Ice hockey brings together Tunisians across globe

Tunisia’s national ice hockey team is helping diaspora Tunisians rediscover their ancestral roots, as they attempt to bring the winter sport to North African soil.

al-monitor Players from the Tunisian national ice hockey team watch their teammates play in Courbevoie, France, on June 14, 2014. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images.

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Apr 11, 2018

Nathan Bernier gathered the puck on his team’s side of the ice and began skating forward. He dodged an opposing player and continued charging closer to the goal. His stick slid the puck left, then right, then left again, until he finally flicked the puck, sending it past the goalie and into the back of the net. Bernier’s goal, a spectacular one-on-one feat, added to Tunisia’s lead against the Corsaires, Algeria’s ice hockey team. Tunisia ended up winning the match 8-3 on April 7, earning third place in the Arab Ice Hockey Club Cup in Abu Dhabi.

Bernier is part of the select group of young men representing Tunisia in international ice hockey competitions. The team, in addition to its bronze medal performance in Abu Dhabi, won the African Ice Hockey Championship in 2016. Members of the team, mostly Tunisians who have lived most of their lives abroad, are looking not to just win now but also build a foundation for the future. They are focusing on one day establishing the winter sport in their motherland and eventually competing in the Winter Olympics. Most important, in this journey representing the red and white of Tunisia, the players have also rediscovered their roots, falling in love with a country they only knew about from short visits and tales from grandparents.

In June 2015, Bernier had one hour left before he had to check in at Tunis-Carthage Airport to fly back home to Paris. He had spent a week in the North African nation and it was time to return to France to start ice hockey training again. But something tugged at him to stay. So he did — for another month.

Bernier spent Ramadan in Tunisia, traveled around the country, visiting relatives, and finally had a chance to see his grandfather’s grave in Gabes, a coastal city in eastern Tunisia. Nathan Bernier's name at birth was Nathan Ben Messaoud, the son of a French mother and Tunisian father. And the cemetery visit became one of the defining moments of his life.

“I always knew that some part of me was Tunisian, but I didn’t have a chance to live it. It was really important to me. I needed to know where I came from. Like, I’m a real Tunisian,” he told Al-Monitor.

The team’s origins go back to 2007, when Ihab Ayed, a Tunisian who was born and raised in France, began scouring the internet for other Tunisian ice hockey players. He searched social media for players with Tunisian last names: Kobbi, Ben Amor, Ben Salem.

Seven years later, Ayed had put together a squad, which included Bernier, and they all competed in Courbevoie, France, Ayed’s hometown. The team lost, but even without a scoreboard victory, the significance of the moment outweighed the loss.

“There was a lot of emotion. It was the first time in my life that I heard the Tunisian national anthem before a hockey game. I was crying, thinking about when I was young,” Achraf Znaki, the only Tunisian-born player on the team, told Al-Monitor.

Although Znaki may have the most direct connection to Tunisia, given that he has a Tunisian passport, it is not a point of comparison among the players.

Since joining the team in 2014, Amine van de Putte, born and raised in Belgium, has gone on his own journey to rediscover his origins.

Van de Putte is the son of a Belgian mother and a Tunisian father, Riyad Fahem, who was a famous Tunisian soccer player. But van de Putte was adopted and raised by adoptive parents. After Ayed found him through social media, van de Putte jumped at the opportunity to join the team.

Van de Putte now wears Fahem on the back of his Tunisian jersey, in honor of his late biological father. He is also exploring life in his father’s homeland.

Van de Putte has suffered from knee ailments for years. Last year, after again tearing up his knee, he decided to undergo rehab in Tunisia. He stayed with cousins in Hammam Chatt, a suburb south of Tunis. For three weeks, he woke each day at 7 a.m. to head to the sea to exercise in the water. He would then spend hours walking around downtown Tunis.

When asked if people recognize him in the streets of the Tunisian capital, van de Putte laughed and told Al-Monitor, “Definitely not.” Some even know he is not from Tunisia. “One guy came up to me and said, 'You look Tunisian, but you don’t walk like one.'”

Bernier, with his bushy red beard, also stands out when visiting Tunisia. “Most of the time, people think I’m a tourist. Nobody thinks I’m Tunisian,” he said.

The fact that Bernier’s Tunisian descent is not readily noticeable partially is because of a choice made by his parents; they gave him his mother’s last name, so that he could avoid facing discrimination for having an Arabic last name in France.

Deep down, however, Bernier feels comfortable in Tunisia. He prefers the more relaxed way of life in the North African nation as compared to the hustle and bustle of France. “In Tunisia, people can have a coffee and just stay at the cafe for three or four hours, doing nothing, just enjoying life. I like to take time. I guess I’m a little bit like my father.”

At times, the team leadership has faced issues getting assistance from the Tunisian government. Ayed understands the country is strapped for cash, given the economic hardships Tunisia is going through. At the same time, he also feels that it is a national embarrassment that Tunisia has never sent an athlete to the Winter Olympics.

Ayed feels now, however, that Minister of Youth and Sports Majdouline Cherni is willing to support the team. He told Al-Monitor that a 15-minute meeting with her in March turned into a 45-minute conversation. She expressed her support and then called the president of the Tunisian Olympic committee in front of Ayed and asked him if he would also help.

The players and Ayed hope to bring the sport to Tunisia to establish hockey fever. Some 650 kilograms (1,400 pounds) of donated hockey equipment has already made its way through customs and is waiting to be used at the first hockey academy for young Tunisians, which will be hosted at a small ice rink in Tunis. But Ayed’s ambitions go further; he would love to see a full-size ice hockey rink in the capital.

Until then, the Tunisian national team will be representing their country one goal at a time, while paying homage to their ancestors who hailed from Tunisia.

Bernier captured the significance of this team’s achievements when he noted, “We all have an opportunity to express ourselves as Tunisians when we wear these jerseys. Every time I wear it, I think about my grandfather, my father and all my Tunisian relatives. And I think that is true for every player on this team.”

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