By Badrudin Alibhai Adatia
In the year 1957, I was a student at the government school in Mbale, Uganda, when my friend Sadru Pirbhai Alibhai, known to his friends as “S.P.” decided to go to Europe for a three-month tour. Most people in the small city of Mbale didn’t even think of going abroad unless it was to pursue further education. At the time, only one Ismaili student from Jinja had gone to London for university. In spite of this, I suddenly had a burning desire to go to London too, to travel with my friend.
It was expensive to travel. There were no daily flights—only one flight a week from Entebbe (Central Uganda) that took three days to reach London and was much too expensive for two students. We could have driven, and indeed this was our original plan, but we were scared off by stories of people dying of heat and thirst as they crossed the Sahara desert. Therefore, with our parents’ and brothers’ help, we decided to go by ship from Mombasa—a big venture for us. Unfortunately, this was during the Suez Crisis and the Suez Canal was blocked. By this route, it only would have taken 2 weeks to reach London; instead, we had to go via the Cape of Good Hope, on a small French ship called the Pierre Loti. It would take 5 weeks to reach Marseilles in the South of France.
Our parents took us to Mombasa by train. We boarded the ship at the end of March 1957. We were fortunate to see so many islands on route. We saw Madagascar, where we stopped for 24 hours, and Dakar in French West Africa (now Senegal), as well. Our boat was completely French run, and we got so tired of French food.
After almost 3 weeks of travel, we landed in Durban, South Africa, where we found out we couldn’t leave the ship on account of the apartheid. We had a 24-hour stop, but it was just too risky. We were very fortunate, however, to meet one gentleman named Mr. Haji from Durban who had come on board to meet a physician. Mr. Haji saw us sitting in the lounge, and asked us where we were from and where we were going. He was a Sunni Muslim and a prominent businessman in Durban. He asked us if we were interested in touring the city. Of course we were! He took us in his chauffeur-driven big car and we passed through customs without any trouble. He took us first to his office, where we had a drink—he owned an insurance company. He also owned a Coca Cola factory and five cinemas on the Indian side of the main shopping street. He asked his driver to show us the city and its beautiful beaches. In the evening, we were taken to his bungalow on the hill for an Indian meal. At night we were driven back to the ship. What a fine gentleman.
After two days, we passed Cape Town and saw the city from afar. When we passed Gibraltar, the water became very rough and we became quite seasick, spending two days in bed.
France – Yakimour and Paris
After 5 weeks of sailing we finally disembarked at Marseilles, and stayed at a hotel for two days. We had always wanted to see the South of France, and took a train to Nice, and then Cannes. Cannes is a beautiful small town with lovely beaches. We stayed in a very small inexpensive hotel. The Cannes Film Festival was taking place during that time, and we used to hang out by the Astoria hotel, where all the Hollywood stars stayed. I will never forget the sight of Brigitte Bardot sitting on the hood of an open-top car as it rolled onto the red carpet.
Our biggest desire and hope was to see Yakimour Villa, the residence of our Imam Shah Sultan Mahomed Shah—the place from which we used to get our Talikas (written messages from the Imam). Our Imam was very very ill, and tasbhis (prayers) were being recited in Jamatkhanas all over the world, even special midnight vigils. We had continued to pray during our voyage. We were praying for his Holy Deedar.
We found out where Yakimour Villa was, and one evening we decided to walk up a nearby hill to see the place. You couldn’t miss it. It had red rooftops and an iron gate out front. Opposite the house was the ocean. What magnificent scenery! It was 5 p.m., and we saw the gate opening and a big car—a Bentley—rolling out. A driver was in the front and we saw our beloved 48th Imam sitting in the back seat. We stood there, frozen, and started saying salwats. The driver saw us and waited there for a few minutes. I suppose he knew we were the murids (followers) of the Imam.
