“Silence is death and yet if you speak you die. If you keep quiet you die. So then speak and die.” Tahar Djaout
“I want to speak and I don’t want to die” Matoub Lounès
A grave between an olive and a cherry tree
Death finally caught up with him on the lonely bend of a mountain road. The bullet-strafed car was still smoking and the pools of blood on the asphalt were still warm when the news broke. Telephones lines crackled and the Internet came alive. “They’ve killed him.” “He was with his wife and two sisters in law.” “They were hit too.” “It happened just after 1pm.” “On the Tizi Ouzou road.” “It was a false road block.” “It was an ambush.” “It was the GIA.” “It was Chenoui’s men.” “It was the government.” “He’s dead.” “He’s gone.” “Matoub has gone.” Some even whispered, “It had to happen.”
Within hours angry mourners in their thousands had gathered around the Mohammed Nedir hospital in Tizi Ouzou, where Matoub Lounès’ bloodied remains were taken after the attack. Their shouts boomed like mixed-shot salvos of anger, desperation and grief. “Government…Assassin!” “Zéroual…Assassin!” “Islamists…Assassins!” “The generals…Assassins!” Over the next few days youths took to the streets of Tizi Ouzou, Akbou, Sidi Aïch, Bejaia, Aïn el Hammam and Tizi Guénif and unleashed their rage on government buildings, party offices, banks and shops. The police and security forces retaliated nervously with water cannons, tear gas and bullets. Three protestors were killed. The Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia appealed feebly for calm. Kabylia was burning.
In Paris, thousands gathered in Place de La République, in front of an immense black and white portrait of Matoub. Actors, politicians, community leaders, writers and musicians took to the stage to say a few words or sing a song. The great Berber singer Idir denounced the new Arabisation law which was due to be passed on July 5th making Arabic the compulsory language of almost every official or semi-official transaction in Algeria. The crowd stood smouldering under the fluttering yellow, blue and green flags of Kabylia, arms raised to the skies, chanting his songs. “Matoub was the Bard of Kabylia. They wanted to shut him up so they killed him,” said one mourner. “He sang for freedom, our freedom, Berber freedom,” said another. “He was our Che Guevara,” said a third.
The Berber Cultural Movement (MCB) called for a general strike and the response was overwhelming. Tizi Ouzou, the capital of Kabylia, was enveloped in a sepulchral silence on Sunday 28th June 1998, three days after Matoub’s murder. Boarded up shops and businesses looked like mausoleums lining the paths of a huge cemetery. Many of the city’s inhabitants had left before dawn and made their way up the mountain to Taourirt Moussa, the village where Matoub was born. They stuffed themselves in cars or braved the 25km on foot. The roads were hopelessly jammed. This, for once, was a real roadblock. In every hollow, on every ridge, down every street or path and on every rooftop around the Matoub villa, as far as the eye could see, a sea of mourners stood simmering under a hot and ripening sun. The presence of women, dressed defiantly in their colourful traditional dress or western threads, all of them unveiled, surprised many. Traditionally, funerals in Algeria are all-male affairs.
The heat was intense, the atmosphere even more so, and many fainted. Militants from the various Berber political groups and local village defence associations policed the gathering. Their work was light because no one was in the mood for trouble making. Placards bearing Matoub’s intense and troubled features were held aloft. Banners broke the silence and the sobs. “Remember and Revenge!” “No Peace Without Tamazight” “Arabo-Islamism, the shortest way to HELL.” Eventually Matoub’s body was brought out, wrapped only in an Algerian flag, and laid tenderly in a grave just in front of his family home, between an olive and a cherry tree, facing the majestic Djurdjura Mountains which he had loved with such a passion. His mother Aldjia fired two shots in the air and his sister Malika made a short speech which ended, “The face of Lounès will be missed but his songs will dwell forever in our hearts. Today is a day of great joy. We are celebrating the birth of Matoub Lounès.”
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One God? One Nation? One People?
Like a young adult who has just broken free from parental chains, any newborn nation state must grapple with the fundamental questions “Who am I? What is my identity?” Sometimes the answer comes easily. Countries whose territory is already blessed with linguistic and cultural coherence have little trouble establishing a national identity. But for many of the huge amorphous nations of Africa, which were often carelessly cobbled together from a chaotic patchwork of tribes and ethnicities by civil servants in the oak-panelled ministries of Paris or London, the question of identity has always posed huge problems. In the end one political group, tribe or clan usually imposes its rule, its ideology and often its culture on the rest of the country, by force if necessary. Proud, defiant but still politically immature, the new leaders of these fledgling states find they cannot entertain progressive notions of federalism and live-and-let-live cohabitation for fear that the weak mortar that binds their nation together will just crumble into dust and anarchy. The grail of national unity becomes an end that justifies the most violent and oppressive means.
Algeria’s birth pains were brutal and severe. The war of independence that ended in 1962 was one of extreme hatred and extreme violence. It combined a Gestapo-like approach to civilian control – many former resistance fighters turned French army officers were all too familiar with the Gestapo’s methods – with the kind of all-terrain guerrilla shock tactics that would later find favour with the Viet Cong, the Mau Mau, and many other popular people’s armies. The French used napalm, torture, mass civilian executions, and a scorched earth strategy, anything to defeat their invisible opponents. The rebel mujaheddin answered in kind. Europeans killed Muslims. Muslims killed Europeans. Muslims killed Muslims and eventually Europeans killed Europeans. The scars went very deep. It all ended with the birth of an independent Algeria and one of the greatest mass exoduses of the 20th century. Over one million people of European descent left the country in the few months before independence; businessmen, doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers and civil servants, taking with them the very foundations of a functioning civil society. The country’s new leaders were left with hopes and ideas but few of the skills necessary to turn them into reality.
