Chapter 12 - In Play, February 26 - May 28, 2002 - Episode 2Listen to podcast
“The mussels are what make this restaurant,” says Louise as she, Larry, Rachel, and Ahmed squeeze into a small booth at Café de Bruxelles on Greenwich Avenue. The restaurant is behind a speakeasy door and down a half-flight of steps. Rumor has it that many of the clientele are off-duty cops. Besides mussels, the restaurant is known for its wide beer selection and its Belgian fries. It is crowded, noisy, and cheerful.
“Uh-oh,” says Rachel.
“What’s the matter?” asks Louise.
“I’m afraid Ahmed is allergic to shellfish.”
“I will be fine,” says Ahmed.
“I’m sure there’s something else on the menu,” says Louise. “We should have asked. I’m so sorry. Would you prefer to go somewhere else? It’s hard to get reservations on Saturday night but I’m sure we could…”
“I will be fine,” repeats Ahmed.
“Are you sure?” asks Louise. “I mean we could certainly…”
“He says he’ll be fine,” says Larry.
“I will be fine,” says Ahmed again.
The conversation pauses for a few minutes. Louise demands that the waiter immediately bring menus and they do find that there are other things that Ahmed can eat.
“Is it just eating mussels that makes you sick or is it too much to be near them?” Louise asks.
“I will be fine,” says Ahmed.
“So,” says Louise, “it is great to finally have an opportunity to get together with you. I meant to arrange something after we met at the airport that strange night but, with one thing and another ... anyway, here we are.”
“This is very nice of you,” says Rachel. “Larry has told me so much about you. He told me about the yellow ribbons at the Plaza. That’s so romantic. I…”
“Really?” says Louise. “Larry must really trust you. He doesn’t usually talk about that time.”
Larry looks uncomfortable. “If you can’t trust your banker, who can you trust? Let’s drink to that.” Drinks have just arrived. Wild Turkey straight up for Larry; a metropolitan for Louise; Chardonnay for Rachel; and iced tea for Achmed who doesn’t drink alcohol.
“So, Ahmed,” says Larry. “You mentioned at the airport that you have a new job. What is it?”
“I don’t think I said that. I don’t think I said I have a new job,” says Ahmed.
“Something about representing our mutual friend Mahmud Assan. I’m pretty sure you said something about that.”
“You are correct, Larry; I did say that. Actually, that is something that I hope to talk with you about, but perhaps this is not the appropriate time for a business discussion.”
“I can’t tell business from pleasure. Just ask Louise. Never have been able to. And both of these women know plenty about business. What would you like to talk about?”
“It’s fine, Mahmud … I mean Ahmed,” says Louise. “We want to get to know you and, if you’re anything like Larry, knowing your business is a good way to know you.”
“Thank you,” says Ahmed. He pauses, then leans forward towards Larry. He speaks as if he doesn’t want to be heard at the other tables. “As you know, Larry, our friend Mr. Assan is in the business of procuring work for Palestinians in the occupied territories. He has cooperated in this effort with certain other friends of yours in Israel. He—”
“Is this still going on?” asks Larry. “There’s a war going on there. The Infantada, or something, I think..”
“Intifada,” says Ahmed.
“Whatever. You don’t mean to tell me that the Israelis are funding the people who are blowing up busses, do you?”
“Despite the increasingly harsh occupation,” says Ahmed, “there are still those of us in Palestine who—”
“You’re not in Palestine. “One, there IS no Palestine; two, this is the US.”
“Ahmed…” Rachel begins with her hand on his sleeve.
“I thought we were going to have a business discussion, not a political one,” says Louise. “Larry, let’s hear what Mahmud … I mean Ahmed — I’m sorry, I keep doing that — let’s hear what Ahmed has to say about his business.”
Ahmed continues even more quietly: “There are those of us who believe that the Intifada is not an effective way to achieve our legitimate aims.”
“Your ‘legitimate’ aims WERE achieved,” says Larry. “Arafat got everything he could’ve possibly hoped for from Barak and Clinton at Camp David. There was a deal and he pulled out. He—”
“Larry,” says Louise, “you’re talking politics again. Let’s hear what Ahmed has to say about BUSINESS.”
“Despite the violence,” Ahmed continues, “there are both Palestinians and Israelis who want to build for a peaceful future. There can be no peace until there is hope for the young men of the occupied territories. There are no jobs in Gaza. There are no jobs in the West Bank. The men cannot support their families. The young men cannot start families if they cannot support them.”
“So what is your business?” asks Larry.
“I represent a group of programmers in Jenin.”