The Imam used to go for a drive every evening. Earlier, we had called his secretary and told her that we were aware that he was sick, but it was our wish and desire to see our Imam, just through the window. We told her that we were students from Uganda. She told us to wait for her phone call. The next day at noon, when we were returning to our hotel after taking a walk, the lady manager of the hotel came rushing toward us excitedly, calling out that His Highness the Aga Khan wanted to see us at 1:00 p.m. You can imagine our excitement. We rushed out to pick up some sweets to present to the Imam on behalf of ourselves as well as the Mbale Jamat, and asked the manager to get us a plate of fruits, which she did. We had just enough time to take a quick wash and change into our nicest suits. The manager called us a taxi, and we were driven to Yakimour Villa. I had with me my very old AGFA camera. In our hands we had the two plates. We walked up to the glass patio and an Indian servant opened the door and let us in. Inside the room there was small sofa, where we sat down and waited.
After a minute or so Mata Salamat (the Begum Aga Khan) came in and greeted us. She was very happy to see us and asked a few questions. She told us to sit down and wait, and she left the room. While we were waiting, there was a knock on the patio door and the servant rushed to open it. We couldn’t recognise who it was, but soon found out it was Prince Sadruddin and we got up to shake his hand. He asked where we were from and where we going. We wanted to have an appointment with as well, and he asked us to come to the Villa again the next day to meet with him. We were delighted and excited. He, of course, had come to see his beloved father, our Imam.
After a while, Mata Salamat returned and said, “Hazar Imam will see you now. Come in please.” We thought we would see him through the window, but we were wrong. We were taken into the living room and, Mahshallah, our Imam was sitting on a sofa covered with a blanket. Mata Salamat had arranged few chairs for us to sit on, but how can you sit on a chair in front of your Imam? We sat down on the floor near his feet and said salwat. When Mata Salamat saw us this way, she was surprised and said “Oh!”
Hazar Imam blessed us and asked me in Urdu where we were from. I replied, “Mbale, Uganda, Khudavind.” He also asked where we were going, and we told him. He was very pleased, and gave us special blessings for the Mbale Jamat. I wanted to take picture of him with us and I asked his permission. The room was dim, however, and I didn’t have a flash on my camera. Although he was very sick and could not even walk, he told me he would head toward the window where there would be better light. Imagine! I clasped my hands with respect and said, “No Khudavind. I will take the picture just as we are.” And so, after taking some photos, we departed. Before we left, we presented the mehmani of fruit and sweets, and told Mawla that it was for the Mbale Jamat. He put his hands on the top of the plates and blessed them. We never thought in our wildest dreams that we would have this chance. I felt that my prayers were answered.
The next day, we went to Yakimour Villa once again, and this time we brought a French photographer with us. Prince Sadruddin invited us in and took us to an enclosed patio. I remember it had a heart-shaped swimming pool. The Prince sat on the sofa, and S.P. and I sat down next to him on either side. Our photographer took few photos, and we left. We invited Prince Sadruddin to visit us in Mbale.
I felt so blessed and very fortunate. Afterward, we travelled to Monte Carlo and Monaco, then went to Paris and stayed at the Ismaili centre. Prince Alykhan had bought a beautiful house and converted it into a Bed and Breakfast for Ismailis. There was a separate room with a small Jamatkhana. On the Friday night after we arrived, we attended the Jamatkhana and Mukhisaheb asked me to recite first Du’a. Now, our Du’a in Africa had been changed to the new Arabic Du’a, which I recited not knowing that the Paris Jamat did not know this Du’a. They were very surprised and happy to listen, and I was glad I had the opportunity.
The Ismaili centre was located on the rue de Prony. The manager of this centre was an Ismaili known as “Mr. Tutti,” a nickname given to him by Prince Alykhan. The next day we saw Mr. Tutti and I expressed my desire to see Prince Alykhan. He gave us his address and told us to go over. We took a taxi and went, without any appointment, and knocked on the door. When his butler opened the door, I said, “We are from Africa and wish to see His Highness.”
We were quickly informed we had to have an appointment in order to see the Prince. However, the butler took down the name of the place where we were staying, and called us next morning. He told us to come at 11 a.m. We were thrilled. Again we took a French photographer and went by taxi to his place, which was near the ocean. As soon as we got out of the taxi at the main gate, Prince Karim Shah, our present Imam, came out of the house wearing shorts and holding a tennis racquet. He greeted us, and apologised for not staying; he said he had an appointment with a prince to play tennis, but that his father was waiting for us. He took off in a red sports car.
