I was once a very angry young man. I was disgusted with the modern world – the pollution, the corruption, the desperate chase to a happiness that was forever just around the corner. It sickened me. I longed to breathe air free of poisonous gases, to meet people unconditioned by the mass media, to find a way of life uncontaminated by the excesses of our so-called civilization.
So it was I found myself walking deep into the tribal territories of North Pakistan. It was as remote a place as I could find on the map and with each step that I took into the mountains I felt my spirit lift, freed from the burden of having been born in the late 20th century. In fact, as I made my way through forests, across rivers and up mountain paths beyond any outlying village, I could have been walking through the world at the dawn of time.
I traveled light, just a down sleeping bag, a pot and a bag of rice and dried fruit and made my bed in the shelter of caves or even the generous branches of ancient trees. With no one to talk to my mind began to fall quiet and all that I thought I knew fell away to be replaced by a childlike wonder at being alive in such a beautiful world.
And so it was, on one autumn afternoon that I ascended a path through a pine forest, that I felt her eyes on me. I looked up and saw possibly the most stunning woman I’d ever seen. Her hair was long and matted and sewed with feathers and dried flowers. She was barefoot and wore only a loose leather skirt and her body was decorated with tribal symbols painted on with clay. But it was her eyes that left me quite speechless; they were wild and gleaming with a freedom of spirit I’d never seen before.
Before I could find anything to say, she sprang forwards with the agility of a deer, landing square in front of me. She took my head in her hands and, bringing my lips close to hers, engaged me in a kiss like none other. But though it was as deep and intimate a kiss as I had ever received, there was nothing amorous in it. It was more like she was trying to communicate something.
As suddenly as she had advanced, she sprang back up the hill and then paused, confused, as she saw that I hadn’t moved. A ripple of confusion passed across her smooth, tanned countenance and she made a kind of an awkward gesture with her hand that I should follow.
By now I was thoroughly entranced and had already surrendered my will to this enchanting creature. I scrambled up the slope and did my best to keep up with her but as we passed up through the forest and across mountain passes, she had to wait for me to catch up on half a dozen occasions. The temperature dropped as we climbed higher and with the sun sinking behind the hills to the West, I began to wonder where on earth we were heading.
At last the path began to descend a little and presently we arrived at a hill overlooking a narrow valley, hidden away in the depths of time. The last of the sun glowed on the clay huts down below and people began to pour out of their dwellings as they saw us approach. My guide skipped down the slope to meet her people and they formed a circle to greet her. She took her place among them, turned to the woman behind her and kissed her for a full ten seconds. Then she turned and passed on the kiss to the man behind him. The kiss passed around the circle like a wave, changing and evolving as it went until they seemed to come to some kind of conclusion and my guide ran off into the village, returning soon after with an old man who needed to be shown where I was standing, his eyesight not quite meeting the task.
‘Welcome!’ he called in a crackled Urdu as though he hadn’t spoken for quite some time, ‘Welcome! Please come and join us.’
I picked a path down the slope and marveled that everyone present watched me in total silence as I followed the old man through the village and into the clay hut where he lived. It was dark and musty inside and he gestured for me to accept a seat on a rug on a floor. He took a seat opposite me and as tea was brought, he began to tell the story of his village. His voice was weak and my Urdu was rusty but I just about managed to follow the tale.
‘Once, my friend, this was a village like any other. We lived in a natural Paradise and yet jealousy, hate and misunderstanding poisoned our lives like they do everywhere else. It was such a mystery to us – we knew that we were all basically good people but somehow we failed to get along peacefully. It seemed almost as though what one person said was never what the other person heard.
‘We took the matter to the village shaman and he in turn went to ask the spirits of the mountains what was wrong. He came back after three days of not eating or sleeping, his eyes ablaze with revelation. The problem, he said, was the air. It changed the meaning of our words as they passed the distance between the mouth and the ear.
‘The answer, he said, was to learn to communicate through a kiss. Mouth to mouth there was no way for the air to intervene and contort what we wanted to say. No one could ever lie with a kiss and even the inarticulate could express themselves with their lips and tongue.
‘So for one day a week we fell silent and learned to say everything through a kiss. It was hard at first but the second year we extended it to two days a week, the third year three and so on until after seven years we no longer needed to utter a single word. That was over 40 years ago and now there are few people left alive in the village who even remember how to speak at all.’
I blinked hard as I tried to absorb all the old man was saying but before I could put any questions to him, he leaned forwards, grabbed my head and told me the story again… through a kiss. His lips were roughed and cracked and his breath smelled vaguely of raw onion and yet… somehow I felt I understood better the second time around.
I stayed with the tribe for several months, learning their language and their ways. Like ants that embrace briefly as they meet each other on the path, so, too, we all exchanged brief kisses through the day as we brought in the harvest, forming circles at night as we told stories and poetry lip to lip. When a baby was born in the village it was greeted by a kiss from everyone present to welcome it into the world and when someone way dying they were bid farewell in the same way.
Finally the winter began to arrive and I could hardly sleep each night with the cold, lacking the natural hardiness of the tribe. I began to get itchy feet and I guess everyone had long felt it in my kisses as the day that I decided to make a discreet departure I found the entire village gathered to bid me farewell.
It took me an hour to get out of there before I headed back up the slope and back to the sick, broken world I had left behind, to see if I could do my part in healing it.
Perhaps even through a kiss.