Monday, March 9, 2009
Although this subject, 'washing up' is a minute point, when I first came across it it stopped me in my tracks.
How could something so simple be carried out in a way so completely different to what I'd always experienced? And why on earth would anyone do it differently from the way I'd always done it?
It really did amaze me and it was the thing that started me thinking about cross-cultural communication and how absolutely everything can be different in someone else's culture.
Washing up in England
I was brought up in England where we'd always do the washing up in a bowl. Gloves were always worn (to protect your hands) and then the taps would be turned on. The water would run into the washing up bowl until the bowl was full and then they would be turned off.
The dirty washing would then be put into the bowl and the washing-up liquid added to the water. Bubbles then appear and you'd use a mop or cloth to clean the dishes. Once the crockery was clean from the meal left-overs, the dishes would be stood vertically in a rack to dry.
Washing up in the GCC
In the Middle East none of the above happens.
Washing up liquid is put into a container which stands at the side of the sink for the duration of the washing up activity. Water is added to the container and made into a thick liquid which is used to clean the dishes. The tap is turned on and left running.
The person doing the washing up (often a servant or house boy), picks up the plates one by one, dips the sponge ~I don't even know if you can buy a w-up mop, I should look~ into the washing up liquid continer at the side of the sink, cleans the plate and then puts the sponge back in the container at the side of the sink.
The plate is then put under the running tap again and all traces of the soap suds are washed away (it is deemed unhyginic to leave soap suds on a plate you will eat from). The plate is then turned up side down and put on the drainer at the side of the sink ~I've never seen a drainer in the Middle East~
A real slight by an Arab to another Arab would be to say their drinking glasses "smell of fish". It subtly indicates all sorts of things; money is hard to come by, the dishes aren't washed properly or are unclean (a real insult) and the servants aren't being organised.
The background to this insult comes from the insinuation that until about 20 years ago, fish was very cheap in the Gulf and therefore considered to be a poor man's food. Because of this, and because cooked fish has such a pungent smell, many households now disinfect their entire stock of glassware once a week to ensure the fish smell doesn’t build up.
One lady I know is regularly insulted by her mother-in-law because every time she visits, the mother in law tells her she can smell fish in her water glasses.
Fish smells are still used to describe the, 'great unwashed'.
For example should someone be telling you a story about having to go to a public building e.g. a ministry or hospital, they could very well describe and act out how strong the fish smell was, using great big hand movements and holding their noses for too long (!) too dramatically (!) whilst making blowing noises with persed lips (!) as a natural and integrated part of the story ~such lively, dramatic fun to watch~