Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Setting Forth

Maybe this is a snapshot of globalization - Amman Airport, Gate 6, 11 May, 20:15: Two sets of passengers sit side by side. Straight ahead – Indian labourers with just the clothes on their backs. Where they come fro, and what they have done in Jordan, I do not know. They do not even seem to have passports, merely bulky yellow papers, travel documents, ‘in lieu of’....Behind them, keeping their distance, travelers to Delhi. A trickle of Indians and Jordanians sit amidst a gaggle of Israelis, who can now count me amongst their number. There are scraggly-haired backpackers, and sophisticated veterans – always perched on the edge of their seats, as if ready to dispense advice anyone who is willing to take it. Reading material includes ‘The Economist’ and ‘The Five People you might meet in Heaven;’ one woman is reading a particularly arduous looking volume, but my eyes cannot strain far enough to see what it is. There are laptops and notepads, iPods and a steady chatter, appropriately muted, for we are in Arab lands. Ahead of me, the young men headed back to their birthplace sit quietly, without any hand-luggage, as if readying themselves to get on a slave-ship. Maybe this is a snapshot of globalization, two tribes from different dimensions passing through, backs turned, knowing that the thoughts which would stem from actually looking in each-other’s faces would destroy all our worlds.


Royal Jordanian is my new favourite airline. First-class leg room for all, you wonder if they remember that this is supposed to be a business. The price for all this is a slightly more interactive service than I am used to. Before take-off, our stunning Indian hostess – all Bollywood make-up and deliberate contortions of the neck – stoops down to solemnly ask us if we are ready to take on the responsibility which comes from sitting by the emergency exit. Bravely, we accept the duty, allowing her to enthusiastically launch into a briefing of what to do if the plane crashed into the Gulf. “What if you run off?” asks the cynical businessman to my right. “I will be the last to leave,’ she insists, allowing an air of wounded pride to wash over her otherwise unperturbed face.

I sit in the middle, to the left is one of the aforementioned labourers. In the absence of a common tongue – he is briefed in Hindi – I try and give him a look which tells him, that, in the event of emergency, I will be fearlessly by his side, shepherding the passengers to safety before the plane sinks into the sea. He looks at me cynically, slips off his sandals, and curls himself up like a mole in a burrow.

Half an hour into the flight, there is a minor commotion, one that brings us full circle. There is some confusion in the seating arrangement, which results in one of the labourers being led towards his correct seat nearer the front. He is supposed to sit next to a middle-aged woman, make-up like North Tel Aviv but dressed for the East, a neat portrait of the tortured Israeli bourgeoisie. I have no idea why she was traveling to India, and shall resist speculation. But her reaction to being sat next to this young man quietly returning to his homeland appalled me.

I could not hear what she said to the stewardess. Just one word, spoken repeatedly and scornfully in Hebrew to her male companion, told me all I needed to know. Reach, smell. While she spat her complaints, the man stood oblivious in the aisle, not understanding what was being said. A deal was soon made, with the unoccupied seat being taken by a young Israeli backpacker, with the labourer taking his place with the other Indians.

So what’s wrong with a woman not wanting to sit next to someone who smells? A fair point. But every action has a context, a context that often extends far beyond the ultimately insignificant details of the original incident. In this case, the woman had no way of avoiding sitting next to the man without illustrating the stark inequalities which ha brought them both to this place. Call it her bad moral luck. It meant she should have quietly endured a slightly smelly flight across the Middle East. Instead, she kicked up a fuss, sniggering about the man’s defects in a language he could not understand. Because she could not communicate with him, because she could not explain to him her problem, she should have put up with it.

This story has al the more resonance, I think, coming on a flight to India. Because one thing every western traveler to the subcontinent knows, before even booking a ticket, is that the journey will involve encountering the most brutal of poverty. This reality demands constant moral examination and thought. If you can’t deal with this before you have even arrived in the country, you should think long and hard before setting forth.


Anonymous said...

"What's wrong with that". Everything, if she makes that reaction discernable.


Anonymous said...

"Because she could not communicate with him"....and I don't see what that has to do with anything; to have articulated the problem would have been even more demeaning! Dignity is important.


H said...

Dear Alex,

Whatever happened to the e-mail alerts when you publish a new post? Am I to check your blog at random and then sit down, tea cup on hand, for a leangthy reading? This will not do well for my daily riaz mind you!

As for manners, I have just finished reading "Manners from Heaven" by Quentin Crisp and warmly suggest it to all people, English and non-English alike.

Hagay Hacohen

Anonymous said...

India seems the wrong destination for this matron - was she going for cheap plastic surgery perhaps?