معلش (ma3lesh) generally translates to “it’s okay” but its meaning is very context dependent, but it’s especially useful in those fatalistic circumstances where either you can’t, or don’t want to solve a problem.

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

Heading from the US to Paris and then from Paris to Beirut is always a schema change of sorts for me. The internal dialog in my head is like “ohh shit I’m jetlagged but I can sense that something is about to change so get ready… let’s see if I remember how to do this.” You start to notice it in the subtlest of ways, like when the gate agent refers to my wife as “Madamtak” or people don’t queue up in lines and instead just bunch together.

Some things change, and if you don’t pay attention, something really small and random might happen and it might make no sense and only later you realize that it wasn’t an unusual thing, but it seemed out of place because you thought about it using the wrong lens/frame (i.e thinking about things the way you would in the west when you’re not in the west anymore). It’s like you had something you needed to screw in and you tried using a hammer since that’s what you’re used to.

That’s sort of what it feels like when you board flights to Beirut. Anyways, sitting on our flight - to start, we were a little sidetracked. When we looked at the seatmap for this flight (on delta.com), row 34 was an exit row with much extra legroom. That’s the best way to fly: you pay economy fares but you get more legroom than you’d get in business class. So we always take those seats whenever possible.

Turns out 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 an apology from the stewardess and their whole chain of command up to the CEO of the airline and if you’re persuasive, the board of directors. But here, 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.

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 wonder if he checked the seatmap 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.

He acknowledges that she’s speaking but doesn’t respond. 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 “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 kicked off the flight for being an asshole. “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 the 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. The four row next to us is empty and is going to be perfect to sleep on. Yeeessss.

The minute they announce it, 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 Nour) — hun 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 fail: I rationalize it. Is this right, is this wrong, is this within my morals, is this the right thing to do, 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 and kicks his shoes off, and proceeds to lay down in the four seats that I was about to stake.

I’d like to think that I’m right and that I took the moral high ground, but the truth is, if this was a game, 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 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.

We take off and mr ma3lesh starts snoring like a motherfucker, but not just any motherfucker, a motherfucker with a megaphone. I kid you not - this is the loudest snoring I’ve heard in a long time. He’s 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) but i feel like they’re not rated to deal with this kind of old overweight Lebanese man 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. There’s 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? 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.

God 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 take my shit it’s 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” or at least i think. 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. But i really hope mr. Ma3lesh wakes up before they take away the trays, just so he can give me a dirty look and i can fire back at him with a sly grin and say “ma3lesh