“Fasten your seatbelts”: a Royal Jordanian flight as symbol of a culture

“Final call for Royal Jordanian flight 178 to Montreal. Passengers are kindly requested to proceed to Gate number three immediately.”

At Queen Alia International Airport, I tucked away my laptop and lunged to the security check point before the gate. On my way I double-checked the flight departure monitor. It flashed: “RJ178 Gate 3 Last Call.”

Right before the X-ray machine stood an airport security guard that checked passports and boarding passes. Upon seeing my pass he said: “Montreal not yet open. Please wait in the other lounge.”

“But they just made the announcement,” I said in Arabic. He simply smiled and gave me a blank look, then pointed to the lounge. There were a few people behind me. Most of the Arabs, having overheard my conversation with the officer, stepped out of the line and headed back to the outside lounge. A few Canadians continued to proceed to the gate. They were really confused when the officer again pointed them to the lounge. This was not the first time that this had happened. I suppose this is a system or a process issue. Just poor communication and coordination between airport personnel.

In any case, I was happy that I had managed to book a window seat. It is a long flight to Montreal and this would help me try to get some sleep. Boarding the plane, I walked towards my seat. The configuration of the seats were 2-4-2—aisle next to a window seat.

I spotted my seat, 31A and yes, it was vacant! What a delight. So many times in the past on Royal Jordanian someone would be in my seat, usually playing dumb and asking me to switch with his seat, which invariably would be a middle seat. So many times I had to fight for what was rightfully mine. Luckily, not this time.

A girl in a veil sat on the aisle seat, 31B.

“Excuse me, I am sitting there,” I said to her with a courteous smile, pointing to the vacant window seat next to her.

Her face turned a bit red, she stood up but did not step to the side to let me in. Panic seemed to engulf her and she looked like she was fast cooking something in her head. She then looked at the man and woman sitting one row ahead and said:

“Excuse me. Are you ka-bel (couple)?”

The man and woman, who were non-Arab, looked at each other, as if amused at the suggestiveness of the question, gave a brief smile, then said to the girl in veil “No.”

The girl in veil looked at the woman anxiously and said: “Do you mind sitting next to me. It’s a long flight you know.”

It all happened so fast that I only realized what was going on after the other lady had stood up, went to sit in my seat and gave me hers—which was an aisle seat.

Then, a lady, walking from the front of the plane to the middle section, stopped a couple of rows ahead and asked a seated passenger to do a seat swap so that she can sit next to her friend.

Indeed, it was a very sociable plane, people would spot others they knew and pay them visits at their seats. The mother of the girl behind me came to check on her daughter, arching over me, resting her arm on the back of my seat and breathing down my neck. “Excuse me,” I said, but my words didn’t stir the determined.

I had to move my head a bit lest it gets bumped. Every three to four rows, there was one such visitor. The plane was still at the gate.

The flight attendant announced: “Everyone please take your seats and fasten your seat belts. We will not take off until everyone is seated with their seat belts fastened.”

Then another flight attendant, realizing that a speaker announcement was not enough, passed through the aisles, ushered lingerers to their seats and reminded them to fasten. An unshaved man a couple of rows ahead would not fasten his seat belt.

“Fasten your seat belt please. Just for fifteen minutes then we’ll be up in the air and you can unfasten.”

“Why don’t you fasten it for me,” he said with a smile that she quickly returned with a smirk.

The flight’s final destination was Detroit with a stop in Montreal. Roughly half of the plane was filled with Montrealers, the other, Detroit passengers.

Seconds after the plane touched ground in Montreal, the beast was still bumping on the ground, air brakes still laboring at full throttle to bring the plane back to steady motion, but people stood up and started opening the overhead compartments. A couple that were being jerked around, looked like drunkards desperately trying to regain their balance.

“Please sit down and remain seated with your seat belts fastened until the plane has come to a complete stop and the seat belt sign has been turned off!” The voice of the flight attendant sounded fiercer than usual.

People reluctantly went back to their seats. Then as soon as the plane stopped, and before the seat belt sign went off, people sprang up and claimed their carry-ons and filled up the aisles, ready to exit the plane.

“Passengers headed to Detroit are to remain on-board. You cannot leave the plane,” came the announcement with some other information.

