Glimpses into the life of a Global Nomad – Part Six

the view from my office window

(A look into the life of Rafiq A. Tschannen – Associate Chief Editor, The Muslim Times) – on to Switzerland and Antigua and Barbuda).

Well, after this most strange transfer I finally reached Zurich. and took up my position as Head of Finance and Administration of the Zurich branch of Panalpina World Transport Ltd. My predecessor  had postponed his retirement a bit until I was free of my Nigeria duties.  Compared to Nigeria work was easy. (Well, I do not mean to say that the work in Nigeria was difficult. I had a good team and coped well with all my duties). My predecessor had left the department in excellent shape. I had one staff for accounts receivable and one staff for accounts payable and an apprentice. And one more general accounts staff. (In Nigeria my accounts staff were a couple of dozen).

My work was usually done by lunch time and I had to pass the time in the afternoon somehow.  We had a canteen in the office, where we could order lunch and where we had coffee breaks. Of course the Swiss croissants were highly appreciated. There were a few things in Africa which we missed in those days. Nice to appreciate them more when we come back home.

Coming from abroad after a long time had of course other ‘experiences’ besides enjoying the croissants.

I had been driving a car since Pakistan. Let’s say altogether 2 years in Pakistan, 3 in Afghanistan, 1 in Ghana and 7 in Nigeria: A total driving experience of 13 years. Ok, I never had driving lessons nor did I ever pass a driving test, but I did drive without an accident for more than 13 years.

I recall when I reached Switzerland, bought my large Peugeot 504 Family car and drove it nicely around town, until all of a sudden steam came out of the front of the car. I stopped the car and opened the engine cover. I did not really know what to look for, because all these past 13 years I either had a driver of my own or at least a driver in the office who would look after the needs of my car. Now I was here with the open engine cover and steam coming out. A Swiss lady passed, just glanced at my car and said that I needed to fill the water. Water? I thought cars need petrol?! Ah, we never stop learning!

Equally I got a surprise when I stopped at a petrol station. Other cars came and went and I was still waiting at the petrol pump. I think it was my son who told me that this seems to be a self-service station. Ah, what a life! We even have to get out and put petrol into our cars ourselves!

But, of course, one gets used to all kinds of things.

On the ‘home front’ I had bought a House in Uitikon-Waldegg near Zurich. It was in an excellent location. We had to wait until it was constructed until we could move in. We lived in Zurich on the Zurichberg, near the FIFA office in a furnished apartment in a nice old house.  My new house was a somewhat unusual with many stairs, well, in Schwanden we had many stairs too. Here the house was such that one side was on one floor, then half a staircase down was the other floor. Starting from the top. There were two rooms at the top. We used one as family and TV room. Here we had no furniture but just mattresses on the floor. The second room was a guest room. I installed a toilet and a shower there also.

From Uitikon-Waldegg there was a bus to Zurich town, the next stop and we were in the Zurich tram and bus network. Schools were in Uitikon within walking distance.

In the meantime it was 1980. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community grew a bit as Pakistani Ahmadis started to try and leave the country due to its persecution of members of the Community. This improved the social life for my wife especially.

My dear mother-in-law, who had been staying with my brother-in-law in London for some time, joined us in Zurich and blessed our house with her presence. This of course also made life in Switzerland nicer for my wife. (To make friends with the Swiss is not that easy. We got along nicely with our neighbours. My wife also got along well with my family. But social life is easier with the people of your own culture I suppose. The mother being present also was nice and ensured that my wife was not lonely and bored like in our previous stay in Switzerland.

In spring 1982 Sahibzada Mirza Tahir Ahmad planned a summer holiday with his family. He was coming to Zurich and we were pleased that he planned to stay in our house. Then on June 10, 1982 – before he started his planned vacation – Hadhrat Mirza Nasir Ahmad, the third Khalifatul Masih, died on Mirza Tahir Ahmad was elected as Khalifatul Masih IV.  He decided to stick to his holiday plans and still came to Switzerland. Now however he regretted that as Khalifa he had responsibilities to the whole community and he had to stay in the Mosque. He sent another family, which was traveling with him, to our house. However, as he sort of ‘promised’ to stay with us already he kindly honored us by accepting our invitation for lunch. He came with his entourage and we had a nice lunch in the garden.

