Glimpses into the life of a Global Nomad – Part Four

Yes, there were some burkas in Kabul in those days, but most ladies walked around like this.

(A look into the life of Rafiq A. Tschannen – Associate Chief Editor, The Muslim Times) what else happened in Pakistan? and on to Afghanistan)

In August 1966 my divorce from B. came through. In Rabwah I had the closest contact to Sahibzada Mirza Mubarak Ahmad, the son of the second Khalifa and the brother of the third one.  He was Head of the International Missions and consequently sort of ‘responsible’ for the foreign Ahmadi-Muslims present in Pakistan also. I asked him to help me find a wife and he suggested his own niece, Nilofar, youngest daughter of Khalifa Aleemuddin and Badar Begum. Her grand father was Dr. Khalifa Rashiduddin. He had been personal physician to the Maharaja of Kashmir and later on to the Sultan of Rampur. After he accepted Ahmadiyyat he moved to Qadian to be near the Promised Messiah and Imam Mahdi.

My father-in-law passed his Matriculation Examination but did not study further. According to his brother, Dr. Colonel Taqiuddin, he was so ‘pre-occupied’ with his beautiful wife that he forgot all about studies. They married when he was 17 and she was 13. He later on worked his whole life for the Royal (British) Meteorological Service. He was posted here and there all over India. When my wife was born they were posted in Poona (Pune). They also had a house in Qadian. During the partition in 1947 they lost that house and everything in it.

The family on the father’s side traces back its origin to the Qureish tribe, the same tribe that Mohammad, peace be on him, the Prophet of Islam, came from. From the mother’s side the family belonged to the Mohammadzai tribe of Afghanistan; The same tribe that the Royal Family of Afghanistan comes from. However, the family had moved to Rampur, India, some generations previously and no longer spoke Pashto. They spoke Urdu (not Punjabi as was spoken in Lahore).

The family consisted mainly of doctors, lawyers and educators. In Lahore they had a Private School in the olden days.

At first just photos were exchanged. It took some time until I could get the agreement, for an engagement, because Nilofar’s father had died. The uncle therefore was to give his approval also. He was Dr. Colonel Taqiuddin and resided in Lahore Cantonment, in fact not far from the Company guest house where I used to stay when in Lahore. He had a large garden with among others also Lychee trees, which he had bought from East Pakistan. He would say that the mother should decide and the mother would say that the uncle should decide, but anyway in the end agreement was given from both sides.

(Pakistanis would sort of ‘forgive me’ for having been married to a British girl and having decided to divorce her. It was sort of ‘understandable’). (Of course it was rather unusual and quite surprising to have a ‘groom’ aged 21 who was already divorced!)

Nilofar was still in college when we got ‘engaged’.  She had a few months to go before the Bachelor Examination. During the engagement I saw her for the first time. She was very sweet and innocent and pretty. I wrote her a couple of letters to the college, which the professor ‘censored’, but as we were officially engaged she did pass them on. My fiancée however was too shy to reply. Her brother also did not encourage her to ‘mess around’ before marriage.

On 18th August 1966 we got married. The Nikah (marriage ceremony) was performed by Hadhrat Mirza Nasir Ahmad, my wife’s first cousin. (His mother was her father’s sister. She was the first wife of Hadhrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmood Ahmad, the Second Khalifa).

Hadhoor, as the Khalifa was affectionately called, came to our small marriage party, when I collected my wife from her house to take her to the Tharik-i-Jadid guest house. The room was not air-conditioned in those days. It was rather hot in August. Her brother Waseem-ud-Din had put a crate of Shezan juice in our room, but we would have preferred also some cold water, which we missed.

In those days when we sent the marriage certificate to the Swiss Embassy they issued a Swiss passport for her immediately. She therefore had a Swiss passport before she had a Pakistani one.

