Wednesday, January 10, 2018

My Blackpool College of Technology & Arts

The name of my college in England where I’d studied to prepare for my GCE A-Levels was Blackpool College of Technology and Arts. To be honest, when I received the offer letter from the college to study in Blackpool, I didn’t have the faintest idea where Blackpool was.

If there was the internet back then, I could have just googled it. But this was the late 70s. So, I had to turn to the good old brown covered Atlas Untuk Sekolah Menengah Malaysia to scrutinize the map of Great Britain and search for the word “Blackpool”.  I found “Blackburn” quite easily. But had no luck with “Blackpool”.

I concluded that Blackpool must have been just a small a town. And it made me wonder if the fancy-sounding Blackpool College of Technology and Art was actually just a so so college, housed in some unflattering old building.

So, when I eventually arrived in front of the college on 12 September 1979, I was pleasantly surprised to find such a handsome college with modern, purpose-built buildings. Upon getting off the coach that had taken us all the way from London, we were greeted by Mr. Singleton, the Overseas Students Coordinator who, after some brief formalities, earnestly reminded us that our course was to commence the next day, Thursday 13 September, at 9.15 am sharp.

The Blackpool College of Technology and Art was what they called in England a “further and higher education college”. The college was also sometimes called the Blackpool College of Technology, or just Blackpool Tech for short. It was founded in its current, modern form in 1965 with a main campus at Ashfield Road in Bispham, which was where I studied.

The college buildings were located in spacious settings, surrounded by lush green lawns and fields. There were five buildings altogether – six if you include the small Student Union Building. The tallest building was the seven-story Hotel and Catering block, or popularly called the “Hot-Cat” building, which housed courses related to hotel, hospitality and catering, the realm of one self-sponsored Malaysian student, Samad Wong . This was also where the student refectory was located on the ground floor, where my friends and I would go to have chips with baked beans for lunch.

There were three main study blocks and they were all three-storey buildings. These study blocks, together with the sports hall building, were arranged in a square shaped formation to form an enclosed area in the middle, something like a large courtyard with a very big lawn.  The lawn was lightly landscaped with small trees and there were pathways cutting across the lawn linking the buildings together. 

The study blocks were given simple names as Blocks T, G, and E. The T in actual fact stood for Technical, as in Technical Block. G was for General Block, and E was for Engineering Block. The main front entrance to the college was located at Block G. The entrance had a tall glass facade and a small glass door by its side just to the left which led to the foyer. Block G accommodated the main offices and the library. It was connected to Block T which was where most of our classes were held. 

Directly opposite from Block G, just across the courtyard, was Block E. It accommodated engineering-related and other specialized courses such as quantity surveying for those doing the Higher National Diploma, or the HND. Somehow, I never once set foot in Block E. This was the domain of my flatmate, Hamidin, and our seniors Ahmad Said and Azman Zahari. The Student Union Building was located just beside the sports hall facing the side entrance to Block G. This was where I would sit down with Ghani, Hasni and Khalid for a drink after sweating it out with a game of badminton at the sports hall nearby.

To get to college, I initially used the bus with my flat mates Safie and Hussain. But upon moving house to Norbreck, which was closer to college, my flatmates and I walked the one and a half kilometre distance every day passing by rows of quaint houses which showcased interesting English front gardens that changed with the season. Absolutely a feast for the eyes. After a good fifteen to twenty minutes’ walk from Norbreck, I would arrive at the college and enter through the side entrance of Block G. From there I would usually head straight to the library to read the newspapers first. But if class was just about to start, I would go direct to class.

The library was a favourite retreat place of mine. It was here that I would spend my time in between classes to catch up with the news, read magazines or work on my assignments. The library had two levels, the main level and a mezzanine which was connected to the main floor via a spiral stair-case. If I didn’t want to be disturbed in order to concentrate on my work, I would usually take the stairs up and find a table in a nice little corner somewhere. It was pure bliss, and certainly perfect for catching a wink.

Oops, there goes my little secret.

Our classrooms were on the first floor of Block T and were located on either side of a corridor which ran the whole length of the block. For our physics lecture with Mr David Speight we used the theatre style classroom as it was a big class with thirty to forty students in all. But our Economics class with Mr David Swan was smaller with less than ten students at the most comprising myself, Nina, Aishah, Ghani, Shaari, Farouk, Hussin and three or four other English students. The Statistics class with Mr Jones was even smaller. For these two classes we used a small room with the standard classroom seating arrangement.

I remember the classes were bright and clean, and well provided with materials and teaching aids. The teachers were very experienced and so approachable compared to Malaysian teachers I might say.  In short, the college provided a very conducive environment for learning. In general, we Malaysians were good students and attendances to all the classes were great. But the same could not be said of some of the English students, though.

