Amal Kassir, a Syrian-American slam poet and activist, spoke to a crowd of students gathered in the SCC on Saturday, Feb. 3 as part of the annual ’DEIS Impact festival of social justice. “I’ve seen enough of the world to know that we’re all really not so different,” she said. Kassir has traveled the world from Denver to Damascus, from Turkish refugee camps, to rural American towns to major universities. At Brandeis, she discussed Islamophobia on college campuses and her experiences as a Syrian-American woman seeking to educate on the diversity of the Muslim experience.
Kassir’s TedX talk “The Muslim on the Airplane” has over two million views. After seeing her TedX performance, Sohaima Khilji ’20 knew she needed to find a way to bring the poet to campus. Khilji, the vice-president of Brandeis’ Muslim Students Association (MSA) initially applied for event funding through the Allocations Board, but was told the cost was too high. She and a friend, Lizy Dabanka ’20, Rosenthal Quad Senator and chair of the Senate’s Social Justice and Diversity Committee, quickly began thinking of other ways to bring Kassir to Brandeis. The best course of action, they decided, was to plan a ’DEIS Impact event centering around Kassir.
“My body is made of two types of blood, German and Syrian,” Kassir said, describing her childhood as the daughter of a Syrian immigrant father and a mother from rural Iowa. “Rhine river and nahar al-Furat … My world was the most colorful spice rack,” she said, speaking of two rivers, the Nile and the Euphrates.
Her family’s ties to Syria go back generations and create a deep connection to the land they live on. After 9/11, her father worried Kassir and her siblings would learn their Muslim and Arab identity from people who opposed it. He decided to send the children to Syria, what Kassir likened to “studying abroad,” eliciting a laugh from the crowd.
Kassir spoke of the complex relationship her grandmother has with Syria, “My grandmother,” Kassir said “always had dinner on the table, even when the tyrant put a checkpoint outside her door, her defiance made mealtime a battle her families would always win. As long as she could keep chopping, she could get that tabbouleh to the table fresh.”
She spoke of her family and their farm in Syria, how her grandmother “spoke the language of the land that fed her.” The farmers, she said, “built Syria with a prayer, with a meal, blistered hands and enough food to feed the neighbors.”
Kassir’s performance was intimate and warm—when audience members seemed too nervous to ask her questions, Kassir began telling jokes. She used humor to show the humanity in difficult subjects, like the often-tense relationship between American law-enforcement and the Muslim community. FBI officers once came and took her father out to dinner, and she, like many other Muslims, is frequently the subject of TSA searches.
FBI monitoring of American mosques seems so common that Imans often greet worshippers with “Assalam Alaikum, brothers, sister, FBI informants,” Kassir joked.
As she spoke of Islamophobia, Kassir explained “We tend to fear things that are hidden behind vocabulary words, and Islamophobia is a vocabulary word … Do not be so foolish as to use vocabulary words to define your world. It is the people who make up these vocabulary words.”
Islamophobia, she said, is not truly a phobia but a misunderstanding or simply hatred. Students like Dabanka and Khilji work to combat the misunderstanding in the Brandeis community. Dabanka pushes for “exposure therapy,” creating a space for people to listen to views different from their own. Kassir, Dabanka said, might be “controversial,” as she is openly pro-Palestine and is “not here to cater to anyone else.” Dabanka hoped students would come to the performance even if it was just to listen to someone they disagree with.
Rarely do Muslim students see themselves represented, Dabanka told The Hoot, so performances from hijabi women like Kassir are important statements of support to members of the Muslim community on campus.
Kassir’s performance was held in collaboration with the Brandeis MSA, the Senate Social Justice and Diversity committee and the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGS).