Glimpses into the life of a Global Nomad, Part Three

A look into the life of Rafiq A. Tschannen, Associate Chief Editor of the Muslim Times.

(moving from Switzerland to France and then on to Pakistan)

Part Two ended with me trying to get a transfer out of Zurich with my employer, Swissair. I was 19 years old. Well, lots of Swissair staff would have liked to be deployed all over the world and I was told to wait for a few years. I did (of course) not have the patience and therefore resigned. I went to Paris. I thought learning a bit of French would not be such a bad idea.

How do you find a job in a place where you do not know anybody? I got fed up after only three days and went to Swissair Paris instead of looking around elsewhere.  In the accounts department of Swissair Paris there was a lady who was pregnant. When hearing that I was looking for a job she said that actually she would not mind to have an extended maternity leave, some of it unpaid. Consequently I got a job with Swissair in Paris. Of course the salary was not the same as if I would have been transferred from the Head Office. But it was better than nothing and I was able to attend Alliance Francaise and learn a bit of French.

My job was similar to Zurich, data entry clerk in the Accounts Office. I easily adapted to my new task.

We lived in the Chateau de Vincennes area of Paris. We had a ‘studio apartment’ there and my office was at the Avenue de l’Opera. The cheapest dish in a Restaurant near my office was a soup made of chicken necks. I do not like to eat chicken necks ever since please.

In Paris I used to like strolling along the Seine river and looking at the Second Hand book shops there. If I recall correctly I could exchange 2 of my books for 1 or was it 3 for 2?

During my stay in France I visited the Paris Mosque from time to time, however, I did not really have close contacts with other Muslims while in France. I had some friends at the Alliance Francaise School where I took French lessons and B. had a girl friend from her old University in UK. She was married too and in Paris with her husband.

The Imam of the Zurich Mosque informed me that there was one Pakistani Ahmadi-Muslim in Paris on a several months long assignment. This is one of the advantages of belonging to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. You always have some friends and brothers anywhere in the world. He was Chaudhry Mohammed Amjad Khan. He was Deputy Director in the West Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority. We met from time to time and he said to me: ‘Why don’t you come to Pakistan?’ I replied that I would like to, but how do I do that? He suggested that I should write to Ed. Zueblin AG in Duisburg, Germany. They had submitted the lowest bid for the construction of the Marala Barrage in District Sialkot and would soon start their 180 million Deutsch Mark Worldbank-financed project.

I wrote to them and they were very surprised to receive my letter as the project had not yet been signed. Moreover they were impressed that I had a friend in the West Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority, which was to be ‘the Employer’ or ‘the other party’ in the contract. Consequently they were keen to offer me a job.

As I had a ‘Diploma as Secretary’ I was offered the job of ‘Assistant to the Project Director’.

I was asked about my salary requirements, having no idea of ‘expatriate contracts’ I did not really know what to say. At the ‘spur of the moment’ I recalled that my Pakistani friend said that 1000 Rupees was a lot of money in Pakistan in those days and I said 1000 Rupees.  (It was equal to 800 Deutsch Marks at the official rate of exchange in those days). Without blinking they agreed. And I had a contract to start work in Pakistan on 1st February 1965.  Readers:   Please be better prepared before an interview than I was at the time. Inform yourself regarding what you could and should ask for!

Later on however when my boss was leaving during the project duration he remarked to me ‘I hope you will stay until the project is finished’. I replied ‘it depends’ and he countered ‘yes I know, do not worry, I will do something’. And he changed my contract to a normal ‘Expatriate Contract’ with a salary of 1800 DM and return flights home after two years. Consequently I could take my wife and son on a holiday in Switzerland in due course. We transited Egypt and Libya, where her uncle Dr. Taqi-u-Din was working at the time. But again, I am ahead of my time: (other wife…)

