Mahmoud of Central Arkansas
Mahmoud Jiliat Layla has a Syrian wife named Hala and a four-month-old son named Abul Kiram. He has been divorced three times. He has earned the title “President of the Community” for Conway’s Islamic population. Despite the time he has spent in other parts of the country, Conway always feels like home. He says, “I have been to LA, Houston many times, and deep in the South. Louisiana is way too hot. This is my roots, you make it as home. I need to stay in Arkansas, something pull me back again.” With encouragement from his family, Mahmoud has most recently traveled back to Syria to meet and marry Hala.
When I eat at Mahmoud’s Mediterranean restaurant, Layla’s, I hear him yelling Spanish orders to his cooks through his thick Syrian accent. Pam, a waitress employed by Mahmoud, told me that six guys jumped him outside of a mosque in Little Rock. One of the guys grabbed Mahmoud as he tried to get into his car and hurt Mahmoud’s knee. Mahmoud hurt his testicles. I assumed the confrontation was racial. Turns out, they just wanted his money. He now walks with the help of a walking stick, the staff-like kind often used when hiking. He is supposed to get knee surgery in a month.
Mahmoud moved from Syria to Arkansas to study physical therapy at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He has lived in America for twenty-seven years. Mahmoud drives a Nissan truck between Little Rock and Conway, Layla’s two locations. He speaks three languages: Arabic, Spanish, and English. He does not allow his female employees to handle money. To pay at Layla’s, a customer must meet Mahmoud at the register. The waitress is never your cashier. Layla’s has been at this location in Conway since August 2011. In 2012, Taziki’s, a competing Mediterranean restaurant with chunky wooden tables and an alcohol license, moved across the street. They serve Atlantic salmon, Layla’s serves Turkish coffee.
Mahmoud calls me “Baby Girl,” gives me hugs and high-fives, and reads Arkansas Wild, a magazine about hunting and fishing.
Shorty and Lynn of Lollie Bottom
I use a photography assignment for class, “Environmental Portraits of Strangers,” as an excuse to knock on doors. My camera provides an introduction and I hope the person who answers will let me into their house and tell me the history of their life. The “For Sale” sign tacked to a trailer displaying red wooden wishing wells makes this door easier to knock on, like they are ready for a stranger’s inquiry. A handwritten sign taped the door reads “Dog Will Bite.” A wide woman with large stained glasses pokes her head out of the house and lets me know that her parents can’t go outside as they are in wheel-chairs.
A small dog yips at the window. The wide woman calls her uncle Lynn on the phone. He lives just behind the house where the biting dog barks. Lynn, the man who made these yard ornaments, and Shorty Wofford, Lynn’s wife who works at the Hendrix College cafeteria, meet me beside the trailer holding wishing wells, windmills, and wreaths. They wear ball caps and T-shirts—Lynn’s reads “World’s Best Grandpa” and Shorty’s bright orange tie-dyed tee reads “Hendrix College.” I intended to escape Hendrix, but ended up finding a stranger who works at the cafeteria where I eat lunch everyday.
I ask them to stand in front of the wishing wells with Christmas wreaths and red bows hanging from them. I ask them to remove their caps so the light can hit their faces. They both look at each other with concern for the state of their sweaty hair hidden beneath their hats.
I capture their photos with their scrunched eyes as the bright afternoon sun falls over them. Shorty takes me behind her niece’s mobile home to their place to see more lawn decorations and their racecar. Racing season begins in a few weeks, so Lynn has been working to get their racecar running. He and Shorty race down at the dirt track in Plumerville. Shorty and Lynn have lived in Conway, Arkansas, for their entire lives, since back when “College was a dirt road,” Shorty says.
They invite me inside. One by one, Shorty brings out Lynn’s crafts—heart-shaped lights, a guitar made out of a bed pan, another out of a toilet seat, and a banjo. Throwing my head back, I laugh. Lynn laughs too and we share glances. I ask to take more pictures. Shorty sets up the scene: windmills spinning in the background, a chair where Lynn sits holding his toilet seat guitar, and a “First Act” gas can converted into an amplifier to rest his feet on. Leaning back in his chair, he gently strums his guitar. The instruments he has crafted can’t be tuned or played. They are made for show. Lynn looks proud among the things he has made—a goldfish pond with a water mill in the foreground, racecar and windmill in the background—evidence of his hardworking hands. Lynn is a member of a lip syncing, guitar syncing band called The Lollie Bottom Boys.
The Lollie Bottom Boys, named after the road where Shorty and Lynn lived in their first house, mostly perform at retirement homes in Conway. They strum their guitars lightly and mouth the words to songs from O Brother, Where Are Thou? On special occasions, they wear beards, overalls, and hold rubber ducks in their hands.
“It’s just fun, lots of fun,” Lynn says.
Shorty shakes her head and calls his antics silly.
Sean, Sandra, and Hector of The Locals
According to the Oxford Dictionary, local means “belonging or relating to a particular area or neighborhood” (“local” def. 1). This definition does not include knowing the best restaurants in town or the ability to give directions to anywhere in said “particular area.” The “relating to” part seems too general. Under this definition you could call me a local because I relate to Hendrix which relates to Conway, even though I struggle to find my way to UCA, let alone provide directions to an outsider, who probably also relates to Conway. Being “local” means knowing people and places not easily stumbled upon—knowing enough people with histories in Conway to have visited all the recommended spots, including BBQ joints that aren’t Whole Hog.
The Locals is a non-profit with a location in downtown Conway for vendors to sell their items and groups to host their events: readings, workshops, concerts, etc. Large paned windows break the brick surface of The Locals storefront and a row of four theater seats mounted on plywood and wheels stands in front of the window. The Locals sign uses untidy bold lettering filled with spirals and a coffee mug with a heart in its center as the “o.” It juts out from the brick wall facing Van Ronkle and swings in the wind.
Hector Garcia, Shawn Goicoechea, and Sandra Leyva, Shawn’s wife, run The Locals. They currently live on the second floor of La Lucha Space, which used to host all of the community events; however, with the creation of The Locals, La Lucha Space has become “headquarters,” as Hector, the resident creative, calls it. Potlucks and private meetings occur at La Lucha Space, while The Locals maintains regular hours. In order to sell crafts, food, soap, or any other product, one must become a member, which requires approval from the La Lucha Space Board of Directors, of which Shawn is a member, and an annual fee—ranging from $25 to $75 depending on the product. Along with this fee, The Locals collects 12% of the profits. Most of the time, The Locals offer their space for community events free of charge. “We want to welcome people to come to the culture,” explains Hector. The Locals fosters a culture where origin, processing, and people have more value than money.
The Locals’ community and the products bought and sold within their shop feel more deeply rooted in Conway than just “belonging to.” The Board of Directors for La Lucha Space won’t accept a member who screen printed shirts shipped here from China as the T-shirts are not made in Arkansas and the means of production are unknown. Sandra, Hector, and Shawn have planted a community in Conway. The Locals, “their experiment,” as Sandra and Hector call it, provides a place for residents to sell things grown in Conway’s soil and made by Conway’s people.
Shawn says, “We emphasize that being local is about being where you are. I’m from Washington, and if I were local to that, then why would I be working really hard to bring food so far? We think we should have minimum wage and certain rights, then why do we go get things from places that don’t have that standard?”