a toilet’s tale.

April 14, 2013

I think I should give you fair warning, as I often do when I write posts that contain potentially icky subject matter, that this post is probably going to be the ickiest of all I’ve written so far. So if you would prefer not to read an oversharing tale about bathroom hygiene habits and toilet plumbing problems, I understand.

But it will be educational, I can tell you that for sure.

Before I launch into the story, there’s some background you need to know about Saudi bathroom habits, if you don’t know already. The first thing you should know is that some Saudi homes utilize what Mr. Mostafa and I refer to as “squatty potties.” They are commonly (and more formally) known as floor toilets, but hey, we make things cutesy when we can. Even when it comes to toilets.

Anyway, a squatty potty is basically a toilet set into the floor. There are ridges on the side of the toilet so the person using it can place their feet and get a good footing. Then you squat, do your business, clean up, and flush (yes, they flush like regular toilets). Many Saudi houses have these, but many have sit toilets (you know, the kind that we Americans are used to), as well.

The other thing that you should know about Saudi bathrooms is that Saudis use water to clean after they’ve done their business. In the States, toilet paper does this job. But if you visit the home of a Saudi family in the States, you will almost always find a watering can (like the kind you use to water plants) sitting next to the toilet. Don’t get confused. No plants are growing in the toilet tank. This is there for cleaning oneself after using the toilet. (I feel like I should point out that if you are a male who observes a Saudi male in a public restroom heading to a stall with a bottle of water in hand, or even filling a water bottle from the sink and then heading to a stall, this is why. This is not water for drinking. It’s for cleaning himself after he finishes his bathroom business.)

In Saudi homes, every toilet, squatty or not, will have a hose and sprayer hooked to the wall next to it to serve this function of washing after toilet business. (In Arabic, this is called a shettafWhich is kind of hilarious if you’re a native English speaker, because it sounds eerily appropriate to its function: word-you-can’t-say-on-television-that-is-synonymous-with-“number two,” off. Yeah.) The sprayer looks like a larger version of a sink sprayer you might see at a kitchen sink.

photo 37 1024x1022 a toilets tale.

Europeans have the bidet, Saudis have the shettaf, Americans have…toilet paper.

Meanwhile, toilet paper is somewhat optional in many Saudi homes, because the shettaf is used to get everything clean. Then, after everything has been thoroughly washed with the shettaf, without getting too graphic, the left hand will sometimes be used to make sure of it, especially if there is no toilet paper. This is not to say that toilet paper is never used in Saudi homes in the same way that it is used in the States. Its use just always follows thorough cleaning with water, which is regarded as the really necessary cleaning step. So running out of toilet paper in a Saudi home is not the panic-inducing event that it is in the States. (On a related note, this is why Saudis–and many Muslims–have a custom of using only the right hand for eating. It is even regarded as sunnah, because maintaining cleanliness has been a priority for Muslims since the earliest days of Islam, long before the days of all these newfangled restroom innovations. So it’s a longstanding Arabic/Islamic tradition that the right hand is for eating, and the left hand is for the bathroom, even though nowadays we have running water, toilet paper, and antibacterial soap. Scrub scrub scrub.)

If any Americans are grossed out by these Saudi toilet habits, you should know that the idea of using only toilet paper to clean oneself after using the restroom (and especially using the right hand to do so) is pretty disgusting to many Saudis. And I admit, now that I’ve spent some time in Saudi Arabia (and, while we were still in the States, some time as a member of a household that required a watering can next to the toilet), I’m pretty icked out by that idea, as well. You feel a whole lot cleaner when you use water. But I’m equally grossed out by the idea of not using toilet paper after cleaning with water. So now I need both to feel comfortable. I haven’t adopted the Saudi custom of carrying around a water bottle with me for use in public restrooms when I’m in the States; I’m not that hardcore. But I do always have wet wipes.

Oh, Saudi Arabia. Why did you have to come along and mess with (no pun intended) perhaps the one thing in my life that was never supposed to get complicated?

So, anyway. Thursday night started much like any other night. Saleh got home late from work, around eight o’clock. He picked me up and we went out to dinner at Benihana, which was nice. (By the way, Benihana, I’m sorry you had to get your shout-out on my blog on such an otherwise unappetizing post.) When we got home, we planned to spend an uneventful evening chilling out on the couch with The Cosby Show.

