Friday, July 22, 2011

nice people

In Arab culture, a woman has the right to not want to sit next to a man who is not her relative. In conservative families, this is a requirement: so much so that women won't leave the house if not accompanied by such a man. In less conservative families, it's still generally a good idea.

On the other hand, I get the impression that only the conservativist of conservative men have that right (i.e. not to want to sit by an unrelated woman). And even fewer men avail themselves of that right.

So generally when a couple is traveling together and they are assigned two of the three seats in an airplane row, the man will take the middle seat so that his wife is not sitting by an unrelated man. As a lone traveller woman who has absorbed a bit of Arab culture, this always irks me, because it means I end up sitting next to an unrelated man, but because I'm an independent woman (verified by the fact I'm traveling alone) and a foreigner, no one seems to care. I feel like pointing out to those men that I'd rather sit by their wives than by them... i've never had the guts to say it but I probably should.

This was all a rather long prelude of context for what happened on the airplane to me today. I boarded the plane and when I arrived at my row, I was ever so slightly dismayed to find an Egyptian-looking man in the middle seat and a woman - presumably his wife - at the other end of the row. Once again I was stuck by the man.

But when I started to put my bag in the overhead bin and prepare to sit in that chair, I saw the couple exchanging looks. It almost seemed like they noticed I was a girl... but no, it couldn't be.

And yet, sure enough, the woman stood up and went to get something from her bag on the other aisle. Then the man stood up. The woman soon edged her way back in to take the middle seat. Glory be! This was the first time ever an Arab couple had thought of my feelings on this rather petty but quite sensitive matter. (I suppose the wife could have been looking out for her husband's integrity but I prefer to think they were respecting me.)

Then the niceness continued. The man rummaged around in overhead bins until he found blankets and pillows. He passed a pillow to his wife and she handed it to me. Then two more for them. Then he gave her a blanket and she handed it to me. Then two more for them. I smiled and said 'thank you.' Really, I was a bit speechless at such a display of unobtrusive niceness on an airplane.

As we all settled into our seats, they didn't try to make small talk with me or interact me with me in any other way. I hope they weren't waiting for me to reach out because, if so, I didn't get the hint. But I could hear them chatting with each other, laughing, giggling: talking like life-long friends and lovers should. This, as we all know, is not something that is seen everyday on an airplane.

It occurred to me that being a nice person and being a happy person are connected. To me, it seemed like because they were nice, they had the freedom to be happy too.


HopeUnbroken said...

i love how you wrote this! "it seemed like because they were nice, they had the freedom to be happy, too." practiced niceness does breed happiness, i think. and a man's respect and honor for his wife SHOULD extend to other women around him. but then, you are dealing with cultural nuances i am sure i have no understanding of. i'm glad you got to experience an exception to what seems to be the cultural rule.

happygirl said...

being a nice person and being a happy person are connected.

This is the credo of my life. It doesn't cost anything to be nice. And a lot of niceness does breed happiness. Btw, I think you should believe this niceness was directed towards you. :)

Shanda said...

Wow...because they were nice, they had the freedom to be happy. There is definitely some truth to that. I have often thought that extremely rude people cannot be very happy inside but never turned the thought around.
Dealing with different cultures can be so frustrating, and even inconsiderate, even thought it is not meant that way. Guess that is partly where culture shock comes in....when the culture just makes us irritated.
I am going to come back sometime and find posts on Egypt to read.

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