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Outside Eye: Contrasts of Neatness

March 2, 2010

It has been almost three weeks since my visit to Alexandria, Egypt where about 40 journalists gathered to discuss various issues. You can check the recollection of some of the Tweets here.

The conference and the discussions were all serious and inspiring, however, Alexandria’s toilet hygiene impressed me the most.

My brother appreciates a locale, a city, a society by its restrooms.  The logic behind this, no pun intended, is simple: the cleaner, the more artistic the restroom the superior the venue. Hence, the quality of a restroom can either put a stain on the venue or on the contrary, highlight its neatness. Well, in Egypt that logic doesn’t work.  There is no class structure when it comes to toilets.  All are the same: a little odorous yet with thoughtful tools for personal hygiene.

If you haven’t had a chance to travel to the Arab world you must be confused. You see, all restrooms in Alexandria have a built in small hygiene fountain. It works similarly to what the westerners know as a bidet.  If for some reason that little feature doesn’t work, there is a small shower attached to the toilet cabin wall to maintain toilet hygiene despite technical difficulties.

Now, can you imagine all the restrooms in the United States having bidets? By my brother’s standards that will be a VIP lounge with a strict face control.


Egyptian civilization has stood at the origins of numerous innovations we use on a daily basis. The sewage system is no exception.  Before the modern flush toilets appeared, most human waste disposal took place outdoors in outhouses and latrines, a communal space with multiple toilets. By the way US Army still uses the term latrine to indicate what is more commonly known as a restroom in the Unites States.

Back to the history: ancient Indus Valley Civilization – Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, located in modern day Pakistan and India did have flush toilets attached to rather sophisticated sewage system. Other innovative minds in this industry were Romans and Egyptians.

Positive Impact:

You are not only keeping yourself clean, but arguably also using relatively fewer rolls of paper, and thus cutting down fewer trees for your  toilet routine.


Despite my admiration of this culture, I still do not understand how such a custom of neatness doesn’t translate into other spheres. For instance, why can’t the buildings be  a bit cleaner? Why beautiful sea shores can’t be waste free? I guess it will take another trip and more research to find the answer.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve Strasser permalink
    March 3, 2010 12:03 pm

    Wonderful article. You’re a great observer!

    • Ruzanna permalink
      March 3, 2010 4:47 pm

      I hope I will stay an observer and will not become an expert, as I feel I am learning a bit too much about this particular subject. “beware the curiosity”

      • ranipani permalink
        March 5, 2010 12:13 pm

        Hi Ruzanna, It is quite interesting observation. That type of bathroom habits is said to have come down from the ancient Indus civilisation which flourished around 3500 BC.

  2. March 3, 2010 1:44 pm

    I love it! Check this out for further reflections on bathroom habits…

    • Ruzanna permalink
      March 3, 2010 4:38 pm

      Thanks Lucy! I wish I had this source earlier

  3. Aroosa Masroor permalink
    March 3, 2010 2:31 pm

    Nice piece Ruzanna!

    The shower you mention are popularly known as “Muslim showers” 🙂 and yes you’d find them in most Arab/Muslim countries. In South Asia, a lota (water vessel) is usually used as an alternative when you dont have showers or the hygiene fountain in some places.

    • Ruzanna permalink
      March 3, 2010 4:44 pm

      Great information Aroosa. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Yuliya D. permalink
    March 3, 2010 5:43 pm

    Interesting observation, Ruzanna. My uncle, like your brother, is also convinced that the restroom is the most important indication of cleanliness and class of a venue. He also adds to that – a kitchen, but that’s not always in public view. Makes me think, however, of restrooms in some of St. Petersburg’s museums, if they even exist (or can be called that), or the ones in historical sites of Rome.

  5. March 3, 2010 9:28 pm

    This was a grate article!

    Not only because you mentioned my theory (which I stick to no matter what!), but also because of the strategic choice you made regarding the subject of your research!

    Ruzanna’s brother

  6. March 12, 2010 10:55 am

    Bravo for this article.
    It is characteristic of good journalist to find topic everywhere.
    You hit Egypt in weak point.
    Your brother is really in right.
    Bathroom in house is mirror of the house and family, trust me.
    Clear bathroom speaks us about high hygiene in family and in its home.
    It is same situation with public toilets in one city.
    Confusion in mentality and political system, especially in socialist system with millions of inhabitants, as is situation in Egypt is symbolically given through the – public toilets. Generally hygiene in Egypt is on very low level.
    People are not interested to change anything considering it – the tradition.
    It it not question of sewage system. It is question of rooted nomad habits.
    The majority of Egyptians, even in Cairo, think it is so normal to leave garbage on the public places. I have never see any garbage containers .
    I was shocked when I was in a residential building in Cairo, where a garbage bags have been attached to the stud next the door, in order to somebody brought out.
    It is so terrible and uncivilized that there is no excuse.
    And above all, smell that spreads warning on potential local ecological disaster.
    Egyptians say about the lack of space that may be used for garbage location.
    No, that their is no justification.
    They have a desert.
    They have more than a large, unused space for garbage.
    It is same story with toilets in Egypt.
    One of the dirtiest roomrest I saw in my life is in Alexandria airport. Terrible.
    Airport building associated me on suburban bus station in poor part of Serbia.
    The only public toilets I used in Egypt, If I have to, are in high rank rated places such as restaurants, hotels .
    I say again, it is the matter of mentality and it will be very difficult to change.

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