|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
2 - 8 July 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
The birth of Matoub Lounes
The homeland that I burn for
Matoub Lounes couldn't wait. Kidnapped by a commando unit whom he believed to be members of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in September 1994, he was released after two weeks, having been sentenced to death during his captivity by an "Islamic tribunal". For his own safety, he chose exile in France. Yet four years later he had had enough. He returned to Algeria earlier this year, to continue to fight for the politics he believed in, even though he was forbidden by the government to sing in public. Last Thursday, returning to his native village after lunch at a restaurant in Tizi Ouzou without his usual bodyguards, his car was ambushed. Having raked the occupants with machine-gun fire, his assailants advanced and shot the singer several times at close range with his own gun, lodging one bullet in his head and one in his heart. He died instantly. His wife and two sisters-in-law who were travelling with him were seriously injured.
Matoub was born on 26 January 1956 in Taourirt Moussa, a village close to Tizi Ouzou in the heart of the mountains of the Kabylie, Algeria's main Berber-speaking region. Success as a singer came early: in 1978, his first album Ayizem ("The Lion") established him as one of the Holy Trinity of Kabyle song, alongside Idir and Ait Menguellet. Little known outside Algeria and the North African diaspora, his following among those to whom he belonged was immense. Like Julio Iglesias or Céline Dion -- slight talents with whom his own substantial gifts had nothing in common -- he could fill the Palais de Congrès in Paris for weeks on end, with minimal publicity. Very occasionally, returning to his roots in chaabi, the urban folk song of Algiers, itself an invention of Kabyle migrants, he might sing in Algerian Arabic, a cause which he recently embraced with a vengeance, as he embraced everything, in the face of the law due to come into force on 5 July that sought to impose a single, "standard" language. But his heart, his mind, his whole being, dreamed, argued, cursed, cried out in tamazight, the tongue of the "free men". He gave his life to a language spoken by 8 million people, a language that many in Algeria could have done without, but which is still uncomfortably and incorrigibly alive.
It was his faith in the Berber culture and in its traditions, above all its music and poetry, which saved him from succumbing to the corrosive force of his own anger, or falling captive to the histrionics implicit in his particular brand of extremism. When he spoke, when he argued, when he fought or when he drank, he lived well beyond the edge. But when he sang, he was inhabited by that kind of violent innocence, that miraculous restraint, which is the blessing of those who do not have to deny their past in order to make peace with the present. He revolutionised Kabyle song, stripping it of its metaphors, turning it into an instrument of extraordinary verbal brutality as well as tenderness. His art was the sum of his complexities, not their resolution. But they were complexities that honoured his listeners, and gave them courage.
His outspoken commitment to cultural autonomy for the Berber people on strictly democratic and secular grounds ensured he would always have many enemies. In 1980, he played a prominent role in the uprising known as the "Berber Spring". During riots in Tizi Ouzou in 1988, he was shot by the security forces while distributing political tracts. Seven bullets lodged close to the spine meant he subsequently had to undergo a series of protracted operations, and never fully regained his mobility. His kidnapping in 1994 brought 100,000 people out onto the streets of Tizi Ouzou to demand his release, threatening to take the war to the GIA if their demand was not met. Yet his liberation led to widespread speculation as to who his real captors had been. While his rivals aired their doubts as to whether the whole incident were not just a hoax, other commentators expressed incredulity that anyone should return alive from the hands of the Islamists, and drew parallels with other incidents widely believed to have been the work of the armed forces.
As ever, Matoub was in the forefront of the resistance that was being organised to meet the Arabisation Law head on on 5 July. His last album was due to be released the same day. Banned in Algeria, but already circulating on bootleg tapes in France, it contains, alongside the usual complaints, love songs, a parody of the Algerian national anthem which subjects the government to abuse whose ferocity is no less astounding for being entirely typical.
It was this song that was played by Matoub's family to the tens of thousands of pilgrims who attended his funeral Sunday. As his body was lowered into the ground, his sister Malika addressed the crowd: "Today we have a great joy. We salute the birth of Matoub Lounes." His mother Aldjia fired two shots, and the guns of Taourit Moussa answered them. Her son is buried opposite the house he was born in, between a cherry tree and a fig tree.
The second life of Matoub Lounes is just beginning.