Alex Odeh, Slain Palestinian Activist, to be Remembered Through his Poetry
SOURCE: OC WEEKLY
BY: GABRIEL SAN ROMAN
Had Alex Odeh not opened the door to the Santa Ana office of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee on the morning of Oct. 11, 1985, he would’ve celebrated his 75th birthday this week. Instead, with the turn of the knob and push of the door, the Palestinian-American activist detonated a rigged pipe bomb that ended his life, an unsolved murder that remains the FBI’s coldest counter-terrorism case in Southern California.
But Odeh’s legacy persists, both in ADC’s continued civil rights work and, increasingly, in Orange County’s popular memory. Aside from annual ADC memorial banquets, a poetry reading event on Saturday at Makara Center for the Arts celebrates the group’s former west coast regional coordinator upon the occasion of his milestone birthday as well as the 25th anniversary of the statue dedicated to him outside Santa Ana Public Library.
“More people need to know more about him,” says Greg Camphire, an artist, musician and Makara volunteer who’s producing the event. “The statue is an important marker for the city. On the other hand, his poetry, which hasn’t really been available, offered a really interesting opportunity for something that hasn’t been done before.” Camphire became intrigued by Odeh’s poems after reading translated excerpts from his Whispers in Exile book in a 2015 Weekly cover story about the case.
“It just shows that this man was very thoughtful, someone who had this meditative view of things,” he says. “By all accounts, he was a man who was a very good listener. It also made him a good broker of peace.”
Camphire reached out to Helena Odeh, Alex’s eldest daughter, through ADC-OC. She donated copies of her father’s book to the nonprofit lending library. “For me, I don’t remember him being a poet, he was just my dad,” Helena says. “Now that I’m older and people are translating some of the poems, it just shows his love for Palestine. Reading about how he loved his hometown of Jifna is really heartwarming.”
Born in Jifna, Odeh studied at Cairo University in Egypt, but couldn’t return home after the Six-Day War. He later immigrated to the United States and finished a master’s degree in political science at Cal State Fullerton.
My hometown Jifna…
A peaceful village that lies
in the shadow of its olive and apricot trees
and stands tall for its glorious past…
My village dances
everytime one of its sons
returns to its beloved soil
and rejoices when its loving children
come back and embrace it
–Alex Odeh, translated by Zack Saliba
A larger effort to translate Whispers in Exile into English and Spanish awaits. In the meantime, Camphire received an artist grant from Santa Ana last year to produce an event celebrating the city’s sesquicentennial, one he dedicated to Odeh with the blessings of the family every step of the way. For Saturday’s reading, Camphire relied on fellow Makara volunteer Ayah Daveed’s reading and selected translations of Odeh’s book written in classical Arabic. “We gave her a lot of leeway, especially since she’s born and raised in Palestine,” he says. “We gave her the opportunity to pick out some pieces that she felt appropriate and just focus on those.”
An assemblage of readers will ensure Odeh continues living on through his words in English, Spanish and Arabic. Recitations will be set to music with the help of an olive tree. How so? A MIDI Sprout is an instrument that translates biodata from plants into music, and Camphire could think of no better fit for the feat than an olive tree with its significance to Palestinian people.
After the reading, a short procession will lead the event back to Odeh’s statue.
As the 35th anniversary of his death nears next year, there appears to be no new developments in the cold case. In a first, Helena was allowed to speak about the crime during a parole hearing in Arizona last year for Robert “Bob” Manning, a former Jewish Defense League member imprisoned for a contract bombing that killed Patricia Wilkerson, a Manhattan Beach secretary in 1980.
A 1988 Village Voice exposé by the late intrepid reporter Robert Friedman noted law enforcement quickly honed in on three JDL members for the Odeh assassination: Keith Fuchs, Andy Green and Manning. In a failed lawsuit against the Justice Department over the revocation of a previously approved inmate transfer request to Israel, Manning claimed he’d been questioned by the FBI about Odeh but denied any role in the crime.
While efforts to bring justice to her father’s case continue, Helena is keeping an eye on Manning’s next parole hearing in 2020 and his inmate transfer request to Israel the following year. But no passage of time lessens the pain of her father’s absence. Anniversaries bring a certain acuteness with them.
“If he was still alive now, he would try to get me to understand the proper Arabic sayings and explain it in English,” Helena says of her father and his poetry. “It would’ve been nice to have my dad still here, but I know he’s in heaven watching us.”
Celebrating Alex Odeh at Makara Center for the Arts, 811 N. Main St, Santa Ana, makaracenterarts.org, (714) 465-1190. Sat., 4 p.m. – 6 p.m. Free.