What's a Lota? Let Me Explain the Secrets of the Muslim Bathroom
Photo Credit: (Credit: Mel Canlas via Shutterstock/Salon)
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In America, Muslims must think like Jason Bourne, practicing our rituals with clandestine skill to avoid awkward confrontations. For instance, it’s not easy to find creative space to pray while providing logical explanations to those who find you in mid-prostration. “I’m doing Arabic tai chi,” you might say when someone sees you crouched in a stall at the Gap. “It’s an … Eastern thing.”
Or, what if you get caught doing the pre-prayer ablution, wudu, that requires Muslims to wash their hands and feet five times a day? “Uh, my foot is in the office restroom sink because I couldn’t pay my water bill,” you might say. “Rough economy, you know?”
Added to this list is the “lota,” which is used in Muslim communities, including most South Asian populations, to aid in cleansing rituals. The lota is a magical chalice for our peoples – it’s a traditional hand-held vessel that contains water to assist in our bathroom “activities.” Using a baseball lineup analogy, toilet paper and moist wipes are a “leadoff” hitter, but the lota functions as the “clean-up hitter,” the player with the power to bring all the players to home plate.
But the lota can be confusing to Americans. Not long ago, an American Muslim family was detained at the airport and interviewed by the FBI. They had aroused suspicion by “lingering” near the airplane bathroom and asking for a “cup” to perform a “religious custom dictating cleanliness.”
I can certainly sympathize. I have confused many co-workers with my creeping “stealth lota jihad.” At my former law job, I once used a venti Starbucks cup as a temporary, emergency lota. I thoroughly washed the caramel frap residue and filled it to the brim with tap water.
“Hey Waj,” I heard just as I was about to enter the stall and liberate myself. It was my boss. “Whatcha’ got there?”
“Oh, this? Just, uh, was thirsty,” I replied. We stared at each other for several, uncomfortable seconds. “Yup – thirsty.”
And then I proceeded to drink the water.
But the lota shouldn’t be such cause for embarrassment. It has always existed — right under our very noses and bottoms. For Muslims, it is the homely girlfriend we adore but are ashamed to date in public. We keep it hidden out of self-loathing and fear. As America’s unofficial ambassador of “Eastern Toilet Etiquette, ” however, I say it’s time to explain a few things.
The origin of the lota
Muslims follow the traditions of their Prophet Muhammad, who performed istinja, the act of washing the private parts with water after committing najis, which is the “filth” we commonly refer to as the numbers “1” and “2.” Paper and certain rocks can also be used to facilitate the process, but water is the preferred accomplice.
Furthermore, Islam requires this specific “act” to be performed by the left hand, which is synonymous in South Asia for being the hand that is used only for “other things.” It is recommended for Muslims to perform most actions, including eating, with their right hand.
Naturally, I happen to be the left-handed minority within a minority. As such, I have been treated by most fellow Muslims like a circus freak, leper or the local chaiwallah possessed by the local toilet jinn. This adds to my lifetime of traumatic “South Paw” episodes, including having perpetual pen smudges on my left hand and being seen as mentally challenged throughout elementary school due to my inability to use right-handed scissors.
At a recent South Asian Muslim wedding, I made the fatal mistake of taking biryani from the buffet tray with my left hand. With the visual acuity of an intolerant, bigoted eagle, my aunt spotted the alleged criminal act and loudly admonished me in front of my peers: “You took food with the left hand?! We don’t eat with the left hand – only the right hand. The left hand is used for … ‘other things.’”