Nisrine Mbarki: Poëzie and politics of kissing

Performed on stage during the programme KISS – Read My World 2023

Kissing, embrasser, een zoen, bousa and un baiser tingle on my lips, rustle on my face and flutter to my neck. Kissing is not for the fainthearted, un baiser c’est de la politique, wa el bous khatar, is what I learned early in life.

In my mother tongues I quench my thirst with a kiss, lips of a lover are like juicy grapes, wine we yearn for pours from their mouth, love is not sealed with a ring but with a mouth, a kiss revives us, lips cut throats, and a sigh sends us into a frenzy. A simple act of two human mouths possesses the power to enthrall, to make you lose your mind, and even contains transcendent properties.

‘Your lips are like candles when they are kissed,’ writes poet Nizar Al Qabbani, and in a song about a lover’s mouth Sabah Fakhri begs her: ‘جودي عليه بقبلة’, give him a kiss, bring him back to life .

When I was young, I never saw people kissing in real life, only on television or whenever I visited Paris with my parents. But at parties or gatherings, I heard the women laughing and utter things like:

‘She only kisses her lover, not her husband.’

‘Your mouth is a gift to the one you love, your body is for the one that you want.’

‘She does not have a taste for men, but she does for women.’

‘Know the lips you grace, for you give away your soul.’

I can only admit that later in life I became acquainted with the power and dangers that come with a kiss. My first kisses as a girl were des baiser volées in summer. My surroundings seemed to fade away in those stolen moments my lips first graced another’s. The sun was brighter, the night longer, birds were chirping on my shoulders, the scent of jasmine filled the air with greater intensity. We found each other on a hot night when summer finally yielded to a breath of wind, under the orange tree at sunrise when the rest of the world was sound asleep, in the shadow of a mulberry tree when everyone else took a siesta—time stood still and the earth stopped spinning.

A few years later I kissed my first boyfriend Tom at the back door of my parents’ house, at the exact moment my mother came home from work, resulting in getting caught in the act. Perhaps I wanted to get caught. I was face to face with danger. I had to endure physical violence for that kiss, and the kind of humiliation I will never forget for the rest of my life. From that moment I knew a kiss was a statement, a provocation, a weapon.

Shortly after, me and my best friend kissed—two rebelling teenage girls, both Brabants and Moroccan, dressed in all black, kissing each other in the busiest spot in town. Our lips touched long and elaborately. Fatima and I knew what we were doing, and we did it deliberately. That same day my mother made me account for my sexuality. She didn’t understand, and doubts would linger in her mind for years. On the sly, that was exactly what had been my intention: to paint a portrait of confusion so I would be left alone—for the invisible social control was real, and it interfered with my body and my mouth in a time when I desperately needed the freedom to explore who I was.

After this followed many kissing moments that would define my life. My first time kissing a lover in public was a statement of my liberation, of celebrating life and love openly instead of behind closed doors. We kissed on many Amsterdam bridges, again and again.

I was always taught that intimacy was something you shared at home, where no one can see you. I wanted to shed that burden, but I still feel a shiver run down my spine when I kiss a lover in public. Not long ago I kissed a lover at the Amstel river, on one of the busiest bridges in town. For a minute it felt like everyone could see me, including my family. A boat passed under the bridge. The guys inside started cheering.

When I was a student, I had a lover for years that I only kissed because we both had partners that were not fond of our love for each other. We kissed in monastic gardens, under the Dom Tower, in theaters, and in bookstores. Those kisses were a metaphor for all conventional restrictions and a way to keep our unconditional love alive.

La bouche as an entrance to a realm where reason no longer prevails, one where the world dissolves the moment when lips, tongue and teeth find each other.

