Passing through Bab Bahr, one of the oldest gates in Tunis and the entry to the heart of the old city, one cannot help but hear the voices whispering above the sound of traffic and merchants.

“Exchange…exchange,” calls one hard currency dealer to some passersby. He is looking for customers who are at the black market where tens of dealers have been active for decades, especially near the station of the cars that head for Algeria.

Although the street that leads here is packed with bank branches that monopolize foreign currency exchange beside the Central Bank, Bab Bahr is the heart of illegal currency dealers. It is the main destination for those who want to exchange Tunisian dinars for foreign currencies, most prominently euros and dollars.

On the sidewalk

As the day begins, currency dealers begin walking along the sidewalk that leads to Bab Bahr in search of clients.

Apart from authorities turning a blind eye, this illegal activity has prospered due to the increasing demand of hard currencies with the current devaluation of the Tunisian dinar. There are no currency exchange offices or bank machines, except for a single ATM in Habib Bourguiba Street in the capital.

The vacuum has been filled by currency exchange dealers. Some of them even stand in front of bank branches in the capital after the banks close at 4 p.m. to hunt clients. Many dealers charge more after the banks close.

The profits from currency exchange, says a dealer who requested to remain anonymous, vary from day to day. “It is enough to cover my expenses and send some money to my family.”

First job

A. M. (26 years old) quit school early before moving to his relatives in Tunis, where he worked with them in selling smuggled goods years ago. About a year ago he decided to deal in currency exchange on the black market in search of a higher profit despite the risk of being imprisoned.

A. M. says he does not have any other choice but to take up this work to help his low-paid father, housewife mother and two brothers, who are still in school. He is not thinking about staying in this business for the rest of his life. He plans to save some money and return to his hometown to start a small business.

The art of negotiation

A. M. is one of many youth who have recently taken up the currency exchange business on the black market, which is also the occupation of choice of old previously-convicted dealers who, nevertheless, manage to find clients. One of them is B. Kh., who has been working in complete secrecy at the Bab Bahr market for over 10 years.

B. Kh. says that beginners do not know how to negotiate with clients. “They often present a bad image of this business, which is, though illegal, ruled by regulations and dealings,” he says. Despite being in his fifties, his only source of living is dealing with hard currencies.

He knows that the state cannot fulfill clients’ needs of hard currencies only through banks; the Tunisian law allows a person only to exchange up to TND six thousand a year upon obtaining a visa to travel abroad. This restricted tourism-related transaction often forces Tunisians to resort to the black market.

B. Kh. utilizes his big body, sharp look and experience in negotiation to impose his conditions and fares on the clients he finds on the streets. He also makes use of the frightening reputation of currency dealers in applying pressure on the client to have the upper hand in negotiations while at the same time preventing the client from canceling the deal.

He clarifies the profit margin he gains from exchanging hard currencies. For example, when the bank exchange rate of dollar to TND is 2.5, like the case is today, he buys the dollar for no more than TND 2.2 on the black market after banks close. He then raises the profit margin when selling dollars in exchange for Tunisian dinars.

At the end of the day, he counts the foreign and local currencies he has earned and calculates the profit margin. On the next morning, he watches bank exchange rates, like other currency dealers, to determine the limits of purchase and sale when making transactions with clients who want to stay away from the scrutiny of authorities.