Between Iraq and a Hard Place – Episode 40

Hannah and Colleen talk about their experiences with cleanliness in Kurdish culture, the biggest compliment they ever received from Kurdish women, and how some of those things are already changing!

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Here’s a rough transcript of the podcast on cleanliness!

Hannah: Welcome to “Between Iraq and a Hard Place”. I’m Hannah!

Colleen: And I’m Colleen.

Hannah: And we’re going to tell you about our life in Iraq.

Colleen: It’s gonna be fun.

Hannah: I hope so.

Colleen: So you’ve heard the phrase: cleanliness is next to godliness.

Hannah: I have for sure.

Colleen: There is a similar phrase that comes from the hadith that in Islam…

Hannah: OK.

Colleen: …the Islamic writings, that says cleanliness is half of faith

Hannah: Half?

Colleen: Half.

Hannah: That’s a lot.

Colleen: It’s a very important thing.

Hannah: Yeah. Yeah. OK that explains some experiences I had in northern Iraq, for sure.

Colleen: I mean we both have experienced how important being clean is there.

Hannah: Yes. So, I was never a tidy person. Like, as a kid. This was what I was known for was not cleaning my room. And so in some ways living in Iraq trained that out of me on some level. Yeah. Interesting. I don’t think I knew that about Islam though that it was like that important.

Colleen: But I mean it is featured heavily in front of mosques. I mean every time we use restrooms at mosques, one of the reasons you could use the toilet at a mosque was because they always have running water. And they always had a place where you could wash your hands; they have sinks. And they also have those low sitting areas with all the different faucets like the little foot baths.

Hannah: The little foot baths.

Colleen: Yes, because they do that ritual washing before they pray or before touching the Koran.

Hannah: I guess now that you say that, I can think of like go into my neighbors’ houses and it being time for prayer and then like excusing themselves to like go wash their faces and their hands and I guess I just didn’t know that like 50 percent of faith, that seems… I couldn’t make it. I couldn’t do it.

Colleen: Well it depends on I guess what you think that cleanliness means.

Hannah: Sure.

Colleen: Some people talk about it meaning purity like purity of heart or inner cleanliness. You know there’s a lot of range to the word cleanliness or clean. Yeah, I mean but the washing itself is the head, the hands, and the arms up to the elbows. And the feet and the ankles.

Hannah: Feet and ankles. All right.

Colleen: And you don’t actually have to have water.

Hannah: Really? Well, there is a lot of desert.

Colleen: Clean earth can also be used if no water no clean water is available.

Hannah: So clean earth like you go out in your field and dig up some untouched dirt?

Colleen: You know, that’s a little vague. I think most of the times I saw it referenced people talked about using sand. Again, desert.

Hannah: Sure, sand is probably pretty clean.

Colleen: Probably. I just can’t imagine rubbing sand all over your face.

Hannah: It’s a good exfoliant.

Colleen: That’s true.

Hannah: So there’s that.

Colleen: But, I think definitely for all of my friends, you know, who would step out and wash and pray or whatever they were going to do would come back. And I remember, you know, the edges of their hair being wet or just little things like that.

Hannah: I guess that also kind of adds some heft to the insult of like, “you dirty person.”

Colleen: I mean that’s one of the primary ways to insult someone is dirtiness.

Hannah: Yeah. Again a thing that like registered with me. But I was always like, “So, they called you dirty. So what. Like in the grand scheme of things..” But they’re basically calling you a godless person in some ways.

Colleen: Or attacking your your standing with God.

Hannah: Yeah. Yeah. So I think when I experienced that the most was taking some students to visit refugee families that were living just like in an old abandoned half built building. And a lot of the students coming to me and being like, “Miss, you know our parents told us we shouldn’t go because the people there are dirty.” And like in my American mind I was like, “Well, of course they’re dirty. Like they don’t have anywhere to live. They don’t have water. Like just because someone can’t take a shower doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t visit them.” But realizing that like we were going to visit Yazidi people. So the dirtiness was not like the outward cleanness so much as like they were considered, you know, horrible godless people.

