Page last updated at 11:27 GMT, Saturday, 28 August 2010 12:27 UK

Algeria's shopping centre revolution

By Chloe Arnold
BBC News, Algiers

When the Bab Ezzouar shopping centre opened on the outskirts of Algeria's capital, Algiers, thousands of people flocked to the four-storey building for a taste of Western-style shopping. But not everyone wants to give up the old ways of commerce.

Workers hanging up brand signs on the exterior of the shopping centre
Could the shopping centre spark a commerce revolution in Algiers?

I am standing in the DIY aisle of the centre's flagship shore, Uno. The centre has been built on a piece of wasteland out by the airport.

Beside me, four young men - who have travelled from Tipaza, an hour from Algiers along the coast towards Morocco - are deep in discussion about a hammer.

Should they go for the smaller one with a wooden handle, or the larger one with rubber grip which, surprisingly, feels lighter?, one of them asks.

Above us, Abba's Dancing Queen is wafting over the shoppers from the loudspeakers, broken at regular intervals by announcements of lost children.

Wahab, one of the potential hammer-buyers, says he thinks the shopping mall is wonderful. "It's a completely new thing for Algeria," he tells me. "We're so proud."

Outside, the queue of cars waiting to park is backed up for miles down the motorway, and the staff are so stretched that even the boss's wife is lending a hand at one of the tills.

Market trading

Algeria's never had anything like this before. There are a few run-down department stores, but they are depressing places, where half the stalls are boarded up and the rest sell goods no-one seems to want to buy.

A woman buys vegetables in a market in Algiers
Traditional markets are still the main way people shop in Algiers

People usually do their shopping in small shops or at markets.

Shopping here can take all day. You start at the market, where old men sit at rickety tables selling piles of ripe tomatoes or mounds of fresh coriander and mint.

Around the corner are nuts and dried fruits in giant copper bowls, and then the spice section, where you can buy huge scoops of cumin, cardamom, cinnamon and fiery orange paprika. Then it is on to the butcher, the baker and the fishmonger.

After Algeria won independence from the French in 1962, the country opted for a socialist economic policy and private commerce was tightly restricted.

Starting in the late 1990s, private businesses were tolerated a little more. But the country has never really warmed to capitalism. The president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, counts Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez among his friends.

Shopper surge

In Uno, I battle my way through electronic goods, past garden furniture and a bank of gleaming white fridges.

A man in a green and white tracksuit with Algeria written on the back is struggling with a clothes-airer. He appears to have folded himself up in it and is now trapped inside.

But no-one notices because they are surging forward towards kitchenware, bathroom goods, ladies' fashions, the patisserie and a whole shelf of something called Gusty Orange Drink. The management later told me they had about 30,000 visitors on their first day.

Further into the shop, I speak to Fettouma, a science teacher, who is choosing between vanilla and strawberry-flavoured blancmange mix.

I don't think my customers will go there. That's luxury, and my cafe isn't anything like that
Merouane, cafe manager

She is here with her mother and two aunts, and they, too, think the mall is a good thing.

"The prices are a little higher," Fettouma says, "but it's so convenient having it all here in one place."

Upstairs there are cafes and restaurants, and boutiques selling make-up and jewellery and sunglasses. There is a bowling alley with a long queue outside, and a multi-screen cinema, which is due to open soon.

Outside, I pass a man who has bought six lemons and an electric guitar. The lemons are not a problem, but he is having trouble squeezing the guitar into the back of his tiny car.

Investors are desperate to tap into the Algerian market, which is the most affluent in the region. And if they can pick their way through the minefield of government controls and restrictions, other centres like this one could open soon.

I cross the car park to a parade of tired shops and cafes, which now stand in the shadow of Bab Ezzouar.

One of them is the Cafe Istanbul, where a dozen customers are sitting at tables on the pavement, smoking hookah pipes and reading newspapers.

Inside I find Merouane, the manager. He is 32 and has run the cafe for five years. His hair is immaculately combed and oiled.

Has he visited the shopping centre, I ask him, and is he worried it might lure his customers away?

Merouane pours me a glass of mint tea and shakes his head. "I haven't been yet," he says, "it seems a little crowded.

"But I don't think my customers will go there. That's luxury, and my cafe isn't anything like that."

The Cafe Istanbul opens at 0430, after the first prayers are over at the nearby mosque, and closes at 2300 when prayers finish for the day.

"I have noticed that people are going to the shopping centre instead of the mosque," Merouane says as he pours me more tea.

Outside dusk is beginning to fall, and we can just make out the sound of the mullah starting his call to prayer over the din of cars still making their way to the centre.

"I think that's a shame," he says.

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SEE ALSO
Country profile: Algeria
26 Feb 11 |  Country profiles


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