As long as the war was taking its murderous course, the rebel nationalist movement managed to maintain at least an outward appearance of unity. But beneath this veneer there were deep divisions which began to surface even before the ink was dry on the Evian Accords of March 1962 which guaranteed Algeria her independence. Various factions had very different answers to that “Who are we?” question. The émigré revolutionary council lead by Ahmed Ben Bella, who eventually managed to seize power and become Algeria’s first effective head of state, were inspired by three overarching ideologies. The first was command and control socialism, Soviet style. The army and the state had a duty to commandeer the economic, social and natural resources of the country and manage them for the good of the country. The second was more a reaction than an ideology. Algeria would slowly and surely purge French civilisation, the French language and French cultural values from society. In time, Arabic would take over as the language of education, the judiciary, science, technology, culture and commerce. French notions of égalité, fraternité and liberté would be strictly controlled and curtailed. Muslim Algerian intellectuals and thinkers, who had all hitherto used the French language as their vehicle of expression, would now have to think, dream and cry in Arabic.
The third ideology was Arab nationalism. Ben Bella and his crew had delved deep into the same well of political inspiration as Nasser in Egypt, Assad in Syria or the Ba’athists in Iraq. They all believed that if a nation state in North Africa or the Middle East was to stand proud, defiant and spiritually self-sufficient in a post colonial world, then it must draw on the glorious history and culture of Arabic civilisation, the unifying power of classical Middle Eastern Arabic and the bedrock of Islam in order to succeed. ‘Petty’ regional and ethnic differences must be buried or obliterated. Unity was paramount.
These ideologies only began to make a small difference to daily life in Algeria during the short reign of Ben Bella, who was ousted in a military coup by his nemesis and erstwhile comrade Colonel Houari Boumedienne in 1965. Boumedienne was an Arabic Literature teacher turned steely military leader and staunch command and control socialist. He was also a die hard Arab Nationalist and it during his reign that the process of Arabicising and nationalising the country really gained momentum. Apart from his agrarian and industrial revolutions he also instigated a cultural revolution with the aim of ‘decolonising the mind’. He knew that Algerian society was fundamentally fractious and partisan with a historic tendency to splinter and implode. Only the discipline of the great revolutionary army and unifying forces of Islam, state socialism and the Arabic language could hold the nation together. His programme of Arabicising all walks of Algerian life was continued after his death in 1978 by the new president Chadli Bendjedid and into the 1990s by Presidents Lamine Zéroual and even the present incumbent Adelaziz Bouteflika. All these men were loosely affiliated to the nationalist clan who took power in 1962. Their ideas have softened and shifted over the decades but many of their core beliefs about identity have remained unchanged.
There was, however, a very different answer to the question “Who are we?” The problem with this pan-Arabic, nationalist, ‘Ba’athist’ inspired vision of Algeria was that at least 25% of the country didn’t even speak Arabic at all. They spoke Berber. Instead of looking to the Middle East for an answer to the country’s identity, these Berbers looked to their own past. They saw that their ancestors, the original inhabitants of North Africa, had a heroic tradition of defying the might of successive invaders – Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, Spaniards, Turks and French – even though they never prevailed long enough to establish their own Berber nation. They revered their own heroes like Jugurtha, Massinissa, Kahena and Koceila and took an intense pride in the riches of their own poetic and musical traditions. Their vision of Algeria was that of a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual Mediterranean country, which possessed more affinity with neighbours like Spain, Greece, or Yugoslavia than far-flung Middle Eastern nations like Egypt, Syria or Iraq. They recognised the fact that the Algerian territory had long been home to a highly nuanced patchwork of different cultures – Berber, Arab, Spanish, Turkish, Jewish and French – and that the local Arabic dialect reflected this mongrel past. This was something to be cherished and preserved, not brutally eradicated by the artificial imposition of the classical Arabic of the Koran, a language that hardly any Algerian speaks in daily discourse to this day. Their proposed solution was to establish Algerian Arabic, Berber and even French as the three official languages of the nation, and to let each be used according to habit, convenience or necessity.
There are Berber communities with different social and cultural characteristics dotted all over Algeria, and North Africa as a whole, but the largest and most significant are the Kabyles who inhabit a mountainous region of unparalleled beauty called Kabylia which is situated south east of the capital Algiers. Dour, rugged, tough, free, ungovernable, honour-obsessed, dignified, home-sick, democratic, music loving, these are some of the characteristics, some would say clichés, perennially associated with the Kabyle. For a long time their idyllic country has been neither large nor fertile enough to support all its sons, and emigration is hard-wired into the Kabyle experience. The first Algerian Muslims to emigrate to France at the beginning of the 20th century were Kabyles and they became the largest North African immigrant group in France before the 1960s. Consequently it was the Kabyles who adapted quickest to the French language, to French ideas of egalitarianism, socialism, democracy and nationhood. The first recognisable Algerian nationalist movement, the Étoile Nord-Africaine founded by Messali el Hadj in the 1920s, comprised mostly men of Kabyle origin. The movement went through several tortuous mutations to emerge eventually as the Front de Liberation National or FLN in the 1950s. Kabyles played pivotal roles in this evolutionary process. They fought hard in the war of independence. Kabylia itself with its remote valleys, ravines and mountaintops is classic guerrilla country and as such it suffered some of the worst brutalities of the conflict. A body with its throat slit is said to be wearing a ‘Kabyle smile’ to this day.
Nevertheless it soon became apparent that many Kabyles in the nationalist movement had fundamental disagreements with their Arabic co-revolutionaries. They were not prepared to see their Berber identity and their own dialect of the Berber language, known as Tamazight, disappear under the authoritarian umbrella of an Arabic socialist über-state. They also had very different ideas about democracy and the future shape of Algeria’s government. The traditional system of Kabyle village and clan politics, with its djemaat or village councils and aarouch or tribal councils, instilled a raw but visceral feeling for democracy and the values of community involvement and egalitarianism in many Kabyles. This went against the grain of the authoritarian, centralised and top-down ethos of Arab nationalism. Many Kabyles also recognised the importance of Islam but they preferred to let faith be a personal matter, between the individual and God, rather than something decreed and formulated by the state. They increasingly feared that state-sanctioned Islam and an insistence on Arabic, the language of the Koran, as the only vehicle for education, would roll out a red carpet for extreme political Muslim fundamentalism, which was already making its presence felt in Egypt, the Middle East and Algeria by the 1960s. The fundamentalist Muslim ulema or ‘scholars’, a revolutionary movement founded by Sheikh Abdelhamid Ben Badis in the 1920s, had already denounced Kabyle and Berber aspirations as “a reactionary doctrine born of imperialism.” All in all, the answer of many Kabyles and, it has to be said, a fair number of other non-Berber Algerians to the question “Who are we?” could not have been more divergent to that supplied either by Ben Bella and his allies, or the fundamentalist Islamic revolutionaries for whom an Islamic state was the be all and end all.
