By Ross Arbes and Alexandra Hiatt
Sunday, May 9, 2010; W20
On our 16-month journey from Southeast Asia to North Africa, we were consistently drawn to the colorful images of laundry hanging off balconies, over bushes and on river banks. Our initial interest may have been a reflection of our spin-cycled, machine-dried perspective, but the more we traveled, the more the laundry became, for us, an essential part of the landscape.
In Varanasi, India, by the holy Ganges River, dhobi wallahs knelt beside the river and slapped wet clothes against flat rocks. Members of a mostly male class whose profession and livelihood centers on washing clothes, they created a rainbow of drying saris and lungis (garments similar to sarongs) that stood out against the summer's low, muddy river and its parched bank.
Laundry-covered banisters in conservative Aleppo, Syria, rarely showcased women's undergarments, a striking comparison to the clotheslines in Venice, where one occasionally had to duck to avoid the panties and bras that hung over the sidewalks and billowed like sails with the slightest gust of wind. In Lisbon, once-vibrant linens hung off the balconies of formerly grand colonial-style apartment buildings, now decayed, cracked and tired. And in Aswan, in southern Egypt, where Muslim women covered themselves in black, the clotheslines, full of reds, blues, yellows and greens, offered hints of personal styles and tastes expressed in the home.
At first, we assumed that it was the colors that continually caused us to focus on the laundry. But these clotheslines also provided subtle allusions to gender issues, cultural differences and the impact of modernization. The closer we zoomed in, the more we came to see laundry as an open window into others' lives.
Ross Arbes and Alexandra Hiatt visited 22 countries from Indonesia to Morocco in 16 months. They now live in Washington but haven't lost their wanderlust. E-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org.