On the tube this morning I sat opposite Suleman, a young moslem dressed head to toe in white who smiled, said hello and with whom I exchanged a few words. Nice guy, on first impressions.
Two stops later, a girl got on. Very short skirt. Stars and stripes t-shirt. Superficially, the polar opposite to him. Thoroughly western to his Middle Eastern; thoroughly modern to his traditionalist. She sat next to him and popped the top of her espresso, filling the carriage with the indescribably lovely aroma of coffee, unmistakeably an artificial stimulant.
They ignored each other, but they kind of didn’t. She tugged at her skirt to try and cover an extra quarter inch of leg and he began to recite the Koran, gently and quietly, but audibly. Two stops later she left the carriage and reboarded the train further down. He continued to recite for the next 20 minutes.
Either way, the clash of cultures was avoided.
Except interestingly, it wasn’t just the one you might think of.
As an average guy in a business suit I am exactly as acceptable as I am unacceptable to each of them. But he’s the one who made eye contact and said hello. She treated me, as all pretty girls in London do to strange men in public places, as if I didn’t exist. The clash of cultures is as much between she and I as it is between the two of them.
I get it. I see her point of view. She’s not looking for advances and men are prone to misread signals when a pretty girl smiles at them and asks where they’re off to today, the way Suleman did.
But the most memorable part of an otherwise superficially interesting experience was when I stood up to leave and smiled at Suleman again. wishing him a good day, and he thanked me for taking the time and making the effort to smile at him.
Neither of them expect respect. He’s always primed for suspicion, fear or intolerance of one or other sort. She’s always primed for guys who think they’re players and have at least a 50:50 chance of sweet-talking her out of her clothes.
Which is why just as it pleases him when you’re kind and polite and don’t pretend he isn’t there, it pleases her when you blatantly ignore her.
No wonder we’re all struggling to get along.