"Hope and Faith in Their Abilities"
[Tuesday, May 27, 2014]
Oscar walked out of City Hall
with Labib in tow and headed
toward Mandy's Diner.
"I wasn't planning on this
today, but it was really nice
of you to offer to pitch in with
the business thing, so I hope
it comes together," Oscar said.
"I hope so too," Labib said. "I'm
sorry for interrupting your day,
though. Perhaps I could help
with your current project as well?"
"Yeah, you heard I was out earlier
asking folks to take park surveys.
I know that some of your people have
used parks, but none of them seemed
very enthusiastic, even if I offered to get
a translator," Oscar said. "Do you
have any idea what's up with that?"
"One challenge that Muslims
have with local parks is finding
a comfortable place to pray,"
Labib said. "Nobody wants
to get down in wet grass."
"You have to pray that often?"
Oscar said. "What, like going
to the bathroom? Crap, I shouldn't
have said that, it's probably rude."
"It's fine," Labib said. "Yes,
we pray five times a day, so if we
go out, we have to account for that,
just like finding a bathroom. It's
harder to find a prayer room
here in America, though."
"Fair point," Oscar said.
"What would you need?"
"Somewhere to wash, and
a clean dry space -- preferably
private -- nearby," said Labib.
"Some parks have a visitor center,"
Oscar said. "That should work."
"It does if there's a quiet room
that can be locked so that
we won't get stepped on,"
Labib said. "So far, we
haven't found one here."
Oscar grabbed his phone
and ran a quick search.
"Well, our service rating is
scr--unsatisfactory," he said.
"No wonder none of the Syrians
liked my park survey today."
"We don't want to be rude,"
Labib said. "Rutledge has
been very accommodating."
"Okay, so ... there's gotta be
a space we can fix somewhere
in the visitor centers," Oscar said.
"How big would it have to be?"
"Preferably larger than a closet,"
Labib said. "That happened
in Europe. If we were lucky,
it was a coat closet instead of
a laundry closet, or worse."
"Well that's horrible," Oscar said.
"Nobody wants to pray in a closet."
"The lack of ablution rooms was
worse," Labib said. "I sprained
my ankle once, when I slipped
trying to wash my feet in a sink."
"O ... kay," Oscar said, rubbing
a hand over his face "That's
a major risk we do not need.
How do we fix that one?"
"Get a Wudumate, they're
affordable and effective,"
Labib advised. "Here."
He flicked a hand over
his smartphone, then
showed Oscar a website
full of porcelain fixtures.
"Huh, those have about
the same price range as
a toilet," Oscar observed.
"True, though we may have
trouble convincing people
to remove a toilet and install
a Wudumate instead," said Labib.
"Why not use pop-up park buildings?"
Oscar said. "They're modular, they're
affordable, they come in all shapes and
sizes. We use them to add dotties beside
the gendered toilets. Put the same shell
next to the bathrooms, put the Wudumate
in there, and then just slap a sign on it
that says Prayer and Quiet Room."
Labib blinked. "That could actually work,"
he said. "You have such good ideas!"
"Nah, I just know the park catalogs
upside down and backwards,"
Oscar said, shaking his head.
"Don't underestimate yourself,"
Labib said. "We all do our part."
"Thank you so much for the input,"
Oscar said. "This will be a huge help
in planning, if we can fit it into the budget.
I'm sure we can at least manage to clear
some space in the visitor centers."
"Check with the social workers
assigned to us," Labib said. "They
have funds for accommodations --
that paid for part of the installation of
Wudumates in Family Business Rest."
"Will do," Oscar said, making a note.
"Here we are -- Mandy's Diner."
As he opened the front door,
delicious smells poured out.
The hostess took one look at them
and yelled, "Alleyah! You're up!"
The waitress who hurried over
wore a pink scarf over her hair.
"Hi, I'm Alleyah and I'll be your server
today," she announced. "I also lead
the Muslim Women's Group at
the Fair Valley Interfaith Center.
The diner has me handling
our Muslim customers until
someone else can get trained
in halal service standards."
