Glimpses into the life of a Global Nomad, Part Two

Sir Mohammed Zafrullah Khan

(Continuation of Glimpses into the life of Rafiq A. Tschannen, your Associate Chief Editor of The Muslim Times)

After 6 years of Primary School and 2 years of Secondary School and at the age of 15 I felt somehow ‘itchy’ on my soles and could not see myself staying in one place for the next three years and consequently did not apply for any apprenticeship position, as all my brothers did before me. In the olden days adolescents in Switzerland would move over to the French-speaking side to learn French, when they could not secure an apprenticeship or did not know what to do at the moment. As 1960 was already ‘modern days’ my parents decided to send me to England instead to learn English.

Looking back even now to those days my respect for my parents grows even now how they managed to get me those ‘internship’ positions in England. It seems very difficult now-a-days.

At first I went to a family in Solihull, outside of Birmingham. I am not sure whose ‘friend of a friend’ he was. I think the family had visited Switzerland before and my parents met them, probably in some Christian circle. My new host owned a factory in Birmingham town and a farm in Solihull. This farm contained a nice ‘Manor House’, where the family resided. The farm itself was surrounded by three sides by the Solihull Golf Club.

The story goes that my ‘host’ (let’s not name names, you will see why later) was a pilot in the Second World War. In early days he was shot down and captured and passed the whole war as a prisoner of war in Germany. He was ‘slave labor’ and was attached to some farmer. He therefore noticed that during the war it was better to be near a farm or on a farm, as at least food was available. Consequently when he came back to Great Britain he bought a farm.

The family prepared a room for me inside the Manor House. I was received as a member of the family, as I was a friend of a friend.  All smiles and welcome. I was to attend English language classes whenever they were available and help a bit around the farm when I was not thus occupied.

In the farm there were just two workers, one farm manager and his deputy. In the house there was one maid. The family had one daughter. On Saturdays the maid used to polish the silver. The farm assistant would also come and ‘feed’ the open fires at the Manor (including in my specially prepared room upon arrival).

And then I went to school. English as a foreign language was taught in the Technical College in Solihull.

Well, that all sounded great. Apparently however I must have got on the nerve of my host somehow, mainly because I did not speak a word of English in the beginning. When for instance he would say to me ‘pass the broom’ I would just look at him. Actually I suspect that my host did speak German, after years as prisoner-of-war in Germany, but obviously he did not want to speak that language.Well, the ‘charm’ ended and I was ‘passed on’ to the guest room of the farm manager’s house, on the other side of the golf course.

Well, when you think things cannot get worse, they can. One day at 3 pm, I was just ‘dressed up’ to go to school, when my boss comes home from his factory and enters the house and exclaims: “Where are the cows?” The farm had about 30 cows. It was too much hard work to milk them, so they were kept for either breeding or for the meat. We had left the cows in the field near the Manor House that day. They were contained by an electric fence. The gates of the individual fields were kept open, so that it was easier to drive through with the tractor and other farm machinery. The grass grew well, well fertilized. Consequently the grass touched the electric fence and the electricity was short-circuited. The cows being clever creatures noticed and pushed down the fence and went out of the allocated field.

We found them in the last corner of the farm. We ‘pushed’ them back and re-established the electric fence. We trampled the grass below the electric fence so that it should not short-circuit again. When we finished our work (it appears that on that day the farm manager and his assistant had left early or somehow were not around at the time) the boss thought it wise to close the gates as well. The British farm gates were rather old-fashioned. There were long sticks which secured the gates. After the boss closed and secured the gate very well he noticed that he was on the wrong side of the gate. I was on the correct side, towards the house. He thought for a moment and then decided that instead of opening the gate again he would climb over it. So he did, but he fell down and broke his arm.

Really, nothing of this was my fault. And I am rather sure that I did not grin (or did I?) Anyway, as a result of this incident my boss wrote to my father saying that he regretted that he could not keep me any longer and whether he should send me back to Switzerland or whether my father had any other options. Well, what a start of my International Careers! Two months into my first assignment and I am being ‘packed off’!