Ever since I met Sir Mohammed Zafrullah Khan at the opening ceremony of the Zurich Mosque we kept in touch by correspondence. (I had also visited him in New York). During my stay in Paris Sir Zafrullah Khan once visited Paris and he invited me for dinner at his hotel off the Champs Elysee. Choudhary Sahib phoned to my office during my lunch break. My colleague told me that some ‘Sire’ (‘Sire’ in French means ‘King’) phoned. I explained to her that it must be ‘Sir’, not ‘Sire’ (good enough!). We had French Onion Soup for dinner and afterwards a large strawberry dessert with plenty of cream. Since then I do like real and proper French Onion Soup. During a rather long transit to Senegal from Jordan years later I looked for French Onion Soup at the airport. There was nothing to be found inside the transit area. I was told that outside there were more restaurants and I specially passed immigration to go out. No Luck out there either. No French Onion Soup was to be found at Paris International Airport. Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald, Burger King and all that. Outside there was a seafood restaurant which was ok, but … no French Onion Soup.

I reached Pakistan on my 20th birthday on 18th December 1964. I went alone. From Pakistan I wrote to my wife Barbara that sorry please do not come.  Divorce is what ‘Allah hates most of all permitted deeds’. Consequently I am not proud of my action. May Allah (and Barbara) forgive me. I hope that Barbara was able to complete her education. She ‘dropped out’ of University because of me.

My lawyer (our lawyer) in Bern said that ours was a unique divorce case. It was his first case that he never met any of the parties. The husband was in Pakistan, the wife in England and the divorce proceedings in Bern, Switzerland. I had to ask my mother to send her left-over things from Switzerland and had to pay one thousand Pounds as compensation, which in those days was Sfr. 12’000. I did not quite have that much in my Swiss bank account at the time. I asked the bank to pay it anyway, as they could see that I had a regular income (of a few hundred DM) they did.

Sir Mohammed Zafrullah Khan was ‘in-between-jobs’ and stayed with his daughter in Lahore Cantonment. He invited me to stay with him on my first night in Pakistan.

Next day his son-in-law dropped me with his black Mercedes on the bus stop to Rabwah, the Headquarters of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. The bus to Rabwah had just left, so he drove after it and flagged it down and told the driver to let me off at Rabwah.  I was going to attend the ‘Jalsa Salana’, the Annual Gathering of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community which used to take place every year from 26th to 28th of December. Since 1984 these gatherings are not permitted in Pakistan. The Pakistani Government has acceded to the wishes of the religious extremists, who are scared of a peace-loving small community. (Peace might spread! What a terrible thought).

In Rabwah I was given a room at the ‘Tharik-i-Jadid Guest House’, the guest house of the Foreign Missions Office. Other guests during that Jalsa were one gentleman from Ghana, Mohammad Hassan Josef Al Atta. I asked him, why his name was ‘Josef’ and not ‘Yusuf. He answered that during his time as a child in Ghana the only school in the vicinity was a Christian Missionary School. The Missionary Teacher said that you have to be a Christian to attend this school. His father said ‘no problem’ and added ‘Josef’ to his name. He had 44 children.  (Years later when I met him again in Ghana I asked him how many children he now had. He replied ‘44’. I queried how that could be possible, as he had 44 children years ago. He whispered to me ‘family planning’!).

Hadhrat Mirza Mahmood Ahmad, the Second Khalifa of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, was not in good health in 1964. He still suffered from a wound that he got when a potential assassin tried to stab him in the back years previously. A part of the knife broke off was stuck in the back bone. In December 1964 he was ‘bed-ridden’ and could not get up. When I was fortunate to be granted an audience I was therefore expecting to meet a ‘sick old man’. When I entered the room he had his face turned to the other side. I was introduced as the new young Swiss Muslim called Rafiq Tschannen, who had just arrived from Switzerland.

When he turned around I was totally ‘smashed’ / impressed, I saw a smiling face without any wrinkles! ‘Noor’ (light) was shining forth from this great personality!  He smiled because in Punjabi ‘Channen’ (Tschannen) means ‘moon light’. Consequently he joked that with you the moon light has come to my room. It was such an impressive meeting that, of course, it is marked deeply in my memory.

