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The expat's guide to Algeria The expat's guide to Algeria
by Jay Gutman
2019-02-09 09:42:20
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Last night I had a dream that I was at a bar in Algeria and met two American expats, a man and a woman and those we had a long chat about this fascinating country. This of course was a dream, because chances are, you will probably never have casual encounters with American expats at Algerian bars. So here's the brief expat's guide to Algeria.

General overview of life in Algeria

Algeria is a majority Muslim country where French, Arabic and Berber languages have de facto official status. English is spoken by a certain elite, and your co-workers will probably speak English, but the random person in the streets won't.

alger0001_400_01Winters tend to be mild but have their cold days. Summers are very hot and humid. Spring and Fall tend to be warm. There are rainy days, but few days when you will need an umbrella.

There are those expats who live in camps in the Sahara desert which is typical of dormitory life in a very rural US university, say in Utah. You go to work; you go home, surf the internet, repeat. You eat whatever you're served at the cafeteria, and you count the days until your next trip to the Northern cities.

Then there are those working in the Northern cities, on the Mediterranean coast. You will try to beat the traffic to go to work, work, go home, surf the internet and improvise something to eat, or buy local pizza or a shawarma sandwich. There's no Netflix in Algeria, so YouTube will be your best friend. Downloading movies is technically not illegal though
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Working at a company in Algeria

Most companies, especially those housing expats, tend to be easygoing and friendly. Not the “let's go to the bar after work every day” kind of friendly, but the “let's have a cup of coffee and a cigarette and a long chat during office hours” kind of friendly.

No news is bad news though. Algerians rarely share bad news, and will do everything they can to keep it from you. You will also have to wrestle with archaic regulations (some random documents MUST be sent by fax to the authorities for example, or even worse, must be handed in person, meaning you constantly have to go out and get paperwork done or hand in documents, even draft contracts).

The taxation system is somewhat opaque, and receiving money from your home HQ can mean you have to wrestle with you bank. The banking system is very archaic, and many transfers are blocked, along with limits to the amounts that can be transferred. A pile of documents must be handed with most transfers.

Advice for working in Algeria: ask for oral reports rather than written summaries, Algerians are excellent when it comes to summarizing the situation verbally, but in many cases can't write for shit.

Avoid formal meetings and prefer informal ones over coffee, and often, a cigarette or two. Avoid gossip as Algerians will be very conscious about what foreign people think of them, and avoid criticizing the country. Avoid conversations about religion at all costs. Algerians can be quick-tempered if you lose eye contact or appear to be criticizing them, so maintain eye contact and keep every encounter cordial. Whatever you do, don't invite co-workers to your house or to a restaurant, perhaps not even for lunch. If you want lunch with them, bring or order food and share it with them.

Men and women tend to be equal at the workplace (very odd for a Muslim country) but women will tend to avoid driving for work-related purposes and will ask for someone to drive them. Make sure everyone does work that fits their job description, as even ordering someone to buy you a sandwich or to drive you to administration can cause them to say bluntly that's not in their job description.

Finding housing

There are a few buildings that only house expats. They tend to have doormen and CCTV cameras, in some cases security officers. Rent costs around 1,000 to 1,500 dollars a month, up to 3 or 4 thousand in some cases in such buildings, payable only in dollars.

Most other buildings don't have doormen or security, in many cases entrance doors are not locked and there is no intercom; some don't even have mailboxes or parking space. That means plenty of beggars, or in some cases burglars. If you live in a normal building, you may want to avoid talking with your neighbors at all costs, as their intentions are not always positive towards you. They may be eyeing a burglary.

Transportation

Taxis are your safest bet. Most are unofficial taxis, and tend to be rather pricy. Your company will probably introduce you to a couple of taxi drivers. You call them, they come pick you up and take your wherever necessary.

But because of traffic, before you get used to the Algerian system, carpooling is probably your best bet. If your co-workers are kind enough to pick you up every morning that is. Or try to find housing as close to your workplace as possible. That will save you a lot of money, as taking a taxi every day can cost you parts of your paycheck.

