Amal Kassir is a Colorado native, but she’s used to people thinking she’s a foreigner. As a Muslim-American, she chose to wear a headscarf at a young age, intrigued by the reaction it elicited from those around her.
A recent performer at It’s About Time, Amal has been writing poetry since she was a child and has performed in eight countries, sharing her verse everywhere from youth prisons to orphanages to refugee camps. Here we talk about growing up a Denver girl and how grandma’s cooking might save the world.
What drew you to TEDxMileHigh?
Well, I am a poet. TED’s always just been that go-to place for teachers, entrepreneurs, and YouTubers. I thought it was the perfect platform to send out my message as a Denver-girl—someone born and raised here who often isn’t expected to be so at first glance.
When did you know you were a poet?
I was the usual 13-year-old, angry, little girl who thought the corporate world was out to get us. I was involved with politics: I watched the news, read the news, and would go out to demonstrations and protests for social justice issues. I remember the first time I went to a protest and and there were two sides across the street from each other. I was watching the news [coverage] after the protest and it was a complete misrepresentation of the numbers—the numbers were destroyed, they were incorrect. They said one side was 200 people, and on the other side, 5,000.
I remembered just being so outraged and feeling kind of powerless. I went downstairs to my room and a poem dropped. I didn’t know it was a poem—I didn’t know what to do with it—but I memorized it and I recited every single day for two years.
You mentioned that if someone looked at you that they might not think you are Denverite.
Well, it was inevitable. I chose to wear the scarf. The first time I chose to wear it was in an airport, and I remember that I was a cute little girl with pigtails and I just wasn’t treated nice by adults—by people who were supposed to be an example for me. I thought, “this is cool, this is a little social challenge,” and started wearing it from then on, as a political statement if anything else. It’s hard [though] because I always say this: even if there wasn’t an elephant in the room, I would still be the elephant in the room. There’s no doubt about it! Every room I walk into people turn and look.
How many scarves do you have?
At least 70 and then three that I usually always wear. I had to cut down because there’s not enough room in my closet, but I have an international scarf rack from Malaysia, Turkey, Singapore, Spain … the Butterfly Pavilion in Westminster.
You said that you chose to start wearing scarves. Is that something you have to explain to people? Do they recognize that it’s a choice?
When we assume that this thing was forced on a woman, we have completely taken her voice away, and I’m sure from a place of concern like, “Oh, that poor girl has been desexualized by her men,” or whatever. We’re in a country where choice is why we’re here. And so when Muslim women who are on college campuses are wearing the scarf, more likely than not, they chose it. They chose to keep it on.
I’ll admit it gets hot sometimes. When I’m up in the mountains with my family and there’s no one around, you best believe I take it off! Let the wind flow through my hair and everything. Some mornings when I don’t know what to do with my scarf, I will go on YouTube and there is a whole culture of how to do your scarf. Girls will show you these crazy ways to create flower buns on the side, and it’s an artistic form of expression, just like anyone’s clothes or tattoos. It’s like our fabric tattoo, let’s say.
Your family owns Damascus Grill. Did growing up working in restaurants and interacting with customers affect your growth as an artist?
We have three restaurants—Castle Rock, Littleton, and on Colorado Boulevard—and that’s probably where I found my platform for my voice. I was waitressing before I was writing in prose. So even though there’s this weird girl serving you French fries, eventually conversations get started and I get to tell people about where I’m from, they hear that my mom’s from Iowa and they’re blown away! Meatloaf and hummus on the same table!
Food is a great way to bring people into new cultures.
If all the world’s politicians sat down and had all the grandmothers of the world cook for them, they’d be too busy stuffing their faces to discuss their little political shenanigans.
You mentioned that your mother is from Iowa. Your father is from Syria. Do you have family living there?
Yes. One of the first people in my family to get killed was my father’s second cousin. She was 13 years old, they were sitting on their farm, eating breakfast, right at the beginning of the revolution. She was sniped in the back of the head, and fell into her mother’s lap. The farm was raided, they shot the mother in the face. That’s two casualties from among the 31 [members of my family]. My cousin was diabetic and all he needed was one shot of insulin and he would’ve lived. When they put a siege around the city, food, medicine … nothing comes in and no one goes out. He passed away in his mother’s arms.
I’m not sure a lot of people realize that Syria is a progressive, modern country.
97% literacy rate.
Have you been to Syria?
I lived there for three years when I was seven. It was a totally Orwellian society. Even as a seven-year-old American kid, who literally wanted Toy’s R Us and ranch dressing all the time, I was like, “Why is the picture of the President and his dad on every single building, every single bus, every taxi, every school, every classroom?” It was kind of freaky because we’re from a place where like political cartoonists do not fear any repercussions; it’s different there. Other than that, it was an international hotspot. We had people from China and France and America all learning languages, trying to bargain in spice markets and everything. It was home.
Is your family supportive of your poetry and your activism.
They are always like, “You need to write the poem about this and this and say it this way!” And I’m like, “Alright, I’ll do what I can. Give me any requests.” The poetry scene is becoming more prominent but for a Syrian-American Muslim girl living in this period of time in America, carrying a war on your shoulders, it’s special. They can see that and you can’t deny that I have an advantage with my dual language and my dual world.
Maybe they see you as a powerful intermediary between these two worlds that have more in common than they realize.
I think we all have more in common than we realize.