By Rafiq Tschannen, Associate Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
As the faithful readers of The Muslim Times will recall, I was in Kabul from 1969 to 1972, during the time of King Zahir Shah.
It was a peaceful and fairly prosperous time. I held the position of Chief Accountant of the Afghan Swiss Trading Company. We had all the trade between Switzerland and Afghanistan in our hands. On the import side we had a department dealing with wholesale pharmaceuticals, another department for watches, typewriters and other stuff.
We had a travel agency with IATA number 0001. We were the representative of Swissair.
My boss was also the Honorary Council of Switzerland, as there was no Swiss Embassy there at the time. He delegated it to me to issue the Swiss visas. I issued visas to anyone who requested it, until the Swiss Embassy drew my attention to the fact that I was to issue it only to Afghans and permanent residents, not Pakistani tourists.
On the export side we exported carpets. The owners of our company were the largest European traders in carpets, having an office in Teheran too. We had a tannery. We had a department exporting sheep casings for European sausages.
Separate from our Afghan-Swiss Trading Company we had another trading outfit for the rest of the world. And a shoe factory, which survived even the Russians.
50 years ago some ladies in Kabul wore Western fashion, some wore the Burka. There was absolutely no problem one way or the other.
The King’s major problem was to juggle with the foreign powers. When the Russians wanted to build a road from the North to Kabul he graciously permitted to Americans to build a road from Kabul to Kandahar. When the Russians wanted to build the airport in Kabul he graciously permitted the Americans to build the airport in Kandahar.
The Chinese were allowed to assist in agriculture and the Germans trained the police.
A mistake I suppose was to allow the Russians to train the air force. That allowed them later to come and take over…
On the inland-front the King was able to handle all the various sections and tribes peacefully. There was no inter-tribal conflict at the time. On Eid for instance, when he said ‘tomorrow is Eid’, everyone accepted it (not like in neighbouring Pakistan).
Regarding the Russians: Well, I had a little ‘touch’ with them. Valentina Terekova, the first women in space, visited Afghanistan. I drove behind the convoy and, with my small old VW beetle, started to overtake the last car of the convoy. I slowed down when I saw real angry looks of the drivers. A police man in the last car took my licence and asked me to follow. We actually were going to the same place. The police man was German-trained and said to me you as a Swiss should know that you are not allowed to overtake an official convoy. I humbly apologised. On the point of destination he asked the Russian Embassy guy whether he was permitted to return the licence to me, which he grudgingly approved. However, when I asked whether I would be permitted to take a photo of Valentina Tereshokova he told me to get lost.
Kabul was on the ‘hippy trail’ from Europe to Nepal. Many spent quite some time in Afghanistan. Drugs unfortunately were available already at that time, although probably not as much as during the American ‘protection’ time.
It was easy and free and safe to roam around town and the country.
I met His Majesty King Zahir Shah when I was at a picknick at his Model Farm in Kar-e-Zamir. The farm was open to the public. His Majesty was roaming around his farm with only one staff, security or what-ever. Now-a-days he would have needed a whole battalion of security.
Good days in Afghanistan, before Russians and Americans messed it up.
Should I or should I not tell you a secret? During my days in Kabul I used to receive a phone call from a young lady calling herself Noor. I did not know her and did not know how she got my phone number. May be she just tried randomly. Wanting to teach her English face-to-face I invited her to our home, but she would not come nor tell me where she was. She said she just wanted to practice her English a bit. And so we did …, on the phone from time to time.