"That will be fine," Labib said,
and they followed her to a booth.
Oscar was frantically trying
to remember what was okay for
Muslims to eat or not, but couldn't
get any farther than "no pig."
Maybe he'd just let Labib
order first and copy that.
"So far, our halal menu is
falafel, hummus, tabbouleh, and
chicken kebabs," said Alleyah.
"Didn't you have some of that
before?" Oscar said, startled.
"At the town meetings, everyone
was going nuts over whether
we could even feed people."
"You can thank the hippies
at Emerald Mountain Glen,"
Alleyah said. "They agitated for
vegetarian dishes years ago, so
that's why we had those. It's just
a matter of buying halal ingredients
and adding some meat dishes."
"I'd like the chicken kebabs,
please," said Labib. "What do
you have to go with the hummus?"
"Right now, fresh vegetables,"
said Alleyah. "There's fruit too,
if you want. The whole platters
are only for supper, but we're
hoping to expand that later.
They're having a hard time
finding a reliable supplier for
halal bread and other stuff."
Oscar rolled his eyes. "Maybe
we should ask if the Syrians
brought a baker," he muttered.
"Please do," Alleyah said. "I've
asked at the Muslim Women's Group
but not everyone's there yet and so far
nobody bakes except at home."
Labib made a note. "I'll ask,"
he said. "What do you recommend
for beverages or desserts here?"
"The hot coffee and bottled water
aren't labeled but should be permissible,"
Alleyah said. "We have bottled iced tea
and halweh candy bars with halal labels."
"Bottled tea, please, and halweh
after the meal," Labib said. "Oscar?
Don't you want anything for lunch?"
"Um ... yeah," he said. "I was just
curious about the new menu, only
most of it doesn't seem new."
"The chicken kebabs really
are just chicken," said Alleyah.
"The vegetarian stuff -- well, you
could try it, but it's not popular
with our meat'n'potatoes crowd."
"Too bad the platter's only
for supper, or we could
split one," Oscar said.
Labib's eyebrows went up.
"Would you like to share?
We could order tabbouleh,
and hummus is easy to split."
"Yeah, okay," Oscar said. "I'll
get the chicken things too."
"It only takes a few minutes
to make," Alleyah said. She
wrote down the order, then
headed for the kitchen.
"Earlier you told me a little
about your business incubator,"
Labib said. "I'd like to hear more."
"Yeah, um ... there's an outline,"
Oscar said, taking out his phone.
"Here's the basic description of
how a business incubator works,
and my notes on what I think we
could do here. The city ones tend
to be stuffier than locals would like,
so I'm hoping for more flexibility."
"People like flexibility," Labib said.
"We should be able to work it in."
"One thing Vermont has is lots of
space," Oscar said. "We can sell
the idea of working here, because it's
cheap to get an office or a house."
"I admit that was a selling point
for my family," Labib said. "We
looked at the metroplexes, but
they're just so expensive."
"Yeah, Eastbord is insane,"
Oscar said. "Look, the mayor
helped me find a building we could
convert into a business incubator,
the old Rutledge Clothworks Factory.
There are apartments nearby so
members would have a place to live."
"This building is huge," Labib said,
looking at the picture on Oscar's phone.
"Yeah, well, there's all kinds of old factories,
warehouses, stores, schools -- things close
and then the owners can't sell the place,"
Oscar said. "The town even owns some
of them from tax writeoffs and stuff."
Labib made a note. "We'll need
to find those and list them so that
members can search properties
when they're ready to expand."
"Great idea, but I don't know how
to make it searchable," Oscar said.
"I can do that part," Labib said.
He looked over the floor plan,
covered in Oscar's scribbled ideas
about what things could go where.
"Maker space, media lab, good,"
said Labib. "Coworking, open office,
and private offices, though?"
"Yeah, when Fred and I first
came up with this idea, we wanted
to make it accessible to everyone,
not just people who could afford
to join the social clubs," Oscar said.
"Think about it, if the open space is
free and the private offices cost more,
then people have room to grow."
"A good point, and there is
plenty of space," Labib said.
