Much of Matoub’s anger was pointed at the religious extremism that often dominated the Algerian political sphere, particularly with the rise of Islamist militant groups such as the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA) and Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). Matoub saw Islam as inextricably linked with an oppressive Arab nationalism that considered Tamazight inferior to Arabic (the supposed ‘language of God’). He went so far as to mock the way that practicing Muslims pray:
Bend and strike your forehead against the ground
No one comes to disturb your prostration,
Just listen to your true sheikh:
Allahu akbar! Allah!
Matoub’s voice and tone while singing show the near-foolhardy defiance with which he approached life. In another song, he parodies the Algerian national anthem, singing in Tamazight in a direct affront to the State that upholds Arabic as the sole official language (though Tamazight is now listed in a secondary position as a ‘national’ language). In one song, La Soeur Musulmane (Muslim Sister), Matoub sings “We are harassed, torn; misfortune has befallen our shoulders. Waiting in vain is the help of God.” There is an implicit call in these words for Imazighen to stop waiting for divine intervention – which will never come – and to instead take action themselves against their oppressors. In another song, Tabratt I Lehkwam (Letter to the Governors) he accuses Arab nationalist leaders:
They dyed the face of Algeria with Islam and Arabic
Along with deceit and lies
With our roots and wisdom, we’ll cleanse and free Algeria
From your deceit and lies
…each time that I speak in my language, it is like an act of resistance. We exist, thanks to our language. This language, transmitted through my mother, is my soul. Thanks to her, I have made myself, I have dreamed listening to songs and stories.
In refusing to speak in Arabic and instead imbuing Tamazight with spiritual significance, Matoub restores to his mother tongue the sacredness that centuries of Arab domination sought to deny it. Through these words, Matoub becomes a decolonial African heretic.
North Africa is frequently labelled a conservative Islamic region, but it does have a rich history of secularism, and even atheism. There were, unfortunately, consequences for an outspoken atheist and Amazigh militant: Matoub was attacked several times between 1984 and1998. During a protest in 1988, a police officer shot five rounds into Matoub’s body and he was initially thought to be dead. After months recovering in Algeria and Paris, Matoub returned to his music and activism, but in 1994 he was kidnapped and held captive for two weeks by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). Told that he was the “enemy of God”, Matoub stayed alive only by pretending to revert to Islam, giving up his Amazigh political work, and beginning to pray ‘faithfully.’ It was not until 1998 that Lounès’ enemies succeeded in killing him, although doubts still remain as to whether the GIA and/or the Algerian government were responsible for his death.
-- Lounès Matoub – A Yahlili
Published here with the author's permission.