In Marala there were no spare ‘expatriate’ houses at the time we got married and I was given a ‘local staff’ one. We did not mind really. Nilofar did not like at first that our ‘garden’ was in fact just open. She was not used to go ‘out in the public’ like that. Consequently I asked for a bamboo fence around the house. All other local staff in fact appreciated this as well and it was done around all houses in the ‘local staff’ side of the housing complex.

Our son Mahmud was born in Marala 9 months later. Actually, with connections of my wife’s relatives in the Army, we had arranged a room in the Military Hospital in Sialkot, and he was supposed to be born there; however, Mahmud did not want to wait and did not like the long journey to Sialkot hospital. Consequently he was born in our Marala Project Site Hospital. A lady doctor had started work just a few days previously.

Also during my stay in Pakistan I officially changed my first name ‘Emanuel Bernhard’ into ‘Mohammad Rafiq Ahmad’. I submitted the application via the Swiss Embassy to my home Canton of Bern. It took a few months, but it was eventually approved. From now on my passport read ‘Mohammad Rafiq Ahmad TSCHANNEN’. I thought just ‘Rafiq’ was a bit short. Most frequently males with the name of Rafiq would be either Mohammad Rafiq or Rafiq Ahmad. While in Pakistan I had a friend named Mohammad Saeed Ahmad and I sort of liked the sound of this name. Consequently I chose Mohammad Rafiq Ahmad for my pre-names. The family name of TSCHANNEN remained untouched. (We cannot and should not ignore our origin I suppose). I understand in the UK it is fairly easy to change ones names. Just a declaration is necessary and a publication (so that your debtors know how to continue catching you). In Switzerland it was a bit more complicated. The change of name had to be approved by the authorities back in the home canton. But anyway, it went without any difficulties in my case. It just took its bureaucratic time.

During my stay in Marala from time to time I would visit my old friend Sir Mohammed Zafrullah Khan, as long as he was in Lahore and did not yet take up his new assignment in The Hague. Once he invited me at 4 pm for tea. When I reached one Minister in the Government of Pakistan was just leaving. Chaudhry Sahib then said to me that this Minister had messed up his day’s program. He was working on the translation of the Holy Qur’an. He now had to ‘catch up’ what he missed out of his daily work plan. Consequently I sat with him quietly for forty minutes while he was working on his translation. Then he said ‘and now is time for my walk’ and we walked around and around the garden for a while and then he said ‘and now we can have our tea’.  It shows how organized he always was. That is how successful people achieve what they plan to achieve!

That Minister mentioned to me that ‘I cannot understand how any (‘Westerner’) can enter the Ahmadiyya Jama’at. I responded to him: ‘You have come to visit Sir Mohammad Zafrullah Khan, because you know him and respect him. Consequently I cannot understand how you cannot enter the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at’. He smiled and did not know what to reply.

I suppose we can say that during my time in Pakistan, Pakistan had its best time.  It was the time of Field Marshall Mohammed Ayub Khan. A beneficial dictator is better than a bad democracy, and Field Marshall Ayub Khan was such a dictator.

During my time in Pakistan corruption was practically unheard of. We never paid any bribes to the tax authorities nor to the customs for instance. There was a hint of bribery with our Workmen’s Compensation Commissioner. He had a fully air-conditioned house in Lahore, which at the time was considered unusual. Consequently my boss put me in-charge of the Workmen’s Compensation department. If I recall correctly Workmen’s Compensation for injuries to workers could be paid by us directly, but payment to widows needed to be paid through the Commissioner. I tried to ensure that the widows receive their full amount and encourage them not to ‘give-in’ to any requests from the Commissioner.

