Sunday, May 15, 2011

Another thing that makes me go, "...huh."

I recently wrote a post about the more perplexing aspects of Saudi culture that I wasn't prepared for before we moved. I've since realized I left one thing off my list: toilet paper.

To a Westerner, Saudis have an odd relationship with toilet paper. At home, the fluffy rolls of two-ply are pretty much only found next to the toilet. Toilet paper in the West can serve a few purposes: 1). a stand-in for kleenexes when you have a mucus emergency 2). cleaning up spills on the bathroom counter 3). wiping one's mouth after a meeting with the porcelain god 4). serving as an impromptu door lock when the public restroom door latch is broken 5). germ barrier for those rest-stop restrooms that are of the in-case-of-emergency-only types of gross.

On the whole, however, toilet paper stays in the bathroom and it serves the one, obvious purpose.

Not so is the case in Saudi Arabia. Some of you may already know that using toilet paper for personal hygiene reasons is pretty much a Western thing. Arabs and other cultures prefer to wipe with a more...God-given resource. Go to a public restroom in Saudi Arabia and you're going to find something like this:

the "squatty potty" as my friend Sandra calls it.

In a lot of places you'll find one or two sitters, but don't expect a roll of toilet paper to be hanging on the wall. Instead there will be a little water hose with which you are expected to rinse yourself. In the case of the bathrooms at the school where I work, there often is a roll of toilet paper in the Western toilet stalls, but it's usually marked with wet fingerprints because after one uses the water hose, she needs to...dry off. Oh look! An absorbent material just waiting to be put to good use. (For those who are still confused, instead of toilet paper, Arabs and many many other cultures around the world use their hand [usually the left] to...take over for the toilet paper. Number 1 and number 2)

For the sake of my students who read my blog, I need to insert a disclaimer here: NOT ALL ARABS USE THIS PARTICULAR CUSTOM IN THE RESTROOM! From what I've been told most of my students use the sitters and make good use of the toilet paper (yes, I'm that teacher who asked!) So please don't go telling your friends that all Arabs wipe with their left hand. SOME (including, from what I can tell, a whoole lot of my colleagues) do, but not ALL.

Back to the odd relationship between the Saudi and toilet paper.

You'd think that because toilet paper is not used in its traditional role (pun totally intended there!), it's not stocked much in the Middle East. H'oh boy would you be wrong! Toilet paper serves a myriad of purposes, especially at the school where I work. For example: we have a little kitchen attached to the teacher's lounge. Logic would dictate that there would be a roll of paper towels in the kitchen, but we're in Saudi Arabia, my friend. What do the ladies use to wipe up the counter? Toilet paper.

We have the air dryers in the bathroom. They are loud, time consuming, and all around annoying. Hmm, what should we do? Toilet paper!

I'm a student and I have a major case of allergies right now. Instead of buying a box of kleenex and carrying that around with me, I just steal a roll of toilet paper from the bathroom (or bring one from home), and lug that round. Toilet paper!

Someone brought a dish of pastries to share with the office! How nice, but we don't have any paper plates on which to serve it. Never fear, toilet paper is here!!

I have never seen toilet paper in so many public places outside of the restroom in my life. I don't understand why Saudis prefer it over paper products designed to clean up spills and dry hands. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why students would prefer to rub their noses raw instead of spending a couple riyals on a box of tissues. This is definitely a part of the Saudi culture I was not prepared for, and I'm not entirely sure I'll ever get a real explanation for it.

Vicariously yours,

1 comment:

  1. glad you covered this! For the last week it has fascinated me because apparently i live in a buuble. Tyler must have told you that i grilled him about it the other day.