Almost as soon as the independent flag of Algeria was fluttering freely over the skies of Algiers, the Kabyles were on the move. There was a gradual purge of dissident Kabyle elements in the nationalist movement already underway by 1962 but a year later a senior Kabyle revolutionary called Hocine Aït Ahmed formed the Front des Forces Socialistes (FFS), as a vehicle to promote social democratic ideas and the rights of Berber minorities. A full-scale revolt flared up in Kabylia against Ben Bella’s government, with skirmishes and reprisals as bloody and brutal as anything that had been seen during the war of independence. Eventually Aït Ahmed was captured, sentenced to death, reprieved and exiled. With his departure the entire Berber movement in Algeria collapsed or went underground. The emphasis of the struggle moved to France where gradually throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Berber cultural awareness grew like a storm cloud in the ex-pat Algerian community. Thanks to the activities of numerous Berber cultural groups, notably the Mouvement Culturel Berbère (MCB), the language, history, literature and music of the Berbers started to become a major force in the Diaspora.
What’s striking about this struggle is its essentially cultural nature. Most Berbers aren’t fighting for autonomy or an outright Berber Algeria. Nor is their struggle predominantly about trade union rights, women’s rights, cheap food, better schools and hospitals and an end to corruption although, like most other Algerians, they long for these things too. Their overriding cause is simple; first and foremost the recognition of Tamazight as an official national language, suitable for use in schools, commerce and government business. And secondly, a general acceptance that Algeria should be governed along secular, egalitarian, multi-cultural and democratic lines. That in a nutshell is the Berber struggle.
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Childhood and strange fruit
Musing on his early childhood in the pages of his autobiography ‘Rebelle’ (Éditions Stock, 1995), Matoub Lounès wrote, “I was turbulent, I still am. I’ll be a rebel for the rest of my life.” In many ways his beginnings were that of the Kabyle Everyman. He was born in 1956, in the middle of a bitingly cold Kabyle winter, in Taourirt Moussa, a village of great beauty on the northern flanks of the Djurdjura Mountains. His father had been living and working in France for the past ten years and so he grew up among women, strong women, the kind who can bear the responsibility of raising a family and keeping a home without their men around in the midst of a full blown war. It was also the women of Matoub’s childhood, especially his mother Aldja and his grandmother, who mixed music with the blood in his veins. Music-making went on everywhere, at work in the fields during the day, at home in the evenings, at weddings, henna feasts, parties; music and old Berber tales of Kings and princes, heroes and villains. Matoub’s mother was illiterate, but like many Kabyles she possessed a trove of rich and evocative words with which to paint the world.
From the start ‘trouble’ was Matoub’s middle name. School was death by boredom and he preferred to be off in the fields with his mates, trapping rabbits and running wild. “I made the bush school into a way of life,” he wrote. Nevertheless he did appreciate the way in which the French Christian Fathers who ran many rural schools in Kabylia would inculcate a sense of Berber history and identity, along with many of the positive aspects of French culture and thought, into the minds of their young charges. Matoub’s schooling was entirely in French, and at home he spoke only Tamazight. He never learned more than a few words of Arabic in his whole life. This preponderance of French teachers in Kabylia and the fact that it was French historians and French philologists who did much to revive the study of Berber poetry, languages and the ancient Tifinagh alphabet in the 19th and early 20th centuries, lead many a staunch Arab nationalist to claim that “the Berber is a creation of colonialism.” Despite his respect for certain French teachers however and like many a young boy in the Kabyle Mountains, Matoub venerated the freedom fighters, the mujaheddin of the Independence struggle, who would sneak into the village late and night and pay their visits. They were heroes, and the war of Liberation was a heroic struggle. There was no doubt about that in Matoub’s mind. The shelter that the impenetrable contours of their territory gave to the freedom fighters was Kabylia’s pride.
One day on the way back from school the young Matoub saw the bodies of three men hanging from a tree. They were harkis, the name given by Algerians to traitors who collaborated with the French, and they had been executed by the mujaheddin. Their skin was already black and sun-cracked. Flies covered their eyes and faces, buzzing morosely in the evening heat. The sight of these strange fruit stayed lodged in Matoub’s mind for the rest of his life. It was his first encounter with death; close, intimate and real. A haunting life-long flirtation had begun.
Matoub belonged to the generation of Algerians who grew up believing that their Revolution was a beacon for the world. It was one of the greatest victories of a colonized people over its colonizers that the late 20th century ever saw. During the 1960s, Algeria seduced many into thinking it was model socialist state, a dynamo of new thinking and new ideas and a natural leader along with Cuba of non-aligned nations everywhere. Che Guevara and Fidel Castro came to visit. The youth were proud to be Algerian and free. But under the surface, trouble was brewing. For many Kabyles, Aït Ahmed’s uprising of 1964 had a traumatic effect, radicalising them and making them reject all things Arabic. The result of this failed adventure was that Berbers became pariahs in their own country, afraid to speak their own language except in staunchly Berber enclaves. The forced Arabisation of schools in 1968 was also traumatic. Many, like Matoub, who spoke only Berber or French, were effectively robbed of their education. In order to fill the vacancies left by sacked French teachers, the state had to import thousands of second-rate teachers from Egypt and Syria, who taught in a Middle Eastern form of Arabic, which hardly anyone understood. This blind and destructive policy broke the momentum of a generation. “It was then that Algeria’s descent into hell began then,” wrote Matoub.
