Special thanks to the Odeh family for permission to use the name and legacy of Alex Odeh.
It was from his father that Tamer had first learned of Alex Odeh. Tamer’s father, Mourid, kept newspaper clippings about Odeh in his office at the autoshop. They were the only images Mourid had, aside from photographs of Leila, Tamer’s mother, who had died shortly after Tamer was born. When Tamer visited Mourid’s shop as a child, he had taken delight in asking about the different tools and car parts, which his father happily taught him about, and even let him feel and tinker with under supervision. But strangely, Tamer didn’t think to ask about the warm, if serious black and white face that looked out from the clippings right away. Later, he would wonder if it was because, for all that he didn’t know, there was still an aura to Odeh’s image that felt more familiar than the disparate parts he later learned to bring together with increasing skill and efficiency. In some ways, he had grown up in Odeh’s presence as well as his father’s.
When at twelve he finally thought to ask, “Meen hada, yaba?” his father smiled and put his hand on Samir’s back.
“This, ya ibni, is Alex Odeh,” Mourid said, pointing to the face in the clipping as though it were a map. “A great man. He was Palestinian, like us. From Jifna.”
As Mourid said those words, Tamer’s mind raced to the materials he had began to study by night.
“Me, I may never return,” Mourid always said after telling Tamer a story about the homeland, “but you may go someday. Who knows? Maybe you’ll live there and see it become free, inshallah! But until that day, you must know every acre, every inch—because that knowledge is what they want to take from us. We must never let them!”
Moved by these words, Tamer had committed himself to learning about Palestine through and through, not just by listening intently to his father’s stories, but also combing through every map and article he managed to get his hands on. Tamer later learned that such activities were not unique to his situation, that they were in many ways a tradition that bound countless Palestinians in diaspora.
“Jifna,” Tamer said out loud, both to himself and Mourid, “Jifna… West Bank. Ramallah and al-Bireh governate?”
“Bravo!” Mourid had said, bringing his large hands together in one mighty clap.
“Have you ever met him, yaba?”
“No. But I heard him speak. He told the Americans the truth about Palestine and fought for our rights as Arabs here in America. He was a great man. Truly great.”
Tamer sensed the growing frustration in his father’s voice.
“Why do you say ‘was,’ yaba? What happened to him?”
Mourid laughed cynically.
“They bombed him! Can you believe it? Some militant Zionist organization. We get called “terrorists” just for talking about falasteen. Our people can be blown to smithereens and we're terrorists! What justice is that?”
“Was anyone arrested?”
Mourid looked away from the clipping as though searching for his next words in the air.
“He was a great man. Maybe, sometimes, it costs a little too much to be great.”
Throughout high school, Tamer, always a diligent student, took as many of the AP, or Advanced Placement courses as possible. The counselors told the students that having a high number of such courses on your transcripts were key to getting placed into a good university, a goal Mourid encouraged.
“You can always work with me here in the garage,” Mourid had said. “No question. So long as I’m healthy and able to work, alhamdullah, you can always come back. But you should try to see what else is out there, too. Why not?”
So, during the week, Tamer worked a job as a cashier in a grocery store in the afternoons, helped his father in the garage in the evenings, made his studies of Palestine after dinner, and woke up in the early morning before the sun was out to do homework in the kitchen of the tiny apartment he and his father shared. The friends he kept at the time might have found it a rigorous, or even exhausting routine. But unlike them, Tamer didn’t have parents with professional degrees who could give their children exorbitant allowances or brand new cars as sixteenth birthday presents. Everything he had he had had to work for.
He also loved to learn. Learning for Tamer was about the same process as so many other aspects of his life: making connections. What really separated fleshing out the map of Palestine in his mind from piecing an engine together? And what distance was there really between those two rituals and filling in the gaps about the world around him? In each instance, wholeness, or something closer to it, followed dispersion. This knowledge was enough to keep Tamer going.
In his senior year, Tamer took an AP US Government course. The first major assignment was to do a report on any individual who had made “a positive change in society.”
“I know that’s vague,” Mr. Brown had said, “and that's the point. I want to see what you notice about society, and how professional and ordinary people alike can contribute to positive change in local and federal government. Reports will be read in class, and then turned in to me. A one page description of the figure of your choice is due this coming Friday. Make it compelling.”
The bell rang. Tamer thought back to the images in Mourid’s garage.
Tamer told Mourid his thoughts about the assignment the following evening. The two of them were repairing the engine of a 2000 Mitsubishi Eclipse. Mourid’s eyes never left the engine.
“I don’t know, yaba,” Mourid said, brow furrowed in concentration, “not a good idea, I think. It’s a different country for Arabs after September 11th. Maybe even before, but things are especially bad now.”
“But not all Americans agree with what’s happening, yaba,” Tamer said, looking up at his father.
“OK. Not all. But many. Too many. I think it’s best to keep it safe. Write about someone else. George Washington, maybe.”
“That’s not what mama would have said.”
“How do you know—” Mourid began, then caught himself.
Now he looked at Tamer.
“I mean, how are you so sure of what your mother would have said? She would have wanted what’s best for you, too.”
