Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Scenario #13: Roofs

Roofs in the Middle East are, almost as a rule, solid flat concrete. Most buildings are built so that the roof can one day become the floor of an additional level by simply adding walls and a new solid concrete roof. In this way, buildings are rarely certainly complete. Even if a new level will never be built, the strong flat roof is useful as storage for water tanks and sewage pipes, open areas to hang laundry, and bases for satellite dishes. Many people in villages may actually tote beds and mattresses up to their roofs during the hot dry months of summer and sleep up there, enjoying the cool breeze that wafts along the top of their houses for nights on end.

One of my favourite things about the Middle East has always been the roofs. There's something magical about being up top looking down, a bit closer to the stars, with nothing coming between me and the universe.

My novel begins and ends on the roof. The roof is an important theme in the story, as something that symbolises freedom within cultural boundaries of acceptability. A young woman on the roof can breath fresh air, look up at the sky or around at the city and feel an aloof connection with the world around her - but still be within the respectable confines of her home, avoiding unnecessary contact with strangers.

So what about a girl who is not even allowed out to the roof? Yesterday I met some sisters who live in an extremely oppressive home environment. They are deprived in almost every way: they aren't given any opportunities to make friends but they are expected to obey their sisters-in-law's wishes, they aren't given clothes but are expected to keep the house clean. They don't read. They don't shop.

They listed the things they are not allowed to do: talk to people from the window, leave the house, work, talk on the telephone, look out the window, study, go up to the roof.

The roof of their house belongs to their family. These girls wouldn't break any of the other rules if they went up to the roof. What they would get is the occasional whiff of fresh air. Nonetheless, their brothers fear that someone might see them from the street, or perhaps from another roof, and so the sisters are deprived of the roof.

This wasn't the first time I heard of such isolation, but it was the first time I sat down and talked with someone who is kept so isolated that her own roof is a forbidden fruit.

After this conversation, though, I got to wondering: If a girl has never been up to a roof, has never felt the fresh breeze of the evening air on her face or looked down on her street from above... If she has never been able to look up at the stars and feel surrounded by them... Is it anything but pure cruelty to take her up there for a taste? Most likely, she'll never be allowed back up top, so might she not be haunted by the memory of her roof?

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