We were just about to settle into our evening plans when Saleh went to the restroom to quickly take care of some business. I heard a halfhearted flush, like the toilet was sick and just couldn’t muster a full flush. After about thirty seconds, the same thing. Finally, after another thirty seconds, Saleh called from behind the closed door, “Honey…have you been putting toilet paper in the toilet again?”

See, when I first moved to Saudi Arabia, Saleh warned me not to flush toilet paper down the toilet, that after I use it I should put it in the wastebasket next to the toilet. In the house, this is an issue unique to our particular bathroom. When the house was built (just a few years ago), the plumbers, for whatever reason (but probably assuming that our little apartment would be the maid’s room), decided that the future owners would most likely want to install a squatty potty in our bathroom, rather than a sit toilet. Thus, they hacked off the longer pipe necessary to facilitate a sit toilet, so that the plumbing in the bathroom would be squatty potty-ready.

However, after my husband started setting up the space to be our little third-floor apartment prior to my arrival, being the wise man that he is, he decided that it would be in his best interest not to move me to an apartment with only a squatty potty in the bathroom. I have six weeks of experience with squatty potties from my time in China, but still. Six weeks is not a lifetime, and my husband was right when he conjectured that I would probably feel more comfortable in an apartment with a toilet where I could sit down to answer nature’s call.

So in order to revert the bathroom plumbing its original state, my husband and the plumbers improvised a solution in which a wax ring was used to extend the main pipe in such a way as to facilitate a sit toilet.

(If any plumbers are reading this and shaking their heads at my explanation, you’ll have to consult my husband for exact details about this. I once put baking soda and vinegar down a clogged drainpipe with great success, but that is about the extent of my plumbing expertise.)

Anyway, Saleh explained to me that because of the way they had fixed the plumbing in order to install my fancy-schmancy toilet, toilet paper is likely to stick to the wax in the plumbing on the way down and thus clog the toilet. Hence the directive to not flush toilet paper.

But what can I say? It’s easy to forget that warning. I mean, ever since I’ve been potty trained, the routine is that toilet paper goes in the toilet. You do your business, you use the toilet paper, drop it in the toilet, and flush. It’s a reflex at this point, a habit with nearly three decades of precedence. I can’t help it, man. I can’t.

So, when the toilet couldn’t flush after Saleh’s very simple use of it, it was evident that his warning had come true.

I have to give the husband credit, because he dutifully tried to remedy the problem on his own instead of making me deal with my own toilet paper mess. First, he flattened a wire hanger (the kind each thobe is hung on when he picks them up from the cleaners) with the hook at the end, stuck it down the toilet, and tried to loosen the clog that way. Nothing happened.

Next, he went downstairs and returned with a standard toilet plunger. It didn’t help either.

After that, he went back downstairs and returned with a pipe snake. Still, the toilet would not flush.

Finally, it was time to bring out the big guns. He went downstairs and came back up with a giant plumbing apparatus that looked like one of those things that cartoon characters use to detonate dynamite…you know, a cylindrical thing with a handle at the top that goes up and down. Even that would not budge the Little Toilet Obstruction That Could.

So, finally, at ten o’clock on a Thursday night (which is the equivalent of a Saturday night in the States, since Thursday and Friday are the Saudi weekend), my husband went and got a plumber.

By this point, my husband was pretty pissed (again, no pun intended), although I could hear the plumber laughing. (I’m sure glad he found the whole thing hilarious.) I don’t blame Saleh, though. He really had warned me multiple times not to do it. I tried to listen, really, I did.

As I sat in the bedroom with the door closed, Saleh was supervising the plumber and texting me the play-by-play, with commentary. My iPhone jangled merrily at the arrival of each message, oblivious to the gravity of the situation. Bing bing. “We’re taking the whole toilet off the base now.” Bing bing. “Didn’t I tell you not to flush toilet paper?” Bing bing. “He’s snaking out the clog now.” Bing bing. “Why don’t you listen when I talk?” Bing bing. “He pulled out a giant ball of mushy toilet paper.” Bing bing. “How much do you use every time you go, anyway?!?” Bing bing. Picture of the “giant ball of mushy toilet paper.” It was like the toilet gave birth.

I texted back an apology every time. I felt terrible.