Colleen: Yeah. And in the case of the videos we’ve talked about before sometimes even considered Satan worshippers.

Hannah: Right. Which is inaccurate. Let me just repeat that. Yeah. So that was part of it one of the cultural things that we had to kind of overcome to be like help these people. It doesn’t matter. And and we did have a national friend with us who was like look it doesn’t matter if they’re dirty. And she definitely understood the like cultural connotations of dirtiness.

Colleen: Right.

Hannah: In a way that I did not. And so she definitely counteracted that better than I did because I was like, “Well, we’ll just wash our hands afterwards.”

Colleen: And everyone else is like, “No no that’s not what we mean.”

Hannah: Right.

Colleen: Although those things are tied very closely. Sure as the washing and as how people keep their houses clean. Like there’s a whole category of your moral standing being tied to the cleanliness of your space.

Hannah: Right. Which again having been a very grubby kid, like irked me to no end in Kurdistan. It was like , “This is a dusty country, of course the outside of my house is gonna be dusty.

Colleen: And because there’s no good sealing in houses, like the window seals, there is going to be dust inside your house as well.

Hannah: Right. Right. And like I guess my mindset was, “Well the inside of my house is clean. Who cares? Like, I dust inside my house because that’s what’s going to irritate me. But when you have a sandstorm once a week who really cares that outside of your house is dusty?” The answer is everyone cares!

Colleen: Because everyone sees that, sees the outside of your house as a representation of what the inside of your house must also look like.

Hannah: Right. You see all the time, almost always only women, outside of their houses spraying off like the facade the front facade of their house, but also like the howsha, the like patio front walkway which is almost always all tile.

Colleen: Yeah. People don’t really have yards there. So I like this tile porch almost, the balconies, and like where you park your car, and everything is all just tiled and flat.

Hannah: And they have these little plastic hoses that like they’re really good at like the thumb over the end to make like high powered pressure come out.

Colleen: And the squeegees. I really love the squeegees! To be honest.

Hannah: There is something deeply satisfying about spraying off and squeegee-ing clean your tile and watching the like dusty dirty water just like go down the drain street. Yeah. Yeah, there was definitely like I may not be able to control anything in my life but I can make this tile clean! It’s a beautiful thing!

Colleen: And yet I don’t think we ever manage to do it once or twice a day like the Kurdish women did.

Hannah: Oh for sure, no. I was lucky if I did it twice a week.

Colleen: Yeah, that was probably about what we hit.

Hannah: Even rotating through roommates. It would be like I don’t have the energy to do this or we don’t have water.

Colleen: Right. So in a place where water is scarce and your tank gets only filled up every so many days. The fact that all of these women will spend vast amounts of their precious water washing down the outsides of their houses and sometimes also the street in front of their house is a testament to the value that it holds in their head.

Hannah: Yeah, we had one neighbor lady when I first moved to Kurdistan who, I think was probably scolding us for not keeping our house very clean. She only spoke Kurdish and we didn’t speak any Kurdish, so I don’t really know what she was saying. But you know she very kindly did try to come in and help us figure out how to how to wash our front part of our house better. And at the time, we did eventually get this fixed, but at the time our water pump had like the hose spigot for the outside kind of attached to it but the water pump electrical was also grounded to the metal hose dispenser thing. So if you turn the water pump on that thing then became electrified.

Colleen: Right.

Hannah: But you have to have the water pump on to have the hose work right.

Colleen: Yeah. So you have to turn the faucet on first and then turn on the pump for the water to come out and not get electrocuted.

Hannah: In that house specifically.

Colleen: Right.

Hannah: So she came over and we knew this already. She came over and turned the pump on because she was gonna show us how to do it better and then reached to turn on the water and both of us went, “No no no no no.!” And she touched it and like got shocked basically by it and she like a both of us death glares and then walked out and didn’t come back. Like it took a long time until she spoke to us again. But I was like, oh I’m really sorry I didn’t know what you wanted. Like I didn’t know how to make it up to her. But I think she just resigned herself to the fact that we were filthy and she would wash the front of our street as well as her own.