The fifty Rupees I paid for my driving licence: Let’s not call it bribery. It was just compensation for service rendered.  The first (and so far last) driving test that I did was at the United Nations in Cyprus after having driven for how many years?  35 years or so…


 When the project was winding down I wrote to the Swiss Consul in Afghanistan whether he was aware of a job vacancy in the country. I just thought I would like to have a change of scenery. Later on Ed. Zueblin AG also worked in the Tarbela Dam Project, but by the time this started I had already moved to Afghanistan. The Swiss Consul replied that his Chief Accountant was leaving and whether I could do the job. I went to St. Gallen in Switzerland for an interview with the owners of the Afghan-Swiss Trading Company. They asked me whether I could make a balance sheet. I thought ‘what is a balance sheet? You take last year’s balance sheet and put in this year’s numbers and then you have a new balance sheet. So I answered that yes of course. And that is how I became Chief Accountant. During my Diploma course I did have some training in basic accounting knowledge. As a Data Entry Clerk in Swissair Zurich and Paris I could extend my understanding of the Financial Accounts. Consequently I did have a good understanding of it.

ASTCO Ltd. Kabul had more or less the whole Swiss Afghan trade in their hands. This consisted of a Pharmaceutical department importing all the Swiss medicines and distributing it to the Afghan wholesalers. Then we had a IATA travel office and were General Sales Agent of Swissair. We had a tannery and were exporting sheep casings for use in European sausages. Separately, not under my jurisdiction, the same owners also had a shoe factory and another Import office that dealt with all ‘non-Swiss’ trade. On the export side we were the largest exporter of Afghan carpets. Our owners had another operation in Iran, which made them the largest dealer of ‘Oriental carpets’ in Europe.

I took over from my predecessor a nice house opposite the German club in Shar-e-Nou. It had a nice garden with a wall around it, therefore perfect privacy. It was an old house with thick walls. In the living room and the bed room there was an oil heater. In the bathroom there was a wooden heater. We had a ‘Gul-Khana’, a ‘flower room, which was sealed off by a glass window from the garden. In the summer we had our dining table there. In the winter it was too cold and we moved the dining table inside the house.

I also took over from my predecessor an old VW beetle car. It served me well during my stay in the country. Just once I got a fright: I was overtaking a car on the main road from Qar-e-Zameer, the King’s Model Farm, back to Kabul. While I was speeding up to overtake another car came from the front and I wanted to break. When I tried to brake the brake cable broke. Wow! I got a shock! I was lucky however that I was driving up the hill and not down. Consequently I managed to sort of pass the oncoming car and come to a stop. I drove back to town in the second and first gear and used the hand brake. We were saved (again).

We had a cook, whose house was near the gate. Our daughter Aischa was born in Kabul. She was born in a new private clinic.

Kabul in those days was peaceful and nice. Many Pakistanis came on holiday and for shopping to Kabul. Electronic items were cheaper in Kabul then in Pakistan. Also in those days in Kabul’s cinema Indian movies were shown, which were not shown in Pakistan.

European tourists came too. Kabul was on the ‘hippy trail’ to Nepal.  Many stayed in Afghanistan for extended periods of time. I recall once Sahibzada Mirza Tahir Ahmad, who later on became Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, the fourth Khalifatul Masih of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, came on a visit to Kabul and he stayed with us with his wife and two daughters and another young lady from Karachi. He wanted me to show him ‘the hippies’ and we went to a tea house where they were hanging out and he had a long chat with some of them. He tried to understand their way of thinking.

During the time I showed him around town at one stage one of the daughters got ‘out of sight’ in the crowd. We all panicked a bit, but we found her again unharmed in the crowd. We had glanced at the shops in the Bazaar a bit too much instead of looking after our kids! How relieved we all were! Alhamdolillah he rabbil alameen. All praise is due to Allah, Lord of all the worlds!

Ah yes, my boss was also the Swiss Consul. He delegated the issuance of Swiss visas to me.  It seems I issued too many visas for Pakistanis. I was then told by the Swiss Embassy in Teheran that we are allowed to issue visas without referring to them only for Afghan nationals and residents of Afghanistan, not visiting Pakistanis or others.