We went inside the house, and the butler escorted us to the living room. After we were settled, Prince Alykhan came down the stairs, shook our hands, and welcomed us. We had the French photographer with us, and we asked Prince Alykhan if we could take a photo. We took one photograph by the fireplace, before Prince Alykhan suggested, “Since it’s such a beautiful day, why don’t we sit outside near the pool?” The pool faced the ocean. The view was magnificent.
We sat in armchairs, and the butler returned with glasses of juice. Prince Alykhan asked us where we were staying and if we were comfortable in our hotel. He asked us where we were from and what we were doing. At the time, Prince Alykhan had been suggesting that Jamats go to South America for business, so I asked him about it. He told us to go to Venezuela, where, if we rolled up our sleeves and worked hard, we would make lot of money, as there was no tax in South America. After talking with us for a while, he excused himself and said he had important work to do in his office, but asked us to stay to meet his youngest son, Amyn. Prince Amyn came out, and we stood up and shook his hand. He was delighted to see us. He was in jeans, and wore champals on his feet. He asked us if we would like to see the surroundings and said he wanted to show us his indoor swimming pool. We walked around the pool and other areas of the house. Before we left, we asked him and also Prince Alykhan to visit Mbale. They very graciously accepted the invitation. We said our Khudahafiz and left for our hotel.
London – 5 Palace Gate
We left France and traveled to Italy to meet with some of S.P.’s friends. We went to Turin and Milan, where we stayed at youth hostels, which made it cheaper for us to travel. And then, finally, we flew to London, England. We stayed at 5 Palace Gate, another Ismaili centre. It was located in Kensington, a prestigious area at the time; I remember walking through Kensington Park up to Marble Arch. The house had been purchased by Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah, and, like the Paris Ismaili centre, had been converted into a Bed and Breakfast for our community. There was a large room that served as a prayer room. There were about 50 Ismailis in London who would regularly come to that Jamatkhana, and we would pray sitting on chairs. There was a large living room downstairs, and 5 bedrooms and offices upstairs. The breakfast nook was in the basement. The manager was called Colonel Freeman, and he had an assistant called Mrs. France. They were appointed by Prince Alykhan to take care of the property; it was a well-organized place. We knew a friend called Ramzan in London, also from Mbale, who was a student. He used to drive us around England, and that way we saw much of the country.
One day it was announced in Jamatkhana that there was going to be a platinum jubilee in India and in Paris for our Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah. Those who were interested in going could go by chartered flight; the cost would be 50 pounds. Of course we couldn’t miss the opportunity. Almost 50 members of the London Jamat boarded the plane. There was lots of singing and clapping on the journey. We stayed at the same Ismaili centre on the rue to Prony in Paris. The whole ceremony was to take place at the centre, in the garage, which was quite big. There were other delegates who had come from India and Pakistan—maybe 250 people were there. I remember standing at the top of the staircase so that I could look down to witness the ceremony. They had built a mandap in the garage. Mata Salamat and Prince Saddrudin arrived first, and joined the murids on the chairs. Once they were seated, the garage door opened and a car rolled in: an open-top Bentley. Prince Alykhan was driving the car and our Imam was sitting in the front seat. Everyone began saying salwats. Remember, our Imam was very sick. The president of the Indian council came forward with a tray full of platinum and presented it to Imam. Our Imam put his hand over it, accepted the gift, then presented it back to the Jamat. Soon after that Prince Alykhan put the car in reverse and exited the garage. Because we were standing on the stairs, we had such a good view. Afterward, there were sherbet and refreshments, and Mata Salamat and the ladies started playing rasra. It was unforgettable.