There were some visits here and there, some seat swapping by the Detroit passengers, and it seemed that the flow of people out of the plane was impeded. Apparently, some Detroit passengers were standing in the way because soon, another announcement followed.

“Detroit passengers, please take your seats, let the Montreal passengers exit the plane.”

Finally, there was movement again.

“Would you stop pushing. Where are you going to go. Look! You going to jump over all these passengers?” One man scolded another behind him.

Just when I was about to disembark from the plane, a flight attendant, standing by the gate, asked me if my final destination was Montreal and I confirmed. Apparently, some Detroit people had stepped out of the plane and had to be escorted back so a flight attendant had to act as gatekeeper.

***

On another long RJ flight, I was seated in the middle seat section, with three empty seats next to me. As soon as we were airborne and the fasten seat belt sign was extinguished, a lady in her late forties popped up and asked me if she could sit on the other end of the empty seats. Had I acted like the other passengers, I would have claimed the territory at the earliest chance, extending my legs or placing objects and securing my sleeping space, but I did not want to be desperately opportunistic.

I said okay. I was sympathetic. She was an older lady. After dinner and when the lights went off, she made herself cozy, curled sideways and extended her legs, claiming all three seats—her toes almost touching my side while I sat squeezed in my one sorry seat.

Feeling a burning sense of injustice, I finally spoke out.

“Can we at least share?”

She withdrew her limbs from the third to the second seat and I extended mine to that second seat, so we sat from the outside seats with knees ridged upwards, each claiming two seats and facing each other. Every once in a while she would doze off and her legs would seamlessly slide into my territory and I would have to push back, so over the course of the flight, far from getting any sleep, we were throwing contemptuous glances and playing a hostile game of footsie to fend off intrusion into this tough turf, part of which almost became a no man’s land.

***

I’d been consulting for over ten years on international assignments, travelling on average once every three weeks across the U.S., Europe, and Southeast Asia. The travel experience with my fellow Jordanian and Palestinian brothers and sisters is truly unique.

In some cases, adults act like children. Their behavior ranges from lack of common courtesy and consideration for others to outright self absorption and selfishness— me first in line, me the all-deserving of better service, of a better seat.

“Madam, you are requesting a first-class service, but you’re paying economy,” a flight attendant told a passenger once. I thought that summed up best this aspect of my culture—over expectation, under contribution.

The irony is that one would expect this selfish individualism to take place in a culture known for that, not in a culture famous for being anti-individualistic. We are a self-conscious people, obsessed with what society thinks, with reputation, image, and with something we call ‘honor.’ We are also very sociable people, flocking to weddings, funerals, newborn baby parties. And as such, Arabic culture probably ranks one of the highest in hospitality.

When we have guests, we show off with our generosity. We are very supportive of our kids. It is unheard of to kick a son or daughter out of the house after reaching eighteen, even forty, regardless of economic hardships, while this may not be so unusual in the U.S. for example. We respect our parents and our elders. We are very supportive of family members, extended family, members of the clan or tribe, our friends. Abandoning a friend or relative in need is considered a taboo.

Inherent in all this is compromise and sacrifice. If anything, it is more selfless than selfish. We are willing to give more to our loved ones than are others in the U.S. and Europe, perhaps.

Yet, once we step out of the circle of friends and family, another personality takes over.

My explanation for this is that there is no sense of the collective, a sense of a common identity, of a common people working together. There is no belief in a fair and equal system that we belong to, adhere to, that represents us equally. There is no participation.

The common man is someone that gets trampled on. The common man in our culture does not get much respect, while the common man in a first world country is as good as any. In the absence of democracy and a system that works for the one and the many, we end up with dog eats dog. To each their own. That helps us remain divided. The perception is that the gain and success of one is at the expense of the other. Though conceptually this is not unique to us, or to people of the third world as a whole (i.e. rich at the expense of the poor,) the extent and degree are more severe for us.

Rather than the sense of: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you, we get: Do unto others as others have done unto you. And ‘others’ have treated you unfairly and gotten away with it, so the exploited becomes the exploiter in a never ending cycle.

The other exhibited behavior, that of restlessness, might be symptomatic of people’s frustrations and sense of powerlessness—those whose lives are not within their control. So to compensate, they make up for it by taking it out on others. All this is consistent with the way people drive in Amman.

Little common courtesy is given to the ‘common’ man in shared, common spaces such as airplanes and streets.