From this Consular work we had a few interesting ‘clients’. One Swiss guy kept losing his passport. Or were they stolen while he was ‘high’? Or did he sell them? Apparently the Swiss passport was in high demand by the KGB (Russian secret service) at the time. We had to send the request for a new passport to the Embassy in Teheran. After the third loss they just gave him a piece of paper written ‘Laissez Passez’ on it and valid in all countries on the way back home.

Once when he left my office he dropped a small black substance. I asked what it was and was told it was heroin. For a second I wondered whether I should try it, but I decided as I did not know how it was better to just throw it away. Good decision I suppose, because a short time later we had a dead Swiss tourist. He died of an overdose of heroin in his stomach. And I had the nice task of informing his family in Switzerland that their son and brother had died. The brother asked me whether he was murdered. I said that I could not know, I was just repeating what the doctor said.

The brother asked on the phone whether there was a ‘crematorium’ in Kabul. I said that the Hindus must be burning their bodies, but not in accordance to what Europeans would consider a ‘crematorium’. Consequently he asked that we should ship the body to Switzerland for burial.

When I told a Consul of the UK Embassy this story he said. ‘That is too much work. I bury them first and then call their families’. Ah, well, Switzerland is a small country and this was the only casualty we had during my 3 years in Afghanistan.

The widow asked us for a ticket, so that she could attend the funeral (and collect the life insurance). She would leave her VW microbus here as a security. She would come back and then pay the ticket. She did. But then she sold the VW Bus and asked for another ticket. She would get the money of the VW Bus a couple of weeks later and would send us the money. She never did. When I informed the Swiss police and asked if they knew where she was, the answer was ‘we are also looking for her, please let us know if you find out’.

My Assistant was much older than me. In fact the staff called him ‘Mudir’, the Director. He was very nice and respectful person. Especially worth mentioning was the marriage of his daughter. She got married to the son of an ex-Minister of Defence, a General in the Afghan Army. The marriage was taking place in the ball room of a hotel. The actual Nikah was to take place during the party.  The Mullah was sitting there together with the bridegroom and the father of the bride (my colleague). Tension was rising, talk was stopping. Everyone was trying to listen to what was going on.

The question was as to how high to fix the amount of the ‘Haq Mahar’, the dowry. My colleague asked, what do you offer and an amount was given. He answered ‘is that all that you think my daughter is worth’? and the amount was doubled, and tripled and the tension in the room rose higher and higher. In the end, in desperation, the bride groom said ‘you tell us what you want’!  After a nice interval he said ’33 Afghanis’! And the tension in the room collapsed.

He explained that if you will be nice to my daughter she will not need her dowry and if you will not be nice, then you can send her back home and any amount will not keep her happy. A nice gesture indeed!

Once I got an interesting phone call during my stay in Kabul. One gentleman said that ‘I understand that you are an Ahmadi-Muslim. I would like to welcome you to Afghanistan. Of course I wanted to meet him, but he said he could not meet me, because he was working for a Government organization. He was also Ahmadi-Muslim, but it was better we would not meet’.  Most likely he was a grandson of Ahmadiyya’s first martyr, Sahibzada Abdul Latif. I learned later that one grandson was Director in the State Bank. I understand he later on went to California and died there recently.

We had another strange meeting. Once upon a time we went for a picknick to Kar-e-Zamir, the model farm of King Zahir Shah. We met his Majesty also just inspecting his farm. Only one companion was with him at the time. How times change. Now a normal person cannot move without a security detachment with him.

We were in a picnic with friends from the Pakistani Embasssy. The ladies spoke Urdu. Then one Afghan came over. He introduced himself as Head of the Urdu program of Radio Kabul.  He mentioned that he had relations with India and Pakistan and ‘even my aunt is a Qadiani’ (Ahmadi-Muslim). We kept in touch and invited each other for lunch from time to time.


