Saturday, March 8, 2008

My First Hawala Transfer

Being in Moscow, but without a Russian bank account, and wishing to transfer money from Dubai to here, I have a few options. I could put it in the account connected to my debit card, which is fine as long as I don't mind paying 0.5% and a daily withdrawal limit, which is is good for security reasons but bad for convenience reasons. I'm sure I could work out a way to wire oneself the money here, after a day or two of forms, faxes and arguing, but I decided to try something new, partially for convenience and partially because I'm interested to see how it works.

I am trying hawala, the traditional system of money transfer in the Muslim world (technically not just the Muslim word, but that is where it is the best known to Decadent Westerners such as myself). An Afghan friend of mine in Dubai graciously set it up, and this morning he called me with a man's first name, a phone number and a code. I called, gave that man the code (we spoke in Russian, but I have an accent that screams "Decadent Westerner" and I got the impresison that he is just as curious to see me as I am to see him), and we are going to meet tomorrow morning at a major metro station landmark to hand over the amount, all in cash. It would be today, but today is Women's Day, a major holiday in Russia, and we are both too busy to work out a schedule when we can both meet. My friend in Dubai is keeping an eye on it all (he asked me to call when we arranged on a meeting time, and was quite unimpressed that I have to wait until tomorrow), and asked against that I confirm when I have my money, which may be speeding the efficiency along, but I have to say - in less than a day, it transferred money from Dubai to Moscow with much less fuss of bureaucratic hassle than if I did it the more official way. If I weren't busy today it could have been even sooner.

I can also see how this system could be the bane of any law enforcement operation, as there are no official records and no way of tracking it (it even has a scandal named after it in India for this reason), but I can also see how attractive this would be, especially in places where banks are not reliable or the recipients and/or senders are unbanked. Money transfer services such as Western Union also do not have universal reach (and should sometimes be avoided for other reasons - I saw on in Sri Lanka with a gold shop in the same office as the Western Union, ready to take the remittances before the potential spenders made it out the door), but because it relies more on informal connections and less on official ties, it seems a lot easier for hawala to find a guy who knows a guy.

I will provide an update once I actually have the cash.

Update: I have the cash and it worked quite well. I arrived early and stood outside the metro station entrance where we agreed to meet. A Russian policeman came and stood directly in front of me about 15 feet away, which confused me a little until the next train load of metro passengers started to exit and he picked out a few Caucasian (in Russia this doesn't mean white, it means form the Caucuses), and Central Asian passengers and asked to see their documents. The station serves the largest outdoor market in Moscow where a lot of people form those regions work, and given prejudices against them here and the fact that the markets do provide work for many illegal immigrants, it would make sense for a policeman to choose that point on the morning before the big Sunday market operations.

Hamid eventually showed up. Officially I was supposed to give him the code but I was clearly not there to work at the market, nor shop there, and once I started speaking with my Decadent Westerner accent it was pretty obvious it was the same person he spoke to on the phone. It turns out he is Afghan so I tried out my basic Dari which surprised him even more (Decadent Westerner hawala users who speak Dari, no matter how bad, are rather rare I think). We walked to a small Uzbek cafe (Uzbek and Georgian food in Moscow are what Chinese and Lebanese food are in many other wares) called Bishkek (actually the capitol of Uzbekistan's neighbor Kyrgyzstan), ordered some Central Asian tea, complete with small tea bowls and the proper Central Asian ritual of using steaming hot tea to rinse the cups three times before using them while listening to a rather cheezy English-language ballad about the troubles in Belfast while a documentary on marmots played on mute on the TV over the cashier's corner.

He then provided the cash and asked me to count it, which I did as unobtrusively as possible. It was all there, as I expected. I'm getting good at counting cash - my goal is to be able to flip through it quickly with just three fingers, and I'd say I'm about a third of the way there.

We chatted a little more about life in Moscow and the operations of the market (in addition to being the cash delivery man Hamid also runs a store in the market selling sneakers, mostly knock-off Nike and Pumas. He came to Moscow from Afghanistan last year, has been learning Russian ever since, and after working for another store selling ladies handbags until his Russian improved, his family lent him the money to open his own stall, and he trusted as well enough to be the cash delivery point). His brother has a similar store in a Petersburg market.

Hamid also told me he knew my Afghan friend in Dubai (I know him from Afghanistan, where he performed a Very Good Feed and earned my gratitude ever since) who set the whole thing up, and that he himself was a friend of a friend, and that the typical transfer fee had therefore been waived. Which was appreciated, but was also a little disappointing from the true hawala experience side of it. I could see he was dying to ask me how exactly I was involved, but he didn't, and I figured that they really were good friends, my friend would have told him (as the perpetual solitary decadent (female!) Westerner I really am a very odd case in Afghan society, and as such don't invite any more gossip about myself than isn't already coming), and so didn't volunteer.