Colleen: OK. That was sweet of her.

Hannah: So I’m not sure if it was like, “ugh these girls are just gross” or if she was like, “No they have electric water they can’t do it.” I’m not I’m not sure which one happened.

Colleen: Yeah, I think we certainly did not measure up to the standards of cleanliness there.

Hannah: Oh for sure.

Colleen: I can only think of really one time where we both actually measured up to the standards of Kurdish cleanliness and that was here in the United States!

Hannah: Yeah.

Colleen: When we had a whole bunch of different refugee women over and we we received the comment that we would make good Kurdish women because our house was so clean.

Hannah: It really was a banner day in my life to have multiple Kurdish women be like, “You’ll be a good wife. So clean your house!” And I mean we spent two or three days cleaning.

Colleen: Yup, every year.

Hannah: That’s become our our yearly big clean in our house is when we host that that get together of women. It’s like oh we got like… and our roommate this year we were like, “Look, just don’t touch anything. Like you can come in, you can eat in the kitchen, but like clean up like right away.”

Colleen: No crumbs! We washed down the baseboards and the walls and everything.

Hannah: Yeah yeah.

Colleen: And that’s the only way you can actually attain to Kurdish level cleanliness. That’s true in our experience at least.

Hannah: It’s true. It’s true.

Colleen: Hey just to interrupt. If you really want to help us out give us a review on Apple podcasts, even if you don’t use Apple podcasts. The reviews there really help us get found by other people. So if you could do that for us, that would be great. Thanks!

Colleen: But the the cleanliness does extend outside the home even a little further down the street. Although cars, cars are also kind of inside; they are personal space.

Hannah: Yes, but the providence of men.

Colleen: Yes.

Hannah: So I had a teammate who the husband really liked to wash the howsha. It was fun for him and his neighbors would make fun of him for all the time and he’d be like, “Well, you wash your car.” And they’d be like, “Of course, Well, I’m the man. Of course I wash the car.”

Colleen: The woman washes the house. The man washes the car.

Hannah: Yes, and every Kurdish person’s car including taxis, that I have been in, have been just like spotless to the point where taxis wrap their seats in plastic to keep them keep them clean. Yeah, yeah, it’s it’s amazing. Like I would be appalled. I feel like I keep my car pretty clean because I’m the only person that’s ever in it. But I feel like my Kurdish friends would be appalled like I haven’t taken my car and washed it in a long time.

Colleen: Yeah. I mean it rains here more. That’s what I tell myself. It doesn’t mud rain here like it does in Iraq.

Hannah: That’s true but their cars are like shiny

Colleen: Shiny always.

Hannah: Like the men get up every morning and wash their car.

Colleen: Which again, with the water issues is always just a little mind boggling to me that like, this, this is what you’re using your water for.

Hannah: Right. Where in the US, it’s like conserve, you gotta conserve your water and we have an abundance of water.

Colleen: Well, but we do things like take really long showers…

Hannah: …and brush our teeth with the sink going…

Colleen: …and water our grass…

Hannah: Oh yeah. Watering the grass.

Colleen: I mean, in some ways the watering of the grass is the equally ridiculous thing.

Hannah: That is true.

Hannah: The American equivalent of cleaning your howsha. Strangely, a man’s province instead of a woman’s province.

Colleen: This is true. Gendered rules, they’re such a mystery.

Hannah: There so strange, so strange.

Colleen: But going further into the realm of the more public would be the classroom where we spent a lot of time.

Hannah: Yes.

Colleen: And cleaning and cleanliness suddenly has a whole different set of rules.

Hannah: Right. Right. It’s like you get 10 feet outside of your house and your responsibility for picking up trash or keeping things tidy goes rapidly down

Colleen: Right, to pretty much zero.

Hannah: To pretty much zero. Yeah. And it was really frustrating as a teacher to be like, Hey, we just got new desks. Don’t write on them!

