Living Words

Siham Benchekroun

Artwork by Mirza Jaafar

Crystalline. Cristallin. Cri: cry. A crystalline laugh. Listen to this.

Something that tolls, isn’t it?

The sound of a very fine, slender glass.


I believe it to be white, and radiant.


But the liquid from a singing spring.

Yes, that’s it: a water-word.

The ethereal melody of a waterfall.

When the deep black of solitary nights descends, I take out my “cristallin,” and I place it down as a brilliant jewel, within reach of my blind eyes.

Next, I adorn it with other jewel-words from this language I use now, chosen with care from the shelves of my memory safe.

Words like “frisson.”

I like this word, it moves me. Because it is fragile, frisson. A little quivering animal that flutters like a warm heart in the hollow of a palm.

It is ephemeral.

It should be caressed softly, in such a way that it does not take fright and perish.

Frisson . . .

A breath that brushes. An invitation to embrace. “Come, let’s frisson.”

How tender it is! It needs a protective arm to keep it from flying away.

So there is clarity: “clarté.”

A grand word. Nobility, majesty!

And clarity was.

It flies like a flag.

Cristallin. Frisson. Clarté. A set of diamonds—diamants. Ouch—cutting, the word “diamant”! Dangerous. I don’t trust it. A deceiver, perhaps. Because of that grimace that manipulates my face when I deliver it. First, “dee-a”: my mouth labours as if it were being asked to bite into a hard, glacial metal; and then that “mant” just after, a pointless regret from my mouth as it closes again.

I mistrust “diamant.”

Mistrust. Mistrustful. Méfiant.

Diamant méfiant.

To clarté, I would sooner add something innocent. Muted. A delicate composition.

Flamme,” perhaps.

You won’t find that innocent, of course. An innocent flame, that could seem unusual to you. Insolite.

Not bad! Unusual: “insolite” . . . Especially if we cut “in” from “solite” and quickly pronounce the “solite” part.


It’s a little extraterrestrial.

Now, you’re going to think that I have settled for sliding around in word association. Clarté/flamme, the light of day and of fire. And yet, if you listen, if you look closely, you will see how flame can move you beyond its meaning. It consumes itself in a single sound. The hint of a breeze on a candle and “flamme” is finished . . .

So frail!

But not the fragility of frisson; no, rather that of a burst of laughter.

A crystalline laugh.



Note that “clarté” is also compatible with the colour “azuré.” It’s a question of taste. Or mood.

In my opinion, flamme has more determination.

A revolt content with being a revolt. A blaze indifferent to the shadow that will follow.

I’ll admit that the “l” in “flamme” is sometimes awkward. It’s true. The sound is less pure for it. Like one teardrop too many.



The moment you remove the “l,” the word becomes . . . blurred. Doesn’t it? More like femme. Nothing to do with clarity now.

Meanwhile, “azuré” murmurs the balminess of a trembling sky.

Sugary, that word. Totally inoffensive.

Could anyone imagine azure screams? Or an azure anger? It would be inane—an ineptie.

Ineptie.” Ugh! It’s like the cold skin of a cold grass snake.

Ineptie. Fit for the bin.



About three weeks I’ve been here.

At first, you think you’ll only manage to live for a few nights. You tell yourself that you’ll be crushed.

Walls too close. Faces too ugly. Dirty, cold, small, the world to which we are confined.

And then you surprise yourself by walking around to produce some distance.

By conversing alone, out loud, to hear your replies. By moving away from idleness. By distracting yourself from the wait.

You work on abandoning everything outside the self.

And you set about repopulating the void that is left.

Me, I learnt to speak with words. And even listen to them. I invite them to long, silent, complicit tête-a-têtes. Or gentle mutterings.

I sometimes court them when they seem wild. Or foreign. In those cases I’ll send them a few message-words to speak in my favour.

They yield, softened.

It can take time to tame a word.

But I am no longer in the world of time. That world stayed on the other side when I crossed over its threshold.

Time is unfaithful.



There are words that I caress as you might shine a creature’s coat. To make them purr within me. Some are so charming, so delicate, that I might almost crunch them when I say them aloud.

