Rebels and Martyrs

The Mobilization of Kabyle Society and the Assassination of Lounes Matoub

by Paul Silverstein
published in MER208

A Kenza a yelli / D iseflan neghli /
F Lzzayer uzekka / A Kenza a yelli /
Ur tru ara

(O Kenza my daughter / We have sacrificed our lives / For the Algeria of tomorrow / O Kenza my daughter / Do not cry)

—"Kenza," written by Lounès Matoub in 1993 for the daughter of assassinated Kabyle journalist and playwright, Tahar Djaout

On June 25, 1998, approximately 12:30 pm local time, a car driving along a mountainous road in eastern Algeria was stopped and fired upon by masked gunmen at a roadblock. The driver died; his three female passengers were wounded. Such attacks have become a common occurrence in today’s Algeria, six years into a bitter civil war that has claimed more than 75,000 (mainly civilian) lives. The incident occurred within two hours and three hundred miles of the throat-slitting of 17 men and women of the village of Hammar El-Hes in the Saïda province of western Algeria -- the third massacre of its kind in only one week. Such events may have passed unnoticed by an Algerian audience all but inured to false roadblocks and nail-filled bombs, the daily murder of men, women and children by Kalashnikov, hatchet and knife.

In this case, however, people did take notice. The murdered driver was Lounès Matoub, a popular singer-songwriter who has been at the forefront of the Berber cultural movement for the last 20 years. His assassination occurred a week before Algeria’s Arabic-only law -- of which he had been an outspoken critic -- went into effect. Within hours, telephone calls and Internet postings spread the news of Matoub’s death to Kabyle populations throughout Algeria and the diaspora. Thousands of angry mourners crowded around the Mohamed Nédir Hospital in the regional capital of Tizi Ouzou where his body had been taken. Yelling anti-government slogans -- “Pouvoir, Assassin” (“Government, Assassins”) -- the crowd clearly laid the blame for Matoub’s death at the state’s feet. In an ensuing week of riots throughout Kabyle cities and towns, young demonstrators attacked hundreds of regional government offices and damaged public property, often clashing with state riot police. By June 28, the day of Matoub’s funeral, three more young men had been killed by police “stray bullets.”

As the government and Matoub’s family called for calm, the international community mobilized to address the “situation.” On July 2, James Rubin, press secretary for the State Department, publicly called on the government and people of Algeria to “reject the use of violence as a political instrument.” On the same day, the United Nations announced that a mission of “eminent personalities” led by former Portuguese President Manuel Soares would travel to Algeria to “collect information on the Algerian situation.” In spite of these calls for peace, an ambiguous new player, the Armed Berber Movement, announced its presence in the Algerian conflict. In a crude leaflet of unknown origin, the MAB swore to “avenge the blood” of their fallen comrade.

To grasp the magnitude of popular outrage and the threat of an escalation of the Algerian conflict that it poses, it is necessary to understand the iconic character of Matoub’s life and death. Matoub had an unparalleled following among the younger generation of Kabyle activists because his life replicated their triumphs, defeats and hopes. Born in 1956 in the midst of the Algerian liberation war, he was a product of the fading francophone secular educational system. Like many of his generation, he migrated to France in search of work and began his singing career under the patronage of the established Kabyle singer Idir. His first major concert took place in April 1980, coinciding with the “Berber Spring” -- several weeks of student demonstrations and general strikes in Kabylia which gave birth to the modern Berber Cultural Movement (MCB). Wearing an army uniform to show his solidarity with a Kabylia “at war,” Matoub gave a public concert in Kabylia on each subsequent anniversary of the 1980 events.

While Matoub, unlike many of his comrades, was never arrested for his explicit support of Kabyle cultural-linguistic rights, his songs -- a mix of oriental Cha’abi musical orchestration with politicized Berber (Tamazight) lyrics -- were often banned from Algerian airwaves. During Algeria’s October 1988 urban riots in Algiers (which forced the legalization of rival political parties), he was shot five times by a policeman and left for dead. After the outbreak of the civil war in 1992, his name appeared on Armed Islamic Group (GIA) hit lists with other artists and intellectuals. Despite these warnings, Matoub remained in Algeria. On September 25, 1994, he was abducted, held for two weeks in a GIA mountain stronghold, condemned to death and released only when his MCB supporters threatened “total war” on the Islamists and he vowed to discontinue his musical career. [1] On the eve of his assassination, the “guerrilla singer” [2] had just finished the final work on his forthcoming, now posthumous album, “Open Letter To....”

