An Algerian film by celebrated Algerian director Merzak Allouache called Rooftops was probably my favorite film at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival this year. Of the films I saw, it’s the only one that kept my full attention. Just like rooftops get my full attention in real life, especially in the Mediterranean areas of the once Arab/Moor empire. Rooftops is about life as lived and viewed from the rooftops of Algiers. People live, eat, sleep, fall in love, and kill themselves and others on rooftops. That’s the Arab flair/flaw for melodrama in art and life. Or if I were to do an ad campaign for them, I’d have a peppy announcer say rooftops are fun and informative places to get to know your neighborhood, with a little Flamenco music playing in the background as we watched a lady get confused while she watched a gay couple fighting three rooftops away as she hung up laundry. In real life, I was the one watching the lady watching the couple. I was watering plants. Laundry, watering plants and carpet beating are the great “no excuse required” reasons for being on rooftops.
In the past month, I’ve been to places with great rooftop viewing—Granada, Tangier, and Amman. From these rooftops, we know where life is more organized, what people eat, what they wear at home, who they hang out with. We know where life is more regulated by what is openly allowed on rooftops, more “modern” if you will, and especially more aware of where TV is still king by the number of satellite dishes obstructing our views of each other.
I used to think as a kid in Beirut the best part of being a maid—maybe the only good part—would be hanging the laundry. That’s when she could be on the rooftop or its poorer sister, the balcony –in fresh air—mixing with the oth
er people inhabiting the neighboring rooftops. I know this because I used to watch the maid across the way hang laundry while I hung laundry for my mom. We both had our own music on our portable radios, but I still could see there were specific people she kept track of, including a guy always fixing a broken bike. So I started to keep track of what she was keep track of. I knew she was in love with the bike guy. But rooftops don’t tell everything. I never k
new if she got to see him other than when she was hanging laundry. The rooftop w
as also where we had to drag my aerospace obsessed brother away from perfect views of air raids.
Windows are not the same. Take Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant Rear Window. Jimmy Stewart was a voyeur looking into people’s apartments,
being nosey. But on a rooftop, you’re doing your life’s business, so you have a natural cover story. Your voyeurism is legitimized. They are the best observation points—not just for the military reasons of the great forts of Andalusia, but for observing everyone else’s business while doing your business. I like that clothes dryers are still not the norm in this region because it gives us a chances to be on rooftops.