Matoub’s own revolutionary dream finally turned into a nightmare when he was sent to Oran for his compulsory military service in 1975. Algeria had just provoked a war with Morocco over the question of the Western Sahara. Matoub saw Moroccan families, with many fellow Berbers among them, being rounded up and forcibly evicted from their homes in Oran and western Algeria and sent back over the border. The treatment they received disgusted him. Army life itself was a nightmare. Matoub witnessed the cynical corruption of the high command and officer ranks. He also suffered the prejudice of his fellow Arab conscripts. His lack of Arabic and his Kabyle origins marked him out and attracted a plethora of insults: ‘peasant’, ‘yokel’, ‘backwoods kid’, ‘enemy of national unity’, ‘traitor’ and ‘idiot’. Boumedienne’s secret police lurked in every dingy hole and corner. The heroic vision of the great Algerian revolutionary army, scourge of the coloniser, liberator of the people, father and unifier of the nation, dissolved into nothing. Matoub came away more disgusted, disillusioned and rebellious than ever.
For solace and mental survival, Matoub began to compose poems. Back in Taourirt Moussa he had already made himself a guitar out of an old oilcan, a length of wood and some fishing tackle. He mastered a few songs and even started playing at parties and gatherings. When Matoub’s father eventually came back from years of economic exile to settle down with his family, he bought a beautiful mandole with him, a kind of large elongated mandolin popular in modern Kabyle music, as a gift for his son. It had been bought with Matoub senior’s hard earned cash at the Paul Beuscher music shop in Paris. Matoub was so awed by this splendid object that he didn’t even dare touch it for a while. Eventually, with the help of some older local musicians, he began to master the instrument and even build a lively local reputation as a party and café entertainer. However Matoub was also a regular at the card table and after a particularly bad run at poker he lost the mandole on a busted flush. The shame was excruciating, but honour bound him to pay the debt. His father was broken by the news.
This one dolorous little tale paints Matoub in all his vividness and darkness. His wayward heart ruled his hand, and his mouth too. In fact ‘Big Mouth’ was a title that would attach itself doggedly to him throughout his life. His mouth made him many enemies, but it was also the vehicle of his greatness. For him, pain, shame, danger and fear were there to be tested, confronted and then just brushed aside if they became too much of a barrier to living a full life. An almost savage passion drove Matoub’s inner engine, spurred by a quick-fire temper.
In ‘Rebelle’, Matoub talks of an incident in a barber’s shop, when he sliced someone with a razor for some lost insult. He was given two nights detention in a local jail and then brought in front of the magistrate. “Because you are a minor I will release you, but I never want to see you again. Have you anything to say for yourself,” said the magistrate. “Have you got a spare cigarette?” asked Matoub. The answer was one month in jail for contempt of court. That was Matoub, a rare combination of intensity, cheek, courage and foolishness. ‘Rebelle’ is a striking self-portrait inasmuch as Matoub’s failings and weaknesses are never glossed over but constantly revealed and even underlined with a kind of devil-may-care honesty.
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Exile in Paris and The Berber Spring
After the army had crushed his dreams, and life in Kabylia seemed to offer no future for a young man with a stunted education and a head full of songs and poems – all in Tamazight too which ruled out a career as a public performer in Algeria – Matoub did what so many Kabyles had done before; he left for France. In the town of Annemasse in the French Alps he was astonished to discover that he could earn money, good money, by playing his songs in émigré cafés. Soon after he moved to Paris where he slowly became a fixture in the cultural life of the ex-pat Kabyle community, playing in cafés and hanging out. Idir, who was probably the most famous Kabyle singer alive at the time thanks to his enormous international hit ‘A Vava Inouva’, took Matoub under his wing, showed him the ropes and even gave him shelter when it was needed.
In a recent interview Idir gave an intriguing character assessment of his former protégé: “It wasn’t so much his activist side which interested me. It was above all his intimate side, the suffering and the inner pain. That’s the part of him I liked. I saw that he was a man, more in the ilk of Verlaine, in his non-conformism and in his ambiguities too. Later he came to be considered a myth, hero, a brigade commander. But that intimate side of him could be felt in certain songs, a side that had nothing to do with being militant and everything to do with the wounds of the heart. He had this sensitive streak which was the root of his talent. ”
Not long after he arrived in Paris, Matoub attended a concert of Kabyle music at La Mutualité. There he met one of his great heroes, the singer Slimane Azem, who, along with Cheikh El Hasnaoui, was responsible for laying the foundations of modern popular Kabyle music in the 1950s and ‘60s. Like most Kabyles of his generation, Matoub had grown up in the thrall of these two singers and his meeting with Azem was charged with emotion and wonder. The foundation of Matoub’s music are the Kabyle songs of Azem and Hasnaoui, amongst others, and chaabi, or the popular music of Algiers which dominated Muslim tastes in Algeria until the 1970s and even beyond. “I’m following in the steps of Cheikh El Hasnaoui,” he once told the Le Matin newspaper. “The precision, the accuracy in his tempo and scales dazzle me. Technically I belong to him. But in terms of the message, I’m closer to Slimane Azem and to the spirit of rebellion in his music. Chaabi was also the music of my childhood. I feel myself gliding when I hear El Anka or Fadela Dziriya.” Mohammed Hadj El Anka and Fadila Dziriya are among the greatest chaabi singers ever.
But the truth was that no previous Kabyle singer had gone as far as Matoub wanted to go in terms of the simplicity, power and provocation of his lyrics. “When I started, modern songs didn’t carry that need to express anger,” he once said. “They didn’t have any convincing protest lyrics. I shouted out my anger in my songs. Music is my anger.” Many Algerian journalists who wrote about Matoub’s music often referred to the ‘violence’ of his songs. To a western ear his lyrics don’t seem violent, just challenging in the manner of early Bob Dylan or Billy Bragg. But their bare-knuckled spirit of confrontation is extreme in a North African context, where musicians and songwriters had always previously pulled back from head on confrontation, and couched their protest in rich and symbolic imagery. That wasn’t Matoub’s style. His words came from his own mountain world, simple, unadorned, rich in their colours and allusions, but often stark in their meaning. “I don’t censor myself,” he once said bluntly.