Chocolat. A taste of honey and milk in that word.

Pourpre. The sullen pout of a beautiful courtesan stripped of her purple velvet.

Other words are misshapen and ill-bred. They trip and knock together between my teeth. I take pity on their discomfort and overcome my revulsion. Because under its uncouth shell, the soul can burn with a thousand fires. As is the case among the living, beauty comes much more from meaning than expression.

Take “inextinguible,” for example—“inextinguishable.” Difficult to be called that, isn’t it, when it carries such passion?

A precarious word if ever there were. Not a single letter, not a sound in there that renders the permanent burning of desire. What is the point of “inex” in this word, I ask you? An absurd domestic evocation in the universe of the insatiable! And that “guible,” is it not of the worst taste?

But there are worse; utter disgraces of language.

Jouir,” for example. “To come.” How obscene a name for such ecstasy! It is indecent to proclaim this word to the ears of a woman to whom you have just made love.

As-tu joui?—Did you come?” The horror!

A flatulent sound in a song of joy.

A word that farts, literally.

As if you were moaning about some digestive problem.

It is ridiculously brief and smug.

And it’s that “i,” pronounced “ee,” trotting after the “ou” that completes its grotesque form. Ouiiiii! J’ai jouiiiii!


In these moments, you will notice, the language is afflicted with an appalling poverty. Orgasme is hardly better. A trombone bellowing in the peace of an alcove.

Did she have an ooorgaaasme?

Enough to bring on a period.

No, really, whatever my tolerance levels, that word, I simply cannot!



It can also happen that I don’t understand words which cross my mind like uninvited guests. Some are closed or impassive, others arrogant.

I vaguely remember meeting them on intellectual literary occasions, or in a few arduous lines of famous authors.

I utter them several times over to seduce them. That doesn’t always have the desired effect. The most obscure can even become scornful. They take on little superior airs that distress me. A sort of tribal opposition. As if they were reserved on principle for an intellectual elite.

I find that both humiliating and petit bourgeois.

I know that, as in the human world, words are arranged into social categories. There are aristocrat words and commoner words.

I know this.

Those that sprout in the mire and those that blossom in fancy private rooms.

Yet these considerations do not deter my curiosity a bit, nor lessen my fervour. I may not have studied at the top institutions but I hold no less worth as a self-taught man.

At around eighteen years old, I even learnt whole pages of the French dictionary, Le Petit Robert. From A, first letter and first vowel of the alphabet: abaisser, abandonner, abasourdir . . . moving through B: babiller, bâcler, badiner, then C: cabaner, câbler, cabosser . . .

To make it easier, I tried first to remember the verbs. I memorised their definitions and recited them by heart. It was very hard but I kept going.

After, I moved on to common nouns. That is how I discovered the enormity of a language and its meanings. But I did not know then that, years later, I would be haunted by these words I had mastered with such persistence. Nor that they would become my most faithful companions.

They could take everything, but they would never know what riches gleam in my mind.

As long as I have the capacity to think, no one can ever take away the words that belong to me.

My beloveds. My treasures.

Oh, of course, I have my favourites from which I never part. Some of them bring me the same renewed emotion, and I admit that I abuse them.

Listen, for example, to the verb “toucher.” There is nothing more to say: in “toucher” there is to touch.

This “tou,” meaning everything, this dear “cher,” it’s mad! You think this word and you feel warm skin beneath your hands.

Touch. Touching.

Perhaps it is the “ch” that makes contact.

That tactile whisper.

I touch her sweet face with my hands. She looks at me, smiles. Touched, touchée . . .

I like to fill my mouth with this word. I like to exhale it delicately.


It makes me long to be caressed.

It is a word of bold hands and epidermal excitement.

Bodily seduction.

Baiser” is more intense, deeper. (Obviously. Not so far from “baisser.”)

But do not think that I am messing around with some facile play on words. Speak it aloud and you will see how it resonates, how heavy it is.

Baiser, that can only mean to fuck, clearly.

It’s a full word, in motion.

