“In our village, those who have left to live in France are more numerous than those who have stayed,” says Ramtane Benzema, 68, straight away. This village is Tighzert Ath Jlil – literally “the ravine of the Ath Jlil” – a pretty little town nestled at the bottom of a narrow valley. The village is part of the commune of Ath Jelil, from its Berber name, or Beni Djelil, as it is officially called. Located in a mountainous area landlocked in the hinterland of the department of Béjaia, in lower Kabylia, this rural town has about fifteen villages scattered in the middle of olive groves, fig groves and forests.
It is excessively hot for an autumn day on this Tuesday, October 18, 2022. Around a coffee and a lemonade, Ramtane Benzema gladly agrees to tell his family and his village, he who is enjoying a well-deserved retirement today . Painter, driver, mason, farmer, worker on various construction sites, the man exercised a host of small trades which enabled him to support his family decently. The evening before, of course, all the men seated in the only café in the village followed with great interest the ceremony of awarding the Ballon d’Or to the child of the country, Karim Benzema. Here, half of the inhabitants are called Zema, Benzema or Benzemma. The champion’s family has lived in Tighzert Ath Jlil since its foundation nearly three centuries ago.
Algeria: the origins of Benzemania
Karim, the world star, we only know him here by his exploits on the grounds of foot. But we are not stingy with anecdotes about Hafid, the footballer’s dad, and especially about Leghel, his grandfather. “My cousin Leghel, Karim’s grandfather, also known by the first name of Mohand, left for France at the end of 1962. In 1963, he came back to take his wife and children to settle there, but he came back every year in the village”, says Ramtane. The links with the country of origin have changed over time and generations. If Leghel returned regularly to the country, his son Hafid, the father of Karim, who married an Oranaise, did it much less. And no one remembers seeing Karim set foot in Tighzert. “Perhaps he will come one day on a pilgrimage to the land of his ancestors, when his professional responsibilities leave him a little more time. In any case, he is welcome here, at home,” said one of the villagers.
A land of exile
Ramtane remembers that it was from 1958, in the midst of the Algerian war, that the first men, mostly minors, began to bring their families to settle in France. Before, the great source of the village, today almost dried up, allowed the men to maintain beautiful and luxuriant gardens which made them live. After independence, the population grew and the land was no longer enough to feed everyone. The young and able-bodied men had to take their bundles and exile themselves under more lenient skies.
Football – A France-Algeria match, yes, but where and when?
In Kabylia, a country of mountains bristling with villages, the earth barely feeds men and animals. Olive and fig trees are cultivated there, a small vegetable garden is maintained and a few heads of cattle are raised. When the family grows, the eldest must invent a future elsewhere, in France or in a large city in the country, such as Algiers, Oran or Constantine. When a Kabyle settles in France, he begins by bringing in his wife, children, brothers and cousins. By bringing into play the bonds of solidarity, a community is soon created. In the summer in Tighzert, there are still many of them coming back from Lyon, Paris, Marseille or elsewhere. Some have built beautiful mansions here, opulent villas that visitors can see by the side of the road.
Faithful to each major football meeting, Tighzert capsizes with each goal scored, each title, cup or championship won by the captain of Real Madrid and scorer for the France team. And titles, Karim won a lot before this evening of Monday October 17, 2022 which saw him, the little cousin of the family, lift the famous golden ball. The Tighzertois were doubly happy. To the legitimate pride of seeing a Benzema lift this prestigious trophy, was added the happiness of seeing the other football icon, Zinedine Zidane, handing it to him and hugging him to his heart like a brother.
Zidane, the other child of the country
Here, Zinedine is considered another authentic child of the country. Aguemoune, his home village, is just on the other side of the mountain, about twenty of kilometers as the crow flies. In fact, through the trajectory of these two footballers who shine in the firmament of world football, two destinies of Kabyle emigrants intersect. Two stories that began to be written on the steep roads of Kabylia, even when Algeria and France were like a divorcing couple tearing themselves apart after a forced marriage.
Football: the link between Algeria and France
Like Leghel Benzema, Smail Zidane, a Kabyle peasant who looked after goats on the other side of the mountain, left for France in 1953. Settled in Marseille, he worked there all his life as a worker and founded a family with Malika, the woman of his life. Zizou, the youngest of his five children, became a global star long before Karim. Leghel and Smail, the two Kabyle peasants who became workers in France, never met. But their sons and grandsons extended these paths started in small villages in Kabylia. Like Smail Zidane, Leghel returned regularly to the country, almost twice a year. Died on January 25, 2021, he made his last trip aboard his grandson’s private jet to be buried in the family cemetery, on the land where he was born.
Nassim Benzema proposes to show us around Tighzert, a neat little village, at a time when the children are leaving primary school. Recently, the villagers, including emigrants settled in France, contributed to renovate the small health clinic in Tighzert. Nassim is an itinerant mason. “I go wherever there is work for me,” he says, and his dream is that the village will one day build a football stadium for all the children who dream of following in Karim’s footsteps. “We have the base of land needed for that but not the necessary money,” he laments.
Return of Karim Benzema to the France team: mixed Algerians
What the young people who accompany us during the visit do not tell us is that they hope that one day Karim will come to visit the small village where his ancestors are buried. It will be a great honor for all those villagers who mostly have the same name as him. In fact, Karim had even solemnly promised it in a Canal+ channel show at the end of 2018: “I haven’t had the chance to go there yet for timing reasons, but soon I’ll be going and it will be a nice surprise for the people because I know that there I am loved…”, he promised.
In fact, the young people of Tighzert hope that he will one day follow the example of his “big brother” and idol, Zinedine Zidane, who came on pilgrimage to Aguemoune. Zizou has also created a foundation bearing his name to support charitable projects in Kabylie and throughout Algeria.
Last stop in the bus shelter which adjoins the main square of the village. There, the portrait of Karim, which was painted a few years ago, is almost obliterated. He guesses himself at sadness.