For example, in the Physics class there were a couple of blokes who were habitually late to classes. One, by the name of Chris Wriggley, seemed to have never bothered to finish his assignments. This displeased the strict Mr Speight no end. But Chris always seemed unperturbed and might actually have enjoyed taking the Mickey out of the old man as well.  It made me wonder as to why Chris had enrolled for the class in the first place at all. From his style of clothing, he looked more comfortable being with a group of Mods marauding the streets looking for fights.

Before starting on a new lesson, Mr Speight liked to stand in front of the class and handed back our assignments which had been marked. He would call out our names one by one as he handed the assignment papers  and it was his habit to accompany it with snide remarks about our work. It was a big cause for anxiety for many, but also a source of hilarious fun in class at times. Amongst us Malaysians, Zulbahri Long, a chap from Teregganu was always being singled out for praise for his good work. Apart from one single occasion, I used to get loads of Mr Speight’s trademark sneers and scoffs. You just gotta love him, Mr Speight.

The sports hall was a great facility for indoor sports such as volleyball, badminton and basketball. I used to play badminton there. My regular partners in crime were Ghani, Hasni and Khalid. But I also remember playing with some seniors Ramush, Hasnan, Atok and Ahmad. Once, a few sisters over from St Annes joined in too. We Malaysians used to more or less hog the badminton courts. No locals dared to challenge us for a game because if they did, they knew that they were in for some thrashing on court. But there was one occasion when Hasni and our senior, Atok, were challenged, and lost. Gasp! Hasni must be having one of his off days, or sick or something. Apart from that blip, our record remained intact and we often left the sports hall with smug on our faces.

Although studies were our main pre-occupation, we never neglected our obligatory prayers, even while busy at college. We were lucky that the college administration had dedicated a room for this purpose on the third floor of Block G. As there was only one room, we had to take turns with the sisters to use it. But on Friday afternoons, priority would be given to us guys to complete our Friday prayers first.

The khatib for Friday prayers would always be one of us Malaysians but we were also joined by students from Jordan and Brunei during prayers. Being a bunch of young students, it might have looked like a daunting task to consistently undertake the Friday prayers, complete with the sermon and all. If I do say so myself, perhaps it was a testimony to our resourcefulness and understanding of our obligations that was slowly being instilled in our young minds that we persisted in discharging these duties.

After all – British education aside – a balanced development in life was still the underlying aim for every one of us. And Blackpool College had a big hand towards that.

A-Level Exam Fever and Applying for University Admission

I was offered the Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam (JPA) scholarship to UK based on my fairly okay results in the Malaysia Certificate of Education examination, or the MCE. But the MCE was only equivalent to the GCE Ordinary Level in the UK, a qualification awarded to secondary school-leavers. To get into a British university and pursue a degree course, I needed to have the A-Level.

The GCE- A Level, or General Certificate of Education-Advanced Level, was a secondary school leaving qualification recognised by UK universities as the standard for assessing the suitability of students who apply for admission. 

Students generally work towards their A-Level over a two-year period during which time they would take three to five subjects of study. Since university offers were normally based on 3 A-Levels, I only had to take three subjects. The subjects were chosen carefully in consideration of the type of degree that one intended pursue at university. In my case, the JPA had agreed on Town Planning as my course. So, upon consultation with the college students’ advisor, I was recommended to do Statistics, Physics and Economics.

Hence, for two whole years I had to endure the twists and turns of being a student of Statistics, having to grapple with things like the Poisson Distribution, Probability, Linear Regression and Binomial Distribution. I toughed it out on Physics taught by the laser-tongued Mr. Speight and wrestled with topics like the Law of thermodynamics, Kinetic Theory, Gravitational Potential Energy and other outlandish stuffs. And for Economics I would have had lengthy discussions on mouthful topics such microeconomics and macroeconomics, monetary policy, demand and supply, balance of payments and what have you with Ghani and Shaari, and with occasional help from Nina Zahari, the smart and stylish girl from KL, who always seemed to be on top of things as far as Economics was concerned.

A-level examinations were administered through awarding bodies the JMB or Joint Matriculation Board, and the AEB or Associated Examining Board. My Statistics and Physics were to be AEB papers, while my Economics was set by the JMB. But it didn’t really matter who set the papers, they were tough all the same.

Our A-Level exams were in July of 1981. I tried to slowly start preparing for it and get into the frame of mind a good six months prior to that – albeit on very low-key mode. I forced myself to start reading text books, writing some short notes. It was laborious and boring to say the least. But looking at how my flat mates Ghani, Azhar and especially Shaari seemed to be so into it made me nervous and felt compelled into doing something. Just anything.

Came spring time, it was just another three months away to D-Day. But spring being spring, there was no way I was going to miss the nice weather outside being stuck in my room mugging away. Besides, friends from outstation were bound to come over to have their usual jolly time in Blackpool for the Easter break – exam or no exam.