Colleen: Or you came into this classroom this morning and it was clean and tidy, don’t just crumple up your scratch paper and throw it on the floor.

Hannah: Right. There’s a trash can. Put it in the trash can.

Colleen: But Miss, why?

Hannah: Yeah. Right. Because again as Americans we’re taught like you keep the space that you are in clean and tidy at least. Yeah. So much so that I don’t even remember learning that in school.

Colleen: Right.

Hannah: Like I don’t I don’t feel like we had a: hey you have to keep your space clean, Lesson. It was just like everyone does it. It is known.

Colleen: Yeah it’s so deeply ingrained in our culture. Whereas everybody doesn’t necessarily keep their bedrooms clean in America.

Hannah: Right. Or when was the last time you washed the windows on the outside of your house.

Colleen: Yeah.

Hannah: Never is the answer. No. I have once I think in the five years that we’ve lived in our house.

Colleen: But yeah definitely. The classroom was a place where we had to work and I mean I remember every other American teacher coming in and just being like, I don’t understand how you can mindlessly trash your classroom. That included things I guess like you had mentioned something about leaving bread.

Hannah: Yeah. So there was one of the things that I felt like I had to fight against all the time was kids would eat their, you know, their sandwiches and they would have these bits of bread leftover and they would put them like up on the window sills of the classroom. And I was always like, like paper on the floor. Annoyed me but not enough for me to be like grraw. But the food left to like rot on the window sills, like things that your mouth have been on that are then left where other people see them. That just is gross to me and so I would be like, “Guys you gotta throw your sandwich scraps away. You can’t just leave them out.” And they would never do it and it took me. You used to make me crazy and one of my sixth graders finally was like, “But Miss, we leave them for the man that comes.” And I was like, “What are you talking about?” And they were like, “The men. The man comes and he picks them up and he puts them in a bag and he takes them home to his chickens.” And I was like, “Oh this, like, there is a purpose for them being put up in the window sills and not like left on the floor.”

Colleen: And there are some rules about how you’re not supposed to throw away bread right? You know you’re supposed to feed it to the birds or leave it out for the animals.

Hannah: Right. Yeah. Because I then noticed that it was not uncommon to walk down the street and see bits of bread in the street. For the birds and the chickens or whatever.

Colleen: Yeah.

Hannah: And it just kind of became this like, “OK, well at least it’s like a biodegradable, I guess.”

Colleen: Unlike the chip bags that also get thrown on the street.

Hannah: Right! Chip bags! Man, did I come to hate chip bags. Chip bags and plastic bags.

Colleen: Dave used to tell us stories about how like he’d try to convince people that in Kurdistan plastic bags actually grew on trees.

Hannah: Because it looks like it sometimes. Yeah. Again this is like you’re going even farther out like in a classroom you have a little bit of ownership of the space.

Colleen: And there is the expectation that it will get cleaned up because of the badgies, the cleaning ladies, right, who are kind of often considered lower class citizens in some ways. I loved the badgies after school and I think they actually have a cleaning service now. But you know, there is the expectation that you know what I right through here will eventually get picked up.

Hannah: Right. Someone’s gonna come and clean it up.

Colleen: You go further out like you said and no one’s going to clean that up. I mean the street sweepers they had hired street sweepers from Bangladesh for a while in my city.

Hannah: Right for like the big public roads where people don’t live.

Colleen: Right. That whole human trafficking adventure got shut down. But yeah. The other more public spaces it’s just a free for all.

Hannah: Right, because we’ve talked about this before that Kurdish people love to go on picnics out in the countryside and they take all their food with them and they take plastic tablecloths and plastic plates and forks and knives and bottles of water and Coke cans and all of that stuff. But that trash is then considered dirty and they don’t want to put it into their clean cars and so they just leave it. Like especially in March when it’s like prime picnic season you drive out into the countryside and it’s just like this would be beautiful but there is so much trash just left there.

Colleen: Yeah and the streams and the like the water places that are in the really popular picnic areas like it’s just filled with trash.