For more information on this great and holy person please visit:

I attended the Annual Gathering 1964 with approximately another 150’000 guests from Pakistan and abroad. It was the last Annual Gathering with the Second Khalifa. He died the following September. Hadhrat Mirza Nasir Ahmad was then elected as the Third Khalifa. Before his election he was principle of the Ahmadiyya Missionary Training College, the ‘Jamia Ahmadiyya’.

A couple of interesting observations during those days: During normal days we would pray at the Mubarak Mosque, next to the residence of the Khalifa. On Jumma especially ladies would also be present. In Pakistan ladies like to wear bangles, hopefully of gold, if married, and usually of glass if young and unmarried. When praying we raise our hands when we start the prayers with the words ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ (God is Great). When we changed positions we could hear the glass bangles shifting their position as well. It did not seem to disturb any one. But I kept wondering whether one of the young ladies on the other side of the curtain might one day be mine.

Once on the way to the mosque I met all the students of the Ahmadiyya Missionary Training College coming together to the mosque to pray. I looked at that simple lot of students and thought: ‘If with these kind of people this Jamaat (Community) has spread all over the world it can only be by the grace of Allah’. And that is how it is.

After Jalsa I started work in Lahore. I was the ‘first man on the job’. The Chief Administrator arrived from Germany and we started to arrange things. The first step was to rent a ‘Lahore Guest House’, which we did in Lahore Cantonment. It was now early 1965.

After this Jalsa Salana, Annual Gathering, I went to Lahore. The Directors of Ed. Zueblin AG, Civil Engineering Contractors, came from Germany to sign the contract for the construction of the Marala Barrage with the West Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority. (The founder of the company Mr. Zueblin was in fact Swiss, but the company that I dealt with was the German branch, the International Headquarters was in Duisburg).




Some of the Directors did not speak very good English. I recall that one Director during breakfast in the hotel first ordered a couple of fried eggs. After that he wanted to order an omelette, but the waiter did not understand his German accent, or thought he did not hear correctly (as we usually order fried eggs OR an omelette and not fried eggs AND an omelette). When the waiter continued to just stare strangely and could not understand what the director wanted, he pointed to a plate of one of our other colleagues on the other side of the table and meant to say ‘like this’. The puzzled waiter went to the other side and took the plate away from the other guest and brought it to him. Ah, well, these cultural differences…

After the signing ceremony the directors left and the Chief Administrator and I started the operation, first out of his hotel room. Later on we rented a house in Lahore Cantonment, actually not far from the house of Sir Mohammed Zafrullah Khan. This was to remain as our Lahore Office and Lahore Guest House during the full duration of the project.

The Mangla Dam Project in the North of Pakistan was winding down and we could purchase from them three mobile homes. We set them up in Marala and moved there and were ‘ready to go’. A camp was hastily constructed so that other international staff and local staff could be accommodated and work could start.  The site offices were also constructed.

I watched a fatal accident right at the beginning of our operation. A warehouse was temporarily set up near our mobile homes. When the permanent warehouse was built this temporary warehouse was being dismantled. It consisted of long metal beams connected at the top. When the top beams were dismantled one standing beam fell down and straight on some onlookers head. He was dead immediately.

Strangely the second death was my own ‘Peon’. (a ‘peon’ is a messenger, sitting in front of offices. He would come in when summoned and take a document here and there. My ‘peon’ was also in-charge of shopping for small things including milk and tea to be served in the office. He was driving one day on his bicycle with a jug of milk balanced in one hand. A lorry carrying cement came from behind and drove over him. We took him to Sialkot to a hospital. May be our Site Hospital was not yet working. The Christian Missionary Hospital looked at him and refused admission. The public hospital took him in. He died a couple of days later of internal injuries.

