In spring 1998 I was sitting in a dusty Egyptian ferry terminal waiting to go to Aqaba. On the bench across from me, there sat a man, two women (his wife and her sister, I thought) and a small baby being passed between the women. Eventually, after a flurry of distressed-sounding Arabic, the two women decamped in the direction of the bathroom, leaving the baby with its father. The man held the baby for about a minute, propped in his lap, starting at it and looking discomfited. Then he stood up, looked sheepish, and handed the baby to me. He returned to his newspaper. I sat with the baby, more than a little confused.
I came to the conclusion, while holding that child, that in his own culture, the father had done nothing wrong. In his world, men were bad with babies, inherently. Women were good with babies, inherently. The safest, kindest thing he could do for his child was to hand it off to a woman until mommy returned. A little baby simply did not belong with a man. If he wanted his child to be happy, the best he could do was give it to a woman. I was pretty pleased with myself for figuring this out, and for not letting my American cultural biases blind me.
Then, the wife and sister came back, exclaimed with distress at the sight of a strange woman holding the baby, grabbed it from me (with, to be fair, apologetic looks) and spent the next 20 minutes berating the father for his idiocy.
Cultural differences are larger than you could ever imagine, and they matter tremendously. But it’s not always a cultural thing. Sometimes people are just jerks.
(photo of the Aqaba-Nuweiba ferry by Ashraf Al-Mansur)