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Toilet etiquette

Apologies in advance if this subject seems a bit off-key for a blog. But it has to be said, Saudis go to the toilet in a different manner to how we westerners do. The human body has evolved in a pretty constant way for all the tribes across the world. Some human variants are taller than others, others have different skin colouring, and there are regional variations in eye and nose shapes. But the interior anatomy has not diverged from the standard human plumbing system, although there are of course different sets of equipment depending on which gender one is.

Way, way back in the day when we were nomadic herdsmen or considering investing in a cave with mod cons, our toilet habits were outdoor activities, and if any thought was given to sanitation we might possibly have used a simple pit latrine. My last experience with this provision was at a scout camp in the mid 1970’s where as a member of the advance party one of our jobs was to set up the camp and dig the “lats”, making sure they were downhill and downwind of the main area. By the time the Romans came to Britainnium, they had discovered that it was far more sociable and comfortable to have communal sitting areas for the body functions and developed ingenious sewerage systems to deal with the waste matter. So presumably from that time we have chosen to use the seated position for our “number twos”. Over the centuries the sanitation systems have improved through the efforts of Mr Crapper and his ilk. But, as humans we are faced with a binary choice – to sit or to squat.

Like many Brits, my first experience of the squatting option was at a French motorway service station – we had heard rumours of such disgusting things of course, but the reality was still somewhat of a shock. It has to be said that skirt and kilt wearers have a natural advantage over the trouser-clad folks in this situation.


A typical squat toilet

So, why am I chuntering on about this? Well, there is an Islamic toilet etiquette that the Arabs follow, and in my 20 months out here I have become more and more aware of it. So time for a little research on the subject, and some gentle questioning of a couple of Muslim friends. Some of the ritual is specified in the Holy Qu’ran, and this involves formal cleansing at prayer times, right/left hand usage and which foot you should use to step into a toilet. Other requirements are laid down in Islamic laws. There is a Sharia jurisprudence named Qadda-al-hajjah, and this provides a fuller requirement for hygiene practise. My understanding is as follows:

  • Go as infrequently as possible (as this is an unclean act)
  • Say a specific prayer before going
  • Enter the toilet area using the left foot first
  • If possible, do not face towards Makkah (Mecca)
  • Do not communicate with anyone else whilst doing your business
  • Wash your undercarriage when finished, using the left hand to do so
  • Exit with the right foot first.
  • Say another specific prayer when the task is completed

Modern Saudi (and other Muslim countries that I have visited) provide a water hosepipe for bottom washing. Bidets are not common, so all toilets have this hose contraption. It is always available to the right hand side as you sit, so that you can hold the hose and trigger-tap with your right hand whilst using your left for the dirty work. This hose apparatus is called a “shattaf”. As well as being a plumbing fixture, one can buy a travel-shattaf for taking with you should you need to travel away from Muslim homelands. Hardware shops in KSA such as Saco sell them, and you plug these into your hotel bathroom sink tap and hope the hose is long enough to reach the toilet area. And, of course there is also now a top of the range rechargeable battery-powered shattaf, complete with USB power lead, see Whatever next?

But, back to sitting or squatting. Arabs prefer to squat. I have been told by Arabs that us westerners have a higher rate of bowel cancer that they do, because sitting is not natural and we are using the bowel muscles wrongly. Well, that’s us told. Interesting to note though that the average life expectancy for a Saudi is 74 years and a Brit is 80, so it can’t be the only factor. Some modern buildings in KSA have only sitting toilets, and our one for the Public Transport Agency is one of those. This doesn’t stop my colleagues from squatting on the toilet seat though, I’ve lost count of the number of times I have had to wipe wet sandal footprints off the seat!


Sign spotted at Jeddah airport

Public conveniences on the other hand (bad choice of phrase - Elaine) are invariably the squatting-type hole in the floor design, and I must admit the Arab wearing his thobe has a natural advantage here. A family I know travelled from Riyadh to Bahrain by car last summer and not long after departure their six year old daughter decided she needed the loo, so they stopped at the first petrol station they came too. Her mum took her into the ladies and later reported that it was the most disgusting thing she had ever seen or smelled, the daughter refused to “perform”, and didn’t ask for the loo again until they reached their destination.

A common feature in men’s toilet premises is a coat-stand. Not for coats, but as a place the male Arabs can take off their ghutra (headdress cloth) and hang it using the igaal (black cord). I heard a story where an ex-pat newbie was advised by his colleagues to take his own loo roll and towel to the office toilet. He replied by saying he’d already been and had dried his hands on the red and white towel provided!


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