Fame followed fast on the heels of the release of Matoub’s first album ‘Ay Izem’ (‘The Lion’) in 1978. By 1980, he was already headlining Paris’ legendary venue L’Olympia, scene of memorable visits by the Rolling Stones, James Brown, Edith Piaf and Genesis among many others. It was almost as if the timing of the concert was divinely ordained. Trouble had been brewing back home in Kabylia towards the end of 1979 and the early part of 1980. The political submissiveness that had descended like a blanket of lead on the territory after the defeat of the uprising in 1964 was finally beginning to lift and crack. In the end, typically, it was a cultural contretemps that lit the fuse.
The revered Kabyle writer and Berberist, Mouloud Mammeri, was due to give a lecture on traditional Berber poetry at the University of Tizi Ouzou. At the last moment the authorities sniffed Berberist subversion and banned the lecture. The resulting student protests grew into an all out revolt, which was brutally repressed by the security forces and denounced by the new President Chadli Benjedid. Over thirty people were killed and more than 200 injured. This uprising, which became known as the ‘Berber Spring’, was enormously significant. It was the first overtly popular large-scale show of dissent since Algerian independence. It radicalised a generation and the anniversary of the uprising on April 20th each year, known as ‘Tafsut’ in Berber, has become a day of protests, marches, parties, gatherings and celebrations ever since. Kabyles felt that they were the conscience of the Algerian nation, expressing the anger and frustration not only of Berbers but of all Algerians. Like Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland or the Soweto Uprising in South Africa, the Berber Spring was a pivotal event which strengthened the political sinews of the Kabyle nation and boiled the passions of its people.
In the midst of the uprising Matoub took the stage of L’Olympia dressed in army fatigues, thereby expressing his solidarity with the “war” that was raging in his homeland. The event was highly charged. The Berber Spring elevated the new breed of Kabyle singers, “the guerrillas of song” as the Kabyle writer Kateb Yacine called them, to a status of extraordinary power. Due to the lack of any credible coverage or analysis of events in the state-controlled Algerian media, Kabyles in France were forced to rely on ex-pat Berber publications and the odd radio station to keep them abreast of the unfolding drama. But for inspiration, insight, zeal and courage they turned to singers like Matoub Lounès, Ferhat Mehenni, Aït Menguellet, Djamel Allam and Idir. They were the bards of the gathering revolt. They were the pied pipers of the movement. After Mitterand’s election as President of France in 1980, a new system of political and cultural associations became available to immigrant populations. This new opportunity spawned the ‘Beur’ movement, a flowering of North African culture, politics and media in the old colony, France. New radio stations, newspapers, theatre groups, publishing houses, sporting clubs, record labels and community groups appeared like blooms after a flash flood, offering new channels of information and cultural education which allowed Algerians to circumvent the oppressive state control of culture and media back at home.
Matoub Lounès rode this wave like a rebel surfer. His plainly spoken words of revolt hit the bull’s eye of the times. His message was clear and passionate. North Africans, especially young Berbers, fed on that clarity and that passion. A reviewer who attended one of a series of nine Matoub Lounès concerts at L’Atlas in Paris in the early 1990s, wrote in Parcours Maghrebin, “How does one describe the perfect symbiosis between the artist on stage with an audience completely dedicated to a cause… The concerts of Lounès have the grandeur of a rite, a rite full of flowers which are offered every ten minutes by overwhelmed fans. The presence of Matoub at L’Atlas, a total event in itself, has brought a ray of hope to people crushed by the cost of living, the riots, the deadly raids, corruption and the proliferation of ills in our country. Cheikh Lounès sings about their pains and their hopes which have been tragically blighted thanks to a system made gangrenous by a bunch of criminals.”
As the eighties progressed Matoub’s big mouth also had occasion to make life intensely exciting and dangerous for all the wrong reasons. Once he picked a fight with a music producer who owed him money. The producer’s insults had to be avenged – Kabylia and Corsica have worryingly similar attitudes to revenge and retribution. Matoub rushed up to his hotel room and fetched a knife while the producer ranted in the lobby. During the ensuing street brawl Matoub stabbed the producer in the abdomen. He thought he’d killed him. He was arrested, beaten, showered with racist abuse by the police and spent one month in La Santé prison in Paris. A few years later Matoub wrote a song denouncing the London Accords between Ben Bella and Aït Ahmed, two men who had fought each other mercilessly in the early sixties but had now decided to make up for purely pragmatic reasons. Matoub felt that this “false reconciliation” was a betrayal. The left-wing Libération newspaper called Matoub a fascist and accused him of wanting to throw the Arabs into the sea. Matoub couldn’t find a single producer in the North African music community who would release the album featuring the song. All of them received threats not to touch it. In the end a Tunisian Jew agreed to put it out. It was deleted soon afterwards and has never been available since. A few weeks later Matoub was shot at by a group of North Africans in a passing car in the rue d’Amsterdam.
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Five Bullets and The Dangers of Homesickness
Despite these unnerving incidents, Matoub Lounès might still be alive today if he had only desisted from visiting Algeria. But homesickness was an unbearable affliction, as it was for many Kabyles. “That country is my refuge, my bolt hole, my consolation and the only place where I feel really good,” he wrote in ‘Rebelle’. The problem with going back however was that Matoub was now famous in his home country, despite the fact that RTA, the national Algerian state-owned radio and TV company, never ever broadcast his music until the day of his death when they suddenly realised that they didn’t possess a single piece of live footage, studio recording or taped interview of one of the greatest Algerian singers who ever lived. However, thanks to the ‘alternative’ media of cheap cassettes and French associative radio stations, Matoub’s fan base among young Kabyles and other Algerians in Algeria itself was now huge. But fame in Algeria was a dangerous, even deadly curse when it brought you notoriety among the security forces, the government and the Islamists as a troublemaker, a shit stirrer and a no-good protest singer.