Traffic tends to be horrible in Northern cities and traffic jams can last up to half an hour or more. Roads tend to be bumpy, there are lots of narrow alleys, and traffic signs are not always reliable, meaning you could end up in the wrong lane. Plus speeding and tailgating is common, and other drivers don't always yield.

Driving is in some ways better than China or Korea, but not much better. So when you drive, try to take familiar roads, and ask to be driven to whatever place you go to for the first time. Algerians are also not masters of helping with directions, and the GPS system does not work very well.

Public transportation is cheap but a little complicated, but you may take public transportation if it's the fastest way to your workplace. Many cities have tramways, the train or subway system in Algiers is OK and the bus system is archaic, but can work if it's the fastest way from home to work. If you have agoraphobia you want to avoid the transportation system though, as people tend to stare at each other, a lot.

Husband, wife or children

Algiers has a Saudi Arabian school (kindergarten to high school, English-based curriculum, not too expensive) along with an American kindergarten and elementary school (very expensive, the kind you can only go to if your company pays for children's tuition fees) and a French school (kindergarten to high school, French system, moderately expensive).

Except for the American school which employs American teachers, French and Saudi Arabian schools tend to employ Algerian teachers. Middle and high schools are notorious for student discipline problems and classes can be chaotic. Oran and Annaba have French elementary schools.

If you want to enroll your children at an Algerian school, there are private and public Algerian schools. Private schools are nothing fancy, and tend to be schools where students who fail public school are sent. Class sizes tend to be smaller in private schools, but that's about it. Algerian schools, along with the French school and the American school don't have language remedial classes, meaning you will have to pay for your own language remedial classes if your child is not fluent in English, French or Arabic. But your child will pick up the languages fast enough. Islamic studies are part of the curriculum, and science is taught based on Islamic values. Expect a great deal of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism in the curriculum as well. 

Another school alternative is Descartes High school, a tuition-free Algerian government-owned school with a French-inspired curriculum, which prepares for French and Algerian examinations.

Can your husband or wife find a job? Many companies hire expats if your spouse can work in Algerian legally, especially if you have the kind of passport that can take you on business trips without visa hassles. Pay tends to be rather low but decent by Algerian standards. Teaching is not a great option, as most Algerian schools pay late if at all, pay very low hourly rates, and are plain mismanaged. But if you look hard enough; you can get a decent teaching job and the flexibility that goes with it.

Shopping

You may want to stop watching the Food Network or browsing fashion catalogues while in Algeria, because food and fashion tends to be basic, on the expensive side, and not great quality. You may find yourself daydreaming of fancy cuisine or fashion items, but Paris is only a two-hour flight away.

Most basic ingredients you will find in Europe or North America exist in Algeria. Asian ingredients are almost impossible to find though. Middle Eastern ingredients like Tahini are also almost impossible to find. Only the basic fruits and vegetables are available. Same goes for spices, grains or cereal. Fish tends to be of the frozen kind and does not offer a great variety. Meat tends to be very expensive. Only the very basic kind of shell fish exists, and it tends to be overpriced.

All basic major fashion brands exist in Algeria. But clothes tend to be overpriced, and you won't have that much of a choice. Shops tend to be small and their collections are very basic. Finding good brand suits in Algeria is very complicated, along with anything formal from a big brand. Luxury brands in Algeria are hard to find, and there's only one shopping mall in Algiers along with another one in the almost rural town of Sétif. Brand cosmetics are also hard to find. Needless to say, luxury brands tend to be prohibitively expensive in Algeria.

Travel

Most will opt for Spain or France as it's only a one or two hour flight. But if you want to visit Algeria, here are the basics.

Algiers has the Casbah and a few museums and galleries, along with a tower that are worth visiting. The Casbah, museums and the tower are basically ghost towns, and you will probably be one of the few visiting them.

You can take the occasional road trip to the Roman ruins of Tipaza, Cherchell, Timgad and El Djamila. You will walk through the vestiges of a Roman city, complete and preserved. Quite impressive.

Algeria also has its version of the pyramids, although smaller and more modest than the Egyptian pyramids.

There's one ski resort in Algeria, but it's more for sliding than for skiing or snowboarding. Beach sports and paragliding exist, but in their basic forms. You might find the occasional surfer or jetskiier, but no resorts for that.

