Abdelkader Benali, Two sides of the same coin

From My Mother's Voice/De stem van mijn moeder: Translated by Jane Fenoulhet

Each time I saw him - whenever I got out of bed in the early morning and looked up at the top bunk to see if he was still there, as though I was afraid that he had disappeared in the night to lick his wounds in a safer place - I was taken aback by the resemblance between us. It was as though I was looking at myself, and my spontaneous reaction was that this person deserved punishment and needed humiliating, simply because he was me. I learned to hate myself at an early age.

I had to teach him discipline. That is something I never truly regretted. Maybe I ought to have chastised him even harder so that he might have gained a natural sense of how far he could go, a respect for the boundaries human beings must set for themselves if they are not to go under. Maybe then IT would not have happened. He lost the battle.

Our relationship developed without any prompting, the way it does between little brothers. After all, you are stuck with one another; you haven't chosen each other; you're a pleasant surprise for your parents.

And I thought he was a pleasing candidate to be on the receiving end of my visions. This was how we related to one another. Steel on wood - a natural alliance that unfolded in ideal conditions without anyone interfering. And he deserved physical punishment, needed serious correction. He was bent wood that could only be straightened by force.

What we knew about ourselves had been told us by other people. We were identical twins. The teacher at our nursery school told us how beautifully we flowed into one another. 'Just like two butterfly wings.' Afterwards she sent us to the sand pit. When I told this to Eva Soares, her first reaction was: 'There's no way you can have remembered that. You were too little.' Her criticism sparked the urge to be proved right. I named the nursery teacher's name; I described her face and could say exactly who I had hit in the sand pit: a Turkish boy called Deniz who had attempted to make my little brother eat sand. 'I can't check, so I'll have to take you at your word.'

I explained that the break with our homeland, the exchange of the village for a world which really was different in every possible way, had sharpened my memory. 'I went from a dried up ditch to a sand pit. How can anyone forget that! In the Netherlands I discovered that I needed to remember in order to exist. It happened by itself. My head learned to protect me before I could have any say about it.'

Nature had cloned us and in the beginning it seems that our mother had seen an omen in it of numerous offspring, among which daughters would have a modest place. Until a wizened old woman told her that this birth was a blessing which would not be followed by other blessings. Put simply: that was it. The fertility that had manifested itself in her like a fat drop of honey, would run dry. She had to make do with us. No bee would ever visit her again.

Black curls. Brown eyes. A large yet feminine nose. Sweet, soft lips and the sharp wolf-like gaze of the Highdiver. We don't yet have his fat upper arms. Nor his heavy, insistent voice. The fat belly which strains at the buttons of his shirt is still to take shape. A watermelon that still has to be planted.

Our voice adapted easily to the Dutch language. We sat side by side in class like porcelain dolls, and learned 'ui', 'vis', 'weg' and 'roos'. We were both alarmed by the animal that our reception class teacher had lying under her table and that bore an Ottoman name. Pasha lay gnawing on a bone all day long.

Sometimes I thought that my brother was just a reflection and that he would disappear if I reached for him. I even considered killing my identical copy. Then an angel would bring him back, because we were immortal. I drank his milk. I spat on his forehead. I went to the toilet first even if he needed to go urgently. Because I was stronger I sometimes picked him up and dangled him over the stairwell, pretending I was going to let go, shouting that I couldn't hold on any longer, at which he could be relied on to burst into tears, and then I would pull him back in. 'Stop crying.'

He didn't stop crying. I hit him in the face. 'Stop crying.' He cried harder. I hit him again.

My father intervened. 'What's the matter?'

'He's crying like a woman,' I said.

We were so alike that I could pass him off as myself in the Koran class at the mosque. This worked well because he was good at learning the Koran, and I wasn't. Even when he didn't want to, I sent him for a second time to the master to reel off yet again the sura 'The Night of Power', which he had just rattled off by heart in exemplary fashion. 'Recite in the name of your Lord who created you from a clot of blood, who taught by the pen, taught you what you did not know.' Sentences stuck in my brother's head, while all I saw were images. Blood. A pen. A Lord who I could not see and who I therefore imagined as a large swan who from time to time landed on the little pond around the corner from our house.

The master was completely unaware, so I didn't have to learn anything and wasn't punished. I set off for the madrassa whistling until one day our master was ill. His replacement saw through me and forced me to make up for all the pain I had avoided.

'You use your twin brother so you don't have to learn anything. How do I know? I also have a twin. The Devil's work! Slap, slap went the stick. Ingeniously a piece of hosepipe had been fixed to one end, and was now being brought down on my hand.

My brother had no sympathy with me, because he thought that as a good Muslim I ought to do my best. He did not look at me when I sat down beside him with my red hands. I bit my tongue to fight back the tears which were rolling down my cheeks anyway. Suddenly I found a handkerchief in my hand, an unexpected sign of compassion, because why would he care about me? I didn't need his handkerchief, I used my hand to brush away the tears. I didn't need his pity. Outside, at a safe distance from the mosque, I gave him a kick up the backside.

'He has no right to hit me,' I said bitterly. 'He's punishing me because I'm clever.'

('Twee zijden van dezelfde munt', pp. 60-63).