Hazoor took me for a walk in the nearby forest. He was used to walking fast and I had to stride hard to keep up with him. The way first was a bit steep up the hill.

From Zurich Hazoor went to Geneva. I was able to accompany him and in my car I had the ladies of the family. From Geneva we went to Germany and stayed over there. We stayed with a friend of Hazoor from his days of the University in London. This was a stay which also he had planned before being elected Khalifa. As we now arrived with a whole entourage the hosts vacated their house completely and put it at our disposal.

From Germany we went to Luxembourg. Hazoor gave me the task of finding a hotel. The first one I chose he considered to be too expensive and I was relieved to find another one which met with his approval.

The final stop for me was The Hague, where I ‘handed over’ Hazoor and his entourage to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of the Netherlands. I then drove back to Switzerland to collect the family.

We then travelled to Spain. Hazoor came to Spain to perform the opening ceremony of the first mosque to be opened in Spain after the Spanish inquisition. The mosque is situated near Cordoba, on the highway from Cordoba to Madrid. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community not having its own oil wells relies on personal contributions and consequently land was purchased in a small village rather than for instance in Cordoba city.

Also present during the opening ceremony of the Mosque was my old friend Sir Mohammed Zafrullah Khan. He was still fit and healthy, although now was getting old and his walks were slower than before. I think he was now using a walking stick. It was to be my last time to meet him. May he rest in peace and may Allah grant him an excellent place in paradise.

We arrived by plane in Marbella, spent a night there and then drove to Cordoba. After the opening ceremony of the mosque we also had time to visit the old mosque in Cordoba, where the Spanish put in a cathedral in the middle. Still the old mosque was very impressive.

On the way back to Marbella we passed Granada to visit the Alhambra palace. One thing we have to appreciate: Even though the Inquisitors of Spain of course hated everything Islamic or Arabic they could not fail to be impressed by the Mosque in Cordoba and the Alhambra Palace in Granada and did not destroy them, given us the pleasure to still keep visiting these great examples of Arabic and Islamic architecture.

The reader will be guessing it:  Even though I had an excellent house in the best residential area of Zurich, the next Municipality, which had lower taxes than the town; even though I had a very good job in town with a sufficient salary, my feet started to itch again.

I saw an advertisement for vacations in the Jolly Beach Resort, Antigua in the Caribbean. Well, I was not the type of person wanting to go on vacation to the Caribbean, but living there? Why not!?

Consequently I wrote to the owner, Dr. Erhart, asking him for advice how to find a job in the Caribbean. I told him that I am qualified as Director of Finance and Administration. He phoned me and asked me to come to see him in Lichtenstein. His accountant in the Jolly Beach Resort had gone on vacation and failed to return. And he offered me the job.

Before I accepted his job offer I dreamed:

“ I was driving a bus. My passengers were Queen Elisabeth of Great Britain and her Husband Prince Phillip. (The rest of the bus was empty).  I drove into town, but then drove out of town again towards a forest. There I stopped the bus and Her Majesty asked me ‘why are we stopping, where are we going?’ I answered ‘I do not know, I am waiting for directions’.

The dream was a bit strange. I phoned to Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih IV., to ask him whether I should accept the job offer for Antigua. He asked me ‘what does the Queen have to do with Antigua’. I said that she was Queen of Antigua just like she was Queen of Canada and Australia. After a brief hesitation Hazoor answered: ‘Yes, you may accept it’.   And so I did.

My dear mother-in-law went back to London to stay again with my brother-in-law. Our son Mahmud went to Boarding School  in Switzerland to finish his High School. And the rest of my family, my wife Nilofar, Aischa and Harun, followed me to Antigua (a bit reluctantly I think).

Please let me take this opportunity to draw your attention a bit more to the personality of Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad, Khalifatul Masih IV., because I suppose I can say that knowing him, like Sir Mohammed Zafrullah Khan before him, had a big effect on forming me. Well, of course I should have taken much more of their excellent examples, but anyway, I was fortunate to know them.