There is the Sahara desert. There is one famous resort in the Sahara desert, which has had positive reviews. Otherwise you will need to go on an organized group trip to the Sahara desert.

Beaches tend to be boring and tedious and certainly are not the Caribbean. There are a few resorts, but they tend to be empty and some say they lack the kind of life and dynamism you would expect from a resort. In sum, most say you should try to visit Algeria before the tourists will start pouring in, but people have been saying that for 50 years.

Sports exist in their basic forms, but there are no leagues. Most sports and tourism venues don't have restaurants, cafés, pubs or souvenir shops.

Going out

There are a few pubs and hotels, but the bar tabs will add up very quickly and drinking probably won't be your favorite hobby. Plus finding someone to drive you from a pub can be complicated, as your taxi driver can refuse to pick you up from a pub.

If you're lucky, your expat colleagues might plan a night out bowling or at a restaurant, but the expat scene is pretty much dead. Expats tend to avoid each other like the plague for some reason, for a number of reasons.

First going out is very expensive, and even ordering or bringing food and drinks home can be very expensive. Second the expat community is very small, and some would rather be alone than meet the same people all the time. Third most expats live in company compounds in dormitories, and have little privacy, meaning they stick to what little privacy they have left. Fourth, going out is not only expensive, but boring. It's a couple of hotels and a dozen restaurants, and after a few months in Algiers, you'll have eaten in all of them.

Religion

Islam is the main religion and local people take Islam very seriously. The few liquor stores in town close during the month of Ramadan and so do restaurants. Cafeterias close during Ramadan as well, and most expats take a few snacks they eat discreetly during the fasting hours of Ramadan. Ramadan does offer lavish meals when breaking the fast, and a lot of Algerians will invite you to the meal.

Except for a few Catholic churches, there is no organized religion other than Islam in Algeria. There are some Evangelical churches of all denominations that have been springing up over the last 20 years. Sermons tend to be in French, and in Evangelical churches tend to be held on Saturdays, as Sunday is a working day in Algeria. There are no known Buddhist temples, Hindu temples or Synagogues. Kosher food is non-existent.

Algerians: etiquette, conversation and some social notes

Algeria is a Muslim country and physical contact between men and women tends to be discouraged. If you are a man, most men and some women will greet you by kissing you on both cheeks, but only when you come back from business trips, on religious holidays, or after a long separation. If you're a woman, women will greet you by kissing you on both cheeks while men will avoid greeting you other than by asking “how are you?”

Algerians tend to be friendly over all but many don't see conversation as a form of recreation. That is we in the West like to get together and chat, or catch up, but many Algerians will prefer to watch TV or watch the football match rather than discuss anything. Long, open conversations tend to be frowned upon. Don't reveal anything that you think shouldn't be revealed, and avoid criticizing the country.

Algerians rarely discuss their private life, matters or personal problems. They prefer talking about the weather, politics, society or work. Some may exaggerate their intellectual status, financial abilities or social status. Don't point that out.

Gossip is a common form of conversation and you will notice Algerians tend to be very competitive. Many Algerians like to compare each other to colleagues and tend to claim that they are better than their colleagues at most things. Tribalism and ethnicity play a role, and ethnic slurs and tribal preferences are common. Many Algerians will prefer working with people from their region.

Social status is a big thing in Algeria, so don't refer to taxi drivers as such, drivers as such or helpers as such. Refer to them by name as if they were a family member.

Many Algerians are very status conscious and may use you as a token, to show you off among their friends and family, or other colleagues, or even clients. Play along and show up, as you may contribute to driving sales up.

If you are single, you may be very coveted as marrying a foreigner, especially one from a Western country, is viewed as a sign of extremely good social status. Do keep in mind that Algerians will want to marry you to bump their social status up and perhaps for your money, rather than for anything else.

Algerians are extremely conscious and paranoid about their reputation. If they treat you the wrong way, they may go distances to deny any wrongdoing. That is because they will be worried that you may spread rumors about their wrongdoings. If you catch them doing something wrong, they may watch you like a hawk to make sure you don't spread the rumor. Some say Algerians can kill people to preserve their reputation.


    
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