“These are the same people Mahmud was talking about?”
“They are some of the same people. They are very skilled in C++, Visual C, Java, and other tools of modern programming and e‑commerce. They also work at a very low price compared to people with equivalent skills in the United States or even India.”
“And you would like us to outsource some of our development to these people?”
“That is correct, Larry Lazard. That is what we would like. This is not charity. Your company will achieve very good value. It will achieve even better value than in India. I am not asking you for charity but only that you give these young men a chance. By giving them a chance, you will also be advancing peace.”
“How would we work with them? I’m obviously not sending anyone to Jenin. Would they be able to meet with us in Israel?”
“I’m afraid that is impossible,” says Ahmed. “They cannot get into Israel. The people in the territories are imprisoned.”
“Are we discussing politics or business?” asks Larry.
“You are correct,” says Ahmed. “The business fact is that they cannot travel freely. They are also not in a place where you would be able to meet with them. Phone service does work, although the phones are tapped by the Israelis. Please, that is a fact, not a political statement. Nevertheless, the Israelis do not object to this — except for those who are most extreme. They will not interfere, except that sometimes, when the phones are tapped, that causes them to fail. There is also email and that will also be read by the Israelis. This is not important.”
“I assume you know,” says Larry, “that I had almost the same discussion with Mahmud. I was very interested. And then Mahmud asked me for a bribe.”
“That cannot be,” says Ahmed. “Perhaps you misunderstood. Sometimes Mr. Assan does not express himself clearly in English.”
“He expressed himself very clearly. He wanted a bribe. How do YOU get paid?”
“This is a business for me, Larry. I believe in what I am doing, but it is a business. I’m sure you understand that. I am the agent for these programmers. I help them procure business here in the United States. I facilitate communication during the process. I help arrange payment. And, when payment is made, I retain a portion as my compensation. That is a very business-like arrangement, I believe.”
“What portion do you ‘retain’?”
“That is a confidential matter between my clients and myself,” says Ahmed. ”I hope that does not offend you, Larry; but I must respect their business confidence. I do not ask you the confidential arrangements of your business. I do not ask you how much you are paid…”
“You don’t have to. It’s on the Internet. I run a public company. But how do I know that this is not just a way of paying bribes? How do I know that your clients will ever get paid?”
“Larry, you’re being offensive,” says Louise. “Ahmed…”
“I do not take offense, Louise,” says Ahmed. “I understand that your husband must be a cautious businessman. I understand that there have been misunderstandings in the past. I am not afraid to answer his questions and I am not offended by them. Larry, the cost to hackoff will be much lower than it would be for similar quantities of work of this quality anywhere else in the world. In that low price, there is not room for what you call ‘bribes’. There will barely be sufficient money for the people in Jenin and for my modest fee for representing them. Unfortunately, it is difficult for us to be established in this business and our prices must be very low.”
“That makes some sense,” says Larry. “I understand that if there isn’t much honey, it won’t attract many flies. But — and please don’t take this personally — how do I know that the programmers will be paid at all if I am turning the money over to you?”
“There are two assurances you will have, Larry. You will be in touch with these people by phone and email. It would be impossible to do a job of any complexity otherwise. If they are not receiving their money, you would certainly hear from them directly. The second assurance you will have is that I would like to go back to a Free Palestine one day. I would be a dead man when I return if I were to — as you say — ‘rip off’ the people there. That is a strong assurance.”
“That is a strong assurance,” Larry echoes. “Okay, if were going to do this — and I’m not saying that we are — how would we get started? How do we know anything about the quality we’ll get? We can’t sue you if you don’t deliver.”
“That will not be a problem. Give us a small job to do. We will not ask for any payment until the job has been completed to your satisfaction, including testing. It is we who will be trusting you.”
“That is attractive. I wish Mahmud had taken this same attitude. Perhaps we could have done something sooner. Let me get back to you.”
The rest of the dinner is social. Rachel is interested in the various charities Louise works with and is on the board of. Louise is interested in how Rachel copes in the male-dominated world of banking. Larry and Ahmed are largely silent, although Larry occasionally corrects something Louise says and Louise makes repeated efforts to draw Ahmed into the conversation.
“I’ll get back to you,” says Larry as they walk upstairs to leave the restaurant. “Do you have a card?”
“Don’t forget the camel,” Louise says to Larry on the ferry back to Atlantic Highlands.
“You didn’t want me to talk politics,” says Larry. “You wanted me to have a nice business discussion with him.”
“Don’t fuck Rachel, either,” says Louise.