I recommend that to get to know this great personality a bit more that the reader will go through the book ‘A Man of God’, the biography of Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad:

http://www.alislam.org/library/tahir.html

https://www.alislam.org/library/tahir1.html

Of course the whole book – A Man of God –  is interesting; however, what was striking me personally was the story of Hazoor’s escape from Pakistan to London in 1984. Especially worth mentioning: When the late General Zia ul Haq wanted to take steps against Hazoor and have him arrested and probably killed the first to know about it were the Americans. Instead of warning Hazoor however a guy from the US Embassy, probably from the CIA, just wanted to ask ‘what would be your reaction, if  Zia would do … this and that…   (without specifying what they knew already)’ . When Hazoor went to Islamabad to see what was going on it was the Chinese Ambassador as well as the French Ambassador who warned him, not the American one.

Ah, yes. My stay in Switzerland was actually quite successful. My family settled down well in Zurich. Unfortunately I was just simply bored. May my family forgive the trouble I usually cause due to my ‘itchy soles’…

Antigua

 Before starting my work in Antigua, Dr. Erhart, took me to Majorca, to see his Hotel Empire there. He owned 12 hotels. On the Sunday I flew to Majorca with him he had 3000 guests flying there on his own charter flights going to his own hotels.

He had invented a unique system of holiday travel. As he booked only for arrivals and departures on Sundays the guests could not only book the hotel that they wanted to come to but even the room number. He therefore had a lot of repeat-guests who year after year, or even more than once a year, would come to his hotels and stay in the same room again and again.

His fortune in 1983, when I joined him, was estimated at 300 million Swiss Francs, all ‘self-made’.

The way he went about it, you can read in his Auto-Biography ‘Wunder dauern Etwas laenger’ (Miracles take a bit longer):

In short: He went to Majorca before it was ‘discovered’ as a tourist paradise. We can say that he invented the ‘package holiday’. He walked around and when he saw a nice beach he went to the owner. He told him that he will take over the beach and build a hotel here and in compensation will give him the income of one or two floors of the hotel for eternity. Well, the owner of the beach in those days earned nothing so a perpetual income sounded good and all twelve beach owners agreed.

And now for the hotel construction: He told the Contractors that I will pay you with ‘bills-of-exchange’ dated six months later. Well, they wanted the business so they agreed. When the bills came due Dr. Erhart ‘protested’, in order to delay payment even further. Well, this did get him into trouble with the banks and they started interfering with him in a big way.

No Problem: Dr. Erhart invented the ‘junk bonds’. He issued bonds in Switzerland at a fixed interest rate. As an additional ‘bonus’ he offered discounts on his hotel vacations in Majorca. The bonds sold like ‘hot cakes’ and he was able to replace all the bank liabilities (and bounced bills-of-exchange).

He forgot a small detail: He offered the interest payment ‘tax free’. In Switzerland there is a withholding tax on interest, which Dr. Erhart forgot about. No problem: He shifted his residence to Lichtenstein,( where there is no such thing as a withholding tax).

Gradually he repaid all the loans. By the time I met him he had 12 hotels in Majorca and the one in Antigua without any mortgages what so ever.

At first the Antigua operation did not quite work out as planned. He had planned to make Antigua a second hub just like Majorca, fed by his charter flights. (In fact the way he made his fortune was not only by hotel revenues, but by the whole package of combined tour operations).

The Antigua Hotel: Jolly Beach Resort was at first run by his son. However, by the date of my arrival the son had died of a brain tumor and a new General Manager was recruited.

My office overlooked the Swimming Pool and I had a view of the beach behind it. At first I put my desk having the nice view, but, of course I needed to work and consequently I had to turn my desk around. I now had to turn my head if I wanted to relax with the nice view.

When I arrived I found a 465 room Resort Hotel without any functioning accounts system. I started from scratch and the first balance sheet I made showed a loss of one million USD. Dr. Erhart’s wife commented ‘I thought so’. The son had from time to time asked daddy for some money, explaining that he was improving this and that and completing this and that. He may have done that, but one million dollars or so was also to cover the operational loss.

