N.B. This piece appeared in the second issue of my old zine, Travelling Shoes, “Fun in Old Morocco”, first published in the Spring of 1998.
I sing the praises of the Moroccan squat toilet; that Middle Eastern plumbing fixture usually misidentified as a simple hole in the ground with a pair of slightly-elevated foot-rests for leverage. As one who as suffered through the misery of acute intestinal distress (hows that for a nice circumlocution?), I can attest there is probably no type of toilet more appropriate or better suited for one similarly afflicted. While spending several days frequently and often frantically searching for relief, I came to appreciate the functionality and simplicity of these marvels of domestic hydro-engineering.
Despite all of the horror stories you may have heard about squat toilets, they are usually much more hygienic and airy, at least in Morocco, than their western, ceramic-throne counterparts. The public, western-style toilets I encountered were filthy, often retch-worthy monuments to post-colonial decay. The fixtures frequently didn’t work and were caked with the grime of the ages. The ones that functioned usually did so inefficiently, producing only the barest trickle of cleansing water. It was as if every filthy public restroom in every second-rate, off-brand, side-road gas station in America had been magically transported to North Africa, albeit with the curious addition of a dirty bidet.
I had come to Morocco almost directly from London, which itself is a sort of large-scale, Living Museum of Jurassic Plumbing, featuring archaic ceramic fixtures, many of which may well have been installed by Sir Thomas Crapper. London is a veritable cornucopia of overhead pull-chains, outsized urinals, clanking pipes and massive, 300-pound ceramic commodes. Still, despite the quaintness of the English fixtures, they all worked, if creakily, and they were usually clean and sufficiently furnished with toilet paper, which, is more than can be said of most Moroccan toilets. For all I know, there may be several different brands of toilet paper in Morocco, each piously advertising its softness and absorbency. But no matter where I went I encountered the exact same pinkish-lavander, loosely-rolled bundle of disappointment. This uniform, Moroccan national-standard roll of toilet paper always looked to be full, and perhaps by Moroccan standards it was. However, one or two good tugs revealed that the whole thing was so loosely wound that there was only enough for a couple of good wipes. In scientific terms, Moroccan toilet tissue is a binary system: the roll is either full or it’s empty, with no other position in between. I hope who ever has the monopoly on Moroccan toilet paper production and distribution chokes on his own money-grubbing, wood-pulp-squeezing bile.
The first squat toilet I encountered in Morocco was in the train station at Sidi Kasem–the keystone point of the Moroccan rail system. For the most part, Moroccan train cars are modern, French-built affairs with comfortable seats, working air conditioning and very inexpensive first class tickets. Unfortunately, the western-style toilets on these modern railcars suffer from all the typical ills, although at least flushing isn’t a problem since they empty directly onto the tracks. While the railcars use western-style toilets, the stations themselves are provided with squat toilets, and thanks should be given for that. The squat toilet at Sidi Kasem, the first one I had seen in Morocco, smelled of fresh water and disinfectant, and looked to be spotless, or at least as spotless as bare concrete and tile could be made. A delightful, refreshing breeze blew in under the gap at the base of the door, and water dripped pleasantly from a tap into a plastic bucket positioned next to the hole.
If you’re wearing pants, the secret to using a squat toilet effectively is to take them off and hang them on a nail. Of course, if you’re dressed in a skirt, or more appropriately a Moroccan jallaba, you can just hike your garments up around your waist. Once denuded below the belt-line, using a traditional Moroccan toilet is simply a matter of squatting and letting nature and gravity take their course. Speaking of nature, physicians and students of bathroomology–like Cornell architect and professor Alexander Kira, whose 1966 book, The Bathroom, is still the definitive work on the subject–agree that the Western porcelain throne promotes straining, constipation, and the most common inflammation of Western bowels, diverticulitis, which is almost unknown in the squatting cultures. (If youre a first-time visitor to Morocco, constipation is not likely to be a problem.) Worldwide, squatters outnumber sitters. Squat toilets are ubiquitous through out India and Asia, even in such increasingly westernized places as Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan (although western toilets are frequently viewed as status items by up-and-coming Asian yuppies).
Although, its hard to credit at first, the squat toilet is more than just a well-positioned hole in the ground. There is actual plumbing involved. A constant water level is maintained in the toilet bowl with a relatively simple system of pipes and floats, all of which is hidden from view below ground level and in the wall. Of course, in Morocco, as in many other countries, flushing is achieved with that bucket of water which is conveniently placed in the stall. Pick it up and pour it down the drain. Afterwards, courtesy demands that you refill the bucket from the from the dripping tap.
In Arab cultures it is considered horribly impolite, if not dangerously unhygienic, to take food from the communal bowl with your left hand. The reason for this became perfectly apparent to me in the bathroom at Sidi Kasem. There was no toilet paper, not even a hint of one of those shabby Moroccan rolls, just my left hand and that dripping tap. Still, despite the culture shock involved in wiping my butt with my bare hand, my first experience with a squat toilet wasnt entirely unpleasant, especially when compared with my previous experiences with Moroccos western-style toilets. Besides there was running water in the stall. All I lacked was soap, which I subsequently remembered to always take with me.
I’ve been to Morocco and glad I brought cheap flip-flops to use in the bathrooms. At one place I had to pay to use the squat toilet and received 1 piece of sandpaper quality TP. 🙂
You would carry wiping materials with you or else not do it. To do it with your hand is, for the reasons you give, a logical absurdity. Not a culture shock, an absurdity.