Matoub experienced the downside of his fame in a very dramatic way in October of 1988. It was a time of radical unrest when the tectonic plates of Algerian society were shifting in the most explosive way and immense geysers of dissent were spurting up everywhere. On October 9th, Matoub decided to join a group of students in front of Tizi Ouzou University to distribute flyers calling for a two-day national strike in support of rioting students and workers in Algiers. Together with a couple of students, Matoub then decided to drive to the nearby town of Aïn el Hammam to distribute more flyers there. On they way they stopped passing trucks and cars to hand out more flyers. All of a sudden a police car appeared in front of them, speeded past and then turned and sped after them. After a brief chase along the snaking mountain roads, Matoub, innocently expecting nothing more than a verbal drubbing or a bit of rough stuff at the local gendarmerie, stopped the car and confronted them. When he saw that they were from the quasi-military Défence Nationale, rather than the somewhat more lenient local police, Matoub began to worry. He was handcuffed and treated to a broadside of abuse from his furious pursuers. Then suddenly, without any clear cause or reason, one of the policemen took out his revolver and shot Matoub in the arm, after which he emptied four more rounds into the body of the horrified and astounded singer. Matoub collapsed. He was taken to Aïn el Hammam, every bump in the road doubling his agony, and then to the hospital in Tizi Ouzou. After three days he was evacuated to the Clinique des Orangers in Algiers, a city still smouldering with unrest.
Matoub’s body was a wreck. One of the bullets had sliced through his intestine and shattered his right femur. The under-equipped and hygienically atrocious Algerian health service was in no position to put him back together again and their interventions often made matters worse. Infections multiplied and Matoub spent his days in constant and excruciating pain. The nurses started to administer Dolossal, a morphine based painkiller, to which Matoub eventually became addicted. He also had to cope with deep depression, black moods, and moments when he just wanted to destroy everything in sight. Eventually, after tortuous bureaucratic wranglings and needless, not to say intentional, delays, Matoub was given a permit to evacuate to Paris. There, with better treatment, his recovery gathered momentum, although morphine-deprivation drove him to the brink of despair. His scars were atrocious. One of his legs was badly set after an operation in Algiers and it ended up measuring five centimetres shorter than other. He would limp for the rest of his life. And to cap it all, his bowels and intestine were permanently damaged, forcing him to carry around a colostomy bag, an indignity which the proud and sensitive Matoub bore with extreme difficulty. It was only the ardent and sustained support of Matoub’s family and his fans, together with the time spent singing and composing songs that saved his sanity through the long months of recuperation. In Algiers he received literally hundreds of well-wishers by his bed-side, and many more letters and gifts from far and wide.
Those five bullets sublimated his reputation, turning him from a popular singer with a big mouth into an existential hero, a man who had danced cheek to cheek with death, and whose words thereafter carried special magnetism and power. As murder and violence became daily facts of Algerian life, Matoub was the one singer who could speak of its horrors from direct personal experience. People loved and venerated him for that. He was no longer a theoretical artist, but one who knew pain and suffering as intimately as it was possible without loosing a life. “When one has flirted so closely with death,” he wrote in ‘Rebelle’, “you feel this kind of debt which obliges you to respect life. Suffering, it’s true, helps to appreciate happiness.”
After six weeks at the Beaujon hospital in Paris, Matoub discharged himself and went back to Kabylia with his crutches and colostomy sack, to perform at an emotional concert in Tizi Ouzou’s football stadium. Such was his defiant headstrong gluttony for life and its inevitable punishments. “Aggression, which could have annihilated me, ended up reinforcing me. That day I knew that the five bullets of Aïn El Hamman were defeated,” he wrote. Needless to say, the cop who had almost murdered Matoub was never brought to trial.
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Fundamentalism and the Descent into Hell
Meanwhile Algeria was plunging into hell. When oil and gas prices plummeted in the mid 1980s, the country’s only real source of hard currency dwindled. The state could no longer pay its bills and what had always been a fragile society, even at the best of times, began to disintegrate. Forced by the massive nation-wide unrest of 1988 to take drastic measures, President Chadli Benjedid announced the first free multi-party presidential and parliamentary elections since independence. The first round was held in December 1991. The voter turnout was low, with many Algerians decidedly unenthused by the choices on offer. The Front Islamique du Salud (FIS), an ascendant fundamentalist Islamic party led by the imprisoned Abassi Madani and Ali Benhadj, won an overwhelming victory.
Like many extremist political organisations, the FIS offered simplistic starry-eyed solutions to complex deep-rooted problems. Their ultimate goal was clear; an Islamic state run according to the precepts of sharia law in which democracy, the rights of women and the aspirations of ethnic minorities would have absolutely no place at all. This programme held definite attractions for certain sections of a population crushed by years of poverty, corruption, and the mismanagement of the one-party FLN state. It also seemed to provide an alternative to failed western ideologies like socialism and communism, an alternative that was defiantly Arabic and Islamic. The more oppressed and socially deprived a people, the more inclined they are to cling to the rock of an unambiguous and proud identity, however bogus it may be. The FIS seemed to provide the answer to people’s needs, although many votes cast in their favour were more like gut rejections of the previous regime than positive endorsements of their programme. The FIS were also masters of grass-roots organisation and they used mosques and religiously inspired welfare programmes to seduce the populace.
