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Getting caught up in Algeria's colonial bureaucracy

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  • Getting caught up in Algeria's colonial bureaucracy

    October 9, 2010 -- Algerian bureaucracy, a legacy of its colonial past, means it can take more than a year to get everyday items such as school-books and furniture through customs. This is the tale of my grandmother's chest of drawers, the battered old desk at which I revised for my A-levels, a chair, a mirror and a laundry basket. The story includes heroes and villains, a ship that sails from Felixstowe, a mayor or two, a dank and cavernous warehouse and about two miles of bubble wrap.

    Back in March, my mother telephoned from London to tell me she was sending me some furniture. My grandmother died three years ago, and her possessions needed a new home. "I'm not sure that's a good idea," I told her. "Algeria's renowned for its red tape. It took me 15 months to get a work permit." "Nonsense, darling," my mother said. "You love a challenge. And besides, I've already bubble-wrapped it."

    'Acres' of paperwork

    Before I arrived in Algeria, I imagined security would be the biggest issue. The country is emerging from a decade of bloodshed and al-Qaeda is said to run its North African operation from mountains near the capital. No, the biggest headache day-to-day is bureaucracy. Every aspect of living here involves acres of paperwork. To get a residence permit, I had to provide 17 different documents, 12 photos and a chest X-ray. Every document then had to be stamped and legalised at the mayor's office, a five-storey glass building in the centre of Algiers. It is not really Algeria's fault it has so much red tape. It is a system they inherited from their French colonisers, who ruled until 1962, to which they have added the Soviet version. Algeria aligned itself with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

    But, back to the furniture.

    It set sail from Felixstowe in April, destination Algiers. By then, dockers at the port here had gone on strike, and new laws were brought in to combat contraband, and to stop European countries dumping goods past their sell-by date on Algeria. Spring turned to summer, roses and bougainvillea bloomed across the capital, schools closed for the holidays and families headed for the beaches. But every time I rang Jihad at the shipping company to find out what was happening, he said he needed a few more days. He was preparing documents.

    To be fair, importing anything to Algeria is well-nigh impossible, and people I know who run businesses here have stopped bothering. There is the woman who runs the patisserie around the corner, which sells delicious caramel and pine nut tarts. "Where do you get your pine nuts?" I asked her. "I bring them in from Spain, 10 kilos at a time, in my suitcase," she told me. Her chocolate comes in the same way. Every time friends travel to Europe, she begs them to bring back ingredients in their luggage.

    Then there is the foreign embassy here which is trying to import school books to donate to children wanting to learn English. But they are caught up in a tax-exemption wrangle and the books have been in the port for six months. Even state-owned companies are suffering. I have been told a gas generator for the city of Boumerdes has been sitting in the port for over a year, waiting to clear customs. If the national gas company cannot get its generator through, what hope for my furniture?

    Summer turned to autumn, the holy month of Ramadan came and went, the roses gave way to jasmine, and children headed back to school. I was summoned to the customs office where the man in charge spelled it out to me: "Madame Arnold, your shipment has been at our depot for three months, you owe 75,000 dinars ($1200) in penalty charges, and if you don't retrieve it before the end of October, you will have to renew all your documents," he told me. If I left it in the warehouse, he said, it would be put up for auction. I could see him now, feet up on my desk with my grandmother's chest in the corner, all stuffed full of customs certificates.

    And then my luck changed. I hired a customs broker, a gentle man in his 60s with wispy, white hair. He scrutinised my dossier and told me he would take care of it. "All we need is a change of residence certificate from your mayor in the UK, and we can get your things out," he said. He settled for a letter from the British embassy - I said I thought the mayor of London might be a little busy - and last week, we trailed off to a giant warehouse near the airport, where they tracked my furniture down to a dusty and mothball-ridden corner. A bumpy lorry ride later, my furniture has been unwrapped, and I am writing this at my battered old desk. Behind me stands my grandmother's chest of drawers. It has lost both its back feet, but it survived. Against the odds, this story does have a happy ending.

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