With jobs scarce and emigration difficult, angry young men of Algeria . . .are relegated to society's fringes -- the black market and petty crime

October 13, 1991|By New York Times News Service

ALGIERS, Algeria -- By day, they lean against whitewashed walls smoking cigarettes or selling imported shirts out of small vinyl bags. By night, they congregate on street corners or in noisy coffeehouses. And, in the future, they will inherit Algeria.

The young men of Algeria, many seething with the anger of the dispossessed and the hatred of those who can no longer dream of a better life, often make their lives on the fringes of society.

Those who are called "trabendistes" in Algerian slang work in the black markets that have sprung up in every major city, making illegal currency exchanges or selling shoes and clothes smuggled from abroad. The word is a corruption of the Spanish word trabajo, which means work.

Those with less initiative, many of whom spend their days in hashish smoking and petty thievery, are called "hittistes." The word is a corruption of the Arabic word heet, orwall, the primary object those men spend their days and nights leaning against.

In Algeria's work force of 5 million, 1.5 million are unemployed, and the government estimates that each year another 200,000 people enter the labor force without jobs. For many young Algerians, no longer able to escape with ease to Spain, Italy or France, countries that already harbor 2 million of their compatriots, life as a trabendiste or hittiste is all society can offer.

A steep, narrow stone street in a lower-class neighborhood of Belle Cour is home to one of Algeria's five major black markets, which hum with illegal commerce.

Shoppers there gather around young men who have laid out imported leather shoes, radios and clothes, including American jeans, on the curb. A few sell appliances as large as washers and stoves, and many can broker a deal for a black-market car from Tunis or Morocco. The vendors, their pockets thick with wads of Algerian dinars, all offer to change money at the black-market rate, almost twice that of the official rate of 17 dinars to the American dollar.

Down one tiny alley, people sell stereo cassette decks, one of which blasts out a sermon attacking the government for the country's high prices and for failing to help the Algerian people.

Noureddin Zamoun, a 15-year-old who dropped out of school two years ago, crouched over his small collection of Indian razors, Egyptian light bulbs and Spanish batteries. He spends nine hours a day, seven days a week, in the market.

"When I am 18, I can go to Europe and buy clothes and bring them back to sell," he said.

The trabendistes fly two or three times a month to cities like Barcelona, Spain, or Marseilles, France, to make purchases. They fill several large vinyl suitcases and return to Algeria, where they must wrangle with customs police.

"I try not to buy too much in Spain each trip to avoid a lot of problems," said Farid Hadjoutti, a 34-year-old vendor. "I usually only get eight pairs of shoes and fill the rest of the suitcases with clothes. As soon as the police see my passport and all the entries and exits, and as soon as they look in my suitcases, they know what I am doing. They either demand 1,000 dinars, or, if they think I have bought too much, they confiscate what I have."

While the black market allows the 25 million Algerians to buy goods they cannot find in the nation's poorly stocked stores, it also puts those who trade at risk, not only from police officers demanding bribes and confiscating goods, but from packs of thieves who roam the streets, armed with knives and cans of chemical Mace.

Vendors say they must ward off thieves at least once a day. "If you talk, they stab you or spray Mace in your face," said Mohammed Fouad, a 15-year-old vendor.

NB The increasing anarchy and widespread assertions of corruption

local officials have proved a boon to Islamic fundamentalists, who captured 55 percent of the vote in municipal and gubernatorial elections last year.

Fundamentalists, who want to form an Islamic state, caused parliamentary elections to be indefinitely postponed after organizing a strike in June. The strike was in protest over what they said were changes in the electoral law intended to favor the governing National Liberation Front, which has held power since independence from France in 1962.

The strike led to rioting, in which many of the young men in the market and on the street said they took part, and a state-of-siege law that was not lifted until Sept. 29.

The trabendistes and hittistes, few of whom consider themselves ardent Muslims, are pleased the fundamentalists are patrolling markets to protect vendors from criminals.

"If they find someone who steals, they catch him and beat him up," said a 22-year-old vendor in the densely packed Place du Chard black market. "The second time they beat him in the face and the back. They break his bones. They break his arm so he does not steal again."

The contradiction between young men who thirst for Western goods and often the license and wealth of Western society while backing Muslim fundamentalists gives Algerian politics a peculiar twist.

"They wonder who they are, what world they belong to," a Western diplomat said. "Are they Arabs or are they part of the West? They don't know, and this makes things very dangerous. They are subject to fervors of emotion."

The men, packed into apartments that sometimes house seven or eight people to a room, unable to find a job that will allow them to marry and trapped in a society that seems to be at a dead end, are all fodder, if not for revolution, then at least severe unrest.

"We sit out here each night," a 27-year-old said, seated on a wall next to a flower shop with four of his friends. "We talk about going abroad, about girls, and we wait. We don't know for what, but for something."

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