But in the fundamentalist mind, democracy is a heresy and a sin against God. The first-round victory of the FIS presented the Army generals, who still held ultimate power in Algeria, with an excruciating dilemma. Should they allow the second round of the elections to go ahead and thereby herald a fully-fledged Islamic state in Algeria? Should they let democracy destroy democracy? Was it worth sacrificing their own political dominance for a democracy that they had never felt comfortable with anyway? The strong man of the ruling army council, Major-General Khaled Nezzar, had little doubt in his mind. He purposefully provoked a constitutional crisis by forcing Chadli Benjedid to resign and appointed a High State Council to rule in his place. Their first act in office was to annul the second round of elections. It was a military coup d’etat, all in the name of democracy. The FIS and their followers felt cheated and robbed. The political system had betrayed them. The time had come for direct action. The gun, the bomb and the knife took over from the ballot box and the Islamic movement went underground.
Matoub had even less love for fundamentalist Islam than he did for Arabic nationalism. “I’m neither an Arab nor a Muslim,” he once famously said in TV documentary, in a blatant refutation of the FLN’s rallying cry at independence; “One Nation – Algeria! One People – The Arabs! One Faith – Islam!” As far as Matoub was concerned, the fundamentalists wanted to destroy anything that might help society evolve; intellectuals, doctors, journalists, teachers, young women who refuse the veil and of course, musicians. The FIS and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) were unequivocal in their view that music is a sin and musicians are enemies of God. Furthermore, Matoub liked to drink. He loved spending time in cafés, chatting to friends. It was his way of keeping touch with the people he loved most. None of this helped to improve his image as a good Muslim. In any case, he had never had any time for the marabouts, or holy men, who controlled traditional Kabyle society, preying on the simple faith of the people and enriching themselves in the process. He suspected them of aiding and abetting Islamic terrorism in Kabylia and beyond. “Religion exploits consciences,” he wrote. “I don’t want it to exploit mine.”
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The Only One who Lived to Tell the Tale
Although Matoub spent a lot of his time in France and touring abroad with the help of an international network of Berber groups and activists, he could never stay away from Kabylia for long, and he always tried to be there for the annual ‘Tafsut’ celebrations commemorating the Berber Spring. In 1994, when fundamentalist terrorist violence was reaching its murderous apogee, Matoub began to hear rumours that he was on the terrorists’ black list. Friends urged him to go back to the safety of Paris. Posters began to appear in Tizi Ouzou proclaiming that Matoub was next. But he bluntly and stubbornly refused to leave. It would look too much like a climb down, a loss of courage and a defeat. Instead he took the precaution of avoiding main roads, where the GIA often set up false roadblocks. But he still went to cafés to talk and drink late into the night with friends.
One night in late September, Matoub and a couple of friends were driving back to Tizi Ouzou when they decided to stop off at a road-side café for a pick me up. All of sudden, fifteen men armed with knives, hunting rifles and sawn off shotguns burst into the bar. They searched the place, pistol-whipping the proprietor with the warning that if he continued to run such an ungodly business he would be shot. Eventually they found the gun that Matoub kept for self-protection in his belt. The cry went up. “It’s him. It’s Matoub!” Their leader, whose war name was Hamza, said to Matoub, “Now you’re getting ready to die, have you decided to pray?” “Obviously,” replied Matoub. “Lounès,” came the stern answer, “it’s better to be alive and scared than heroic and dead.” After taking the proceeds of the till and beating some of the other clients, the guerrillas departed into the rainy night with Matoub.
No one had ever survived being kidnapped by the GIA. Throughout the two weeks of Matoub’s captivity, death was a constant presence. His own execution seemed to be forever only a few hours away. The young members of the GIA group who were holding him captive spoke about death all the time. They revelled in it, boasted about it and glorified it. They were also completely resigned to the idea of their own martyrdom in the cause of Islam and subsequent entry into paradise. Matoub was astounded by how little political analysis or discourse went on in the stinking remote mountain camps of the GIA. The will of God was the simple motivation behind their every thought and the justification of their every action. Matoub felt his only possible survival strategies were wit and cunning. He even joined in with the tearful prayer sessions which the guerrillas held five times a day.
Eventually Matoub was tried by two ‘Emirs’, or GIA leaders, and sentenced to death. His trial was recorded on tape, so that his own expedient contradictions of his core beliefs could be used later to discredit him. His judges had an intimate knowledge of his poems and lyrics, even though they claimed that they never listened to his music, or any music for that matter. “You are the enemy of God,” they told him. “Because of you and your songs, Kabylia is wallowing in darkness.” Their arguments were simple and without nuance. They urged him to follow the example of Cat Stevens, aka Youssef Islam, who had renounced the ungodly life of a musician and embraced the true faith. Paradise awaited him if he started praying and adopted Islam. Looking down the barrel of a gun, proverbially and literally, Matoub said anything to stay alive. He promised to give up singing and open a respectable business, to which end the guerrillas in turn offered to lend him some money. He also promised that he would try and persuade the Berber movement to give up its political aims.
In the second week of his captivity Matoub began to hear rumours that he might be released. He refused to believe them, and kept telling himself that death was nothing to fear because he was dead already. Part of him suspected that the GIA might be planning to manipulate his popularity and use his taped promises and declarations to influence his fans. As part of this scheme they might just want him alive. But mostly it was death that dominated his thoughts. He pictured his own end obsessively, in the minutest detail. “I imagined my assassination one hundred times,” he wrote. “One hundred times, I lived my own death.” A captured policeman was executed only ten feet away from him. His captors considered Matoub responsible for the moral degeneration of Kabylia and they had fun playing games with his state of mind.
Eventually, on October 10th, Matoub was driven to the village of Ath Yenni and released. His joy and relief were unbounded. After rejoining his family in Taourirt Moussa, where thousands of well-wishers gathered to greet him, Matoub began to find out what had happened during his absence. The MCB had sent an ultimatum to the GIA, threatening all out war if Matoub was killed. Groups of youths had braved the dangers of the remote mountain areas to look for him. Tens of thousands took to the street of Tizi Ouzou and Algiers chanting “Matoub or the Gun!” In the end, his execution was too hot, even for the GIA to handle. Matoub was unequivocal about the significance of his own escape from the clutches of the fanatics. “My liberation was their first set back,” he wrote. “The terrorists freed me because they had no choice… For the first time a whole region mobilised, arms in hand, to show that they would not give in to intimidation… My songs, my music, my struggle will be even stronger now.”