"This looks quite promising."
Oscar sagged in relief. He'd
been trying to hold it together
after Fred quit, but he needed
someone else to help figure out
what things would work or not.
"I can send you all the files
and stuff," he offered.
"Yes, please," Labib said,
and they exchanged addresses.
Alleyah came back with their order
and put all the plates on the table.
There were two big skewers
of chicken, a bowl of dip with
a mountain of fresh veggies,
and another bowl of ... stuff
"I brought this too," Alleyah said,
putting a bottle on the table before
she left. It looked like some kind
of spice, labeled in English and
the weird squiggles of Arabic.
Labib looked upset, like he
was about to freak out.
"Hey, man, what's wrong?"
Oscar said, starting to worry.
"Minute," Labib said sharply.
Oscar sat back. He didn't have
more than the basic EFA training
you needed for ranger work, but he
knew enough that when someone
told you to wait, you waited.
Eventually Labib shook
himself and said, "Forgive me.
Sometimes, it is the little things ..."
"Evil spice jar of doom?"
Oscar guessed, waving at it.
"Quite the opposite, actually,
this is a favorite flavor of mine,"
Labib said. "I haven't seen
any since I left Damascus."
"Ohhh," Oscar said. "Yeah,
first time I went to summer camp,
I was fine until the cook put out
my favorite brand of grape jelly. Then
I started crying for no good reason."
"You were homesick," Labib said gently.
"Yeah," said Oscar. "It was fun and all,
but most of the food was different,
I didn't know anyone else there, and
it was a long way from home."
"So you understand, a little,
how things might ... distract me,
from time to time," Labib said.
"Thank you for your patience."
"Hey, no problem," Oscar said.
"I know enough Emotional First Aid
to get by, though if it's anything big,
maybe talk to an expert. They sent
some people for that, didn't they?"
"They did," Labib said. "Sometimes,
though, a friend is better than a stranger."
"I get that," Oscar said. "So um, what
is that stuff anyway? If you don't mind?"
"This is za'atar, a blend of spices,"
said Labib. "It has thyme and marjoram,
sesame seeds -- you probably haven't
tasted sumac before, that's tangy. We
mix this with olive oil or hummus for dip."
"Can I try some?" Oscar wondered.
"Sure, here," said Labib. He
sprinkled a bit on the plate.
It looked pretty much like
any other spice mix to Oscar,
just a bunch of seeds and leaves.
He licked a finger and touched it
to the stuff, then tasted it. The flavor
was bright and strange, but after
a moment the herby flavors came in,
and he could recognize the thyme.
"Yeah, okay," Oscar said. "This
goes on the hummus stuff?"
"It can," Labib said. "Let's
try it this way." He sprinkled
some on half the dip, leaving
the other side of it plain.
Oscar grabbed a carrot stick
and tried the plain side first.
"Creamy, kinda garlicky ...
reminds me of Saucy Chicks."
"They're both made with chickpeas,"
Labib explained. "You can flavor
those with almost anything."
"I like the barbecue ones,"
Oscar said. "The Hot Chicks
set my mouth on fire, though."
Labib chuckled. "It happens."
Oscar dragged a celery stick
through the side with za'atar,
then nibbled cautiously.
The flavor was rich and zesty,
surprising in its complexity.
"Dude," he said, "put that
on the other half now."
Smiling, Labib dressed
the rest of the hummus.
Oscar tried the tabbouleh, too,
but that tasted sour and weird.
He struggled not to make a face.
"It's all right, don't push yourself,"
Labib said. "You tried it and you don't
love it today. Try again another time --
it can take a few rounds to decide
what you think about a new food.
I'll finish the rest of this, and you
can stick with the hummus for now."
"Yeah, okay," Oscar said. The hummus
was better than expected. The chicken
tasted almost familiar, just a little spicy.
He wouldn't have tried any of that
if Labib hadn't come to lunch.
Between the two of them, they
quickly devoured most of the food
before wandering back to conversation.
"You had another idea," Labib said.
"Something about saving businesses?"
