Abdelkader Benali, The Highdiver

From My Mother's Voice/De stem van mijn moeder: Translation by Jane Fenoulhet and UCL Dutch Advanced Translation students

It is eleven thirty in the morning when the Highdiver phones.

I freeze when I see his name pop up on my mobile. It is exactly four months, six days, eight hours and sixteen minutes since he last rang me. I'm very busy on the set of the photoshoot, on the point of asking the models to assume a different pose, and I've just taken a deep breath because the now-or-never moment has come for this glossy reportage.

The Highdiver.

This is what I have called my father since as a boy of about eight I lay in the bunk bed I shared with my brother and we eavesdropped on the conversations between him and his friends in the living room, which was above our bedroom. His friends visited every other week without fail. We never really saw these friends because they came in when we were already in bed, though I did manage to catch a glimpse of them. Clad in the pyjamas our mother had bundled us into ready for sleep, I would creep carefully out of bed, sneak out of the room, and from the bottom of the stairs look up to where I could see them sitting, if the living room door was open. Not long before, they had entered the hallway where I was sitting and their worn out shoes were waiting for their return. Our four-room flat had been generously allocated to us by the housing association the year before, so we were able to leave our cramped two-room flat behind. This was the first half of the 1980s. Chernobyl was still intact. Maradona hadn't yet scored against the English assisted by the Hand of God. And if at all possible, my father listened to classical Arabic music every day, humming along with whole passages.

In the old two-room flat I could always hear my parents sighing and talking; even the squeaking of the mattress did not escape my ears. In this house, there was more distance between me and the parental bedroom and they didn't seem to mind at all.

Thin shadows were what I saw flitting through the passage. They belonged to young men who stepped into the living room and sat down next to him, but never too close. If anyone got too close to him, it stifled him. Then he would find it difficult to open up, I had experienced this myself. I didn't yet know the colour of those shadows as they appeared above me. It was sepia.

I repeat, the closer you got to him physically, the more he clammed up. Distance provided the necessary levity, and his friends must have understood that because he usually chatted away.

With these friends he smoked his cigarettes. He doesn't smoke any more, but for those occasions he bought packets of Marlboro. It is to his smoking friends that I owe the name the Highdiver, because they brought that name into our house. That is what they called him, and in their mouths, the nickname sounded like a beautifully wrapped present.

The name swirled downwards, settled in our fantasy world and crystallized into something that reality itself could take advantage of.

'But Highdiver, you don't mean to say that Yasser Arafat will leave Beirut?' I went to sit on the step next to the bottom one and listened. The sound of Rai music, music of nightingales singing in arabesques, accompanied their loud conversations about world politics, little Bismarcks all of them, who each kept a sharpened knife in their pockets to divide up and share out the world-cake.

Whenever I couldn't fall asleep late at night because their conversations were keeping me awake - exciting and mysterious in my imagination, because I couldn't understand a word - I would sneak out of bed in the manner already described, open the door, a bit more, my brother already asleep, out of my room, ignoring my father's prohibition, so as to listen to them, the buzz of voices against the windows, my mother in another room where she was listening too, perhaps, voices like ants all over the frosted glass, now and again I heard a sentence escape and reach me, together with the smell of cigarettes wafting downstairs, passing through the chinks of the door. I inhaled the cigarette smell, I listened to the words and I too wanted to be a highdiver…

'Highdiver, the Wall will never fall.'

'Highdiver, Gaddafi is mad. Say what you like. His green revolution is crazy.'

'Highdiver, have you still got that old Khaled cassette?'

Afterwards, usually the next morning, I told my brother everything they had said to each other in as much as I had been able to follow it. But not to worry: I filled in the empty spaces with great gusto and even more imagination without worrying about the truth content.

'They call him Highdiver. Do you know what that means?'


'That he has done something that no-one else dares. Only our father. Something he did over there.'


'The village.'

Back then it was the greatest thing I might be able to achieve, becoming a highdiver. Greater than an astronaut travelling to the moon. Greater than a footballer scoring the winner for his country in the 90th minute. Better even than becoming a photographer, and that really was something I wanted to become, even though at the time I didn't think it was actually something that you could be. Much better than being a son. If you dived, you left son behind. Then you were a man. Then you had climbed, jumped, flown, dived, you were removed from everyone's sight for a few seconds, you died and were reborn. Such a man could stand as tall as his father. Then your friends could visit to call you by your proper name.

But that's enough of that. It is eleven thirty in the morning when the Highdiver phones.

These days I am busy sorting my head out, getting rid of the last memories of the Black Princess. And precisely because the Highdiver is phoning, I suddenly can't help thinking of her again. She recently married a man who tolerates her twins because she gives him love-spasms and now she does belly dancing to earn her keep in Brussels where she went to live after we parted. Bismillah arahman arahim I say under my breath, because some little prayers never leave you. And of their own accord my thoughts travel back four years