My father managed it once more! My parent’s friend Sister Anna Pflueger in Zurich was a Quaker. She was going to London to a Quaker conference and so my father told her to ask around at the meeting whether someone could ‘take in’ this troublesome son of his aged around 15 ½.  The result was that a driver with a limousine better than my Solihull host’s came with a letter to kindly ‘hand over the boy’. (My ‘old boss’ did have a nice car, but without a driver).  He was surprised and impressed I did noticed.

And in this way I came to Wollaston, near Wellingborough in Northamptonshire. There a British / Swiss businessman was living in a Lord’s Manor, having converted most of it into offices and having kept one floor only as his apartment. From there he managed the Scott Bader Co. Ltd. and the Scott Bader Commonwealth.  This was a Chemical factory producing different kinds of plastics. The form of the company was very special. Mr. Bader had handed over 90% of his shares to a foundation for the workers. The workers could decide how to use the profits, but they had to give 50% of the profits to charity. The workers could decide the charities, as per Quaker’s peaceful policies the only limitation was that it should not be for any military purposes. Consequently this was a very interesting place and a very interesting new boss. I got a room this time right from the beginning in the house of an employee.

When I arrived Mr. Bader first of all invited me for dinner at his apartment. After dinner he invited me to play a game of chess. It was the first and last game I ever won. I suppose Mr. Bader did not pay full attention. I just kept eating all his figures. At the end of the game he said “As you came from a farm I thought you could work in the gardens (he had three full time gardeners for the grounds of the Manor-cum-Office-cum Laboratories), but I think you better come and see me in the office in the morning. I then got the job of ‘entry clerk’ in the stock keeping department and ‘internal mail distributor’. At the same time I went to attend English classes for foreign students at the Technical College in Kettering. My salary was one Pound per week, plus free food and lodging.  (after some time I asked for a rise, but Mr. Bader said “I have to check”, so I told him ‘that’s ok’, because in my passport there was actually a stamp ‘not permitted to work, paid or unpaid’).

The ‘work’ as ‘internal mail distributor’ was in fact a good job for practicing English. I could ‘chat’ all over the place.

On Saturdays I used to join my hosts in doing the weekly shopping in Wellingborough. After shopping we used to buy fish and chips, which in those days were served in a newspaper. Even in those days I would have preferred to eat them immediately warm and fresh, but the host used to take it home to Wollaston and by the time we reached home the chips were usually cold.

Another thing I recall was that my host used to serve fresh tea every morning on the bed.  This was the way to wake us up. I would have preferred to have my tea after rinsing my mouth, but it seemed that this was the way the British wanted to wake up.

The host was a veteran of the First World War. Whenever on TV a documentary would come about the First World War, which naturally would have interested me, he would get up and switch off the TV.

The menu with my host was constant. Roast Beef on Sunday, cold roast beef on Monday. Sorry, I do not recall the details of the rest of the days, except of course the fish and chips on Saturdays. One day we had Yorkshire pudding with peas, I don’t recall on which day.

My hostess was kind and very, very pale. She used to have a large box of aspirins on the table and would eat them like I would eat Lindt chocolates.  (if no one stops me).

There were interesting staff meetings at the office, when they discussed how to use their share of the profits and vote how much to which charity should be given. The atmosphere in the company was nice, although nothing is perfect. Heaven is in the next world, hopefully.

I kept in touch with Mr. Bader. I ‘popped’ into him in Lahore, Pakistan, later on also. He was definitely an interesting personality. He believed in ‘democracy in capitalism’ and thought that his version of capitalism, to let the workers share in the share-holding and wealth, would be the ideal counter point to communism. (Remember: these were the days of the cold war when the West was scared of communism taking over).

Otherwise not much special happened during this my first stay in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

While in England during this time I did take my German translation of the Qur’an with me and kept reading it regularly. I had as yet however never met a Muslim. I sort of felt that Islam was the right religion for me, but I did not yet perform the five daily prayers.

