Amal Kassir uses words to fight for her countries
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!"
"She climbed on top of that garbage, like a podium in front of an audience, raised her voice up high, and shouted for justice and liberty," remembers Melissa. "She's always had that in her, naturally."
What Amal didn't have was much knowledge of Syria, the place her father, Mahmoud, was from. He'd immigrated to the United States and landed in Omaha, where he met Melissa, who'd grown up in Iowa and converted to Islam as a teenager. Mahmoud was a student at the University of Colorado when he decided to drop out of school and push his mother's recipes. He and Melissa started cooking for mosques and catering small events, and Mahmoud also managed businesses, all the while saving money to start Damascus Grill. (He first opened Damascus Grill in south Denver, then moved it to Arvada, then Littleton; he opened a second restaurant on East Arapahoe Road two years ago.) He wanted to settle in Denver because he thought it would be a good place to raise his family, a place where the Muslim community was just beginning to develop.
But he also wanted his family to understand their Syrian heritage. And in June 2002, seven-year-old Amal and her mother and siblings moved to a suburb of Damascus, while Mahmoud remained in Colorado, managing the restaurant. "I wanted them to have the best of both cultures, both countries," he explains. According to Amal, the move was also inspired by growing anti-Muslim sentiment after 9/11: the bomb threat at the private Islamic school she attended in Aurora, the brick that sailed through the restaurant's picture window, the names her mother was called for wearing a hijab in public.
The move to a hot, strange country where hardly anyone spoke English was hard on Amal and her siblings. "We wanted our ranch dressing and our Toys 'R' Us," she says. On her first day at the private school her parents sent her to, a teacher asked Amal which she liked better, America or Syria. When Amal replied "America," the teacher slapped her face.
But Amal grew to love Syria — the thousand-year-old mosques and Crusade castles they visited; the bustle of the street market where they purchased a pet duck for a nickel; the way the streets fell strangely, wonderfully quiet from sunup to sunset during the holy month of Ramadan. But most of all, she loved her grandparents' farm in Hamouriyah, on the outskirts of Damascus. The family would spend their summers there, playing among the plum and pomegranate trees, eating kousa mahshi — zucchini stuffed with rice and meat that her grandmother had spent hours preparing.
"It was the most impactful time of my life," Amal says of her time in Syria, which left her nearly fluent in Arabic. She was happy to return to Colorado in 2005, but she brought with her a deep connection to Syria and that part of the world. That's why, in 2009, when she was fourteen and learned of the bloody Gaza War between Israel and Palestinian militants, she felt the need to express her thoughts in writing:
Leaders of the world,
A job well done
Power became this easy sensation
Slowly life became this merchandise creation...
But you forgot something
The most important thing
You failed to mention the lesson of love
Instead you taught us how to shove
You never mentioned the meaning of life,
Instead you taught us how to fight.
She didn't see herself as a poet in the romantic sense of the word. "I don't have beautiful words and marvelously constructed sonnets," she explains. "Literally, all I write are things that come as a result of how I am feeling about injustice." She says the inspiration for her writing came as much from her older brother Yasser and their long, rambling political conversations as it did from rappers she liked, including Immortal Technique and Brother Ali.
Still, she believed she was on to something with her "Leaders of the World" poem, so she performed it at a 2011 poetry slam at Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, where she was a student. She didn't win that night, but it didn't matter. What mattered was that she left the stage feeling like everything had changed. "It was like magic," she says. "I was always awkward and shy, but with that first poem, I was unleashed into a new person. I knew what I was good at. I needed the stage after that."
In March 2012, after she'd left Smoky Hill and had finished her high-school coursework through online classes, she took the stage at another poetry slam, this one at Overland High School. This time, she performed a poem she'd written in response to women who criticized her for choosing to wear a hijab, arguing that it was a form of oppression:
I really do apologize,
I know I'm not showing enough skin for ya
And I should know better than to think this body was mine,
I was sent down here with the Secret of Victoria
I have the freedom to succumb to your fashion magazines
And submit myself to your fantasies
But if I choose anything other than that,
I guess I'm oppressed...
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.
"A week after the performance, she was an international celebrity," says Ken. "You could see her becoming a symbol. That's good or bad, depending on how she handles it. She is still figuring it out every day."
