When I first traveled abroad, I thought I was a bit more clever than others. Forty years ago many people used cash or traveler’s checks (or “cheques” as American Express would have it). In those distant days, even credit cards were uncommon, and I certainly had none. I obtained a letter of credit from the Northern Trust Company, my bank in Chicago, a document usually used by businessmen. In this way I would risk carrying no money and my savings could continue to bear interest in my absence. I then plagued banks throughout Europe and North Africa by showing up and requesting twenty or twenty-five dollars in the local currency. This worked well, we found, even in out of the way places.
We were proceeding across North Africa mostly by train. At that time, the Moroccan trains had four classes. The last of these was our inevitable choice and we rumbled across country in cars with backless wooden benches that reminded me of trains in old Western movies. Oujda was our last Moroccan town – we bought some Algerian money from a street hustler before boarding the train. The black market existed because the Algerian government currency was controlled; that is, it did not trade freely but was maintained at an artificial level by the government.
We had had some difficulty entering Algeria. My profession was listed as “editor” on the visa form, and the USA was uneasy with the Algerian National Liberation Front which had clear alliances to the Vietnamese one. After all, under Boumédienne, members of the Panther “international section” were guests there and, in a few months, Tim Leary would arrive to join them. I convinced the immigration people that I was harmless, and I was admitted to the land by someone who presumably understood that I would receive money through the banks’ approved pipelines.
In fact, I had no difficulty using the letter of credit in Algeria, and I retained all the documents and receipts accompanying the transactions. In Annaba we sought to buy tickets through to Tunis, but the clerk insisted that we have a bon de passage, while the issuing official, unfamiliar with letters of credit, wanted to see the more conventional document recording currency imported, changed, and carried out. Having imported no money – well, we had, in fact, but that was illicit unreported cash – we had never received this form.
We were stalemated. It did no good to point out that the immigration man’s principle would mean that we could never leave his country, a result desired by no party. He simply turned up the palms of his hands in impotence. He had the bureaucrat’s taste for asserting power when possible as well as the typical minor functionary’s fear of doing anything outside of standard operating procedure. He surely toadied to his superiors and thus had a reasonable expectation that his inferiors would do him the same courtesy.
We decided to head toward the border anyway. Early in the morning we took the train to Souk Ahras, built on the ruins of Tagaste, Augustine’s birthplace and a Roman municipium. There, in an office at the train station, we encountered the same obdurate official refusal to allow us to leave. The immigration officer had returned to his heaps of paperwork, and we were quietly discussing what might happen if we simply walked to the border when the chef de gare strolled by, resplendent in his perfectly pressed uniform. He wore decorations like a soldier’s and walked with military bearing.
Pleased to observe that something out of the ordinary was transpiring in his domain, he took an interest and summoned us into his office. He offered tea and we could see things were looking up. We passed a few pleasantries back and forth in our imperfect French and exchanged opinions on world events. We discussed the glories of Algeria and the virtues of the current regime. When I ventured to ask about our immediate circumstance, he sighed, as though such trivial matters were very nearly beneath his level of perception, signed the necessary paper, and pushed it toward us. Beyond the stage of relishing manipulation, he knew the meaning of noblesse oblige. As a big man, he demonstrated his power by patronage. Fortunately, that day, he chose to patronize us.