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The Chronicle of a Death Foretold
Soon afterwards, Matoub released his album ‘Kenza’. It was dedicated to the daughter of the Kabyle writer Tahar Djaout, a close friend of Matoub’s, who was murdered by the GIA in 1993. Life, precarious as it was, went on. Matoub now suffered from regular panic attacks for which he took valium. Composing songs and writing his autobiography ‘Rebelle’ were the only forms of therapy he allowed himself. Of course, his traumatic encounter with the GIA had been far from unique. It is estimated that almost 200,000 people were murdered in Algeria in the decade after 1992. But the fact that he was able to express his experiences and feelings in songs of such clarity and power set him apart. “The essential thing for me is to fulfil the link between my life and my ideas, my struggle and my songs,” he wrote. “My life is a permanent search for that equilibrium, from which I take my strength and my inspiration.”
Nothing in Algerian politics is simple and pure unsullied Algerian heroes are almost non-existent. Matoub had his doubters and his enemies. In the early 1990s the Berber movement had split into two factions. One supported Aït Ahmed’s FFS party and the other a new political movement called Rassemblement pour La Culture et la Démocratie (RCD). The FFS believed that ultimately peace and stability could only be won through dialogue with the FIS and other fundamentalist groups. The RCD rejected this notion outright, and even went so far as to ally itself with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the army Generals in favour of an all out war on religious fanaticism and terrorism. Kabyle society split along these party lines, turning neighbour against neighbour and friend against friend. Matoub always claimed that he was a poet and that political machinations held no interest for him. Nevertheless he was a fervent and declared admirer of Saïd Sadi, the man who had founded the Mouvement Culturel Berbère (MCB) in the late 1960s and was also behind the creation of the RCD in the late 1980s. Matoub was an MCB loyalist through and through. “It represents that which is most important for us Kabyles: our identity,” he declared. By association, he was also considered to be an RCD supporter, and this dragged him into the political fray, despite himself.
Soon after Matoub was released by the GIA and the joyous celebrations in Kabylia, Algiers, Paris and the rest of the Diaspora had died down, dark mutterings began to be heard. Certain parties accused Matoub of ‘staging’ his own kidnap, in order to enhance his reputation and that of the RCD. For them it was the only logical explanation for Matoub’s escape from the GIA, an organisation whose record of murdering all their kidnap victims had been hitherto watertight. The singer Ferhat expressed his own doubts publicly, and many others did so privately. With great insight, the journalist Catherine Simon, writing in Libération, pointed out that doubt was one of the few political reactions left to the Algerian people. “In this theatre of shadows into which evil has plunged the country,” she wrote, “the only freedom left to the populace, pressured to choose between one camp or another, is to doubt, without let up, everything and everybody.”
Aït Meguellet, a singer revered by many Kabyles and Algerians, refused to comment on Matoub’s kidnapping when pressed by journalists. For Matoub, his silence was a grave insult. He went onto Beur FM, the biggest North African radio station in France, and accused Aït Meguellet, who continued to reside in Kabylia throughout the troubles, of buying his own protection from the GIA. Matoub even claimed to have proof of this arrangement. The normally reserved Aït Meguellet went public and denounced Matoub, accusing him of mythomania and megalomania. “In the future, for each proffered lie, ten truths will be told about his person,” he said.
This sorry debacle became known as the Matoub affair. Claim and counter-claim dogged him right up until the day of his death and beyond. The French TV channel Canal+ even broadcast a documentary throwing doubt on the assumption that the GIA were Matoub’s killers. Matoub’s sister Malika, and the Matoub Lounès Foundation are still trying to expose the dark forces which they claim were responsible for his eventual murder. Ironically, her suspicions are focused on the RCD, the one political party which Matoub was supposed to have supported during his life. Her argument is that since the RCD allied itself with the regime, it had the means and the motivation to eradicate her brother. The party was only doing the government’s dirty business for them. Once again Malika claims to have evidence to back up her accusations. The RCD are suing her and the Matoub Lounès Foundation. The case continues.
It’s easy to imagine the army Generals, the mafia who rule Algeria, rubbing their hands in glee at all this fractious in-fighting at the heart of the Berber movement. And despite his natural tendency to mouth off and call a spade a spade, it’s equally hard to imagine that Matoub himself would have looked on this controversy with anything other than frustration and despair. All Kabyles, whether FFS or RCD, share a similar dream and ultimately it’s the dream that suffers while the accusations fly. But that’s the nature of crime and punishment in modern Algeria. Army, FIS, Government, GIA, this party, that party – they all sometimes blend into one deathly and impenetrable medusa. As the great Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscínski wrote way back in the 1960s; “Algeria is unique. At every moment it reveals its contrasts, its contradictions and its conflicts. Nothing is unambiguous and nothing fits into a formula.”
A perspicacious journalist once wrote that Matoub’s final end was like “the chronicle of a death foretold.” People thought he was mad to even contemplate returning to Algeria. They even told him so. But Matoub couldn’t stay away from his beloved Kabylia for very long. After he had put the final touches to what became his last album “Lettre ouverte aux…”, the thirty sixth of his career, he decided to accompany his new wife Nadja back home, in order to help her get a visa. He knew the risks he was taking. “I know I have been reprieved,” he wrote. “Popular pressure saved me from the nightmare. Next time my kidnappers will have my skin, and without any warning, of that I’m certain.” But in the end, for Matoub, risks were just like red rags to a bull. Contrary and stubborn to the last, Matoub turned a deaf ear to all the warnings and travelled back home for his final rendez-vous with death. Ensnared like a brave but doomed insect in a tangled web of fate and foreboding, Matoub Lounès climbed into the car with his wife and her two sisters, and drove off up that lonely mountain road.
Andy Morgan. (c) 2003
First published in ‘Shoot The Singer! Music Censorship Today’ Zed Books, London, May 2004