The Muslim Students Association recently brought spoken word poet Amal Kassir to campus for an evening of powerful storytelling.
MSA president Mariama Sowe ’18 said she became an instant fan of Kassir’s after watching the poet’s performances on YouTube. “She radiates with strength, female empowerment, and is just inspirational as a young female, Muslim, hijabi activist who’s not afraid to stand up for what she believes in and give a voice to the masses that don’t have one,” Sowe wrote in an email. “I thought her performance would have that effect on the Bowdoin community. It’ll not only be a learning and diversifying experience, but hopefully an inspirational one as well considering how much she’s achieved as an undergraduate herself.”
Kassir — a Syrian-American Muslim performer and activist, as well as a student — has recited her poetry in ten countries and over forty-five cities, in venues ranging from youth prisons to refugees to college campuses. Her writing focuses on the hyphen of her identity, as it spans culture and place: her father’s homeland of Syria and her native Colorado. Kassir is a 2012 Brave New Voices International Slam Champion with Denver’s Minor Disturbance and has been featured in the LA Times, on PBS Newshour, Colorado Public Radio, Westword Magazine, and the Denver Post.
Kassir began her performance ay Bowdoin by speaking of the difficulty of the past month’s news cycle and the need for poetry to revitalize her drive. “Not knowing how to convince someone about the sanctity of human life renders me very, very powerless,” she said. She finds a kind of control in the act of performing, however. “The reason why I get up on these stages is because it gives me agency, it gives me power over my voice. No anchorman gets to decide for me, no headline gets to decide for me. I get to speak and claim my territory.”
Throughout the night, Kassir shifted between personal anecdotes, philosophical musings, and poetry. She spoke of the moment she heard about the recent murder of seventeen high school students in Parkland, Fla., just after watching the documentary The White Helmets about a group of volunteer rescue workers of the Syrian Civil Defense group. Kassir wrote a poem in response to the parallels and disparities between violence in America and in the Middle East.
“The only difference between us is the number of cameras that follow the story. In Chicago they call it a homicide, in Iraq they call it collateral damage,” she said. Throughout the poem, Kassir recited the refrain, “May we bury the guns like we bury the children.” Like a prayer, she asked the audience to say “amen” after that recurring line.
Kassir drew connections between her suburban upbringing near Denver and her long exposure to family trauma in Syria. She said that because of the comfort of her childhood, she needed to see war. Yet “war is a word,” she said: we so often forget the people behind it. Through her deeply personal and political storytelling, Kassir humanizes — and makes immediate — conflicts at home and abroad.
“No matter what is happening in Syria, I am so lucky to be in this country,” Kassir said. “Therefore, I expect the most from it. I refuse to let America define itself without me in it.”