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I guess I'm oppressed...

Mainstream,

Even if you call me a girl who's oppressed,

I assure you, the weight of that institutionalized word will not make me expose my chest

I am already perfect, and I'll cover so you can't see

I am damn happy living with my dignity.

Melissa was there that night, watching her daughter perform for the first time. "I looked around the auditorium and thought, 'What are people going to think of this Muslim girl?'" she remembers. But then the crowd began to cheer on Amal's fiery performance. "That's when I saw she was fearless," says Melissa. "She wears her scarf proudly. She blew to shreds all the stereotypes about Muslim women."

Amal did something else that night: Of the 26 contestants, she came in first. That put her on the short list to make the six-person Minor Disturbance slam team that would compete at the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Festival that summer. Amal had only learned of Minor Disturbance, a group of young, Denver-area slam poets, that night from Ken Arkind, the organization's executive director, who'd introduced himself to Amal and the other competitors before performing one of his own poems. "My mind was freakin' blown," says Amal. "I had never seen someone with such a badass beard do something so crazy."

Now Ken told her that she had a real shot at making his slam team. But first she had to make it through the Minor Disturbance Grand Slam — and she wouldn't have much time to prepare. "The Grand Slam is in two days," he told her. "Make sure you memorize your poems."

***********

Ken Arkind was just as impressed by Amal's performance as she was by his. "She was awesome," he remembers. "You can't see that kind of genuine passion and not want to work with it."

Sure enough, Amal scored among the top poets at the group's Grand Slam, earning a spot on the slam team that would go to Brave New Voices. "Still," adds Ken, "being on a slam team is tough. You never know who is going to make it."

Ken, who has helmed Minor Disturbance since 2006, has long been a fixture of the Denver slam scene and is a National Poetry Slam Champion who's performed all over the world. He understands that the high-stakes literary competition isn't for everyone. And Amal was the first person ever to earn a spot on the team through one of the high-school competitions, not the regular Minor Disturbance slam-offs at the Mercury Cafe. "I was different," says Amal. "I was this little Muslim girl. I don't drink, I don't go to parties."

Her parents had their own reservations about her involvement. "I did have some concerns, and was thinking, 'I don't know if this is the right thing for her,'" recalls Melissa. "I didn't know if she was going to get pulled into some other culture that would disagree with our culture."

At first, Melissa accompanied Amal to each of the slam-team trainings. But Amal and her mother soon realized that their fears were unfounded: The other poets welcomed Amal as one of their own. Ken was protective of Amal, while at the same time pushing her creatively. "Ken taught me performance and confidence on the stage," says Amal. "I learned what a poet means to a stage, and what a stage means to an audience."

It wasn't long before Melissa allowed Amal to attend practices on her own. "When I saw her fit into this group so well, I started loosening up the reins," she says. "That's when she took off."

That July, Amal traveled to the Bay Area for the Brave New Voices festival alongside teammates Isabel Elliott, Stephen Garcia, Ashlynn Damers, Leah Scott and Ken Kantor. She'd never been to San Francisco, never been on a sleepover. Now here she was, competing against slam teams from 43 other cities and three other countries. For the last poem of the night at the Grand Slam Finals, Amal and teammate Ashlynn stood in front of a crowd of thousands at the Fox Theater in Oakland and performed "Syria," a poem they'd written together. As Ashlynn stood off stage, listing the number of people killed, imprisoned, kidnapped and missing in Syria, Amal sang in Arabic the first verses of the Koran. Then the two joined voices:

You will try to crack my ribs, shotgun,

But the bending of my knees belongs to my lord

Lord allow Hades to light a fire in my chest on the days you didn't ignite the sun

When nails are torn from bloody hands,

When mother is ripped from child,

Father from son,

When the last Damascus rose is stripped of all of her color,

When I am left clutching out for the last mirage of a broken land

I cannot fall, I will not fall.

When the crowd stopped cheering, the judges revealed their scores: Amal and Ashlynn had earned a perfect 30. And for the first time ever, Minor Disturbance won the Brave New Voices Grand Slam.

Back home, Mahmoud, who'd been nervous about his daughter joining the team, sent the YouTube video of her "Syria" performance to every Syrian organization he could find. Within a week, it had been viewed 60,000 times. A second version appeared online with Arabic subtitles. Soon organizations all over the country were reaching out to Amal. She began flying on her own to performances in Chicago, Atlanta, New York, Boston and Washington, D.C. Next up could be a conference in Malaysia.

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3 comments
patricia.calhoun
patricia.calhoun moderator editortopcommenter

I'd like to publish these comments in our print edition, ideally with the author's real name/town. If that's okay, e-mail me at patricia.calhoun@westword.com

passingpirahna
passingpirahna

Amal Kassir is an incredible young woman. It is not easy going up against ignorance. Keep slamming young lady! 

 
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