That same night, Prince Alykhan had arranged a dinner and dance at Versailles in Paris. We had to pay about 25 pounds to go, but it was worth it; we wouldn’t miss this chance. At dinner, there were three long tables. At the first table, sat Prince Alykhan in the centre; Mata Salamat and Prince Saddrudin sat at the second and third tables, also in the centre. Us murids sat all around them. S.P. and I sat at Prince Alykhan’s table, on the same side as he. The atmosphere was out of this world and the food was fantastic. There was an orchestra playing outside on the porch for everyone to see. While we were dining, I saw someone get up to ask for autographs. So I gathered up courage and also got up, with my menu, and approached Prince Alykhan for an autograph. I then went to Mata Salamat and to Prince Sadruddin. They all very graciously signed my menu. What a moment and what a thrill. Prince Alykhan asked one couple to go up on stage to dance. One by one, other couples joined in. I loved ballroom dancing, and S.P. encouraged me to go and ask a girl to dance. I asked a girl who was sitting not far from Prince Alykhan. She accepted my invitation and we went up to do a waltz. It was such an exciting an important evening. The whole trip was worth every penny. The next day we all flew back to London.
Imam passes away
On July 11, 1957, we were driving around Birmingham with Ramzan when we learned about our Imam’s passing from newspaper stands on the street corners. Right away we drove back to London and went to Jamatkhana for prayers. There it was announced that Prince Karim Shah had become our 49th Imam. There was sadness and happiness. After the burial ceremony, and after couple of weeks, our Hazar Imam had an appointment with the Queen, where he was given the title of His Highness. That day, we all gathered outside the Ismaili Centre at 5 Palace Gate. There was a rumour that Hazar Imam might come to the centre. Hazar Imam did come by taxi, and he was with a photographer from Paris Match who followed him everywhere. Hazar Imam invited the photographer inside the centre and told him, “These are my momins (devotees).” Hazar Imam asked us all to get together in the living room for a picture. Afterward, he left by taxi for Buckingham Palace.
A couple of days later, we were told that Hazar Imam was to give his first Deedar at the Ismaili centre. All the Ismailis living in London and surrounding areas arrived: we were about 100 in total. The hall was prepared in the breakfast room, where we could sit on the floor. A big red armchair was set for Hazar Imam. He arrived, and we all said salwats and recited ginans. Mawlana Hazar Imam looked very happy and told us he was going to travel around the world and visit all the Jamats to give Deedar. We were so very fortunate to get his first Deedar. I thank God day and night for giving us this opportunity
Back in Mbale
After a few more days in England, we flew back to Uganda in a small plane; it took us 3 days to reach Entebbe. On the way, we stopped in Malta for a night, and stayed in a 6-star hotel, then flew to Wadi Halfa, Egypt, and stayed in a hotel on the Nile.
When I returned to Mbale, Mukhisaheb asked me to speak in Jamatkhana on a Friday night about our trip. After my experience, I had full confidence and spoke without fear: Mawla was with me. We brought back the sweets blessed by Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah. The Jamat was ecstatic. We had done what no Ismaili in Mbale had done.
Date posted: Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Text and photos: Copyright Badrudin Adatia, July 2012.
My dear friend Sadru Pirbhai Alibhai (S.P.) passed away in Houston, Texas, in 2008. He always wanted his story to be told. We pray for his soul to rest in peace.
Editor’s note about the author: Badrudin Adatia, pictured at left, and his wife Yasmin reside in Canada’s capital, Ottawa. Recently, before my departure from Ottawa, he invited me to their home and told me in his own words the remarkable story that he has narrated above. Listening to him and being shown original photos from some 55 years ago was truly one of the most inspiring moments in my life. I thank the author and his family for sharing this memorable piece with readers of this website.
Other accounts and experiences of interest:
1. An Opportunity of a Lifetime – Recitation of Qur’anic Verses in the Presence of His Highness the Aga Khan
2. Baba Ismail: The First Shamsi Convert in the History of the Gupti Ismailis of Punjab
3. The 1955 “Jubilee Ball” of His Highness the Aga Khan III at the Savoy
4. An Ismaili Youth’s Rare Moment With Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah
5. Yakimour 1954: A Golden Moment for an Aspiring Student
We welcome feedback/letters from our readers. Please use the LEAVE A REPLY box which appears below. Your feedback may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation. We are unable to acknowledge unpublished letters. Share this article with others via the share option below. Please visit the Simerg Home page for links to articles posted most recently. For links to articles posted on this Web site since its launch in March 2009, please click What’s New. Sign-up for blog subscription at top right of this page.