Here is the full transcript of Syrian-American international poet Amal Kassir’s TEDx Talk presentation: The Muslim on the Airplane at TEDxMileHighWomen conference. To learn more about the speaker, read the bio here.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: The Muslim on the airplane by Amal Kassir at TEDxMileHighWomen
Whenever I travel, I carry a little metal box of Altoids mints because after a four-hour 7 AM flight, everyone has bad breath, so almost anyone is willing to take the mint from the Muslim on the airplane.
And I know I’ve been successful when my neighbor turns and asks, “So, what’s your name?”
You see, even if there was an elephant in the room, I’m still the elephant in the room. Yeah! When an elephant offers you mints on an airplane, I’m fully aware that it’s not always easy to accept, so when the courageously curious do pop the what’s-your-name question, I try to make it worth their while.
My name is Amal. It means ‘hope’ in Arabic. Most days my name is waitress at my family’s Damascus restaurant, full-time university student and then some, pre-law, world traveler, 11 countries. My name is I’ve performed poetry in eight of those countries.
International spoken word poet, unapologetic Muslim woman. Syrian, American, hijabi, activist, social justice advocate. My name is writer, teacher, Colorado-born Mile High baby.
But at the airport, my name is random search. And on the street, it’s terrorist, sand nigger, raghead, oppressed, and on the news, it’s ISIS, jihadi, suspect, radical. My name is, “Could your Muslim neighbor be an extremist?”
My mama, who wears the hijab, the Islamic headdress, is often referred to as “Go back to your country,” but she’s from Iowa! And her nickname is Lisa Pizza. And it does not take more than a couple questions to figure out that her country is the Council Bluffs cornfields.
But, how would someone know this without asking? They say the shortest distance between two people is a story. Well, I elaborate on that to say that the greatest distance you can travel in the shortest amount of time, is by asking someone their name. The way we name ourselves is a reflection of who we are, our declarations, family histories, the things we believe, the morals we abide by, our homes, cultures, transformations. Like a Mohammed turned Mo, or a Lisa Pizza turned Iman. And how we name others, and how, if, we allow others to name themselves is a reflection of our own declarations, of our courage, and our fear.
The malleability of a person’s story must be self-determined, coming from the lips of the storyteller, not the anchorman, not the megaphone, not even the scarf on her head or the melanin in his skin, because no one can speak the names of billions in one breath, unless it’s in prayer, and oftentimes when we generalize, it isn’t because we’re praying. And when we don’t ask someone their name, we’re not asking for their story.
In the world of mass media and rampant misinformation, it is hard for anyone, including myself, to deconstruct all these terrifying stories that we hear. Sometimes, instead of isolating them, individualizing them, we tend to paint a group of people with a broad brush, until suddenly, everyone with a hijab on is a raghead that needs liberating, or everyone with white skin is a racist cracker, or everyone with black skin is a fatherless nigger, or everybody who looks like my father is going to blow up the airplane, or if the killer had a light complexion, he’s just a mentally fragile lone wolf.
And we come to this point where we feel like we don’t even need to ask people their names because we already gave it to them. In Europe right now, a monumental name change is taking place that has completely transformed a humanitarian responsibility. Countries are deporting refugees, but when you watch news coverage, these refugees are being referred to as migrants.
Because let’s face it, deporting migrants sounds way more reasonable than deporting individuals who have been forced to flee their country because of persecution, war, and violence — the United Nations definition of refugee. And in naming these people this way, we’ve attributed to them a choice instead of a circumstance, some economic gain instead of a desperation to flee a war zone. These little ones are refugees, not migrants.
I took this photo last year at a refugee camp on the Syrian-Turkish border, and contrary to popular belief, they aren’t poisons. They’re not here to steal our democracy or to take over our neighborhoods. They’re people, families who wish that they could go home but have had to make that home somewhere else.
And we’ve come to this point, where the word ‘migrant’ essentially means piles of brown, foreign-speaking people, and we end up forgetting that there was a point where some people would’ve considered those who looked like this to be migrants as well. Right, though?
And it is in this forgetfulness that we assume, monopolize on people’s stories, attribute their race, social class, religions, clothing to the names that we chose for them. Terrorism is a fine modern-day example, unfortunately. In the past few years, so much violence has just spread across our country, but when you watch the news, there’s always a specification as to whether or not terrorism was involved, which I think we all know means the killer looked like this. Which — He’s a babe — which must mean — which must mean that the killer, of course, pledges his allegiance to this. [ISIS] Right?
But correct me if I’m wrong, news coverage does in fact tend to be a little different when the terrorist looks like this. [Robert Dear, Planned Parenthood Shooter]
And it ultimately has us forgetting that terrorism, by definition of terrorism, has always come in all shapes [Ku Klux Klan] and colors. [Timothy McVeigh, Oklahoma City Bomber]
And what happens when we confine certain names with certain depictions, wrongfully excluding some and including others, we end up caging masses of people under a name that says ‘dangerous,’ even if they’re nowhere near it. Like when we say ‘thug’ instead of 17-year-old black child. [Trayvon Martin] When we say ‘alien’ instead of ‘immigrant.’ When we say ‘lazy poor people’ instead of ‘unequal wealth distribution.’ When we say ‘bomb’ instead of ‘clock.’ [Ahmed Mohammad, clock inventor]
This man’s name is Craig Hicks. He’s often referred to as a parking dispute, but his real name is a man who shot and killed three Americans in their homes, in their heads, execution style because they were Muslim. His name is hate crime. Their names are Deah, Yusor, and Razan, a 23 year old, 21, and 19. Deah and Yusor were just named husband and wife, newlyweds, and the three were known by their loved ones as sons and daughters, brothers, sisters, students, activists, Instagrammers, tax payers, Americans. But now, their names are too young to have been taken, their names are rest in peace, Allah Yerhamo.
Hicks did not ask them their name. He assigned it to them when he assigned them each a bullet, named them a threat to his America, and as a result, took their lives. This is a photo on Deah and Yusor’s wedding day. It’s so beautiful. They were killed before they could even see this.
Studies show that during breaking news coverage, the first story is the one that sticks, even if it isn’t true. Like during the Paris attacks, when there was talk that refugees were dangerous because they found a passport, only to later confirm that there were no Syrians or refugees involved. But when we have such a huge habit of misnaming people, it’s easy to overlook these kinds of mistakes. And this is exemplary of what happens in a culture of fear.