The bureaucracies of Hajj, as experienced by a Swiss member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at

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Alhaj Rafiq A. Tschannen with his daughter Nafisa in Makkah.

Alhamdolillah – All praise is due to Allah – I have been able to perform Hajj 3 times and Umrah an additional 2 times.

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“Anyone who looks after and works for a widow and a poor person is like a warrior fighting for Allah?s cause, or like a person who fasts during the day and prays all night. (Bukhari)

The first time I went to Hajj was in 1970. I was living and working in Kabul, Afghanistan. As my son was still very young I decided to go this time without my wife. Instead I accompanied a friend who was working in the Pakistani Embassy.

I myself had a friend in the Saudi Embassy. We met socially here and there, also at his home and ours. When I asked for the visa he came back very embarrassed and said that sorry, as he was not the visa officer but the press attache he was not in charge of granting visas. The officer-in-charge wanted from me a document showing that I was a Muslim. I exclaimed ‘you know me, just tell him’. He went back to his Ambassador who said that if I could write in my passport that I was a Muslim it will do. As my boss was the Honorary Council of Switzerland we actually had the stamps in our office. I therefore wrote ‘Religion Islam’ and stamped it.

(When I sent my passport for renewal to the Swiss Embassy in Teheran they crossed it out, saying that it was against Swiss law. I think this law was passed because Hitler wanted the Swiss to state who is a Jew during World War 2 and Switzerland refused).

I was then given a special visa, which should have resulted in me not paying any fees while in Saudi Arabia. Somehow I did not listen to the details, because when I reached Makkah I was told that I should have gone to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jeddah who would have attested this permit. Ah well…

Anyway, when in Immigration the Immigration Officer looked angrily at my Swiss Passport. There is a Cross on it! Ah, yes, but this is not my fault, I promise you. Anyway, he took me to the Chief Immigration Officer who directed my assigned guide to take me to the Court first thing in the morning. When he saw me sitting at the guide’s office at 9.30 am he called out to the agent ‘why is this guest still here’. The guide apologized and quickly took me to the court.

In the court there was a special officer dealing only with such verification cases. He had a book and recorded his questions and my answers. He asked simple questions about Islam and quickly decided that I was genuine. He then took me to the Chief Justice, who first of all offered me hot tea. (yes, I burned my tongue). He then asked me about the position of Jesus as in Islam. I explained it to him and he was satisfied. He then had written in my passport ‘Permission to enter Makkah and Madinah’ and signed it. And off we went to Makkah.

In Makkah my Pakistani friend had arranged accommodation with a friend of a friend, a Pakistani Engineer working in Makkah. It was before Hajj, we then proceeded to Madinah before Hajj to return in time for Hajj. The host told my friend ‘you can stay with me, but not your Swiss friend’. My friend just said we need to find other accommodation, which he did. While for the first accommodation we did not pay anything we now needed to pay 2000 dollars, 1000 for me and 1000 for my friend. only weeks later, after our return to Kabul, my friend asked me ‘what did you talk in Makkah to our host’. I could not recall what was the problem. Of course I did not argue about Ahmadiyyat. It was not the time or place to do so. After a long time I recalled the problem. There was also some Mullah type Pakistani staying in the same flat. One day he said that he was going to the post office and asked if I had anything. I said that yes please take this letter to my wife. It was addressed to the address of my mother-in-law in Rabwah ! That cost me 1000 dollars and my friend too, due to my fault.

Anyway, the rest of the Hajj went well without any problems or challenges. I had in Muzdalifah the best daal I ever had which some Hajjis from Peshawar shared with me.

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And then in 1975 I was going to Hajj with my wife and son from Lagos, Nigeria. I thought I should not have any problem with my visa, as I had the permission from the Chief Justice of the Hijaz in my passport. Ah, wrong. I was now told that I needed a letter from my Embassy stating that I was a Muslim. (No doubt because of the Pakistanis, whose Embassy would not give such a letter). The reaction of the Swiss Embassy was natural ‘We are an Embassy and not a Church’. We found the solution. I said I will write that Mr. Mohammad Rafiq Ahmad Tschannen is a Muslim and I will sign it. You please attest my signature and put lots of stamps all over the place. And that worked.

As I am in the habit of making short term decisions we had not arranged any accommodation in Makkah. When we reached there the agent had only ‘mass accommodation’ for men in one hall and for ladies in another. However, one Saudi Airlines Engineer was sitting there and seeing our problems. He then asked his father-in-law, who kindly gave us a room in his house. It was on the hill not far from the Mosque. Real Makkan experience, it was great. And all went well.

A couple of years later I had the opportunity to go to Jeddah to perform Umrah. My company had a contract to collect excess luggage of Nigerian hajjis and a Cargolux plane was going up and down for a dozen flights or so. I did not want to miss this (free of charge) opportunity and went to the Saudi Embassy for the visa. I was sitting outside when the Secretary of the Secretary came to say ‘no visas are being issued at the moment’. I said I know but I need to check what is going on with our Cargo evacuation.

I showed them the letter from the Swiss Embassy used a couple of years previously. He considered it insufficient.

The Secretary of the Secretary came out again and asked if I was of Pakistani origin. I said no, I am originally Swiss. Then he sent the message asking whether I had any connection with the Ahmadiyya Mosque. I thought ‘attack is the best defence’ and retorted ‘What is all this nonsense. I have already been to Hajj. I have the permission of the Chief Justice (however, that was in a previous passport not with me at this time).

The Secretary now called me in and looked at the Swiss Embassy paper. He asked whether I knew an Imam, to which I replied affirmatively. He said please get this counter-signed by the Imam and I will grant the visa.

And the rest went all well.

In 2005 I went to Umrah with my senior wife and to Hajj with my junior wife. We were travelling from Jordan. We needed an Affidavit countersigned by the Shariah Court, which granted it with two witnesses from my staff. All went well, without any problems.

A nice experience was when we had lunch in a restaurant in Makkah and when we wanted to pay we were told that one Saudi guest already paid our bill. May Allah reward his kindness.

Alhamdolillah. 3 Hajj visit and 2 Umrah visits. May we be able to go once more?

Thanks to all who made our hajj easy and successful and we pray that Allah accepted them.

Rafiq A. Tschannen, Alhaj, your Associate Chief Editor of The Muslim Times.

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