We had subcontractors such as Hitachi from Japan and another one from Austria. And we also had many smaller local sub-contractors. One local sub-contractor got a contract for ‘stone pitching’. It was to provide a stone-cut border of the river bed. The Marala Barrage contract was to replace a barrage diverting water from the Chenab river to the Marala Ravi Link Canal. The old Barrage was constructed during the British Raj and had become obsolete as water was running under it and through it. It had to be dismantled and replaced with a modern construction with gates controlling the flow of the water.

On site we had Land Rovers that did not need number plates. I learned to drive just with the local driver that took us from the accommodation to the office. Later on I got the driving licence without a test. After all, my name was Rafiq and I was a friend. (and a payment of 50 Rupees, if I recall correctly). The Pakistani driving licence later on was changed into an Afghan one, the Afghan one into a Ghanaian one, the Ghanaian one into a Nigerian one, the Nigerian one into a Swiss one. – All without a test.

Marala is situated near the border with the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir. During the month of August 1965 we started hearing small arms shooting across the border, especially at night. On 1st September open war broke out. One morning at 5 am we heard some jet planes overhead and some bombs were dropped nearby. The Chief Administrator came to my room all excited (we shared one of the houses from Mangla Dam Project, which were better than the newly constructed ones). ‘Did you hear’? I said, yes, but the bomb is down and it is not too near and consequently there is nothing to worry about and no need to get up at 5 am.

At that time we were receiving daily trains of stone for our project. The trains had stopped in mid-August, because all railway capacity was blocked for the military. The Chief Administrator had gone to Lahore to meet our Employer, the West Pakistan Water and Power Distribution Authority. It had to be documented so that the time could be counted for a delay in the project without a penalty. When the war broke out the Military did not permit him to leave Lahore.

The Project Director was visiting the Headquarters in Germany at the time war broke out and was stuck there. He could not return to the Project Site.

When the war broke out therefore the person in-charge of the Project was “Nr. 3”, who did not have such a powerful personality. The staff did not listen to him.

The full-scale Indo Pakistan war broke out on 1st September 1965. Pakistan had infiltrated ‘freedom fighters’ into Kashmir and India responded with the army. In Sialkot, near my residence of Marala, the largest tank battle since the Second World War took place. The Swiss NZZ Neue Zuercher Zeitung commented: “This is a war fought in 1965, with weapons of 1939 to 1945, with military tactics of 1914 – 1918 and the civil enthusiasm which Europe has not seen since 1870”.  When Indians bombed instead of hiding the civilian population would go on rooftops to try and see what was happening.

Near us some bombs dropped by the Indian Air force near Sambrial Railway Station. This was the railway station where our site train would join the railway network. We were never quite sure whether the Indians wanted to hit the railway station or the bridges nearby, as the bombs were dropped somewhere in-between.

When the war broke out the International Staff of Ed. Zueblin AG assembled. Our Medical Officer became the spokesman for the International Staff. He said that during the Second World War he had lost his home twice and did not want to loose out again in a war that was not his own. The Nr. 3, who was supposed to be the boss, tried to say that we should wait for instructions from our Headquarters, but the assembled staff wanted to vote: ‘should we stay or go’. 40 voted for leaving 5 for staying. I was among the 5, another one was a newly arrived Sri Lankan national. Then there was one guy who had just purchased some carpets and said he was not leaving without them, while ‘the group’ wanted to limit luggage to one bag per person. Then there was a veteran of Stalingrad, Siberia and Baghdad during the revolution, when the King was kicked out. (Ed. Zueblin AG was there). He said this little local war is nothing. And one guy who actually wanted to leave, but was at the Radio Station trying to speak with the Chief Administrator in Lahore while the others left.

The group left for Kabul, where they sought refuge in the camp of another German Civil Engineering Contractor outside of the city. (Phillip Holzmann AG). I was the only ‘Administrative Staff’. I had a signed cheque to withdraw cash from the bank to pay the salaries of about 1000 staff members. I went to our local branch of the bank. There was a branch on our construction site. The bank manager said that he did not have any cash and would have to fetch it in Sialkot, but he was afraid to go there as the war was going on all around it. I said I will come with you and we set off, however, we were stopped not far away on a military checkpoint and advised to stay back.

