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, knows something is about to change and is curious if I still remember how to do it.

I first notice this change in the subtlest of 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 lens/frame.

Even if you bring the highest end, state-of-the-art, latest and greatest framework to a situation, you're still batting at 0 if it's the wrong tool for the job. Another way to put this: a cheetah is a very effective predator on the ground, but if you put that cheetah in the water, it's not nearly as effective anymore. 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 that's the fatal flaw: you reasoned about something in a way that would make perfect sense... in the west. But you're not in the west anymore.

That's sort of what it feels like for me when I board a flight to Beirut.

Anyways, sitting on our flight - 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. Combine that with a smile and some niceties with the flight attendant and you're golden. We always take those seats whenever possible.

So we were boarding and got to row 34, but something was wrong. 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 have a feeling 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.

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 back with a half grin and replies "ma3lesh."

It's awkwardly quiet and he follows up with something more conciliatory "iza fee hadan 2a3ed hon bzi7lon." (if someone's sitting here then I'll move later) Again, 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.

Flight attendant fires back with “Bas sorry monsier able bodied ya3ni lazem et sa3ed iza fi emergency" and again he responds with the smile and “ma3lesh" lol and the flight attendant gives up.

So 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 (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. Yeeessss.

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 start to falter: 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 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.

And that's the moment i realize what I got wrong: I got this wrong because I'm using the American toolbox for a Lebanon 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 he's snoring so loudly that everybody around him is occasionally glancing: the woman ahead who was making small talk: “Ana jaye min toronto," the two token m7ajbe women in the row in front, I mean it's so 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 eschew our thinking, or we could level up. Double or nothing. There is some game theory involved here: if both myself and mr. Ma3lesh are going to 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 we're solving the wrong problem. 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 you're thinking about getting what you want and playing by what you think is “right and wrong" but you’re playing with someone who doesn’t subscribe to “assigned seats" you’re always going to lose. How do you compete with Mr. Ma3lesh if your tools will always lead to a worse outcome because he just doesn’t care?

If we think of this as a 2x2 grid, one axis is: A) keep your values, B) change your values, the other axis is C) stay, D) exit. Four options. There are two paths that lead to desirable results: (A-D: keep your values and leave - i.e emigrate to a place that more aligns with your values), and (B-C: Stay and change your values for a new set of values that serve you better). What’s interesting is A-C: keep your values (i.e keep believing in what you believe in, but also stay in a place where your value system doesn’t work for you). 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.

Mr. Ma3lesh is a loud snorer. 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.

Well, sometimes when you start writing you catch the right voice and you want to write it out. But, i 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 douchey move I did. It’s like “here this is your problem now." Imagine if you did this to someone in the states on a flight. Lol what a faux pas. Minimum you'd get booted from the plane David Dao style. 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. Get with it.

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 learned the lesson I wanted to learn by writing about it.

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 volley back at him with a sly grin, a slightly awkward Arab-American accent, and most importantly, the swagger of someone who just remembered that he can still adapt to new situations, play new games, and most importantly, win at them.

For a second we make eye contact and I tell him "ma3lesh"