One of the first things I noticed when we moved to Tunisia was that the houses don’t have roofs! Or at least they look like they don’t.
This was a bit startling after having lived in Ireland, where the most obvious feature on a typical house might be its tall, peaked roof, designed to let the copious rain roll off easily.
Even in Italy, where the rain is less abundant and the roof angles are correspondingly less acute, at least all the houses obviously have them.
Here in Tunisia, there are a few places like Luke Skywalker’s house, which really are roofless.
But contrary to appearances, most houses in Tunisia actually DO have roofs.
And they are just as functional as Irish and Italian roofs. They just have a different function. Tunisian roofs do keep off the (occasional) rain. But they also serve as extra recreational and living space. They are completely flat, whitewashed like the rest of the house (the one in the picture is under construction, but will assuredly be whitewashed when they are done), and have walls around them, making them into another floor of the house, almost. Roofs usually have built in seats, and sometimes even tables. The roof is also where most Tunisians hang their laundry. The white clothes definitely get whiter bleaching in the sun all day. Unfortunately, so do the black clothes.
On the whole, though, the idea is a pretty clever one. Basically what you end up with is outdoor space equivalent to the size of the lot, as if the house weren’t on it. This is especially useful, since many Tunisian houses are attached to one another, often rendering the roof the only available outside space. Even in a house without a garden (yard) like ours, we have a nice-sized front patio, two balconies, and the roof. No matter where the sun is, we always have a breezy place outside to sit.
Recently, though, I’ve become acquainted with another valuable function of the roof. We were on our way home from the beach the other morning, when Axa’s favorite restaurant waiter (she has a lot of friends like this) called down to her from the roof of the restaurant. To her incredulity, he told her he had been sleeping on the roof. Apparently, the roof of his workplace is his sole living space.
This is not an uncommon phenomenon here in Hammamet. Many of the people who work with the tourists here actually come from Tunisia’s poorer southern and interior areas, where jobs are scarce. Whether they are waiters like Axa’s friend, night watchmen, or hotel staff, they sometimes live in some little corner of their place of work. We know another man who lives in a shed in an orchard, where he keeps watch over a couple of camels in exchange for a place to sleep. And I’m pretty sure there are people living in the trees on the edge of the beach too.
Anyway, the conversation with the roof-dwelling friend surfaced from my subconscious the other night, when I went up to the roof to take down some laundry before I went to bed. As soon as I opened the door at the top of the third floor stairs, I felt a lovely, mysterious breeze waft over me. And even though at the time it had been just bizarre to me to see Axa’s friend’s head peering down from the restaurant roof, all of a sudden I thought how delightful it would be to sleep on my roof. Luckily, our house came with some extra beds, which Tony had previously dismantled and stacked in a corner just inside that very door I had just opened. It was the work of a few moments to drag one of the spare mattresses out the door, fit it with sheets, and settle down for the night.
And it was delightful. The fresh, cool night air breezed through my hair in front of a bright full moon. I felt like I was sleeping in a real Arabian night, and a Persian carpet or a magical horse or a fearsome Djinn might just go flying past the stars at any moment. I think I may just make the roof my permanent bedroom.
Now all I need to do is convince my husband to come up and sleep there with me.