"Yeah, we keep losing stuff we need,"
Oscar said, shaking his head. "Someone
wants to move or retire, they can't find
and buyer, and it just goes away."
"That's bad for a town," Labib said.
"It's not just our town, it's all over
rural Vermont," said Oscar. "That's
why the mayor wanted to bring in
some new people. He thought
that immigrants would help
to revitalize the economy."
"Statistically valid," Labib said.
"That happens most of the time."
"I hope so," Oscar said. "Anyway,
when we lose businesses, it gets
harder for people to find jobs or
buy things, so more people leave,
then it just goes round and round."
"A spiral of decline," Labib said.
"Some European towns have
the same problem. There are
places where you can buy
a house for almost nothing. I
looked into a few while we were
searching for a new home, but
nobody would let us stay."
"That sucks," Oscar said.
"I'm glad you found a place."
"Are you really?" Labib said quietly.
Oscar stopped to think about it.
He had freaked out when he first
heard the proposal, and jumped in
with Fred to try and block it.
When he actually got to meet
some of the Syrians, though,
they were different than he
expected, and so far none of
his worries had actually come true.
"Yeah, I really am," Oscar said.
"You're pitching in, and nobody
deserves to be homeless."
"We were lucky to get out
at all," Labib murmured.
"We spent most of a year
wandering around Europe,
trying to find a place, and
even that was better than
the situation back in Syria."
"I've seen the news," Oscar said
with a shudder. "It's horrible."
"We're here now, though, and
very grateful for that, so I want
to help however I can," Labib said.
"Man, you've taken a load off
my mind already, just listening
to me ramble about business ideas
and offering to do some of the work
that's over my head," Oscar said.
"I know what I want to do, but
not always how to make it work."
"We'll figure it out together,
one way or another," Labib said.
Oscar sighed. "I miss Fred.
He's kind of a jerk, but at least
he had a clear vision, you know?
Being a history teacher helped
him take a long view of things."
"Knowing the past teaches much
about the present," Labib said.
"Some of the other Syrians
want to study American history
or Vermont for that reason."
"Well, I know the natural history,"
Oscar said. "Early on, people relied
a lot on logging, and we still have
plenty of woodworker. Then for
a while it was marble, and now
maple syrup is really popular."
Labib made notes rapidly.
"I'll need to do some research
on the major industries and
smaller attractions before we
try to decide which to support."
"Oh, would you?" Oscar said eagerly.
"I've poked around, but it's confusing."
"Start from the bottom," Labib advised.
"What resources do we have in Vermont?"
"Trees, including sugarbush -- that means
maple trees we can tap to make syrup --
gorgeous scenery, wildlife, lakes and
rivers, some farms, a lot of empty space
because people leave," Oscar said.
"So then, we look at businesses
based on those," Labib said.
"Oh yeah!" Oscar said, nodding.
"I did manage to make a list of
stuff like that, and also things
you could do from anywhere,
like writing computer programs."
He poked at his phone. "Right,
here, I made a list of people who
are interested in the portable stuff.
Ramon's a weirdo but his code
is built like a brick shithouse,
and he offered to chip in."
Labib leaned over to look.
"Mr. Wheeler is interested?
Oh, how wonderful! I can
talk with him tonight."
"Yeah, he is determined
to make that hotel work
somehow," Oscar said.
"It's working now," Labib said.
"The refugee fund is generous."
"We're hoping we can find a way
to stabilize that," Oscar said. "If it
goes under, there goes our best hotel
and the only one snobs will stay at."
"See, that is precisely the kind of
local knowledge I need," Labib said.
"When we look at which businesses
to focus on, we need to consider
whether or not their customers could
be covered by another business."
"Like an ecomap," Oscar mused.
"We do those for parks, showing
what plants and animals we have,
and which ones eat what. Green
for plants, yellow for herbivores,
red for predators -- relationships
just leap out when you map them.
We could make one for business."
"I haven't thought of it like that,"
Labib said. "I've done footprint maps
that show how far people will travel
to reach a store. This sounds similar."