I then instructed our company railway to run between the site and Sambrial back and forth with as many staff as could fit into the wagons. I distributed I think 100 Rupees for each staff who wanted some ‘transport money’. I had some cash in the safe, but not enough to pay the full salaries. Some left without the transport money, some came to collect it. At the end a few were left who said that the amount was not sufficient as they lived far away. I gave them another hundred each.

Marala became very calm and quiet and empty. I went through all the vacated homes and collected food stuff out of the refrigerators and distributed it among the few staff who stayed behind, mainly employees of the West Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority.

In the meantime we were able to contact our Chief Administrator in Lahore by Radio. He advised us that it was better for us to leave also, as we 5 could not secure all the stores and equipment. It was better we handed over the keys to the Employer (WAPDA) so that they would be responsible for it. (I know the guy actually was scared to come and this was a good reason to avoid coming here).

So a few days later we left, picked him up somewhere on the way and then went to Peshawar. During our stay in the hotel in Peshawar sometimes the air raid sirens would go off and we were supposed to go to trenches that were dug in the gardens. The Indian Air Force was bombing the Peshawar airport, but in those days the bombs were not very accurate and when we did use the airport I did not really see any damage. Some brick kilns at the end of the run way seemed to have fallen down. May be they were hit.

We tried to get into contact with our people in Kabul, but could not get through. Finally we decided to go and join them. When we reached Kabul the war was just about over. The war did not last so long, because both USA, weapon supplier of Pakistan and Russia, weapon supplier of India, in a rare mutual agreement, decided not to re-supply both sides with ammunition and they had to agree to a cease-fire in about ten days time.

When we reached Kabul instead of being received with open arms our colleagues abused us as ‘adventurers’. I was quite shocked by this unexpected ‘welcome’.

In the meantime our General Manager had arrived in Kabul from Karachi. He arranged for us to stay in Hotels in Kabul city, instead of the camp of the German Contractor. Good for us. We could have a look around town.

While in town in Kabul I met Mr. Ahmad Hobolm. He was a German Muslim and at the time working at the German Embassy in Islamabad. It seems he also evacuated himself to Kabul, with many other Foreigners from Pakistan. At one time he was Imam of the Berlin Mosque. Later on, when anti-Ahmadiyya sentiments grew in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, he claimed that he did not know at the time that the Berlin Mosque was in fact owned by the Lahore faction of the Ahmadiyya Community.

As we stayed in town we missed that the Doctor was sent to Marala to check if we could start work again. Remember, the war was now over, but (as usual) on the News you would hear of cease fire violations etc. He went back, saw military all over the place and came back to Kabul saying that it was not safe to return.

Now a Director came from Germany. He said that he himself would go and check whether it was safe to work or not. He would decide and if he decided that it was ok then all should move and who would not agree could go home (and loose his job).

I asked him whether I could join him. He agreed but pointed out that after a day or so he would leave and I would be alone. I said that it was no problem and please let me come with you. And so we went.

When we arrived the army was just de-mining the bridges that were mined before and arranged to move out of our camp. Therefore it was clear that we could now work. The war took ten days. The absence of our staff took one month.

After the war I visited the villages behind Sialkot, which were occupied by India during the war. Everything that was moveable was stolen and removed. This included all the trees along the roads, all the wooden roof beams of the mud houses that were the usual buildings in all the villages. ‘Just for fun’ the tube wells were filled in as well. I do not think that anything valuable could have been taken out from there. I understand in some wells bodies of murdered civilians were thrown, although I did not personally see that.

Remembering the charitable work of my previous boss in England, Mr. Scott-Bader, I asked him whether he would be willing to assist in the reconstruction of the villages. Remember he was a pacifist Quaker. He replied that he would not spend a penny on the foolish results of war.

Some additional information on my employer in Pakistan:

I worked for the Marala Barrage Project until it was completed from 1st February 1965 to spring 1969.





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