But Mr. Mostafa was not ready to accept my apologies, and that made me mad. First I felt guilty, and then I was angry. Once the clog had been snaked out and cleaned up, the toilet had been put back on its base, and the plumber had gone home, Saleh started yelling at me. “How many times have I told you not to flush toilet paper? You never listen! All I asked you to do was throw the toilet paper in the wastebasket next to the toilet! But nooooo…is that really so hard?”

At first, I continued to apologize. But then I started yelling back, because hey, I said I was sorry, and finally, I released my inner spoiled brat and screamed at him, “I did not move halfway around the world to throw nasty toilet paper in a freaking basket by the toilet!” Then I flounced into the bedroom, slammed the door, and sent WhatsApp messages to my mom explaining everything that had happened.

When I sheepishly revealed to her how, in the heat of the moment, I had let all of my pent-up First World obnoxiousness fly, she texted me back a caps-lock, “LOL.” Then, much to my surprise, she added, “You sound like me when I first moved to Missouri.”

See, my mom and dad grew up in California, in the San Francisco area. My mom was a city girl, born and raised. But my dad spent every summer of his childhood in southern Missouri with his grandparents, on their farm on a dirt road, and he always wanted to live there. A few years into their marriage, in the early 1970s, my dad came home and told my mom to pack up because they were moving to Koshkonong, Missouri (population: 205). I think moving from San Francisco to Koshkonong in 1972 was probably a lot like moving from Missouri to Saudi Arabia in 2012…maybe even harder, because there was no Skype, WhatsApp, or MagicJack. It was a pretty major culture shock for my mom. But she’s been in Kosh ever since.

She explained, “We spent at lot of time at Aunt Lorene’s house back then, and they used to have to do that at Aunt Lorene’s house.  It’s okay; I thought it was gross, too.”

Ah, me and my momma. Boldly going where spoiled women have not gone before, one toilet paperless flush at a time.

Saleh and I went to bed without speaking to one another. Then, the next morning, he rolled over and said quietly to my back, “Habibeti…are you still mad at me?”

“Yes,” I said rudely. But I rolled over and gave him a hug. After all, the guy had paid a plumber for the privilege of photographing a giant glop of my used toilet paper not twelve hours earlier, and yet he wasn’t mad at me anymore. And he didn’t want me to be mad at him, either.

I love him more than our toilet loves toilet paper. That may not sound very romantic, but the picture still on my phone can testify that it’s pretty freaking significant.



25 thoughts on “a toilet’s tale.

  1. Alison

    Saudi toilets sound and look exactly like the loos here in Malaysia. I grew up mostly using the squatty type toilets. And all modern apartments (including mine) have the hose next to the toilet too. So everything you’re saying here, totally get it. My husband clogs up toilets often, hah! Overuse of toilet paper, for sure.

    So sorry your toilet clogged, and glad that you sorta made up. It’s a good story though :)

    1. Nicole Post author

      at this point, i almost wish he would have just gone ahead and put a squatty potty in the bathroom; i would have gotten used to it eventually, and i wouldn’t have to alter my toilet paper usage quite as drastically! :)

  2. mabsootah

    LOL- that is a GREAT post! And besides explaining all the toilet stuff, I think you just went over many of the points/feelings of my own fights with my husband :-p
    And I love the note about your mom- I always say the worst culture shock I’ve ever had was moving from California to DC! Working in international education you actually find that to be the case often- the potential for extreme culture shock is often in counties similar to the US (because of the the EXPECTATIONS more than anything else).

    I’m glad the toilet is fixed now! In Jordan, our issue is when the apartment runs out of water and we either run to a fast food joint to use the toilet, use bottled water (!), or wait for the water truck to fill us up again.

    1. Nicole Post author

      thank you! i am waiting for the water to run out here…i think that will be an interesting experience to observe, lol! i remember once it happened when i wasn’t yet here in riyadh, and my husband was telling me all about the adventure of going out to find a water truck to come and refill the tank! :)

  3. djdfr

    Those squatty toilets are called toilettes turques here in France. They have them in some public places. I have never seen one in a home. What I like about les toilettes here is that they are generally separate from the bathroom.

    1. Nicole Post author

      that’s interesting! i never knew france had them, as well. i never saw one in france, but now the next time i go (inshallah) i will be on the lookout for one, lol! ;)

  4. Camilla (@sunnysandbox)

    “But nooooo…is that really so hard?” Hahaha YES! I know its really so hard. I’m on autopilot at the toilet, unlearning a habit is really so hard. So it happened in our home too, a plugged toilet.