(If anyone would like to know more about this very interesting company please refer to:

After returning to Switzerland, now aged 16 ½, I first of all hitch-hiked around Europe. I had one hundred Swiss Francs from my mother in my pocket and wanted to collect another couple of hundred from my brother in Zurich. He had borrowed my bicycle and it got stolen while with him and he offered to pay for it.    However, he was not at home so I decided to go ahead with the trip anyway.

I hitch-hiked via Geneva to Lyon, Avignon, Nice, and then up to Venice, Trieste, South Tirol and back home. I stayed in Youth Hostels. For breakfast / lunch I used to purchase some bread and milk in a shop and some apples for dinner as well. Once in a while some ‘hitch-hiking-host’ would invite me for lunch. I recall the horror of one Italian host who exclaimed ‘but water is for washing hands’, when I said I would not drink wine but just the water. And somehow I managed with the 100 Swiss Francs. I even bought a train ticket for the last stretch home! (as it was raining and the weather was miserable).

In Venice I had an interesting little experience. Like all tourists I roamed about the town, sometimes getting a bit lost here and there. Once I passed a canal that had been blocked off, probably for cleaning. Some local guy saw a wooden chest down in the canal bed and said to another guy ‘let’s take it up’. When they opened it there seem to be some meat with the cloth around it. When one bone was found to have an old watch around the wrist he said we better call the police. I stayed around to see what will happen. After a while a policeman came. They carried the box to another canal that was accessible by boat. They waited for the Police Boat to arrive to evacuate the box. As it did not come for a long time the Police Man said ‘wait, I will go and look for my colleagues’. While he was gone one guy took off the watch and looked at it and said to the other guy: ‘do you mind if I take it? It looks interesting’. The other guy said ‘ok with me’ and gone was the watch (which I suppose would be   ‘Nr.1’ clue to find the possible murderers.

Upon my return to Switzerland I joined the Dr. Gademann School in Zurich to work towards a Diploma as ‘Secretary’. I think during this one year in School I obtained the theoretical knowledge of those that were taking an apprenticeship as ‘Office Clerk’. Consequently after gaining some working knowledge I would be equal to all those with the Office Apprenticeship.

Before the school started I got a summer job in a Hotel near Interlaken on the lake. The hotel also had a ‘beach swimming pool’, which on weekends was very crowded. At first I worked as ‘Assistant Waiter’, mainly clearing tables. I also delivered food in the room service. Later on on one Sunday our ‘Kiosk’ lady had a nervous breakdown and I took over the Kiosk.

I suppose I can now tell a secret without getting into trouble:  I just could not resist the temptation of the Ragusa chocolate bars. Consequently from time to time a Ragusa would just disappear down my throat. My Director Lady was a bit surprised on the increased ‘sale’ of Ragusa, as I had to re-order it time and again.

Hotel work was interesting. You can meet different kind of people all the time. Whatever work you do it is after a while the same, but people are always different.

The Dr. Gademann School was in a way special. Tutoring was on an individual basis with very small classes. When one finished an assignment we could go to the teacher to ask for the next one. In this way some students finished the Diploma Course in two years, others in one and a half, about one third of the students, including myself, completed the course in one year.

There was one guy who liked to study so much that he never finished. He was a young farmer who had sold his land and was now a millionaire and did not really know what to do. I suppose he liked the interaction with other students. Consequently he ended up as an Assistant Teacher.

The School was just near the main train station and I commuted every day from home in Schwanden. We needed to take one train to Ziegelbruecke and there change for the fast train to Zurich. There were special student tickets which were not all that expensive. Still the school was a private school and cost something. My mother managed to finance it due to her ‘special book’ (which I told you about in a previous chapter).  My mother used to give me a sandwich for lunch.