Hannah: It’s clogged with trash. And there has been in the last five or six years a big public push of, “Hey, if you’re going out and you’re picnicking at least collect your trash into plastic bags and tie them closed and leave them there. And the city will send people out to pick up the plastic bags full of trash.”

Colleen: Oh really? I hadn’t realized that.

Hannah: Yeah, Erbil started a big push for that and they were like hey if you just collect them and leave them by the road we will come and pick up the trash during Newroz season specifically.

Colleen: I mean I remember we would take our classes of students and we would bring extra trash bags and we would start the picnic by picking up trash, in part because glass also gets broken. And it’s just not safe for the kids to be running around and playing with broken glass. But yeah, we’d start with everyone picking up trash and we would end by making everyone pick up trash and they would complain and fuss and sometimes we even had parents complain that like, “Why are you making my kid pick up trash and we’re like I’m sorry this is what you’re signing up for at an American school. This is the way Americans do it. That was always like, “No, this is the American way.”

Hannah: Yeah!

Colleen: We clean up after ourselves. And we also clean up after everyone else if if that’s necessary.

Hannah: Right. Because we do we have that mindset of you leave something better than you found it.

Colleen: At least in the case of nature!

Hannah: Right. In the old hiking adage of, “Take only pictures leave only footprints.” right. Again something that was so ingrained in me that like it hurts to not stop and pick up the trash because it’s like Oh. I gotta. And our students are eventually got on board with it. It really helped to bring rubber gloves for them to wear. So they didn’t feel like they were getting dirty, right. And I think one year we actually did like a contest for which class could pick up the most trash.

Colleen: Nice.

Hannah: And we had kids like digging trash like out of the ground to bring it to us.

Colleen: Which I mean after years and years and years like it’s it’s deep. It’s in the mud. It’s part of the soil now.

Hannah: Yeah, I even saw some of my my high school students eventually like start trash cleanup campaigns to some extent.

Colleen: Yeah! I’ve seen some of my students as well be a part of some of these clean up this river bank or clean up the side of this lake or you know specific areas. Like we’re going to take a day and instead of going on a picnic we’re going to clean up trash.

Hannah: Right.

Hannah: Which is really the way that that happened in the U.S. too. Like, you know, 70 years ago people were just throwing trash out their windows on the highway and then there was kind of this movement of like, Hey, we want to keep America beautiful. You have to do it like you the people have to be involved in it. And I think Kurds are starting to pick up on that a little bit. There’s still no recycling in Kurdistan that I know in the sense of like put all your plastic bottles in this thing and someone will go and recycle it. I remember trying to do an art project with reusing like empty cereal boxes and my students just being like, This is garbage. Why do you want us to do art with garbage? Why can’t we have a new thing.

Colleen: Raw materials raw materials are things!

Hannah: Right. Right. It’s like a Pringles can makes an excellent castle turret. Come on! You don’t have to start from scratch. They already built it for you and they were just like they couldn’t get over it. But I think that mindset is changing.

Colleen: Yeah.

Hannah: And it’s one of the cool and encouraging things that like that idea of personal cleanliness is extending out into, Hey we want our country to be clean and beautiful too.

Colleen: Yeah.

Hannah: So that’s been really cool to see in the last few years. Definitely like as you encounter people from different cultures. Keep that in mind like, cleanliness standards are different. And it’s not better or worse, it’s just different sometimes. Like my neighbors were appalled that I didn’t clean the outside of my house every day and I was appalled by the trash that they left on picnics. So neither of us were morally superior in the other one’s eyes.

Colleen: So if you’re out in the next week, pick up some trash?

Hannah: Pick up some trash whether it be in your neighborhood or out in the wide world. Pick up some trash.

Colleen: We’d love to hear from you. You can find us at Servant Group International on Facebook or Instagram and you should check out our blog and complete transcripts over at

Hannah: And it’s really helpful for us if you share our podcast or leave a review on whatever platform you listen to this podcast on. It helps us know that people are listening and you can let us know what you want to hear next.

Both!: Thanks for listening.

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