A tribute to Algerian Artist Matoub Lounès — A Poet and a Hero of the Berber Rights movement.
I am of the breed of warriors. They can kill me but they will never silence me — Matoub Lounès
Preface: This is an educational essay meant at an English speaking audience not very familiar with Algerian artist and Berber rights activist Matoub Lounès. This essay is not about mourning this hero, it is about celebrating his life and his legacy. Legends don’t die anyway. Also, This article is not about solving the “who killed Matoub” puzzle, I’ll leave this work to investigative journalists who specialize in such matters. Last, I have purposely stayed out of politics for that would betray Matoub’s vision of a thriving Berber society in a one united Algeria. a PDF version of this document is available here.
Summer has started, it was past midday. It was a very hot day in my village, Ighil Igoulmimène, a little tiny hamlet in the Kabylia mountains in northern Algeria. A village lost in both time and space. I have finished my second year of university with honors. I turned twenty years old a week before that. My parents threw a very modest birthday party to celebrate my entrance into the adult’s world. Truth be told, I have been feeling and thinking like an adult for so many years. I am the eldest of six siblings, and I do belong to a generation that lost its teens to terrorism. In the so-called Dark Decade, we did not celebrate birthdays, it was Haram. The day was boringly flowing to a very still afternoon until the news fell down our heads like a bomb, an earthquake. Lounès is dead, Lounès got killed, Lounès was murdered. It was the 25th of June 1998, Lounès Matoub has been assassinated. That day turned out to be the hottest and the most eventful day of my life, and that of millions of other people from Kabylia, Algeria, France, and elsewhere. I was sad, I was outraged, and I was scared, all at the same time.
Berber History 101
Numidia, home to my ancestors, was once a powerful kingdom that spanned northern Africa from the Nile river all the way to the Atlantic ocean. My forefathers walked their lands, as free indigenous inhabitants for many millennia. However, our era turned very unkind to them as they had to resist invaders for hundreds of years. Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines and many more. In fact, my people, the Imazighen were deemed uncivilized by the Romans who called them Berbers, which is a racial slur made by Greeks meaning “barbarian”. I don’t particularly like the word “Berber” but I had come to terms with it and I’m embracing it in celebration of my people’s sacrifices. The advent of Islam in the eighth century has dramatically changed the Berber society who not only embraced this new religion but they claimed it as their own and made thrive into places never thought possible. Young Berber general Tariq bin Ziyad led the first Islamic conquest of its kind, propelling Andalusia (Spain) to a golden age of intellectual enlightenment and religious tolerance that lasted for centuries. Fast-forward to the present, the cumulative effects of arabization under the influence of Islam, centuries of depletion under the Othman empire and the French occupation, have shrunk the Berber culture and language to alarmingly low levels.
No country for Berber Language
For decades Algeria’s Berber languages were seen by the government as a taboo that threatened national unity and should be repressed. Interestingly enough, Algeria adopted exactly the same policies as it’s former colonizer. In Post WWII France, children were punished for speaking Breton in the playground, banned from speaking Occitan in southern schools or Alsatian dialect in the east . Besides, post-independent Algeria was adhering to the political ideology of Arab Nationalism that asserts Arabic as the common language that guarantees the unity of the movement. Any other languages are deemed an attack of such identity. In turn, Berber language militants criticized such policies as a ridiculous relic of outdated nationalism.
Kabylia — The Land of the Berber revolutionary
As depicted by NYT journalist Michael Slackman, Kabylia is one of Algeria’s most restive regions — home to stubborn and proud Berber tribes who since independence fought to preserve our cultural identity and economic independence. While Berber politician leaders, and village elders have helped lead the fight, the soul of this struggle is captured in music, especially the music of Matoub Lounès. On April 20th, 1980, Kabylia was home to the Berber Spring where population took the streets to protest for the recognition of the Berber language and culture. This was the largest protest in independent Algeria, and a key date in Algeria’s post-independent history, followed by weeks of unrest and curfew in the states of Tizi-Ouzou, Bejaia, and Bouira. The 2001 celebrations of this Berber spring turned very bloody where over a hundred young men died in violent protests. Kabylia is to some extent Algeria’s most active human volcano …
Matoub Lounès — A poet, an Artist, an Activist
In the Berber-speaking world, Kabyle artist Matoub Lounès is a legend. He was a rebel at heart. He stood up against his two enemies: the Algerian government and Islamic fundamentalists. Matoub Lounès was a bit like boxing legend Muhammad Ali. He was not a conventional artist and was very controversial at times. He did not accept being trapped by dogma. He was a troublemaker. He was not fond of rules. You can love him, you can hate him, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore him because he changed things. Above anything else, Matoub was a visionary, he understood that if you are fighting against the state, then you have to be aggressive without being violent. He chose music as his battlefield. Matoub’s weapons were his eloquence, his songs and his poems . Matoub Lounès, like Bob Marley, has mastered music as a symbol of our identity, not as an entertainment. Matoub was not a politician although many tried to undermine his outstanding musical work with political statements that did not belong to him, neither to his vision of a one and united Algeria that celebrates the diversity of its people, no matter who they are, which language they speak, or who they worship. Matoub was an amazingly gifted artist, a uniquely talented poet, and a very brash and tireless activist who stands for what is right. He was never a politician.
Celebrating Matoub’s Legacy
A lot of good progress has been made in the past twenty years. Algeria has made the Amazigh language official and it’s being taught at schools in various provinces. The Berber new year “Yennayer” is an official state holiday in Algeria, observed on January 12th starting this year. The Berber culture is being celebrated all over the country with dedicated TV channels, and shows, radio stations, trade shows …etc. The recent efforts by the government, the non-profit organizations, and the civil society as a whole are great steps forward and certainly to be acknowledged and applauded. However, the quest for our Berber identity is a lifelong journey, not a destination to be reached anytime soon. This journey has to be continued with the same vision that we inherited from Matoub and the likes of him. The baton has to be passed from a generation to another without letting our mission fall apart. Often times, the cracks don’t appear because of outside oppression, instead as a result of infighting and internal divisions. The worst that could happen to our culture is letting it in the hands of an extremist minority who has a different vision of the future to that of the founding fathers. Extremists often present themselves as the saviors, yet history has taught us they always end up hijacking the fight to execute their own wicked political agendas. Revolutions live or die by the people who fight for them, as long as we stand together, our fight will keep going on. With that, I’ll leave you with the following poem by Lounès.