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When Tunisian clans settled scores in the boxing ring

Latest update : 2008-10-01

In his latest film, Tunisian film director Hichem Ben Ammar traced the lives of boxing champions before independence, when Tunisian communities fought out their differences in the ring.


Under the glare of overhead neon lights, Jacques Chiche shows fledgling boxers a couple of moves in his lively Parisian boxing club. The world's most famous boxers, Mohamed Ali, Marcel Cerdan, and Mike Tyson stare down from the walls.


A spritely man with a sharp eye, Chiche, a boxer of Jewish Tunisian origins, left his homeland in the 50s to pursue a boxing career in France.


Today, his friend and former French champion, Felix Brami, is visiting his club, along with the Tunisian film director Hichem Ben Ammar. Together they flip through photo albums and discuss the golden age of Tunisian boxing.


Ben Ammar has returned to Paris a year after finishing a documentary about the rise and decline of Tunisian boxing, "J'en ai vu des étoiles," [I have seen the stars]. Before Tunisia gained independence, French colonial settlers, Maltese immigrants, Italians, Muslims, Tunisian Jews – a large community in Tunisia before the 1950's fought each other with their gloves on.


Chiche recalls how he started boxing at the age of 14 after seeing a film about the Moroccan champion Marcel Cerdan, famous for his tumultuous love story with Edith Piaf. The trainer at a nearby club didn't believe the young Chiche seriously wanted to fight, "But I came back, and look I'm here 60 years later."


For these boxers, the 30s, 40s and 50s represent the golden age of Tunisian professional boxers. It's an era that saw the country's greatest boxers, from the womanizing world champion "Young" Perez, who later died in the Nazi concentration camps, to Sadok Omrane, Tunisia's "iron-fisted fighter."


Fighting it out in the ring


"To have a great boxing reunion, you need a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew," Chiche recalls. "Spectators came to support their clan. There were a few brawls but it always ended well. We celebrated, it was marvelous," says Chiche amid the sweat and roar of the club.


According to Ben Ammar, all the boxers knew each other and each champion represented his own clan in the power tussle before independence in 1956. "Communities fought each other; they did not have the same interest in that society. Each group had its own boxing club and slogans." According to Ben Ammar, the boxing scene also showed that, in the end, these communities somehow cohabited.


But the poorest also turned to boxing to survive. Felix Brami started boxing in Tunisia and became France's national champion in 1961. He recalls his early days as a boxer in Tunisia. "As a young man I had no money, so I had to box to earn some money for my parents and myself," he explains.


The boxing community implodes after independence


The sport was introduced into colonial Tunisia in the 1910s and Tunisian Muslims weren't at first interested in the sport, according to Ben Ammar. But gradually, Muslim boxers carried Tunisia's fight for independence against its colonial masters in the ring.


"During the fight for Tunisia's independence, Tunisian Muslim boxers had a stake, they had a cause to defend," he says. However, Tunisian boxing fervor petered out after Tunisia gained independence in 1956.


According to Ben Ammar, decolonization and the flight of the foreign and Jewish communities partly explain the decline of boxing in the fifties.


“Unfortunately, given the events at the time, the pieds-noirs [French colonial settlers] left, so we went too,” remembers Chiche, who left Tunisia in 1955 to move to Paris. Though he returns every year to Tunis to visit friends, he regrets the old cosmopolitan boxing milieu. “It’s very sad, it’s not the same anymore,” he says.


After 1956, tensions increased between Tunisian Jews and Muslims and culminated during the six-day war in 1967 which opposed Israel and Arab states. If Tunisia was home to a very large Jewish population before the creation of Israel in 1948, today only 1,500 to 2,000 Jews still live in the country.

Date created : 2008-10-01