This past August, the Minor Disturbance slam team once again won the Brave New Voices Grand Slam, this time in Chicago. But Amal wasn't there. She could have been; at the Grand Slam in Denver this past April, she had the highest score after several rounds. But during her last round, she went over her time limit and then held up the flag of the Syrian opposition. Props aren't allowed at poetry slams, and she was disqualified.
Looking back, Amal says that she let herself be disqualified so that someone else could go to Brave New Voices. She was also worried that with her increasingly hectic travel schedule, she wouldn't have the time to commit to training with her teammates. But she says there was another, more complicated reason:
"I thought to myself, 'What the hell am I doing here with this poem about Syria and starving children?'" she says. "I like to win, sure, but there is war happening in my country. I am not really in a position to play this game right now."
On a recent rainy afternoon, Amal and her friend Kyle Sutherland, armed with signs, fliers and a megaphone, attend a rally in front of the State Capitol. The demonstration is in response to the news that the United States is considering military strikes on Syria because of President Assad's suspected use of chemical weapons, including an attack in late August that reportedly killed more than 1,400 people. The several dozen protesters in attendance don't think intervention is a good idea. "Hey-hey, ho-ho, bombing Syria has got to go!" a woman chants into a megaphone. As rush-hour traffic speeds by on Lincoln, a young boy holds up a sign reading, "Peace is a human right." An older man holds aloft a sign that reads, "Wall Street is War Street," near a woman holding a placard declaring, "Israel, get the fuck out of my government!"
Many of those in attendance look like the sort who'd attend poetry slams at the Mercury Cafe. And Amal spots a couple of friends from an activist group with which she's involved. But Amal and Kyle aren't here to support the protest. They're here to oppose it.
In spring 2011, when the Syrian army first began clashing with Syrian protesters who'd been inspired by uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Amal wasn't all that concerned. "I don't think much is going to happen in Syria," she told one of her high-school teachers. "Bashar seems nice. He was educated in Europe."
But news reports began trickling in suggesting that she was wrong. Soldiers were firing on civilians, security forces were kidnapping and torturing activists. Protests spread, and soon the demonstrations erupted into an all-out civil war.
A bombing obliterated the private school Amal had attended outside Damascus. At her grandparents' farm, soldiers cut down all the trees as punishment because people in Hamouriyah were believed to support the opposition. One of her uncles had to flee the country when it was discovered that he was helping the rebels, buying up buildings around the country to store the bodies of those killed in the fighting, since funerals had become a target of military attacks. Two other uncles were arrested. One was released months later, covered with bruises and having lost 100 pounds. The other remains in prison...as far as anyone knows. Soon Amal's Syrian family members were fleeing to Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. "They are spread across five countries now," says Amal.
They were the lucky ones. "Twelve of my relatives have been lost," Mahmoud says. "From bombings, from torture, from snipers. Some were killed at checkpoints." His uncle was among those who went to help others when the chemical rockets landed in a Damascus suburb in late August; he never made it back. Then there was Mahmoud's father, Sa'ed — Amal's grandfather. His health had been deteriorating for years, but the turmoil seemed to hasten his decline. The war prevented most of his family from seeing him before he died in February. "That was the first time I saw my father cry," says Amal.
As the world cheered on the revolutions in Egypt and Syria, as NATO intervention helped overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Amal waited for help to arrive for the Syrian people. But it didn't come. "Where is the Arab League?" asks Amal. "Where is Saudi Arabia? Where are these big, huge Gulf countries?" Without international support, the opposition in Syria became increasingly fractured, and extremist groups aligned themselves with some of the rebels — making intervention on their behalf all the more difficult.
So Amal decided to take matters into her own hands, with the help of her friend Kyle. Kyle, now 21, was on the slam team in 2010; shortly before he met Amal, he converted to Islam. The two met through Minor Disturbance and quickly became close. "We hit it off right off the bat," says Kyle. In addition to facilitating poetry workshops and open mics, Kyle also works at Damascus Grill. In their free time, he and Amal are developing an organization they call Project More Than Metaphors. The goal is to deliver aid to Syrian refugees, many of whom have fled to overcrowded camps in Turkey, Jordan and elsewhere. The two are organizing poetry-themed fundraising events in Denver and beyond, as well as developing pen-pal programs to connect youth in this country with those in the camps. "The idea is to use our poetry, use our words, to do something more than just symbolic deeds," says Amal.