    And I’m with you. I also started to use both water and toilet paper. Just paper now suddenly feels icky, but I never got use to pull up my pants when my bum is all wet. My husband claims it’s refreshing…. eh…

    1. Nicole Post author

      i’m with you; i can’t stand pulling up my pants when everything is all wet! i do NOT find it refreshing, lol!

  5. afemalemarine

    I have always been curious to know how the water spraying is done so that the sprayer doesn’t get their clothes all wet. I was never brave enough to give it a shot. I can sort of imagine how, but after seeing how WET the ENTIRE bathroom stalls often were, I couldn’t figure out how people managed to spray so much water all over the place without getting themselves wet too!

    1. Nicole Post author

      the sprayer is typically used in a pretty localized way…not, like, right up in one’s business (that would be gross), but close enough so that everything gets clean and the water goes into the toilet and the clothes don’t get wet. :) i once asked my husband why public bathrooms are always such a mess like that, with water everywhere, and he said, “well, kids like to play in water…plus they’re just learning how to use the sprayer, so, you know…” in other words, he says it’s not the grown-ups who are spraying water everywhere…although i’m sure there are some grown-ups who go into a public restroom and think it needs a good cleaning before it’s fit to use, so they hose it down before they do their business. i don’t know that for sure, but that’s my theory…kind of like the way some americans refuse to use public restrooms without wiping down the seat with antibacterial wipes and then using a seat cover. :) i’ve never been in a bathroom in a saudi home where the water was all over the place like that.

      1. afemalemarine

        Thanks!! Kids doing it makes perfect sense, I don’t know why that didn’t occur to me! I like your theory about the grown-ups too though.

        1. Nicole Post author

          the only reason i came up with the alternative theory is because i’ve heard some stories about wet bathrooms in places where no kids are–like english schools for adults, for example. either it’s my theory playing out or it’s westerners who haven’t gotten the hang of the shettaf! :) the latter theory probably has something to do with it, too, now that i think about it; when my mom was here in november, on her first try using the bathroom in a public place (a mall), she accidentally sprayed the wall of the stall, and then she was so startled by the sound of the water hitting the wall that she lost control of the shettaf and ended up spraying all over her abaya, lol!

      2. gina

        As a “Homestay Family” for English -learning Saudi’s in Idaho, we have often wondered why the bathroom is drenched after a student has used it! However, these students are grown men who should have outgrown playing with water, and are clean and respectful everywhere else in our home. We have guessed maybe they have been using water to also clean the toilet area after themselves… but we have never been 1) brave enough and 2) bothered enough to try to broach the subject, made even more difficult and sensitive with the language barrier. Your post was enlightening!

        1. Nicole Post author

          i’m glad the post was helpful! just put a watering can next to the toilet–your problem will probably solve itself. ;)

  6. Birgitta Virtanen

    I really love your blog!! And can´t help loughing out when I read your entries. This entry didn´t make me disappointed in that way at all, I was laughing like crazy and I was reading it at the publis library!!! I can just wonder what people around me were thinking…… You are the best!

  7. bet

    I was wondering how do Saudi men and women do it while squatting if they have to hold their thobes and abayas rolled up, while men at least also have pants bunched down at the floor level. And then with one has to reach out for the water hose and maneuver it to where it has to hit… Sounds difficult!

    1. Nicole Post author

      i’ve used a squatty potty and shettaf while wearing jeans under my abaya, and i’ll admit, it took some tricky maneuvering. :) however, i have to admit that i am a terrible squatter, as most americans are. it’s a skill we lose around the age of five, because we have no use for it. even now, when i squat, at my lowest point, i have to stay on my tiptoes to maintain my balance. if i try to put my feet totally on the ground, i’ll end up sitting down on the floor. but folks who have grown up using squatty potties are much better at squatting, because they have a reason to be; they can squat all the way down with their feet flat on the floor. and when you get really close to the ground, your pants kinda bunch up behind you, out of the line of fire. :)

  8. Tina

    Lol, I totally get the water AND toilet paper issue, and the wet wipes. When I was in a hotel in Egypt, I decided to try the sprayer and the water and smell that came out made me regret it. That thing needed to be soaked in bleach! Ugh! I was left wondering if I would get some infection…Lesson learned, only use your own sprayer…lol


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