The lota has torn apart relationships and embarrassed first-generation kids like me. So what is it? Let me explain
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.