During this time in Zurich I now met for the first time the Ahmadiyya Muslim Missionary Sheikh Nasir Ahmad who invited me to join other Swiss Muslims in the performance of the Friday Prayer service in his apartment. There were several Swiss Muslims at the time. Besides the Friday Prayers we would meet once a month in a Café near the main railway station for discussions.

I now became officially Muslim by reciting the words ‘La Illaha Illala, Mohammad ur Rasulullah’. There is no God but Allah and Mohammad (peace be on him) is the Prophet of Allah. Sheikh Nasir Ahmad gave me the name ‘Rafiq’, which in Arabic means ‘friend’.  I learned more about Islam, such as the daily prayers. I read whatever books I found about Islam. In those days the books available by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, or any other Muslim Community for that matter, in German and even in English were rather limited.

The Swiss Ahmadiyya Muslim Community consisted of quite a few Swiss converts.

There was a farmer in Canton Appenzell, who had to shift from pig farming to sheep farming after his conversion. There was the janitor in my brothers’ employer, Siemens. And there were more. Also several Swiss ladies converted to Islam.

I recall that my brother told me that he went to the Christian funeral of the janitor. The priest said during the funeral sermon that ‘during the life time he went somewhere else but in death he comes again to us. Well, the funeral was arranged by the Christian wife and was not in accordance to his wishes. (Islamic funeral prayers were held for him in the Mosque).  I went to the priest, who happened to be my brother’s neighbor, and told him that ‘you know quite well that if he would have been consulted he did not wish to have a Christian funeral’. The priest was slightly embarrassed and just said ‘yes I know’.

The reason why there were quite a few Swiss Muslim converts at the time was that the Ahmadiyya Muslim Mission was the only active Muslim organization at that time. Consequently every one interested in Islam came here. (1961)

 After graduating with my Diploma as Secretary I phoned to the Hotel Manager of the Hotel I worked with in Interlaken whether he had a job for me. The same Director had taken over Hotel Handeck in the Grimselpass for the Summer. He said that yes we do need waiters all the time. I pointed out that I now had a Diploma and consequently I was made in-charge of the Front Office (with Madame Director in the background). I was now 17.

A hotel ‘on the road’ is very interesting, because all kinds of guests would arrive, the tramp on foot (or hitch-hiking) and the guy with the Rolls Royce and his secretary. (No, you cannot cheat the rich. Knowing that everyone wants to charge him more when he arrives in his Rolls Royce he stopped at the tourist information office in the village before our hotel, got last year’s price list and I had difficulty to charge him this year’s new price).

Well, In Hotel Handeck on the Grimsel Pass I also met B., a student from England working for her summer vacation job as room maid in the Hotel. As Muslims should not engage in ‘extra-marital-activities’ I married her when I was 17 ½.

In Switzerland one needs Government permission to marry before age 18. I applied and gave as a reason ‘love, more love and also some practical considerations’. The practical consideration was that without marriage Barbara could only work as ‘au pair girl’ (domestic worker) while after marriage she would immediately get a Swiss passport and could work anywhere. (Apparently the council members, who had to decide my matter, laughed about it, as I came to know from a newspaper article some time later on).

The permission was declined. Consequently we went and got married in England, where with parent’s permission it was possible, and no special permission was needed.

B. had converted to Islam as she loved me very much and wanted to share everything with me.

But, sorry, I am a little bit ahead of my time.


When the summer season finished I walked into Swissair in Zurich and asked for a job. I thought of the free / cheap tickets and a world-wide career. The same evening the Human Resources Director phoned me and told me that I could start tomorrow as Data Entry Clerk in the Central Finance Division, if that was ok with me.  It was.  Consequently I started work with Swissair.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim Mission in Zurich got a new Imam, Mushtaq Ahmad Bajwa. He completed the construction of the Zurich mosque, which had been planned under Sheikh Nasir Ahmad.  The Mosque in Zurich was completed and Sir Mohammed Zafrullah Khan, President of the UN General Assembly of 1963, came to Zurich to perform the opening ceremony. I therefore had the opportunity to meet the most important member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, after their Khalifa of course. We would keep in touch as long as he lived.