“Because you told me how she always told everyone about where we’re from. That she never stopped talking about Nablus. About Palestine. In her own way, she wanted the world to know. Like Alex Odeh. That’s why you keep their pictures together, isn’t it?”
Mourid sighed. He wiped the grease from his hands onto his work shirt, and moved towards his office.
“At least do it right,” he said when he returned, handing one of the black and white clippings to Tamer.
“Absolutely not,” Mr. Brown said. “Tameer, I don’t understand how you could even make this proposal.”
It was now Monday. Mr. Brown had asked Tamer to stay after class to discuss “some concerns” he had with Tamer’s submission. The two of them were alone in the room.
“Mr. Brown, I think Alex Odeh meets the requirements. He was definitely someone who worked for positive change. With the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, he—”
“He was a terrorist-sympathizer and an anti-Semite!”
Up until this moment, Tamer had thought that faces growing red with anger was an exaggeration from cartoons and bad fiction. Staring now at the face of Mr. Brown, whose eyes latched onto him with an uncomfortable intensity, Tamer realized this wasn’t the case. In this moment of silence, Mr. Brown’s breaths were short and intense. The redness of his face somehow seemed to seep to his bald head. Tamer wasn’t sure whether it was Mr. Brown’s comments or demeanor that was more off-putting.
“I’ve seen his interviews,” Mr. Brown continued slowly. “He defended Yasser Arafat and the PLO. He devoted his life to spreading unconscionable lies about Israel.”
“He defended the rights of Arabs here in the US,” Tamer snapped back, “and he wanted to educate people about Palestine. He was a poet. And you know what? He was killed for what he did, he—”
“MAYBE HE GOT WHAT WAS COMING TO HIM,” Mr. Brown roared with an intensity that even seemed to catch him off guard. He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths.
“Tameer,” he said (he had never been able to pronounce Tamer’s name right, no matter how many times he’d been corrected), eyes still closed, “Tameer, I get it.”
Tamer was silent. His anger and confusion seemed beyond words.
“You’re young,” Mr. Brown continued. “Still a kid. Some of the other teachers say you’re one of the best students they’ve ever had, but I see now you’ve still got some growing to do. And I know how it is with your people—” (he seemed not to hear Tamer’s gasp) “—the things they say about Jews in your countries. It’s been going on for thousands of years. So much anger and hatred. It’s hard to unlearn. But you’re in America now.”
“Mr. Brown, that’s not—”
“So I’ll tell you what,” Mr. Brown said crossly, interrupting Tamer on purpose with a flick of his hand.
“I’m going to do you a little favor. I’ll let you talk about someone who writes and speaks about Israel, after all.”
“Mr. Brown, I’m talking about Palestine, where my family—”
“Here,” Mr. Brown said, again cutting off Tamer. He reached into the worn shoulder bag he always brought to class and pulled out a book. He handed it to Tamer.
“You can write on him.”
Tamer looked at the title.
Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East.
“I can’t put it down,” Mr. Brown said. “It was a best-seller, and I can see why. He’s a great historian, and bound to do other, great things. You make him the subject of your report if you want to touch this topic. I don’t think I need to remind you that your grade, for which I’m the sole arbiter, is on the line here. Well, Tameer? What do you say?”
“You say yes!” Mourid yelled that night at the apartment. “Just do it! What’s the problem? I told you not to do this topic. Now you went and put your whole grade in danger. I didn’t stop you, and maybe I should have. I should have pushed harder. Khalas, it’s too late now. Just write the report and be done with it.”
“But yaba, what about principles?” Tamir pleaded.
“The only principal you need to worry about is the one in your school,” Mourid snapped, “and I’m sure she’s not going to like hearing that you defied your teacher.”
“But the right thing to do—“
“What right? Your goal is to get into a good school after you graduate. Why should you risk all of that? What’s the point? You have to pick your battles. You want to be an activist, fine, be one after you finish, when you’re safe. This is not worth it.”
“What he’s doing is wrong.”
“I didn’t say it’s not. But there’s nowhere to turn. You’re not going to find anyone in that school who disagrees with him. The entire country thinks that way. How can you go up against all of that with a high school report? Tamer,” Mourid continued, now putting his hand on his son’s shoulder, “we get by ok, but you’re going to need scholarships later on. Scholarships come with good grades. You know all of this. Yes?”
“Yes,” Tamer said.
“So. You’ve always been a smart boy. You know what you need to do. Yes?”
“Good,” Mourid said. “Then we don’t need to talk about this any more. Help me with dinner.”
Reports were read on figures ranging from Dolores Huerta to Jesse Jackson and even Ronald Reagan, the last of which was the only topic to make Mr. Brown clap out loud.
Soon, it was Tamer’s turn.
“And now, class,” Mr. Brown said, his lips curled into a smug smile, “you’re in for a treat. Aren’t we, Tameer?”
“Yes,” Tamer replied, mechanically.
“Well then. What are you waiting for? Come up to the front, and let’s hear it.”
Tamer came forward slowly, report in hand. He turned towards the class, then looked down on the faces he had glued to his report: the warm and serious face of the man in the black and white clipping, the proud face of the woman in the photograph. Tamer took a deep breath.
He began to read.