is not his birthday, nor is it the anniversary of his death. But I was enjoying some of my old music CDs, and among them are songs by the late singer. He sang in several languages, but first and foremost in his native Tamazight (“Berber”) dialect of the mountainous Kabylie region. Wikipedia has this to say about Matoub:
Lounès Matoub (in Kabyle: Lwennas Maṭub, in Tifinagh: ⵍⵡⴻⵏⵏⴰⵙ ⵎⴰⵟⵓⴱ, Algerian Arabic: معتوب لوناس) (January 24, 1956 – June 25, 1998) is a famous BerberKabyle singer, poet, thinker and mondol player who was a prominent advocate of the Berber cause, human rights and secularism in Algeria throughout his life. He was a symbol of resistance and courage.
He is revered as a hero and martyr in Kabylie and the Berber World but reviled by most of the Arab population in Algeria for his atheism and the alleged blasphemy of some songs (like Allahu Akbar) along with his militant advocacy of Berber rights, so he was unpopular among both warring parties during the Algerian Civil War. His assassination, in circumstances which remain unclear, provoked violent riots in Kabylie. Berber Algerians still accuse the Algerian regime of killing Matoub Lounès, but some of the Algerian regime’s figures accused the Islamist terrorists of this crime.
His music mixes oriental Chaabi orchestration with politicized Berber (Tamazight) lyrics, and covers a broad variety of topics including the Berber cause, democracy, freedom, religion, Islamism, love, exile, memory, history, peace and human rights. Unlike the Amazigh poet/musicians who preceded him, Matoub’s style was direct and confrontational. Fellow musician Moh Aileche recalls:
He went straight. He criticized a president. He mentioned the president of Algeria right in the beginning of his career. He goes black and white. He was very, very clear in his songs, and he is the only singer – not only Algeria, but in all of North Africa – who criticized the government and criticized clearly. He would never get afraid.
Despite being banned from Algerian radio and television, Matoub became, and remains, an extremely popular Kabyle singer…
During the riots in October 1988, Matoub was shot five times by a policeman and left for dead. He was hospitalised for two years, requiring 17 operations including the insertion of an artificial sacrum and the contraction of his leg by 5 cm. His 1989 album L’Ironie du sort describes his long convalescence.
During the civil war, which began in 1992, the Islamist Armed Islamic Group (GIA) added his name to a hitlist of artists and intellectuals. Matoub remained in Algeria. On 25 September 1994, he was abducted. He was held for two weeks in a GIA mountain stronghold and condemned to death. He was released following a large public demonstration in which his supporters threatened “total war” on the Islamists.
Reading the various news stories regarding the threat of extremist Muslims, we find many armchair warriors; people who talk tough from the safety of their own homes, and politicians who take a hard line – knowing full well that their risk of paying the ultimate price is minimal.
If ever there was a man who had the courage to speak his mind, and look death squarely in the eye, it was Matoub. In the end, he did pay the ultimate price. The Wikipedia article continues:
On 25 June 1998, at approximately 12:30 pm local time, Matoub’s car was stopped at a roadblock while he was driving along a mountainous road in eastern Algeria. The car was fired upon by masked gunmen, killing Matoub and wounding his wife, Nadia Matoub, and two sisters-in-law.
The story of Matoub goes back well before his birth. His legacy is that of a people that has inhabited its current homeland since before the dawn of history. The Berbers, or Tamazight, do not belong to any specific race. Again, according to Wikipedia:
The Berber identity is usually wider than language and ethnicity, and encompasses the entire history and geography of North Africa. Berbers are not an entirely homogeneous ethnicity and they encompass a range of phenotypes, societies and ancestries. The unifying forces for the Berber people may be their shared language, belonging to the Berber homeland, or a collective identification with the Berber heritage and history…
The Maghreb or western North Africa on the whole is believed to have been inhabited by Berbers since from at least 10,000 B.C
I might add that their collective marginalization, by invading Arabs, has served to solidify their ethnic/political solidarity. There can be little doubt that Matoub, and his kin, kept their well-established heritage in mind as they fought and bled to preserve it. To quote Wikipedia yet again:
Since the independence of Algeria, tensions have arisen between Kabylie and the central government on several occasions. In 1963 the FFS party of Hocine Aït Ahmed contested the authority of the FLN, which has promoted itself as the only party in the nation.
In 1980, protesters mounted several months of demonstrations in Kabylie demanding the recognition of Berber as an official language; this period has been called the Berber Spring. The politics of identity intensified during the 1990s as the regime initiated Arabization due to growing Islamist power. In 1994–1995, a school boycott occurred, termed the “strike of the school bag”. In June and July 1998, there were violent protests after the assassination of singer Matoub Lounes and the law requiring use of the Arabic language in all fields.
In the months following April 2001 (called the Black Spring), major riots — together with the emergence of the Arouch, neo-traditional local councils, followed the killing of Masinissa Guermah, a young Kabyle, by gendarmes. The protests gradually decreased after the Kabyle won some concessions from President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
The struggle of the people of Kabylie, to preserve their language, should serve as an inspiration for the rest of us – perhaps most of all, for the Afrikaners. There are some parallels between the struggles of Tamazight and Afrikaans.