It was actually from the professional point of view quite interesting to ‘start from scratch’. Debit is debit and credit is credit, whether accounts of a trading company, a transport company or a hotel: no problem.  I was able to give the owner the information that he wanted and needed. I was hoping that Dr Erhart appreciated my contribution.

The new General Manager decided that ‘let Lichtenstein try to send me guests, in the meantime I will fill the hotel from USA and Canada’. And that he did.

The ‘Majorca method’ of  feeding the hotel with guests from Switzerland did not work in Antigua. The guests who can afford the flights to the Caribbean are different than the ones who are going to Majorca. They can afford to go to the Caribbean this year and to the Seychelles the next year. Consequently the hotel could not be filled only from Switzerland.

To prepare the hotel for the main season, which was from December to April, when it was ‘cold up there’ (in USA and Canada and Europe) I needed a small amount. I asked Dr. Erhart to sign a piece of paper which would have permitted me to get an overdraft of 250’000 dollars at our local bank. WOW! It seemed I put my hand in a bee’s nest! Dr. Erhart sent me a two page letter from Vaduz, Lichtenstein, which said: ‘Never again do I want to be on the mercy of banks’. And he sent me the cash.

We were well prepared for the season. On Christmas the hotel was full. Dr. Erhart was happy, he had never seen the hotel full to its capacity so far.

On the personal side:  Well, my arrival showed that I was, well, just arriving. My promised housing accommodation was not ready. We were put in a hotel room while the maintenance officer ‘polished’ up a Caribbean style wooden house for us. It was actually cosy; two bedrooms and a bathroom, living room, kitchen. Nothing compared to our house in Switzerland, but just a few steps from the beach.

Every morning before breakfast and before my morning shower I went for a swim.

Weekends in Antigua were nice. I would ask my family whether they would like to go to an empty beach (there are 365 beaches in Antigua) and have our private BBQ there, or would they like to go to a more populated beach, where we might listen to the local’s playing their loud music. Or should we invite some friends here or there.

When we stayed home I might just walk along one beach, then at the end of the beach I would swim around the hill to the next beach (the rocks would be a bit rough usually around the hills) and the walk along the next beach … and on and on. The sea side is always interesting, because it is alive. Sometimes I would meet baby sharks (the big ones did not come so close to the beach) or other interesting creatures.

And of course we might just stay at ‘our beach’, try a little diving (if the diving teacher had a spare free place for me), or wind surfing. I was not really all that good in wind surfing, but I managed a bit anyway.

The owner (who came every few weeks or so) used to put out fishing nets in the evening and pull them in in the morning around 6 am. He was always grateful if someone came to his help. If he did not have any volunteer his had to take his wife with him. She was not all that keen to go, but she had to. Anyway, sometimes I did go with him and helped him pull in the nets. It was interesting.

At one time he caught a turtle. As it was an endangered species he was supposed to let it go, but he declared that ‘this is now mine’ and we had turtle soup. Another time he caught a hammer shark. At that time his wife was with him. When she saw the hammer shark she refused to help in pulling it in. Dr. Erhart had to drop her off and get some stronger help. We were invited for lunch. That hammer shark was old, at other times, when he caught baby sharks, those were much more tasty.

He used to say: You see: I do not spend any money. I catch my own lunch and dinner every day I am in Antigua. The only thing I need to purchase is a little rice and / or potatoes.

The owner used to stay about 5 months a year in Lichtenstein, 5 months a year in Spain and 2 months in Antigua. In this way he could say to the Liechtensteiners and the Spaniards that he was staying there less than 6 months a year and therefore was not liable to tax. Antigua did not have any personal tax, definitely a clever guy.

My children went to school in town. Aischa went to ‘Christ the King High School’ and Harun to a Kindergarten run by the sister of a British Lord. The wife of the General Manager took them to school. Problem was, that most days she was late. Consequently I suggested to my boss, the General Manager that we should purchase a car and hire a driver. Of course his duties would not only be the dropping and collecting of the children. There were other chores to do, going to the Post Office and doing small shopping in town.

