Writer: Michael Karam
Remember the speak-your-weight machine, the scales that told you how heavy you were when you popped a coin into the slot? Today, they’ve all but vanished from the high street and pharmacies (or chemists, as they are called in Britain). The reasons for its demise are simple: increased literacy (yes, apparently that many people couldn’t read numbers before) and the advent of the bathroom scales. But surely the existential meteor that finally did it for these contraptions must have been that people weren’t hugely keen on others hearing how much they weighed. And let’s face it, who is?
In the same vein, and forgive me if this sounds obvious, rare are the times we want to be spontaneously reminded that we have gained, or in some cases, lost weight. If we have, the chances are, we already know; it’s clearly not something we did on purpose (unless we are method actors à la Raging Bull) and we are probably trying to do something about it. So being told that we are fat, fuller in the figure or are developing “a bit of a belly” is not, shall we say, the greeting of choice.
Middle Easteners, never shy about giving advice on anything, must surely be the human equivalent of the speak-your-weight machine. To prove my point, I was at a party recently when a woman I have known for years ran up to greet me. Homing in for the air kiss, she stopped short, stepped back and sized me up. “Yeeeee! Michael! You are fat”!
Quite how telling someone this is going to make them feel anything but crap is a mystery. I patted my shirt and mumbled something about it being a bit “billowy”. It was, I hoped, a chance for her to maybe atone for her bluntness. But it was not to be. “Noooo, Michael! Wadeh. It is clear. Your belly is bigger!”
Normally, I would have mumbled some more and sloped off to get another drink, whenever possible catching myself in the mirror to double check, but on this occasion I returned fire. “You just can’t go around saying stuff like that to people,” I retorted. “Suppose I said that to you? Suppose I said ‘your bum is big’?” She smiled. “But I am a woman”.
“No. No!” I was losing it. A little voice in my head was telling me that this was a bad idea but I forged on anyway. “You just can’t say this to people who live in the normal world and expect them to like it.” She eyed me up like a curious parakeet. She had stopped smiling. “Why are you shouting? You are very sensitive. You always want to argue. I said you have gained weight. You are a bit fat. Maaleysh. Go to the gym.” And with that she strode off.
Suddenly, it was my fault because I was the one who got angry and we Arabs cannot cope with anger or pain, so when people get pissed off, not wanting to be accountable, we automatically flip it on to them. It’s textbook passive aggressiveness.
Later, I reasoned – and rather generously, on reflection - that it was all very well to moan about others not having boundaries but maybe this is the result of our disarming Arab honesty. As a matter of fact, I did see an ad for fitness assessment sessions in the lift at the gym recently. In bold letters it asked: “Are you fit or fat?” and was accompanied by a picture of a well-ripped man and an overweight woman.
Still, it could equally be the result of rank insensitivity. So, my advice is this. If a “hey, you’re looking great” is a bit of a stretch, just don’t say anything at all. Easy, no?