To me, the mouth and the first kiss serve as a glimpse and a manual to a possible love. The speed at which you move your mouth, your cheeks touch mine, the eagerness of your tongue, the softness of your lips, the deepness of your voice, the way you breathe, the moment you show your teeth, how hard you bite, how your mouth looks, the colour and the shape of your lips, and of course your smell—your smell and your taste. Your mouth and your kiss tell me what you are like. They provide me with all the information about you as a potential lover, boyfriend or friend. Information that could never be put into words. Direct information without the intervention of language. That moment holds a vast promise; behind the lips and beneath the palate lies a little cosmos that is yet to be explored.

I once kissed a big bassist whose touch was tender and caused me to melt in those hands that lived for caressing strings.

I once kissed a gorgeous man who left a bitter taste in my mouth. I should have left immediately, but I stayed.

I once kissed a man who knew only one way of doing so, and he actually knew only one way of doing the rest as well.

I once kissed a man who devoured me with his mouth. He turned out to be just as greedy a lover.

I once kissed a guy who made sounds when we kissed. During our conversations he would always impatiently hum.

I once kissed someone who preferred to skip my mouth. That did not bode well.

I once kissed a human who literally took my breath away and breathed his own rhythm into me. Apparently he didn’t shy away from dominance in other areas as well.

I once kissed a man with soft pink lips and strong hands that smelled of cinnamon. He carried me gently through the days.

Some kisses are seared into memory. My first true love had full dark lips so soft and curls so lush that no one could ever compare. All another lover needed to do was to bring their mouth close to mine and my whole being would start to gush. Even while cycling we were able to kiss, and while sleeping; to meet for five minutes just to be able to taste each other for a little while. Even our messages to each other were as sweet as our heavenly  kisses. I once smelled that lover’s breath while he was enjoying a mint. I don’t even like mints, but the scent mixed with his breath made my head swim. I had a mint after that and he laughed, for what I really wanted to taste was him—and he relented.

Some people feel like butterflies on your lips and others sont commes des orties. There are a few physical ways to reach my bodily soul: through my skin, my hearing, my feet, my palms, my back—but the inevitable key to gain full access to my love lies on my tongue. There, right in the middle, you will find the key.

Perhaps kissing is the poetry of physical love, the nectar of all that blooms, the essence of scent. Perhaps the secret to its power as well as its dangers lies in the moment where we are waves that meet, but don’t break—when we can dance with mountains, when we can phase through walls, when we can no longer see with our eyes but with our whole body, when our ears ring and we can hear the rhythm of the cosmos, when we forget that we are alone.  Perhaps what constitutes its power lies in the momentary realization that the body can dissolve as we remember our potential to melt into one, briefly hearing and seeing infinity.

Kissing (you) is:

the sound of swallows on a summer morning

boussetek is cardamom coffee in the shade

the soft leaves of a magnolia on my neck

your mouth a juicy, sweet Desi mango in a breeze of honeysuckle

is my skin that crosses into yours in an endless space avec des nuages doux

ton baiser is endless azure

and I

we

dissolve.

Nisrine Mbarki, translated by Adiëlle Westercappel

About the program KISS:

Kissing is a wordless act. It can be noisy or very quiet, it can happen in public or private. It can be a gesture of passion, of tenderness, of kindness, a display of love, but perhaps also of despair, or a simple way of saying that we care for each other. We kiss our lovers, our children, our parents, our friends, we kiss strangers, some of us even kiss our pets, as well as objects as part of many rituals that have been passed down to us or that we have created ourselves. Kissing is emotional, and it can also be political: it is not the same everywhere for everyone. Who can kiss? Who? Where? How? Do we all have the same right to kiss in public? Or even in the privacy of our homes?

When I asked poets Nisrine Mbarki and Lies Gallez to respond to these reflections on kissing and to write new work for this program, I knew that the power of their poetic voice would translate perfectly to the stage. What particularly struck me is the vulnerability they brought and how that vulnerability, thanks to the collective experience that a festival can offer, transformed into powerful connection like no other place can do. I hope you will feel that power as you read their poems, even from behind your screen.

Canan Marasligil, curator of the program KISS presented at the Read My World Festival on September 15, 2023.