Middle classes in hock

Middle classes in hock

Algeria Interface, September 27, 2001

Rampant poverty has now spread to the middle classes. Nowhere is their plight more graphically illustrated than at the pawnbroker’s.

Algiers, 27/09/01 — The fists banging on the bank’s steel door sound like rolling thunder. Najib, the young bank clerk sitting at his desk, just glances at his watch and sighs: « One-thirty. There they go again. Right on cue. »

The door bulges and groans. An exasperated clerk eventually makes his way over to open it on to a sea of shoving, yelling faces. Two women fight their way to the front and cling, sobbing, to the arm of the head of one of the strangest departments in the state-owned Local Development Bank – the pawnbroking department.

One of the women is in her early 30s, the other in her 50s. They are typical of the busy, sprucely dressed, women to be seen in Algiers. There is one terrible difference, though — the tears and shame on their faces. They beseech the bank manager at the door: « Please, monsieur. I beg you, it’s for my son, he can’t afford medication. Let me in. »

Routine despair
« Monsieur » is no heartless goon. It is just that the despair is routine: same time every day. People start queuing outside the bank at 1 p.m. and soon panic that they will not get in by closing time at 3.30.

There are three bottlenecks to negotiate: the entrance to the main building, the staircase up to the metal door and then the counter.

The man at the door, a man in his mid-30s, exercises self-control as he eases his arm free. « I know, Madame, but there’s no need to cry like that. Do you think it’s me who won’t let you in. The bank’s already bursting at the seams. If I let you in, what about all the people behind you. We’re doing what we can. Calm down, you’ll get in. »

These women are not destitutes clamouring for hand-outs. They are not even jobless: one is a civil servant and the other a teacher. They have come to hock their jewellery at the bank’s pawnbroking department.

« Medicine’s expensive, so are school books and stationery, » say the three bank employees working in the pawnbroking department. One, a man in his 50s, prices items. He is assisted by a working mother who is the typist and a small frail, ageless man.

The assessor weighs some jewels on electronic scales and tonelessly dictates « two-bracelets-one-broken-necklace-two earings-6,500-dinars. » The ageless clerk checks that the typist has typed what the assessor has assessed and stashes the jewels in a box around which he fastens a rubber band.

First-comers ashamed
Pawners look on through the glass front from where they stand squeezed into a cubicle a meter by a half-meter. It was originally meant for one and designed to shield against prying eyes. But so full is the room that people cram themselves in four at a time and look on as transactions take place.

It is easy to distinguish between the regulars and first-comers. One young women is clearly on her first visit. She stumbles shamefacedly to the window and gapes at the little wooden box the assessor holds out to her. Fumbling in her bag, she pulls out a scarf, unfolds it and with shaking hands removes her jewellery knotted in a handkerchief. She places it in the box as if she was shedding a load then goes to the till where she takes the banknotes, stuffs them into her bag, then hurries away.

« We haven’t seen any poor people here for a long time, » says Hicham, the man on the door. « The people we see now are like you and I, civil servants, doctors sometimes, policemen, the middle class. »

Hicham is something of a pawnbroking historian. « It began in Algeria in 1852, » he says, « then in 1918 it became a nationalised banking service to put an end to usury. It was Crédit Municipal. When the Local Development Bank was created in 1985, its branches took sole control of pawnbroking. »

There are two branches in Algiers but they can no longer meet demand that has mushroomed frighteningly. Says Hicham: « People used to come only when they had a sudden need for cash. Now it’s chronic. »

The half-empty room
In the building in downtown Algiers that the BDL shares with city hall here on Emir Abdelkader Square, the pawnbroking department is divided into two rooms.

The one that echoes with wailing and gnashing of teeth is where people come to hock their possessions. The other is where possessions are redeemed at the 10% interest rate. It seems much the bigger of the two rooms – but that is only because it is half-empty.

The bank is open from Sunday to Thursday from 9 a.m. to 3.30 p.m. As time passes anxiety mounts rising to panic, hysteria and near-rioting. Hockers frequently complain they have been waiting since six in the morning and it’s usually for the same reasons: they need medication, surgery, school books, or just to feed children.

Between 200 and 250 people file through here daily and the assessor’s voice drones endlessly on: « Three old coins, one medallion, two earrings, 4,000 dinars… »

Holes in their shoes
The bank employees spend much of their time just trying to keep order. Some of them make a point of wearing shoes with holes in the toes as a sign of protest at the pittance they are paid and the conditions they have to work in.

Najib, who was so unruffled when the bank opened its doors, says bitterly: « The bank bosses know the people who come here are needy, so they’re not about to bother with making the place any more human. »

Wages are between 9,000 and 11,000 dinars. The most senior employees can earn up to 15,000. They faces are drawn and tired: they have had enough of being paid a pittance to control people who have even less.

Hicham says that bank views the pawnbroking service as a ball and chain. « They think it’s degrading. It doesn’t work rationally, we work at a loss and there’s been no auction for years, we don’t sell unredeemed stuff. Instead of making this department into a dedicated subsidiary that runs its own business efficiently and properly they just let things fester. »

Big lump sum
Men now come in the same numbers as women. Bringing up the rear of the queue is Reda a 30-year-old bachelor. He looks on askance at the hullabaloo.

He is a radiologist in a state hospital and claims he has come because he needs ready cash for travelling. « I need a pretty big lump sum, that’s why I’m here. Why are all these people kicking up such a fuss. They can’t be that broke, there’s always some way of getting by, » he says. « If I didn’t need plenty of cash right now I’d never have put myself through this, » grins this clean-shirted, shiny-shoed hocker.

It is now four o’clock and the last of the customers are at last at the counter. It is the turn of the two sobbing women who had earlier fastened on to Hicham. They are calmer now. One of them is pawning a pair of weighty earrings, the other two rings and a necklace.

At last it is the turn of the radiologist. With a hangdog air he hands over his valuables, a handful of damaged jewellery, and pockets the « pretty big lump sum » of 5,000 dinars.

Outside the establishment fury fades to bewilderment. Vociferous protest gives way to the hopeless mutterings of a few old ladies!: « My God, my God, how can I go home empty-handed, what am I going to do? »

Just why have so many people spent all afternoon battling in the bank? The toneless drone of the assessor provides the answer: « A ring, a bracelet, 2,000 dinars, 2,500 dinars, 1,400 dinars. » Money. The amounts may be paltry. It’s money nonetheless.

Daikha Dridi