Amman is famous for its villas and mansions, burgeoning out of most beautiful gardens. Unlike any city in Europe or the US, though, there are no beautiful common areas, just disconnected islands of beauty fenced behind walls. Similar to what Robert Fisk observed about Lebanon, people don’t feel a sense of ownership of their streets and neighborhoods and cities. They have no problem littering outside the fence while their gardens and houses are kept immaculate. There is no sense of ownership of that which is shared.

Though the aforementioned generosity, hospitality and selflessness may not always be genuine—often done in response to social pressure or for a desire to show off— they are still something to be proud of. A less turbulent journey, and a more cohesive society would emerge if we changed our mentality and realized that we are in this together. If I don’t fasten my seat belt before takeoff because I am too busy chatting with a friend, I won’t just be delaying others, but also myself.

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4 Comments

  1. yfa
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 12:14 am | Permalink

    Very nicely said. What do you think we can do to change the mindset of the masses? I think solving the Arab/Israeli problem is a cakewalk compared to this.

    What type of consulting do you do?

  2. Sabri
    Posted January 26, 2010 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    Its an RJ issue and/or the culture of fellow Jordanians once aboard our beloved airline. On Rj one has to automatically assume that he or she is a “somebody” to get the treatment they actually paid for, but when these same people board other planes they behave like normal passengers. It beats the hell out of me why this is the case.

    Though slightly related, I have to mention this one incident on an RJ flight to Paris this past summer. I was one of those people feeling “important” sitting in business and decided to act sociable (as you refer to it) and stepped back to check up on a friend sitting in coach where I heard the following:

    A woman was under the illusion that she ordered a vegetarian meal, so when the trolley of goodies rolled in, the hostess gave the passengers the choice of, yup you guessed it “chicken or beef”. The poor woman told her unfriendly hostess “but I requested a vegetarian meal” and the the reply was in a loud voice ” ? ??? ?? ??? ????? ” ????? ???? ????? ???? ?????? ”

    I couldn’t believe my ears; there she was a normal passenger “now speechless” with a normal request treated like dirt by a nit wit who was under the assumption that this woman has already chosen this despicable treatment by choosing to fly coach RJ. My immediate response “feeling important” to this unfriendly character was ” in a loud voice too” ” ?? ?????? ?????? ???? ???? ???? ” . The passengers almost cheered; the nit wit baffled with my response, and realizing the fact she screwed up royally automatically tried to mend the situation by going back to the lady and telling her I will see what I can manage for you!!!

  3. Posted January 28, 2010 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Thanks.
    To Yfa-
    You’re right -it is easier to criticize than to provide solutions. Possible solution(s) warrant extensive study/research beyond the scope of a tiny article.

    I think it goes back to the question of faith in a system and that we’re in this together. If we could create a “model city” or a “model community”, a prototype, somewhere in the region, that could set an example, set a trend. It could even start with a neighborhood, almost like a co-op. An elected committee that is accountable to the members with voting. Members of the community have “shared spaces” like park/shared areas/parking, that they’d have to respect since they own a part of. It won’t be perfect at first, but it will follow a model of continuous improvement.

    I think, among other things, we need to nourish the sense of the collective, of community building. I’ve been to gatherings in amman where everyone in the gathering complained about a common thing, like electricity prices, and then all went home. No one suggested to sign a petition, take collective action. Probably because no one believed it would lead to change. They would try “other” means. So there has to be examples that set a precedent. And I’m sure there are (I hope;)

    In addition to centuries of customs, tradition, history, religion and geography, I think culture is still a product of the political, social, and economic of the now- (hate to use big words)
    I would say probably political would have the biggest impact on the rest. At all levels, from restaurant owner to president, “leaders” that lead by example and are accountable could set an amazing trend.

    We should also try to learn from successful transformations of other countries. I would pick countries in the “second world” that are currently in the process of breaking out of bad habits.

    (answer to your question-I did supply chain management consulting (I.T.) for ten years, now I am trying to publish my novel and be a full time writer;)
    thanks
    Ziad

  4. Tareq A Hadi
    Posted April 13, 2010 at 3:53 am | Permalink

    Ziad,

    I share many of your views on the subject. I think your article is very well aritculated and well thought of. I am sure we have all had similar experiences on RJ.

    Thanks for sharing.