I recall during the opening ceremony the following incident: I was sitting with the Swiss architect of the Mosque during lunch. Chaudhry Sahib, as Sir Mohammed Zafrullah Khan was affectionately called, was telling one joke after the other and everyone was in a jolly mood. The architect mentioned to me that before the lunch he thought that it will be a dry affair, with all these Missionaries from all over Europe in attendance. He was pleasantly surprised that the mood was not boring at all.

Sir Zafrullah Khan was very particular with his finances. I recall that he requested his secretary (male) to remind him in London to go and cut his hair because (in those days) it was cheaper than in New York.

Sorry that I do not recall the jokes. Somehow jokes just do not easily remain in ones memory. I am not sure why that is so. Most were in Urdu anyway and only some of them got translated for our benefit. (Not all jokes are ‘translatable’).

After the opening ceremony of the mosque I was to travel to London to my wedding to B. I managed to fly in the same plane as Sir Mohammed Zafrullah Khan. He was traveling in the Business Class and I was traveling with a free Swissair ticket in the Economy Class. He requested the Swissair Chief Steward to kindly call this young man and let him sit near him in Business Class. They could not decline his request and I had the chance to sit with him all the way to London.

I cannot recall exactly what we chatted about. I do recall however that he said ‘sorry, I need to sleep for twenty minutes’. And he would doze off and wake up exactly twenty minutes later.

In London the baggage handlers were on strike. As Sir Mohammed Zafrullah Khan was President of the UN General Assembly a representative of the Protocol Department was waiting for him. They asked him for his passport and the baggage tickets, so that they could clear it for him. He gave him my passport and baggage ticket as well. Consequently I also entered the UK ‘in style’.

A driver with a limousine of the Embassy of Pakistan was waiting for the honorable guest. He decided to drop me off in Orpington Kent on his way to his Hotel in Central London. Well, you can imagine what good impression it made to my future parents-in-law to be dropped off at their house like this!

My parents came also from Switzerland a few days later. They had to accompany me to the Civil Registrar to give permission for the marriage. The ‘Nikah’, the Islamic marriage ceremony, was held at the London Mosque, the first mosque in London built by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. My father-in-law had kindly rented some limousines. I recall that the driver commented that this was the first time on the way to a marriage that a father of a groom slept peacefully all the way.

After the marriage my wife Barbara also got a job with Swissair in Zurich. I was in the Central Finance Department while she was in the Department checking the inter-airline-accounting.

Sir Mohammed Zafrullah Khan, invited me to New York for a week later that year.  I reached there in November 1963. He was coming towards his final days in his position as President of the United Nations General Assembly.  (remember: I had free Swissair tickets).  I nearly missed the plane!  I was told that the plane is late by more than an hour, so I went to the Coffee Shop at the airport to say good-bye to my dear wife.  After a while I felt a sort of unease and went to the departure gate. I was told:  The plane is out there and just they are taking in the stairs! I made signs and shouted and run towards the plane and just managed to still catch my flight!

Sir Mohammed Zafrullah Khan lived near the Central Park. He was also concurrently Ambassador of Pakistan to the United Nations. His predecessor had had a large family and consequently hired two apartments and combined them into one. Sir Zafrullah Khan was alone and consequently he used only one. He gave the other one temporarily to a diplomat from Ethiopia. I was told that the janitor of the building approached him and conveyed the message from other tenants that they did not appreciate that a black man was living in this building. (Asians were considered ‘white’ generally speaking in USA).

On the way to the office, whenever he managed (depending on who was waiting to meet him at the office I suppose, he would stop his car along Central Park and take a walk, while the driver would drive the limousine slowly behind him.

Of course it was very interesting for this now 19 year old Swiss guy to have an ‘insider’s look’ at the United Nations. I dined at the Delegates’ Lounge. I looked all around, including inside the Security Council (ok, which was not in session at the time).