After some months one of Nilofar’s uncles came from England by car. He was on his way to Pakistan. While in Kabul he said that he wanted to visit one of his cousins. This cousin happened to be the Head of Radio Afghanistan’s Urdu Program! Strange how one meets relatives! It seems that his family during the independence of India and Pakistan, instead of moving from India to Pakistan, moved back to Afghanistan. (Nilofar’s mother was Afghan, although born in India. She no longer spoke Pushto, as her family had been in India for some time. Still she belonged to the Mohammedzai Tribe of Afghanistan, the same tribe that the Kings of Afghanistan came from).

What else do I recall from Afghanistan? Well, I had a ‘close encounter’ with the Soviet Unions first lady in space, Valentina Tereshkova. One day I was showing a guest around the country. He was Hasan Basri, an Indonesian student of the Ahmadiyya Missionary training college in Rabwah, Pakistan, who came to Kabul during his summer vacations. We were driving to Paghman, what used to be a ‘tourist village’ North of Kabul. It had a good reputation of local handy craft production. Some cars were driving in front of me and I started to overtake a couple of cars, until one driver shouted at me angrily. He was from the Russian Embassy. I slowed down. The last car in the convoy stopped. An Afghan Police man took my licence and said ‘follow us’. We were all going to Paghman.


When we arrived in Paghman the Policeman said to me that you as a Swiss should know that you are not permitted to overtake an official convoy. I explained that as the road was twisting and turning I could at the beginning not see that there was a Police Car at the front of the convoy and that I stopped as soon as I saw it. I apologized for my mistake. Before returning my driving licence he asked the Russian Embassy Official for permission, which was granted.

I asked whether I may take a photo of Valentina Tereshkova, but that was refused. I should leave now, immediately!

Strangely the next day again I met the same convoy at the Salang Pass Road, this time without any incident.

On a third day again I met the convoy. I was coming from the airport when all of a sudden from the right side a convoy entered the main road. They were coming from the Russian financed Ibne Sina Hospital. I stopped. The same police car was on the back and he recognized me and was pleased that I now was more respectful and waved to me.


So the time I spent in Afghanistan was nice. The job was good. The house was nice. Life was fine. But after three years in Pakistan and three years in Afghanistan I thought I should have a change of scenery and climate. I wrote ten letters to Swiss companies working in Africa. Out of these ten letters I got two jobs.

In Afghanistan at the time (1969-1972) there was no official presence of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, but ‘under-ground’ there were Ahmadi-Muslims, like the person who phoned me. I also learned there was a village near Kabul which had many Ahmadis, but they also sort of ‘kept confidential’ in order not to get into trouble with the country’s Mullahs.

We had a close friend in the Embassy of Pakistan in Kabul. Before he was leaving he asked us if there was anything that he could do for us. As my wife came to Afghanistan on her Swiss passport she never had a Pakistani one. Consequently I asked him to give her a Pakistani Passport. It did take quite some time, but finally he did manage it. More on this interesting piece of paper later on as things developed…(It took several years for the passport to be approved and issued).

Also from Afghanistan I went for the first time to Hajj, the pilgrimage to Makkah. I went together with our friends from the Pakistan Embassy, Mr and Mrs. Chishti. Chishti Sahib had arranged for us to stay free of charge in Makkah in the flat of a Pakistani ‘friend of a friend’, who was working there as Electrical Engineer.

I had a good friend in the Saudi Embassy. He was however not the Consular Officer, but the Media officer. When I asked him for a visa he had to pass my request on to the Consular Officer.  He asked me for a document that I was a Muslim. I told him why do you trouble me like this, you have known me for more than a year. He was embarrassed and said that ok, let me check again with the Ambassador. The Ambassador said that if it was written in my passport that I was a Muslim it would be ok. As in our office we had the stamps of the Swiss Consulate I wrote in my passport ‘Religion Islam’, stamped it and my boss signed it. We got special visas, which were supposed to free us of any fees while in Saudi Arabia.


