Nisrine Mbarki

- The Netherlands -

Nisrine Mbarki (she/her) is a multilingual and versatile writer, poet, literary translator and programmer. In January 2022, she debuted with her poetry collection Oeverloos (‘Shoreless’), published by Dutch publishing house Pluim. Her collection was nominated for the C. Buddingh’ Prize for best poetry debut and for the prestigious Herman de Coninck-prize. Her literary work transcends genres; she writes poetry, short stories and theater texts in which different genres and languages interact with one another. As a literary translator, she translates female, feminist voices from Arabic and English into Dutch, such as Iman Mersal, Michaela Coel and bell hooks. 
She also works as a programmer for various international literature festivals. She has previously performed at festivals such as Poetry International, Globale in Bremen, Winternachten festival, Read My World, Crossing Border, Watou and De Nacht van de Poëzie.

On Nisrine Mbarki’s Poetry

by Canan Marasligil


The cover of Nisrine Mbarki’s poetry collection oeverloos (created by Janine Hendriks) is made of reimagined maps with earths and seas interflowing into different types of blues. The shades of one color materialized into the word “blues” sends me to Glenn Lingon’s neon installation Bruises/Blues which I saw in London in 2015. The combination of these two words never left my mind. Although the contexts and meanings of Mbarki and Lingon’s “blues” are stories and an ocean apart, I cannot stop from making the connection. The mind is a shoreless creature. 


With this poignant and superb collection —the first of hopefully many yet to come, Mbarki has paved the way for the reader to think, feel and engage with her work beyond definitions of any kind. Yet, my translator’s mind is urged to understand before it can transgress. On its own, oeverloos can be translated as “endless”. It is made of two words “oever” (shore) and “loos” (less). A shore is the land along the edge of a sea, lake or other large body of water. It is also a boundary (as of a country). In her poetry, Nisrine Mbarki yearns for endlessness and creates a shoreless language, formed by each and every language of Mbarki’s life and imagination; Dutch, Tamazight, Arabic, French dancing like magical creatures on the map. All blues that also come with bruises. 


There is a lot of beauty and humility in remaining at the shore of a language one does not know or understand, yet we feel it in our heart. I read the lines of Mansur Al-Halladj in Arabic, the language Mbarki has chosen to write one of her epigraphs in. I know I can safely let myself be taken away by these words unknown to me, because they are the words welcoming me into the poetry collection. Maybe I don’t feel like a trespasser because I am a literary translator, a bearer of many languages like Mbarki herself, and blending shores is our existence. The fourth epigraph Mbarki has chosen is by Amin Maalouf and confirms my state of confidence and tranquility: “I come from no country, from no city, no tribe, I’m the son of the road. All tongues and all prayers belong to me. But I belong to none of them.” 


Mbarki’s language lures me in like the deer’s call in the primeval forest she describes from her imagination. In her movements North and South of the Mediterranean Sea, Mbarki gathers experiences, memories, languages, dreams. There are no shores separating these places, the poet is from all of them, yet belongs to none. She creates a sense of rootedness through an inherently multilingual language. In L’imaginaire des langues, a series of interviews between Lise Gauvin and writer Édouard Glissant, Glissant tells how today a writer who does not know any other language does take into account when writing, even unconsciously, the existence of other languages around her. One can no longer write a language in a monolingual manner. He says, ‘we have to take into account the imaginary worlds of languages’ (Glissant 2010, my translation). The same can be said about readers: After reading Mbarki’s poetry, we can no longer ignore the existence of these languages in our own imagination.


Mbarki makes sophisticated allusions to history, creating parallels between the personal and the collective: we meet her, her parents’ and elders inside the variety of contexts they all exist or have existed in. She does so using our senses, turning images into sensual experiences. People carry History on their faces, “the bronze memories on my skin”, the poet says, to later reflect on her grandfather’s face: “a world map/of the wars of the previous century”. Referring to the Berlin Conference of 1884, as she sits in a Brussels café, Mbarki reminds us of the disastrous consequences of colonization without having to utter any of its violence through words. Language is bruised enough. Mbarki is after the blues. Events aren’t named, there is no need to, their knowledge and experience is imprinted on the skin. 


Throughout the collection, we are drawn into language like sweat coming out of our pores. It is a violent world, especially against women, reason enough to wish she was a boy for all her youth, as the poet says, “the world rotates for men”. The body is part of every experience of history, and every wish to eradicate it; “revolution dances on my eye lashes”. Between pain and acceptance, Mbarki creates her own definition of heimwee (or gurbet in Turkish —I refuse to write the English equivalent the dictionary offers me to describe that feeling of belonging nowhere yet being from somewhere): “countries exist to be left/gurbet is fuel for paradise”. 


For this essay, I have translated some of the lines I am quoting myself, next to the translations already made by Michele Hutchison, because I know how much, as a translator, one translates with their biography. And I am, desperately and purposefully, transgressing, erasing every shore to meet with the poet’s language, emotions and senses. In my own translation:


“I will not ask for forgiveness

forgiveness is for the guilty

I wear the entrails of attackers like jewels on my shoulders”


Mbarki knows that the world and its weight is carried by every single individual, some more than others; the personal and the historical are intertwined throughout her verses. Poetry becomes a possibility for freedom and renewal. And we believe in it because the poet takes us there through all our senses: smells, tastes, images,… Mbarki recreates the worlds she grew up in, imagines, remembers and dreams of. When she describes life in Morocco she writes that “solitude is not in the dictionary”. Language in Mbarki’s poetry is life, and it is multiple, complex, with many definitions because of the multilingualism of her reality. Not only the poet’s elders carry the weight of history. In the streets of Amsterdam too, where Mbarki lives, the bloody past is all-present. The pain is palpable, especially to those who recognize their bruises. They have no choice of ignorance. “Half of the city is built with the blood of my ancestors”. 


Mbarki creates a language capable of carrying a collective resilience against the violence of history, to turn it to beauty. She is a mother, a daughter, a grandchild, a creature of her own imagination. “On my tongue there is an orgy” she writes, and continues a few lines later (translated by Michele Hutchison):


“my tongue is split in its loyalty to North and South

my mother grows old and sometimes speaks her language

which I finally learned

from grandmothers who nourish the earth before drinking themselves”


In Turkish there is a saying: “et tırnaktan ayrılmaz”, you cannot separate the nail from its flesh. It is a raw imagery of attachment (or a definition of emotional attachment in the culture I was born into, which resembles very closely the ones the poet describes in oeverloos). It makes love unconditional. Which is both a blessing and a curse. Blues as well as bruises. A place many of us are caught in-between. 


Throughout this sublime collection of poetry, Nisrine Mbarki is re-imagining the meaning and scope of shores: geographical, historical, human, emotional, psychological… identities no longer matter, and they also do —they are the roots we grow from, the ones our mothers accuse us of forgetting. We escape and we come back. Yet something happens between departure and return: the creation of one’s own world, with its own shores. Mbarki’s poetry redefines what it means to be human beyond identities, without erasing the historical and political reality that have created us. She reclaims this power through sensual and raw language, bringing beauty into a many times violent reality. People often say that languages are different worlds, but in a multilingual experience, languages are the world. The blues on the map are not worlds apart, our bruises are deeply intertwined. Mbarki not only knows this, but she also lives it. It is the only possibility to creating an oeverloos world.



Glissant, Édouard (2010). L’imaginaire des langues (Entretiens avec Lise Gauvin 1991-2009), Paris: Éditions Gallimard.

Lingon, Glenn (2014). Untitled (Bruise/Blues), exhibited at the Camden Arts Centre, London. Canan’s personal archives (30. november 2015)