“Baiser” makes me a voyeur, makes me tense.

An erection produced from fantasy. The quivering desire of an offered woman.



I confess my penchant for licentious words but I fear their company. It seems to me that they should be shared so as not to be dirty. Otherwise, they leave splashes on you like an overripe fruit you planned to bite in secret but it sends dribbles down your chin.

Some words are more reserved, even frightened. I treat them with care. I use them sparingly. I force myself to be patient.

Others are vulnerable and nostalgic.

They come to me with an aftertaste of tears.

Je t’aime” is of that sort.

Still other words are mischievous, as if spiced when spoken, or devious, switching from one meaning to another, ambivalent.

There are bitter words, black words, cold words. There are word scintillations, winks, sighs, and words like ancient temples with secret pasts, legends that cling to the first root, or brand new words, the youngest offspring of modern concepts, scientific discoveries, society’s daring.

There are encumbered words and defector words, gathered like the relics of journeys from one people to another.

There are words for playing. And words that live as long as a passing trend, dragging in disgrace the remains of a civilisation.

There are even words that mean nothing but suddenly start chattering. Almost makes you want to gag them so they’ll shut up. But they hum with memories like a hive. And their stings are painful.

We shouldn’t deceive ourselves, though: words are fragile. They are heroes with feet made of clay. We can easily harm them. So they lie between our sentences like kites with broken bones. And what would a bird be without flight?

Words become crushed from too often carrying our struggles.

From being held responsible instead of us.

Those are victim-words. Innocents delivering violence. Carried along by the muddy tides of lies. Debris words. There’s nothing to be done with them after. Nothing left in them to believe.

It’s a waste.

The words are so naïve. So transparent. They take on the hue poured over them. They are pure vials to be filled with care. Not thrown like common utensils, only to shock the thrower that they smash into shards and injure our lives.

Ah, my dear words, so dear! Each day, I bring tens of words to my tongue and give them form through my lips. The thing is, I do not want them to die from disuse, to be killed by oblivion.

I am responsible for my words.

And, in turn, they help me to stay alive.

Because, through immobility, I am afraid of turning to stone in the dark. Of drying up. Words are what make my blood course. They are the white water that nourishes me.

That’s good: nourish, “nourrit.” It contains “nous,” us. It contains warmth and trust. And “ris,” laughter. An image of a happy home on a schoolbook’s coated paper.



I endlessly repeat words that give courage. Words of tenderness. Torches of light.

Maman. Walk. Respire.

Singing springs.

Glouglouter. A gurgle lapping against a gorge, a throat.

Miaow. Miauler.

Words that are heard. Music that I compose, eyes closed on myself, music that reassures me.

Little children’s hands waving . . .

No, not the words that do harm. The fragments of sorrow that last and putrefy the skin.

Humid. Cockroach.

Betrayal. Non. Hate.

A woman’s name.

Die. Mourir.

Non. Ghosts stepping along a nightmare.

A whine.

Rumble: gronder. Gronder . . . In the hollow of “gronder,” like a shell pressed against an ear, rises the soft fury of the wind, the battering of a wave.

In “gronder,” man’s anger can be heard.

Softly. There . . . Softly.

I hold myself tight in my arms.

I turn into a ball, eyes blind with obscurity.

I draw a green meadow studded with little red flowers. A big sun like a gold button in a piece of blue sky. And trees. And a well . . . A child’s path to school. Onto the paper coming to life, stream stains drip. Down my cheeks runs a bottomless source flowing from a distant childhood.



Sun. Sky. Sleep. Infinite. Undreamt.

Emergency words.

Eternal. Smile.

Friends in words.

Tenderness. Ease. Cradle.

Letters. Sounds. Lovers’ caresses which wait there for me. Appease. Hands. Pearl. Oh! Perle . . . A spoken drop. The gentle corner of a mouth.

Hope. Désir. Imperious.

Impetuous words.

Rouge. Vivid. Blaze words.

Liberté. Regard. Horizon.




Yes. Peace. Love. Dream.

Oui. Paix. Aimer. Rêver.






translated from the French by Hannah Embleton-Smith