From the Roofs

What I miss most about Jordan is our apartment building. They were more like condos, and my grandpa had built the one side, then added an adjacent tower later, when he moved my family to Zarka, I think to settle a home base as he continued military life. At different points, almost everyone in my family lived in one of the homes of the building, and the rest of the neighbors were lifers too. Community is different in Jordan. That building was a strange fort of solidarity and peace. Our neighborhood was already legend, but our place in it was rooted in the foundations of that building. 

I miss the arched out metal grates on the windows, so much that I can still feel the grit of the bars on my fingers when I’d clasp them. We’d put a pillow in the little ledge the grates made and lean out all day over the street, all year round. 

People watching is a graduation of those who once sat out on the sidewalks and windows in the twilight heat, it is the aristocratic descendant of yelling stories to your neighbor across the street as their son washes their cars every Thursday night. 

I think so often of the two levels of balcony on the roofs, of the pipes we weren’t supposed to walk on (but always did) that led from the backup water tanks down to each home.

I think of climbing the last flight of stairs, breathing heavy, and never even reaching for the broken door handle anymore. How long ago had it broken, and in how many different ways?  Through the wall of glass you could already see out past the rooftop edge, across Zarka in every direction. I can feel the cold painted cement on my palms as I hoist myself up on the windowsill to the right of the door, swinging my legs over to the other side, climbing out onto the balcony like muscle memory, like riding a bike, like coming home. 

How can you spend so long ingrained in a place and then not think about it, not even once, for years at a time? How can I so clearly see over the building’s left edge to the balcony next to us, two levels lower and dominated by a massive pigeon coop?

Who tended them? Why did they do it? How did the pigeons always come back? Why did they know where to go and why did they leave at all if they returned? I watched and wondered about those pigeons so many hours of my youth, and I never got any answers. I’ve forgotten more answers than I’ve ever asked questions and that feels so big and sad when I remember that rooftop. 

Last night I traveled back to that place, so clearly feeling the loose chipping of the thin layer of paving that had been smoothed out over the rough unfinished rooftops, literally for us, grandchildren of Fuad and Muntaha Sawaged. I felt the dust kick up against my stride, I saw the world underneath, walking quickly through the alley that separated us from the pigeons next door. I saw across to that rooftop, I could hear the pigeons. It was sunset, always our favorite time to climb the stairs and look out over the city shambles we loved to hate. 

I always feel scattered, and most of my family stays scattered across the world, but that rooftop, those summer nights are the warm hearth I return to when that hollow in my chest hurts too much. That broken door handle, and the thick, heavy click of the latch when your spoon handle caught, they open up memories for me I’d forgotten to forget. 

There was another rooftop, even higher, on the second tower. Past the broken door handle was one last level, the kind of level where the stairwell reached up to meet the ceiling. It was cramped and dark up there, and we were often too scared to risk the time it took to open the door to even go up there. It was too much time for some creepy crawly to find you, to climb up your leg. We also didn’t go up there because this rooftop had everyone’s satellites, and more water tanks. It was crowded, and every step had to be measured against cables and pipes, and a skylight from the unit below. My uncle had lived there, and I can see the dust floating in the rays coming down from that skylight over my kitchen. I see it like someone else’s dream, like a ruined watercolor I should’ve taken better care of.

The draw of the other rooftop was that it faced the other side of the street, across the convent next door and into the main yard of the school we all attended. It felt like power, looking over everything we knew from such a high and hidden place. I learned so much about wanting to fly up on those roofs, about the foundations we build and how much they can stand against.