If Matoub was the inveterate “rebel” he claimed to be in his autobiography, [3] he was uncompromising in his critique of the government’s Arabization policies, which he claimed destroyed Algeria’s identity and engendered Islamic fundamentalism. The place of Berber language and culture in Algeria has been fiercely debated since the early nationalist movement of the 1930s and 1940s. After independence, the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) incorporated the slogan “Islam is my religion, Algeria is my nation, and Arabic is my language” into its national charters. In the late 1960s, the FLN began progressively to Arabize the state apparatus, the justice system and primary education. The law implemented on July 5, the 36th anniversary of Algeria’s independence, was designed to complete this process by mandating the exclusive use of Arabic in all domains of public life and levying hefty fines for all violations. [4] The law flies in the face of a number of concessions -- including the creation of an advisory High Amazigh Commission and the recognition of “Amazighité” as an element of Algerian national identity in the Constitution (ratified November 1996) -- made by the Zéroual government since 1994 when Kabyle students held a year-long school boycott to protest the exclusion of Tamazight from classrooms.

Matoub was a stalwart supporter of efforts to change the status of Tamazight. Kabylian activists want their language to become, alongside Arabic, an “official” and “national” language of Algeria. Kabyle demonstrators have readily linked his assassination to the new Arabic-only law. Political divisions within the MCB have been swept aside as the factions associated with the two rival Kabyle political parties -- Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD) and Socialist Forces Front [5] -- have jointly petitioned the government to abrogate the new language policy. Rock-throwing rioters decry the government as the assassin of not only Matoub but Berber culture in general. In direct defiance of the new law, they have covered Arabic signs with slogans such as “Assa, Azekka. Tamazight Tella” (“Tamazight, Today and Tomorrow”). Responding to Matoub’s “call to arms” at the end of his autobiography, [6] the Armed Berber Movement has threatened a “traditional” vendetta against Matoub’s killers and the “elimination” of any Algerian attempting to apply the new law.

While disavowed by the MCB, the violent unrest has forced the government to soften its position. To date, no punitive action has been taken against institutions or individuals employing Tamazight or French. Indeed, Zéroual recently publicly re-affirmed Algeria’s commitment to preserving its Berber heritage. As such, Matoub’s struggle for a democratic and secular Algeria, a struggle for which he declared himself willing to give his life, [7] continues after his death. Invoking the Kabyle “cycle of reproduction,” in which the deceased is mythically understood as resurrected in the birth of the next generation, [8] young Kabyles have transformed Matoub’s death into political inspiration, utilizing his assassination to advance their cultural and linguistic demands.

“The Rebel is dead! Long live the Martyr!”

Author's Note: The author wishes to thank Jane Goodman for her assistance and advice in preparing this article.

Endnotes

[1] Matoub’s abduction has been contested by certain commentators, including fellow Kabyle folk singer Ferhat Mehenni, who heads a rival branch of the MCB. They believe that the event was a publicity stunt orchestrated by Matoub and his Rally for Culture and Democracy supporters, with the goal of “destabilizing Kabylia for the benefit of a power clan.” In what became known as the “Matoub affair” in May 1996, Matoub publicly contested these charges with allegations of his own, claiming that another singer, Aït Menguellat, who had refused to comment on the kidnapping, had bought the GIA’s protection in order to maintain his residence in Algeria, to which Aït Menguellat responded by accusing Matoub of “megalomania.”
[2] Maquisard de la chanson is the title given by the Kabyle author Kateb Yacine to Matoub’s generation of political folk singers.
[3] Lounès Matoub, Rebelle (Paris: Stock, 1995), pp.16, 40-43.
[4] Originally signed on January 16, 1991 by FLN leader Chadli Benjedid and designed to go into effect on July 5, 1994, the law was frozen by his successor Mohamed Boudiaf just prior to the latter’s assassination.
[5] The two parties, generally corresponding to geographic, class and generational divides within Kabylia, remain opposed over whether to negotiate with Islamists or not.
[6] “I call for resistance.... It is not only with words that one must stop terrorism, but with arms.” Matoub, p. 279.
[7] Ibid., p. 280.
[8] Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), p. 155.

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