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 Personnalités Amazighes


Memoirs of Lounes Matoub


How I Became a Rebel

The Algeria singer relates in his memoirs the struggle of the Amazigh (Berbers),
a cause he defended up to his death.

Translated by Blanca Madani

My only good memories of school are of the professors of that era. They were French and known by the name of "White Fathers," without doubt because they always wore white robes. They were religious, Catholic missionaries, but their teachings were secular. The program was of the Republic (France), which is what was taught in the French schools. Evidently, they spoke of French history--Gaulle-, but also of the conquests related to our own history. The White Fathers made us read books. One of those spoke of Yugurta, chained and taken to Rome by force. Yugurta was our history, of our village, that we would relate to each other at night for hours. It was our mythology. We knew those adventures by heart. Yugurta was a Berber king who tried to defy the authorities and the oppression of Rome. During many years, he fought heroically before he was betrayed by Bocus, his father-in-law. Then he was captured by the Romans. In the book that related this story of valor and rebellion, there were many drawings and engravings. I remember distinctly that in one of those, there was an illustration of Yugurta chained in his cell. That drawing was a form of revelation for me. How could this Berber king, from whom we descended, be humiliated in such a manner? In that moment, I felt a profound feeling of injustice, a wound almost personal.

Those emotions, those questions, must be credited to the White Fathers. Today I am convinced that they had an active role in the formation of the consciousness of my identity. Not only mine, but also many of the children of my generation, those that had the opportunity of receiving their teachings. Without doubt, thanks to them, I became conscious of the profoundness of my Kabylie roots. In their own way, they contributed to all our society's rejection a la amnesia. Without doubt, because of it, on many occasions, the Algerian powers have attempted to link the Berber question to the presence of the White Fathers. Sometimes, it has been affirmed that "the Berber is a creation of colonialism." It is false historically and very unjust toward those religious that never intended to impose the least indoctrination. They would speak to us of moral values, we had classes in civic education, but never religion. Their teachings opened my spirit deeply, they did not cause me to lose it nor did they annex it. Also, one should not forget that it was them, the White Fathers and the White Sisters who allowed us to preserve a part of our memories. After independence, some remained in Kabylia. The Berber identity continued to be negated by the Algerian powers. All that could represent the Berber was under suspicion. Our tradition, our culture, considered subversive, were basically oral, and nothing was done to guarantee its transmission and its survival. It was the White Fathers who permitted the first publications of dictionaries. The Kabylie society, in its entirety, owes them much.

We believed that the atrocities of the war had ended with independence. Unfortunately, it was not so. One year later, the violence was resurrected in Kabylia. In 1963, the officials of Wilaya 3 opposed Ben Bella, who was then Chief of State. The confrontations were harsh. Some villages suffered then more brutalities than during the war of independence. There were more than 400 deaths in Kabylia. Everything ended very badly. The maquis [armed group] put down their arms under turbid conditions. The deceased were somewhat forgotten, but that form of surrender does not conform to our traditional wars. It traumatized the Kabylies for a long time. After this, it was very difficult to utter one word in Berber in a bus in the capital. We were systematically under suspicion, and our tongue was prohibited.

It was necessary to wait for the generation of independence to rehabilitate Kabylia, especially in regard to the struggle for identity, for which we continued to fight. For me, like for many Kabylies, the episode of 1963-64 continues to be an injury that caused us to feel a real rejection of everything that was Arab. To suffer a moral execution is surely as difficult as to suffer physical atrocities. At least, that is how we saw things. From 1963, I can say that my awakening in regard to identity grew. The Kabylies were considered non-existent, and the injustice of that rejection caused me indignation. That is how I saw and how I lived those events of my youth. From that moment on, everything accelerated. I started to openly demonstrate my rejection of the Arabic, preferring French, which I learned in school. Berber, our mother language, was prohibited. We needed a language that would substitute it.

For us, there was no solution, except for French. And when, during my years at school, Arabization was imposed on us by Boumedienne, we felt hurt. Today, with the perspective that time offers, I affirm that this forced Arabization broke me intellectually. Not only me, but also numerous students of my age. That official decision of 1968, by the Minister of Education of that time, Ahmed Taled, was one of the biggest errors of Boumedienne's regime. I believe, even though I am at risk of clashing against more than one person, that the descent to hell of Algeria began in that moment. Today, we reap what began to sow in 1968. My generation of post-independence considered itself promising. This Arabization broke our impetus. Today we have the results--the FIS. The Islamic Salvation Front was born then, it developed in school with the full weight of the law. A red carpet was extended for them. Why wouldn't they take advantage of the situation?

I never had a feeling for Arabic as my own language. And since they wanted to enforce it, I rejected it immediately. I was raised in the mountains of Kabylia. Kabylie has always been my language of daily usage, and French the instrument of work. Meanwhile, they wanted to take away from us something that had been essential in our culture. We had to give up Berber and reject French. I said no! I played hooky in all my Arabic classes. Every class that I missed was an act of resistance, a slice of liberty conquered. My rejection was voluntary and purposeful. That language was never able to penetrate me. To this day, I know nothing or almost nothing of Arabic. I know how to write my surname and my given name, but that is all. I would be incapable of writing the date of my birth. Can you imagine a disadvantage for me in my country? No. On the other hand, I assume totally this rejection.

The action of imposing Arabic corresponded with a political will to obviously squash and negate, but it had also, as an objective, to erase the double historical inheritance that represented the Berber and the French. The Francaphone school produced in Algeria an intellectual elite, and, without doubt, that elite was whom they wished to silence. The French gave me an opportunity. They opened up my spirit, they gave me knowledge, and certain intellectual rigor. I knew fabulous authors and texts that I would never have discovered if I had not had access to the French language: Descartes, Zola, Hugo, the theater of Racine or the poems of Baudelaire. That learning was beneficial, constructive. I have the sensation of possessing something important and precious. The Arab, I hate to say, has not produced an elite deserving of this name in Algeria. He has repressed, choked, and created all you can see today: a society that does not know where it is going, that is losing its identity.

Berber, my language, is prohibited. This language, so beautiful, in which I learned to speak, that I use in my texts, that allowed me to realize my profession as a singer, continues to be undesired in Algeria, where it is not recognized. It is not taught.* A paradox: it does not exist for the National Ministry of Education, even though several million of us speak it. Therefore, 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.

*Note: The Kabylie dialect of Tamazight (Berber) has been taught, starting with middle school level, in a few schools in the Kabylie region since 1989, most likely as a concession to the Kabylie, eight years after the disastrous events of Spring 1980. There are six locations where the schools are found: Tizi-Ouzou, Betas, Bejaia, Biskra, Khenchelle, and Tipaza. It is also taught at the university level in Tizi-Ouzou and Bejaia. However, it should also be noted that Tamazight remains, to this day, unfunded, uncredited, with no incentives for teachers or students.

Tamazight is not officially recognized, and in addition, Arabic and French have been used professionally and in teaching. However, the language is not prohibited per se by the Algerian government, though certainly it has been far from encouraged, and it is prevented from progressing. For instance, there is a Tamazight-language radio. Although Tamazight is used, all scientific, professional, modern terms must be in modern standard Arabic. Thus, Tamazight is effectively prevented from becoming a viable modern language, although it is inherently capable, because of its root base, of forming compact and practical terminology for today's needs.


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