The ex-girl friend of the son (who died) was acting as Private Secretary to the General Manager. She was also ‘officially’ the owner’s spy. She needed to obtain the owner’s approval for the purchase. At first she was reluctant, but finally she agreed, stating that of course his work was to have priority over the children’s school trip.

In my accounts department I had the head of the staff union. No one in the past really managed him well. They were scared to offend him. They did not even give him any work. The guy told me as I arrived the story of one Front Office Manager. He told the phone operator, who was standing outside her office chatting with a friend, to go and answer the phone. When she did not act quickly he put his hand on her shoulder. She reported it to the Union guy, who reported it to the Labour Minister, who arranged for the deportation of the Front Office Manager without listening to his side of the story.

I gave him work and praised him for his work and in this way got good relations with him. (Later on he went to USA on holiday and did not return).

As I mentioned above I made the first year’s balance sheet with one million dollar loss, the second one broke even with a profit of about 100’000 dollars and the third one showed a profit of one million dollars. You would have thought that the owner should be happy. Well, his son had died here and he was at the time not sure what he should do with the hotel. If you have 300 + million I suppose one million was hardly worth the trouble. At one time he wanted to sell the hotel. Now that it showed a satisfactory balance sheet it should be possible. And he sent me notice of termination of services ‘if the sale to Club Med goes through’.

Stupid as I was I pointed out to him that a notice with a condition was not legal. Consequently he gave me a letter of termination without a condition.

The hotel was never sold until now.

Apparently one reason behind my termination was that I had wanted to help an Ahmadi-Muslim from Germany to apply to a job in our Hotel Store. To send his CV he used a telex with the telex address ‘Alfatah’. Alfatah being also the name of the Palestinian hijackers of those days our ‘spy’, the Personal Secretary of the General Manager and owner, informed the owner that I seemed to be ‘dangerous’.

Remember my dream? When I met Hadhrat Khalifatul Masih IV again he pointed out to me that ‘I knew your position will not last’, because your dream showed that you drove into town (security) but out again. However, I thought, Hazoor continued: ‘I know Rafiq will love that place and Rafiq always finds a good job again afterwards’.

Consequently, as it was really ‘pre-determined’ for me not to remain in Antigua I suppose I should not be too annoyed with me nor with those who gave me this notice in such a strange and silly way.

Jolly Beach Resort greatly expanded after my departure. Dr. Erhart had purchased all the land around it. A giant swamp was turned into a Marina. Real Estate was constructed around it, both ‘economical’ one and luxurious one.  You can get a house from anything between 200’000 US dollars and four million US dollars.

For more information about this definitely beautiful location see:

http://www.jollybeachresort.com/ and http://jolly-harbour-marina.com/

But heaven is in the next world, Inshallah (God Willing).

What else do I remember regarding Antigua: Well, there was the ‘cat’s incident’. The dining area in the resort hotel was near the beach in the open. Consequently quite a few cats noticed that some guests are friendly and feed them. Therefore they waited patiently under the tables for food to be dropped to them. Some guests went a bit too far: They would go back to the Buffet and collect nice expensive steaks just to cut them up and feed them to the cats.

One night, while sitting at the bar (probably with a ginger ale or an orange juice), the General Manager and some other staff were considering what to do about this challenge. They decided to round up the cats. Not knowing what to do further they put them into a ‘broom cabinet’. By the time they reached that far they were tired and decided to go to sleep and see about what to do further in the morning. When in the morning the maid opened the broom cabinet she was overrun by about 50 cats seeking their freedom!

OK, the exercise had to be repeated. The next time they collected all the cats they put them in a van, drove to the other side of the island and dropped them off at another beach resort. The cats were ordered to kindly pester the competition in the future. Well, probably they were ‘back home’ by next day.

From the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at’s point of view: I was the first member of the Jama’at in Antigua and Barbuda. I distributed some Qur’ans to the few libraries. I wrote letters to members of Parliament of Pakistan. Due to my efforts the Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community kindly nominated me as ‘Honorary Missionary’.

 

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