Are you ready for a youth slam?"
The capacity crowd whoops and cheers as the emcee begins the monthly Minor Disturbance poetry slam at the Mercury Cafe. Everyone is eager for literary pyrotechnics. The event will feature members of the Minor Disturbance youth slam team that last month took top honors at the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival for the second year in a row. The kids getting on stage aren't just some of the best young poets in Denver; they're some of the best young poets anywhere.
The first few competitors don't disappoint. In the three minutes each is allotted, they ponder the suicide epidemic in Japan, mourn the death of LGBT-rights martyr Matthew Shepard, condemn the discrimination they've faced for identifying as pansexual. The judges in the audience are impressed, awarding mostly eights and nines on a scale of one to ten.
"Give it up for the next poet on the list," announces the emcee. "AMAAAL!"
A petite young woman, her face framed by a black hijab, steps onto the stage. She's eighteen, but in the dim glow of the LED light strands arcing above the stage, she could pass for younger. She silently adjusts the microphone and glances demurely down at her feet, the picture of quiet decorum, of modesty and reserve.
Until she opens her mouth.
My grandmother always had food on the table
Even when the tyrant put checkpoints outside her door,
Her defiance made meal times
A battle her family would always win.
The words erupt tinged with fury, Amal's brown eyes flashing like those of a woman possessed. Her fist pounds the air, her body pitches this way and that, as if her 5' 3" frame can barely contain the emotions raging within. As her poetry coach and mentor Ken Arkind puts it, "She's like a daisy packing a shotgun."
When the war started,
Even the rivers ran away.
For the hands of a militant
Aren't like the hands of a farmer,
Bullets and earth can't speak to each other
Blood will not make crops grow.
Her words and passion will lead Amal Kassir to win the slam tonight, scoring nearly all 9s and 10s, just as they helped turn Minor Disturbance into the grand champions at Brave New Voices last year. The resulting YouTube video of a small girl in a hijab raging against torture and massacres spread around the world. Amal was soon being flown to poetry events across the country, and lately she's been entertaining invites from overseas.
They cut down the plum trees in my grandmother's farm,
Ripped the pomegranate bushes from the earth,
The lemons don't grow anymore.
And we wonder
If the tyrant even remembers who fed him.
Now her words and passion are bringing Amal a new form of attention. As the United States weighs military intervention in the two-year-old civil war in Syria, Amal, the U.S.-born daughter of a Syrian immigrant, is devoting herself to the Syrian crisis, leading protests against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and planning aid projects for the swelling Syrian refugee camps. By doing so, she's courting the anger of those who believe the United States should stay out of Syria's bloody and convoluted affairs — but as her slam performance at the Mercury demonstrates, she's not one to keep silent.
And the tyrant,
The dirt is waiting for him.
He will learn his grave,
Feel the weight of the entire country on his chest,
And when the soil asks him:
"Did you not spill blood in my name?
Then why do you fear me so?
Let these maggots give your body back to me,
And Bashar al-Assad will not know
How to respond.
He doesn't speak the language of this country.
He will struggle
Against the dirt
That fed him.
Off stage, Amal keeps her sizzling rhetoric in check. She's quick to smile, quick to giggle, and speaks with a warm lyricism, as if she's a moment away from breaking into song. At her father's original restaurant, Damascus Grill in Littleton, where she spends much of her time working when she's not taking sophomore-level classes at the Community College of Denver (she hopes to go on to a local university and major in communications or politics), Amal glides from table to table with a spring in her step. When customers press her on Syria, asking things like, "Wasn't Assad elected to power?" she laughs good-naturedly, as if they've just shared a little joke. "His family has been in power for forty years. Fair election? Not possible!" she replies brightly. "Now, I will get that baba ganoush."
Still, Amal, the fourth of five children, has always been fueled by an inner fervor, says her mother, Melissa. She realized that years ago when the family was cleaning out the garage at their home in Centennial. Amal, then four years old, crawled up the resulting pile of refuse and began reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. When she got to the end, she pointed her finger in the air and yelled with all her strength, "With liberty and justice for all!"