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5/20/10 The Loiterers

Morocco is drowning in loiterers. If they hung "No loitering" signs, they'd half to arrest half the youth in the country. The male half.

While girls are expected to stay in the home, cooking and cleaning and doing various household chores whenever they're not in school, young men really have *no* demands on their time, apart from school. (Assuming they live in a place that offers school for people of their age, and further assuming that they haven't dropped out.)

Some percentage of young men are working, earning money to support their families. But in my experience, that's the exception. The rule is young men with nothing to do but hang around.

Thanks to the legacy of the French school calendar, school demands something less than six hours per day.

Some young men fill their leisure hours (and hours) with soccer, but most just ... hang out. Loiter. Linger over coffee and tea for hours. (This particular habit starts in the teenage years and lasts through adulthood and old age.) Lean on doorframes. Sit on curbs or front stoops. Gather around ... well, anything of interest, really. And then watch the world go by.

The cost in general productivity is nearly incalculable. Thousands of man-hours wasted in sheer idleness. The cost societally is that it's impossible to do *anything* in public without being observed (and, usually, commented upon) by this peanut gallery. And I mean anything. Walk down the street. Eat. Shop. Apply chapstick.

But sometimes there's an upside.

These loiterers always know what's going on. They're the human version of Wikipedia, at least as it applies to recent local events.

Today, May 20th, as I strolled out of Morocco (across the border into Melilla, a quasi-independent town controlled by Spain), the loiterers repeatedly protected me from my own ignorance, preventing me from making mistakes. They pointed the way through the bewildering array of checkpoints, half-finished walls, and idling law enforcement / customs officials.

And when I sauntered past the completely unmarked Border Control, the loiterers collectively shouted at me, "Al shtampa!".

My linguistically crowded brain replied with, "La timbre? Fin? Donde?" (The stamp? Where? Where? in French, Arabic, and Spanish, respectively.)

And they pointed and said, "Alli." (Ayi? As I've said before, I can speak some Spanish, but I can't write it *at*all*.)

A good 20 minutes later, on the bus from the border into downtown Melilla, I began dusting off my Spanish vocabulary. It was born in conversations in Middle School, when I compared notes from French class with buddies in Spanish class. My knowledge of the Spanish language was deepened, enhanced, and generally made useful by my years spent teaching in the Houston barrio. But it was from my own middle school days that I knew Aqui, Ayi, and Aya. (Or however they're spelled.)

The pieces clicked together.

I'd assumed they were saying some local variation on "Aji", which means "Come here!" in Darija. I figured that maybe since "Aji" meant come *here*, maybe "Ayi" meant go *there*.

But with my freshly reawakened Spanish making space for itself, I realized that these loiterers must have been Spanish-fluent kids who'd spent their lives loitering on both sides of the border. And they were telling me to go there - just as they pointed - to get my passport stamped.

Without their assistance, I'd probably have schlepped my 25 kilos of stuff a good half-kilometer beyond the border before finding an official who sent me back.

So for the first time in Morocco - and, I guess, the last time, since I was within moments of leaving the country - I found myself grateful for these loitering layabouts. There's a lot to be said for having knowledgeable folks with nothing better to do than help a stranger out. :)

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