My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears

My grandmother puts her feet in the sink

                  of the bathroom at Sears

to wash them in the ritual washing for prayer,


because she has to pray in the store or miss

the mandatory prayer time for Muslims

She does it with great poise, balancing

herself with one plump matronly arm

against the automated hot-air hand dryer,

after having removed her support knee-highs

and laid them aside, folded in thirds,

and given me her purse and her packages to hold

so she can accomplish this august ritual

and get back to the ritual of shopping for housewares


Respectable Sears matrons shake their heads and frown

as they notice what my grandmother is doing,

an affront to American porcelain,

a contamination of American Standards

by something foreign and unhygienic

requiring civic action and possible use of disinfectant spray

They fluster about and flutter their hands and I can see

a clash of civilizations brewing in the Sears bathroom


My grandmother, though she speaks no English,

catches their meaning and her look in the mirror says,

I have washed my feet over Iznik tile in Istanbul

with water from the world's ancient irrigation systems

I have washed my feet in the bathhouses of Damascus

over painted bowls imported from China

among the best families of Aleppo

And if you Americans knew anything

about civilization and cleanliness,

you'd make wider washbins, anyway

My grandmother knows one culture—the right one,


as do these matrons of the Middle West. For them,

my grandmother might as well have been squatting

in the mud over a rusty tin in vaguely tropical squalor,

Mexican or Middle Eastern, it doesn’t matter which,

when she lifts her well-groomed foot and puts it over the edge.

“You can’t do that,” one of the women protests,

turning to me, “Tell her she can’t do that.”

“We wash our feet five times a day,”

my grandmother declares hotly in Arabic.

“My feet are cleaner than their sink.

Worried about their sink, are they? I

should worry about my feet!”

My grandmother nudges me, “Go on, tell them.”


Standing between the door and the mirror, I can see

at multiple angles, my grandmother and the other shoppers,

all of them decent and goodhearted women, diligent

in cleanliness, grooming, and decorum

Even now my grandmother, not to be rushed,

is delicately drying her pumps with tissues from her purse

For my grandmother always wears well-turned pumps

that match her purse, I think in case someone

from one of the best families of Aleppo

should run into her—here, in front of the Kenmore display


I smile at the midwestern women

as if my grandmother has just said something lovely about them

and shrug at my grandmother as if they

had just apologized through me

No one is fooled, but I


hold the door open for everyone

and we all emerge on the sales floor

and lose ourselves in the great common ground

of housewares on markdown.

Dive in
  1. Setting is an important aspect of this poem. Where exactly does this poem take place? (which room, building, region, country?)
  2. The speaker in the poem reports that all the women are “decent and goodhearted women, diligent in cleanliness, grooming, and decorum.” Would the other women in the bathroom agree? Give evidence from the poem about how the women might define respectability.
  3. Identify the location of the speaker in relation to other people in the room. What does her placement in the room tell you about her relationship to the grandmother and the other women?
  4. The sink is a central object in the poem. Do you see it as a symbol? If so, what does it represent?
  5. How do you interpret the speaker’s description of “housewares on markdown” as “the great common ground?” What tone would you use if you were reciting this poem? Optimistic, ironic, playful, sad?

Writing Exercise:

Recall a time when you witnessed a conflict between at least two other people. Write a poem, and as if setting a stage, pay close attention to where each person is located. Is there an object you can place in the scene that brings tension to the surface?



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Bibliographical info

Mohja Kahf, “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears” from E-mails from Scheherazad. Copyright © 2003 by Mohja Kahf.  Reprinted by permission of University Press of Florida.

Source: E-mails from Scheherazad (University Press of Florida, 2003)

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