"We already have a footprint map for
the park system," Oscar said. "We need it
to plan new ones, because some places
don't have a park or only have tiny ones."
He flicked his fingers over the phone,
bringing up the relevant map. "See,
there's a lot of gaps because in the past,
planners assumed people would go
to Pine Hill or another big park."
"I see the gaps," Labib said.
"I have two young children, and
insha Allah, will have more. A park
close to home would be better."
"Yeah, most people don't want
to walk more than a few blocks,
less for kids or seniors," Oscar said.
"So with businesses, we could make
a map like this showing the service area,"
Labib said. "Then we need a way to show
the nearest place selling the same things."
Oscar tapped a few keys, and colored lines
appeared with icons. "This is a map of
park activities," he said. "Things we don't
have at every park, like baseball diamonds,
get listed here so we can track them.
Each one has its service footprint,
but also lines to nearby diamonds."
"This would work," Labib said.
"It looks like a proprietary program,
but we could show this to a programmer
and ask to have the same functions."
"I'll ask Ramon," said Oscar. "He
probably knows if there's a generic one
available, and if not, who could make it."
"That would greatly simplify the process
of prioritizing businesses," Labib said.
"Better still if we could add in things like
customer base, overhead, and such."
"This sounds so much more doable
when all that I have to focus on is
following your lead," Oscar said.
"That's good," said Labib. "It's
what followship is meant to be,
each of us doing our part and
accomplishing more together
than either of us could alone."
"I don't get it," Oscar admitted.
"Followship is a discipline of supporting
leaders and helping them to lead well,"
Labib explained. "It is not submission, but
the wise care of leaders, done from a sense
of gratitude for their willingness to take on
the responsibilities of leadership, and a sense
of hope and faith in their abilities and potential.”
"Oh ... yeah, that's what I want," Oscar said.
"I don't want the responsibility of leadership,
at least not more than a class or a hike.
I just couldn't ignore the problem, and I
thought Fred would do the leader stuff,
but then he abandoned everything."
"I think we have established Fred
as a short-sighted fellow," said Labib.
"He appreciated neither you nor
the importance of the project."
"Yeah," Oscar said glumly.
"It's been very disappointing."
"I believe we can do better,"
Labib said. "It's worth exploring."
Alleyah came back to clear away
the empty plates. "All we have for
dessert is halweh, but we do have
all the flavors the company makes."
Oscar didn't even recognize
some of them -- were those
flowers on the label? -- but
he saw chocolate in there.
"We'll split a chocolate one,
please," Labib decided.
Well, at least one of them
knew what he was doing.
The stuff was ... odd, but
not bad. It crumbled in
his mouth, sort of dry like
peanut candy but still tacky
enough to hold its shape.
"Interesting," Oscar said,
then a thought hit him. "Oh hey,
this would be great for hikes
if it doesn't melt like chocolate."
Labib chuckled. "Desert candy
does not melt like a chocolate bar,"
he said. "It has sugar, fat, protein --
nice on a hike, if you want a treat."
"Yeah, that's worth remembering,"
Oscar said, writing down the name.
Labib insisted on paying for lunch.
"We talked business, so I will
put it on my business account."
"You can do that?" Oscar said,
blinking. "I've only seen it in
movies, I didn't know it was
a thing normal people did."
"Yes, for taxes you can deduct
certain business expenses,"
Labib said. "I looked it up.
The American tax code is ...
complicated, but I'll manage."
"The American tax code is
a fucking mess," Oscar said.
"I'm still grateful to be here,"
Labib said as they went outside.
The spring day was bright and
turning warm. Two sparrows
fought over a piece of yarn.
"Look, they're nesting,"
Oscar whispered, pointing.
"A good sign," Labib said.
"So, shall we agree to continue
pursuing business plans together?"
"I'd like that," Oscar said. "What
did you say earlier ... inches?"
"Insha Allah," Labib repeated
as he offered Oscar his hand.
"It means, if God is willing."
"Yeah, that," Oscar said,
and they shook on it.
* * *
This poem is long, so its notes appear elsewhere.