Explaining Islamic Hygiene Can Be An Awkward Test Of True Friendship
"Why is my watering can in the bathroom?"
Shit. I knew I was forgetting something.
"Ahhh, I took it in there..." providing as little information as possible.
I really hope this doesn't go anywhere. Please, literally ask me about anything else.
Terrorism? Sure, let's discuss.
Religion and Islamic extremism? No problem. I'm in.
Racism and gender equality? I'll lecture and provide the slides.
Love and the meaning of life? Let me get my notes.
Anything but this.
"OK, but why?" My friend casually says still holding the watering can.
We're in the living room of his two-bedroom apartment, and I've been housesitting for the last couple of days.
You cleaned everything, stocked the fridge, but forgot about the watering can!
Discussing Islamic hygiene with your non-Muslim friends, even as an adult, is like having a nightmare while you're awake.
I look up from the couch at the watering can in his hand. It's majestic. Metal, long spout, but not too long. There's a carefully carved out design on the side. It's nicer than any watering can I've seen before. Nicer than the plastic, colourful ones in most Muslim homes. But more important than anything else: it's the perfect size for fitting under the faucet of the bathroom sink.
I catch myself marvelling at its beauty and thinking: why don't I have one like it?
The watering can is waved in my face for an explanation as I come back to my senses.
Panic stricken, I get up and start pacing — looking for a way to change the subject.
"I had some people over while you were away."
Damn it!I'm confessing things I don't have to just to avoid talking about this.
"I figured that would happen. Don't worry about it. But why are you acting so weird right now?"
I have no choice. The sea has been parted — I must lead my friend forward — to the very awkward reality of what most South Asians know as the lota.
Discussing Islamic hygiene with your non-Muslim friends, even as an adult, is like having a nightmare while you're awake. I can assure you, of all the complicated issues facing Muslims and first-generation kids, nothing is worse than having an unexpected "lota talk." And it always comes up in the worst possible way.
Like: "Hey, thanks for letting me stay at your place, have a party, eat your food, rub my feet all over your carpet, and — oh yeah — use your watering can to wash my butt."
It was under these circumstances that it would finally be time for our lifelong friendship to solidify. The "lota talk," though difficult, is an inevitable reality of any true friendship with a Muslim. Having this discussion is not easy for us, so please know that if you've had the privilege of having the "lota talk" with your Muslim friend, you've reached the highest possible pinnacle of friendship.
The lota is what South Asians, and Muslims as a whole, use to pour water on our backsides after using the bathroom — it's not a bidet. If you visit Muslim homes in Canada you will notice a small watering can next to the toilet, or maybe a pipe with a hose at the end which is meant to be used to spray water — always with lighting speed — directly at your "business." This is Islamic hygiene. It is part of the virtue of keeping yourself clean, such as making wudhu before saying prayers, and it is simply something that you do, and are used to, even if you are not righteously inclined — it's our reality one way or another (including also the reality of most parts of the world, Muslim or not, where basic hygiene, including toilet paper, is not an affordable luxury).
This virtue of cleanliness is seen by some as following in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad. Whatever the original reasoning, it's a great practice and one that will eventually catch on in Canada. Until then, it remains the top three most difficult friend conversations you can have: friend, I can't pay my half of the rent; friend, your sister and I are getting married; and friend, I used your watering can to wash my ass. Nonetheless, it's a conversation that many Muslims have to face, one way or another.
As my friend began to fill the can with water before walking over to his plants — another basic tenet of housesitting I had forgot — I confessed the reality of why the water can was in the bathroom.
With the can still tilted, water pouring out like the words from my mouth, he turned slowly to me, put the can down, and walked outside to the balcony.
A long drag pulled back, smoke rising in the air, red hot ash lighting the dark night sky. Only the tips of our noses visible under the light of the cigarettes. The silence finally broke.
"Tell me again about this butt washing..."
And so I did. Recalling my training to use the lota with one hand as a kid, while doing the deed with the other. Explaining how many bottles of Dasani are sacrificed to this ritual of yogic self-cleansing. How many empty grande Americano cups are left behind as soldiers to the cause. And how perfectly fitting under the faucet of the bathroom sink is the optimal test of a good lota. A reality that cannot be understood unless it is experienced.
So here we were. Cards out on the table. Ass laid bare. Literally and figuratively. My friend stumped out his cigarette in the ash tray.
Years later, I would come over to his place and find a watering can next to the toilet.
This is life and friendship in Canada.