But at first they found it difficult to get people to attend the events, much less commit time and money to the cause. It seemed like there was just too much turmoil these days, too many wars and corporate misdeeds and mass shootings and natural disasters, for people to devote much outrage to what was happening in Syria. "It's so hard," says Amal. "I've become a cynic since I became an activist. I've lost friends."
Since the chemical attacks, though, suddenly everyone is paying attention to what's happening in Syria. Media outlets are calling Amal, asking about her poems and what the United States should do.
That's why Amal is at this peace protest: to speak up for the Syrian people.
Facing the peace protesters, she holds up a sign: "If you cared about peace, why did you let 120,000 people die?"
"We are not here opposing you," she yells into her megaphone. "We are here to tell you there is another side to the story." She wants to explain why she supports U.S. involvement in Syria, whether through economic sanctions, a trade embargo, a no-fly zone or, yes, even controversial military strikes. She doesn't see the civil war in Syria as just one more Middle Eastern quagmire; she sees it as a crisis akin to those in Rwanda and Bosnia and Herzegovina. "Syria isn't Afghanistan; Syria isn't Iraq," she'd said earlier. "People are trying to neglect the humanitarian obligation we have."
And she wants to tell them about her family, and the place she spent half her childhood. She wants to tell them about everything she's lost.
But here at the protest, it's hard for her to tell them any of this. "A U.S. strike will kill thousands more!" counters a peace protester, pointing at her sign. "Go to Saudi Arabia, where you belong," hollers another.
"We are not extremists!" shouts Amal. "Your slogans are getting old!" But her megaphone's batteries are dying, and her words are lost in the rush-hour traffic. Screaming in the rain, Amal is consumed by the same passion that turned her into a star, but there's none of the focus, none of the elegance she has when performing on a stage. Instead, as the soggy, cold afternoon drags on, from both sides there's just a lot of noise.
Melissa worries about her daughter, about her willingness to speak out about Syria, no matter the circumstances, no matter the consequences. "She knows she is going to be met with backlash," Melissa says. "She has this quality about her that says, 'I really don't care.' To some degree, it's perfect. But there comes a time when that can hurt you. If you are going to say something, you'd better be prepared to answer for it. Be accountable for your words and use them wisely. Don't get caught up in anger and emotions.
"She is more out there than she's ever been," Amal's mother adds. "It scares me."
Several days after facing off against the peace demonstrators, Amal returns to the steps of the Capitol for another event she's planned with Kyle. But this isn't a protest or a counterprotest. It's a candlelight vigil for those killed in Syria and in other wars and atrocities. And, Amal says, there's one rule: "No politics."
Politically, it's been a dispiriting week. After facing opposition from both Congress and the public over its plan to intervene in Syria, the Obama administration switched course, agreeing to a proposal to have the Syrian government relinquish all of its chemical weapons. While Amal wouldn't have welcomed the Syrian bloodshed that could have resulted from a military strike, she understood what this policy change really meant: If not even evidence of chemical warfare could spur the international community to take action over Syria, what would? "I have learned the most painful truth through this political dispute that has taken place over the last fifteen days on whether or not the U.S. should intervene," she wrote in an article about the situation for Umma Speak, a Muslim website. "People do not care about the well-being of the Syrian people, or any foreign group for that matter."
Tonight's vigil isn't about political disputes, though. It's about remembrance. Maybe that's why it draws a larger crowd than most of Amal's other events: thirty to forty people, some from the Muslim community, some from the slam-poetry scene. It's as though both halves of Amal's world are coming together.
The turnout seems to buoy the young poet. As people gather around, each holding a lit candle, she addresses the crowd. "We are standing in the United States of America," she begins. "Let's honor the people in this country who died on September 11."
She raises her own candle. "This is for my grandfather, and all the others who have not had their gravesites recognized," she says. "This is for the people who pick up bodies in the street and get shot for doing so. This is for the war deaths, no matter where they are, no matter what their faith. To kill one man is to kill all of mankind. To save one man is to save all of mankind. Our attempts are fragile, but our symbols mean something."
That's why she won't remain silent over what's happening in Syria. Just as she's done since she was a child, she'll take any stage she can find and shout out support for liberty and justice for all. She knows there's meaning in her words, power in her poetry: "I know I am meant to speak."
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