That did not quite work out, because it seems we should have gone to the Foreign Ministry in Jeddah to get the relevant vouchers. As we omitted to do that and went straight to Makkah from the Jeddah airport I still had to pay the fees, my friend having a diplomatic passport was ok and did not need to pay.

I was without my family, as our son Mahmud was still very young and it was difficult for my wife to come with him and also not easy to leave him anywhere.

We reached early. Before Hajj we first went to Makkah to our accommodation and performed some Umrahs. We then went to spend a week in Madinah before Hajj.  When we were leaving for Madinah my friend said that we cannot come back to this accommodation and need to find another accommodation. We found it with a Pakistani doctor, who would give up his flat during Hajj and sleep in the hospital. But he charged us 2000 US dollars, 1000 US dollar for me and 1000 US dollar for my friend.

Only after we had come back to Kabul my friend asked me: ‘What did you speak in Makkah’. I did not understand what he meant, but he said that his ‘friend of a friend’ said that he and his wife were welcome in my house, but I was not. The reference was regarding the fact that I belonged to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. I said that of course I did not discuss these things as it was not the time and place. Several months later all of a sudden I realized what happened. Another ‘Mullah type’ Pakistani also stayed in the same apartment. Once he said that ‘I am going to the Post Office, is there anything that I can do for you’. I said that yes, wait, I want to send a letter to my wife. And I gave him a letter with an address in Rabwah, Pakistan, the Headquarter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. Consequently as they now found out that I belonged to this Community they did not want me in their house. My poor friend had to pay 1000 USD because of my mistake. He did not want to stay there without me, a good friend indeed. (He of course knew that I belonged to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, but did not mind himself at all).

In any case, we were able to perform Hajj and Umrah and our stay in Madinah. All went easy and well, Alhamdolillah. All praise is due to Allah. I pray that Allah accepted our pilgrimage.


While in Muzdalifah I eat the best daal that I can recall. (Or was I just having the best appetite?) . Some Hajis from Peshawar were next to me and they offered to share their meal with me.

On the return flight to Kabul the plane landed in Kandahar, because Kabul was snowed in. My friend contacted the Pakistani Consul. He was just going to Kabul by car and gave us a lift. It was an interesting journey in good old and peaceful Afghanistan during these Royal Days (of King Zahir Shah).

Afghanistan during my days was peaceful and progressive and liberal. King Zahir Shah ruled wisely. He had to balance all the foreign interests. He therefore permitted the Russians to build the road over the Salang Pass from the North to Kabul and the airport in Kabul. The Americans were jealous and keen to help so the King allowed them to construct the road from Kabul to Kandahar and the airport in Kandahar. The Chinese were permitted to help with agriculture; the Germans were training the Police. Both Germans and French were building and running schools in Kabul. The Italians were allowed to have a Catholic Priest working out of their Embassy. He also run a Kindergarten from there, which my son Mahmud attended for a while.

Kings and Dictators at the time, yes, they also did benefit from the public treasury a bit, but that was in humble millions and not billions as these days. King Zahir Shah had a good trick, which I noticed in my office work:

It was in Afghanistan that I dreamed: “I was sitting in a chair near the seaside and ships were coming and going from the harbor near me”.  Please recall this dream when you read the chapter about Nigeria.






9 replies

  1. By imposing burqa or hijab to Afhanistan girls for many decades, the Wahhabi extremist clerics succeeded to change the Afghsnistan’s tradition to old Arab’s tradition.
    Now most afghsnistan women wear burqa, niqab and Hijab— only few women wear without covering their head— very very sad and pity—-Arab through Islamic teaching succeeded to destroy A beatiful Afghanistan tradition.

    Because of that Allah has been punushing the extremist Muslim severely. Hopefully Afghanistan Goverment can succeed to testore the Afghanistan tradition withour burqa or hijab.

    All ❤️

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