Sir Zafrullah Khan did not have any domestic staff at home, although his Embassy would have provided one if he wanted to. He said that at lunch time I have to eat atthe UN offices and in the evening I am always invited here and there anyway. Usually in more than one place every night.

And I had the occasion to come with him for a week wherever he went.  There were many receptions and dinners. Sometime we would have the first dish here, the main dish there and the dessert in the third place.

I specially recall when Sir Zafrullah Khan was invited to deliver a speech organized by The Times. Before the speech there was a small gathering. It appears that in order to be able to speak better Sir Zafrullah Khan had requested a glass of hot milk with honey.

As usual when a ‘modern Western lady’ meets a ‘backward Muslim’ , she almost immediately ‘attacks’. The wife of the Editor said to Sir Zafrullah Khan that ‘we here in the United States have complete equality with men’.  Sir Zafrullah Khan listened for a while and then said: ‘Madam, do you have any children?’  Like any proud mother she would reply, ‘yes, I have three children, one in University, one in High School and one already married’.  Sir Zafrullah Khan then said:  ‘And now, please Madam, ask your husband to have the next three children’. There followed of course a shocked silence.  Sir Zafrullah Khan then explained:  Equality in value, yes, but equality in function just cannot happen. And he documented his point of view from quotations from the Qur’an which state the equality in value of men and women. The wife of the Editor was both embarrassed by her earlier statement and very impressed by the reply!

In the speech Sir Zafrullah Khan stated that ‘let’s stop pretending’. You give us aid and say that there are no strings attached. You know that there are strings attached and we know that there are strings attached. It would be better to be open and frank about it in order to avoid any misunderstandings in the future.  (Sorry, I do not really recall other details of the speech. It is after all more than 50 years ago).

It was Sunday and Sir Zafrullah Khan said that he had to collect a piece of paper from his office at the Pakistan Embassy. The Embassy was closed but a watchman was there. He opened the door. Then the watchman took the lift up to the Second Floor. Sir Zafrullah Khan, now aged about 75, went up the stairs. I of course had to follow him up the stairs also. I think I breathed more deeply than he did!

May I go ahead in time and mention a couple of glimpses of my old friend, although they do not have anything to do with me really.

I am told that he was invited by the Queen of England for a cup of nice British tea (or two).  After drinking tea for a while and chatting nicely he said:  “Your Majesty, please excuse me but I have an appointment with somebody higher than you”. Her Majesty was of course suitably shocked. She never heard that before. Sir Zafrullah Khan then explained that it was time for his prayers. The Chief of Protocol was summoned and he arranged a place for prayer. The next time he met Her Majesty she immediately stated that a place for prayer had been arranged, he should just let her know when it was time.

After his Assignment as President of the UN General Assembly Sir Zafrullah Khan served a Justice and Chief Justice of the International Court of Justice in The Hague. After his retirement from there the Queen of The Netherlands wanted to invite him for a farewell dinner. He requested that ‘could we kindly make it lunch’. Sir Zafrullah Khan lived in London at the time and this way he could fly to The Hague in the morning and return to London in the evening and did not need to pack a suitcase.

His nephew Anwar Khalon dropped him to Heathrow airport in the morning and planned to pick him up in the evening. There was some accident on the road to the airport in the evening and Anwar Khalon was late. When he checked the arrival hall no one from the KLM flight was there. All guests had left.   There were no mobil phones in those days. Anwar Khalon therefore returned home and was surprised to see Sir Zafrullah Khan sitting there. His explanation was:  ‘I know that something must have happened that you could not be on time. I thought that may be Allah does not want me to get too proud. I had lunch with a Queen. And now I know that there is a direct bus from the airport to your house. So I took the bus and here I am before you.

After about 3 years with Swissair in Zurich I asked the Swissair Human Resources Department that I would like to be transferred overseas. The guy laughed at me and said that there was a long waiting list for such transfers.

For more on the life of Sir Mohammed Zafrullah Khan please visit:






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