Mr. Ma3lesh in Seat 33A

معلش (ma3lesh) generally translates to "it's okay" but its meaning is very context dependent. It shines in those fatalistic circumstances where either you can't, or more often than not, don't want to solve a problem. Also, I wrote this back in 2019 but only published it now.

Current Location: Middle East Airlines Flight 210, Seat 34B. Enroute from CDG (Paris) to BEY (Beirut).

Transiting from the US to Paris and then Paris to Beirut is always a big schema change for me, and no matter how many times I do it, I don't know if I'll ever get used to such a big shift in thinking and culture.

There's this internal dialog in my head, albeit delerious from the lack of sleep and time change, that reminds me that something is about to change; any unease that I feel in response stems from the apprehensive worry of whether I can still adapt quickly enough.

I first notice this schema change in small, subtle ways. Sometimes it's when the gate agent makes eye contact with me and refers to my wife as "Madamtak," or other times it's when people don't queue up in lines like you expect they would and instead just bunch up and all compete for the front of the line.

Some things change, and if you don't pay close enough attention, something seemingly small and random might happen and it might make no sense at the moment; only later you realize that it wasn't an unusual thing at all, but it only seemed out of place to you because you looked at it using the wrong framework.

And here’s the thing about frameworks. Even if you bring the highest end, state-of-the-art, latest and greatest framework to a situation, you're still going to lose it's the wrong tool for this task.

Another way to put it: a cheetah is a very effective predator on the ground, but a cheetah is pretty ineffective at fishing. Not because anything in the cheetah changed, but it's no longer the right tool for the environment.

Same thing applies here. You can live your life in the west and understand the mannerisms and how to behave to get what you want. You reason through things, you improve, you read, you know how to act. That influences the way you think.

And there it was, we almost missed it - the flaw in our reasoning: we reasoned about something in a way that would make perfect sense... in the west. But we’re not there right now. We’re in terminal 2A at CDG.

Anyways, back to our story. We board the plane now and we’re looking for our assigned row, but wait, something was off - to start, we were a little sidetracked. Months ago, when we looked at the seat map for this flight (on delta.com), row 34 was the much-coveted bulkhead seat in the exit row. It's like a glitch in the matrix, where you pay economy fares but you get more legroom than you'd get in business class.

We never got to our bulkhead seats in row 34 because it turns out we made another assumption. The seatmap said it was a bulkhead, but it wasn't. Row 33 is the exit row. Umm, what? Why?

There, see: that's one of those small random things that changed and only seems unusual because we're using the wrong lens.

In the states you could ask about why the seatmap was incorrect and you'd get profuse apologies from the stewardess and their whole chain of command all the way up to the CEO of the airline if you want to be persuasive enough. In the west, if something is written down, that's what is true, and you, the customer, are always right.

Here, on the other hand, don't bother. No matter how smart and savvy you think you are, sometimes things just happen and no matter how much you think you've prepared, it just doesn't play out that way.

So as we take our seat in 34 (somewhat begrudgingly), this old Lebanese guy strolls on board and comfortably takes a seat in 33A. He's loving everything about it (I’m guessing that he did not check the seatmap found on delta.com). He's making smalltalk with folks (ana min Sayda), until the stewardess comes by and gives him this incredulous look - “sorry monsieur bil izin el boarding pass" iza bit reed - everyone knows exactly what that means: what she's really saying is go sit your ass in your assigned seat and stop making my life so hard.

And not only that, but I was supposed to be in that row so this guy took what I thought was mine. That's not right. I paid for this. Why does someone else have it?

He was the cheetah and I was in the water. He acknowledges that she's speaking but doesn't respond to her words. Then she says (with a heavy Lebanese accent) “something something something exit rrrowwww able-budied must be able to assist in event of emerrrrrgency."

Nothing. Blank stare. He looks up from his newspaper, makes eye contact with her for the very first time, and with a half grin and sly smile, replies, "ma3lesh."

That’s another one of those “woah it’s different here moments." Imagine if you did that on JFK-SFO, you’d get dragged off the flight for being an asshole because you don't do that. Even David Dao was sitting in his assigned seat.

They close the boarding door and we're on our way.

...

Today's flight is probably only 40% occupied. Lots of empty seats and even more people pontificating on why.. lyom jum3a and hala2 fi madrase. Seeing that we’re in a 2-4-2 seating configuration, there are lots and lots of empty four-seater sections, ideal for laying down and sleeping on the four hour flight. And I know four hours doesn't sound like a bad flight, but it is after you've taken the redeye from the US.

The four-seat row next to us is empty and is going to be perfect to sleep on.

The minute they turn off the seat belt light, there's this swarm of people moving around and making their claim to the best seat they can find as if it's manifest destiny and westward expansion in the 1800s. As this happens, I start thinking to myself (and nudge my wife) — maybe we should move around and get a 4-row so one of us can sleep horizontally. Checks out, makes sense.

Again, one of those "and suddenly it's different" moments and I, for the fourth time, miss the point and I start rationalizing it. Is this right, is this wrong, is this within my morals, is this the right thing to do, what framework should I be using to judge my own actions, we paid for two seats not four, am i someone who sits in a seat that isn't mine on a flight... and in the three seconds it takes me to think about my values and connect this decision with my identity and values, mr ma3lesh appears out of nowhere, kicks his shoes off, and proceeds to lay down in the four seats that I was about to stake.

I'm 0 for 2 today. I don’t even want the bulkhead row; I just want one of whatever he is having because he seems to know how to get his way.

I revert to my high horse and just pause and think. I'm right and he's wrong; I took the moral high ground, he didn't.

But the truth is, if this was a game and the objective was to make it to Beirut in comfort, then I lost. If I keep thinking about it using these kinds of words - game theory, moral right and wrong, my brain will short-circuit because I'm trying to solve a problem with the wrong tools, and I'm going to be surpassed by people who think 1/10th as much and just act and deal with the consequences later.

I got this wrong because I used the American toolbox for a Lebanese situation. And even the most thought-through plan, taking every detail into account, is pretty useless if you're bringing it to the wrong game. Even if you're the superstar top-ranked first-draft-pick quarterback, if you tackle someone but it turns out you're actually playing soccer, you're gonna get a red card because you're bringing the right rules to the wrong game. You're wrong, no matter how right you think you are.

Fast forward a few minutes and mr. ma3lesh starts snoring like he swallowed a megaphone, I kid you not - this is the loudest snoring I've heard in a long time. He's now sprawled out like a king in his empire of 34 C-D-E-F and some of the aisle as well, and he's snoring so loudly that everybody around him is occasionally glancing: the woman ahead who was making small talk. It’s loud that even the babies sitting in the nearby rows are probably cursing the guy out for snoring so loudly.

I get out my iPhone and my Bose headphones (the ones that are supposed to cancel noise on airplanes), but unfortunately I realize that the Bose sound engineers did not test their noise-cancellation against the sound of an overweight Lebanese man with hypertension snoring on an airplane.

Not that it really matters that much (I'll take a nap when we make it to Beirut, we'll have a few hours before we have to go to this wedding), but all this got me thinking about something. We could keep losing or we could change our strategy.

There is in fact some game theory involved here:

If both myself and mr. Ma3lesh play by the rules, then neither of us will make a move for the empty four seats that aren't assigned to us. But there's something wrong - not that our calculations are wrong but a scenario we failed to consider: what if mr. Ma3lesh doesn't play by these rules? What if we have different social norms? It turns out, Mr. Ma3lesh doesn't seem to subscribe to the general idea of "assigned seating"

So this brings us to the import of this story: what good is a set of tools if they don't do you any good? What good is “right and wrong" or “this is what I’m supposed to do" if you’re playing on a board where others are playing with totally different rules? Tools and strategy, you must judge on outcomes. No matter how many books you read, you'll never win at rock paper scissors if your opponent ignores the rules and punches you in the face.

If we think of this as a 2x2 grid, one axis is: A) keep your values or B) change your values, the other axis is C) keep playing the game, D) quit the game.

Four options.

There are two paths that lead to desirable results:

  • A (keep your values) and D (leave): keep your values and go find a place where they win - i.e emigrate to a place that more aligns with your values), and
  • B (change your values) and C (stay).

What’s interesting is A-C: keep your values even though you know they don’t work for you. Your values are your higher loyalty, and despite having your own values that are not working for you, you’re loyal to values instead of being loyal to something bigger.

A-C is like the people who decide to stay somewhere even though they know they're going to face an uphill battle because they believe in something that's going to make life a lot harder. Maybe Sisyphus is a quadrant A-C kind of guy, sucks for him.

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Sorry Mr. Quadrant A-C - we had to rebook you on another flight. Boarding starts in 1 hour and 7 days from now. We appreciate your business.

Now lunch is served. Eat eat eat and now I finish eating, and now I want to get back to writing this.

There are many things not great about airplane food, but the most pressing one is: what do you do when you're finished eating? You have to wait for the cabin crew to come by and clear your tray out of the way so you can put your table up so you’re not cramped. It’s always like 15 minutes longer than it needs to be.

As I’m trying to figure out how to make use of my limited space, mr ma3lesh across the row does the obvious move since he's now the landed gentry of this flight - he opens up one the far tables (34C, like the walls of his four-seat kingdom) and puts his tray on it. And then he goes to his other three and proceeds to lay down like he’s staying at the Ritz Carlton, and removes his socks to add insult to injury.

I, on the other hand, have my tray in front of me, so I can’t pull out my iPad and type. Thinking about this situation, there’s one clear solution here.

I wait for mr. Ma3lesh to start snoring again (which predictably he does within a minute of laying down), and I go for it. I sneakily move the tray he left out by 90 degrees, nudge it to the side so it’s sort of over the edge, not really caring about what happens if it falls, and then lift my tray, move it across the aisle, and place it firmly on the tray table next to him.

It's sort of a bad move, I don’t know if this makes me a bad person. It’s like “here this is your problem now." Imagine if you did this to someone in the states on a flight. But we’re not in the states, so it’s a different toolkit. And it's not about what you're intuitively used to anymore. The environment is new, and something might feel weird but you should just take a second to think if you’re the swimming cheetah.

I do this, pull out my iPad and start writing again. As I start hitting the keys, one of the token m7ajbe women looks and gives me the coolest nod of approval ever, like "yeaaah nicely done" in a strange way that unifies and it feels like I put up points for the team.

Anyways, I'm back to writing this, and funnily enough, I feel like this note is coming to a close since I know I’ve learned the lesson I wanted to learn.

Just moments later, Mr. Ma3lesh wakes up and is visibly perturbed by the food waste that's sitting in his four-seat kingdom.

He did not sign up for this. And he knows it's mine because everybody else is occupied with their trays except for me. He gives me this dirty, dirty look that's multiplied with the afternoon shadows coming down from the high horse he's sitting on, because in this current round, he's probably the one coming from the higher moral ground.

I don't miss a beat and with the same sly grin and the swagger of someone who just remembered that he can still adapt to new situations, play new games, and most importantly, win at them., I make eye contact and tell him "ma3lesh"

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