So, in the end, I really started preparing for the exam in earnest after the Easter break. I started looking at the past years questions and searched back for my notes which I had stashed away. But with the weather outside getting warmer and warmer by the day, it was a tough test of my resoluteness to concentrate on work. And I am not one known for being steadfast and focused. So, instead of working you’d find me playing tennis in Bispham with Ghani, Hussain and Hasni. We’d have a few rounds of crazy golf at the Gynn Square just for the fun of it. Why, I even had time to go to Stanley Park to enjoy the gardens full of flower blooms and to ride in the rowing boats.

As we were preparing for the exams, we also had to turn our attention to university admissions matters. University entrance application was made through the UCCA or the Universities Central Council on Admissions and the deadline for applications was by mid-January.

Most universities based their admissions offers on a student's predicted A-level grades. The offers could either be unconditional, or conditional meaning that students would be offered admission subject to them achieving a minimum set of grades in the coming A-Level examinations. We could hold a maximum of two of these offers, a first choice, plus a reserve choice held just in case we fail to achieve the grades asked by the first-choice university.

In all, I made applications to five universities which was the University of Manchester, Dundee in Scotland, Newcastle, Herriot Watt in Glasgow and Cardiff UWIST. I managed to receive offers from all five and therefore had to make the tough decision on which ones to hold on. In the end, I decided to go with Manchester as my first choice which required the highest grades amongst the five institutions with CCD. And my reserve or insurance choice was Cardiff UWIST whose requirements were the least stringent. Offers from Dundee, Newcastle and Herriot Watt all had to be declined.

For a minority of courses universities may require interviews with prospective applicants before making their offers. Somehow, town planning fell into that category. That was how I found myself making the long trips to all the five cities scattered all over UK in the depth of winter of 1980-81. It took a toll on my measly monthly budget. Plus, it took away chunks of my time which was supposed to be dedicated to exams preparation.

But I wasn’t complaining. It took me off my studies and allowed me to visit far-flung places such as Dundee in cold north Scotland where I met up with my senior Raja Mudzaffar or Ramush as we used to call him. In Glasgow, I put up at another senior’s place. Manan was studying at the University of Glasgow. And for the trip to Cardiff I stayed at Nayan’s house, a friend from my secondary school. If I was honest, I rather enjoyed the forced excursions to think that my other college mates were stuck in their rooms poring over their books and notes. And I also felt that, somehow, the arduous journeys would eventually bear fruit in the form of a university place. Talk about misplaced optimism.

As exams drew closer and closer, I noticed that my housemates suddenly became very serious. No more sitting in front of the telly, no mucking about chatting or having lengthy breaks listening to music. Less time were spent in the kitchen. And certainly, no time for the Blackpool Pleasure Beach! Except for a few discussions on past year exam questions, everyone was locked in their room. Even the cheeky Ghani who used to roam the house for his free biscuits, music listening and little chit chats stopped doing his rounds.

In the weeks running up to the exam, Apak’s letters would noticeably contain paragraphs of advises and prayers form Emak and Apak himself. Worked hard we did, but we also asked for divine guidance and intervention and lots of tawakkal alallah. Yes, after so much efforts put in, all we could do from then on was to trust Allah Azzawajal and leave matters in His hands.

When the day finally arrived, we did our exam in the college main hall where I sat at a desk posted with my examination serial number: 396364. My three subjects were spread over two and a half weeks from 1 to 18 June 1981. Once done and over with everyone was euphoric.

But A-level results were published in August. So, it really was a short-lived joy. No matter how good you were it’s still a nightmare waiting for exam results. So, we’d be gripped partly with hope, and with some fear and uncertainty in case we don't make the grades. But being young and restless, nothing was going to stop us from enjoying the much deserved summer break. For, we knew very well that once at university, we’d be bogged down again with more studies and work. Now was the time to savour a break after all the hard work over the past two years.

My one month and a bit summer break was filled with trips down south to London and the Lake District up north in Cumbria to mention a few. Visits to the Blackpool Pleasure Beach came back with a vengeance. And there were many, many long strolls along the beach and promenade.

When the exam results finally came out in August I was glad to be able to finally breathe a sigh of relief. Despite lots of mucking around, I managed to meet the University of Manchester’s entrance requirement grades with a BCD. And I think you could already guess that the D was for my most dreaded subject - Mr. Speight's Physics. In one of his letters Apak stated that he was just happy that I manage to pass it.

Many universities started making their official offers in early autumn. And I duly received my confirmation of offer from Manchester via a letter dated 17 August 1981. Another college mate, Hussain, also got an offer from Manchester. Hasni had an offer from Sunderland, Shaari from Reading, Jenggo Leeds, and Ghani Aston University. For students who didn’t get a confirmed place the UCCA would automatically try to match them with courses that still had vacancies. But all my mates made the grade and were duly accepted for admission into their universities of choice.

Now we were in business.

A new chapter was about to begin. Life as a full-fledged university student, and onwards to being professionals.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Scrumptious English Fish and Chips

I remember when I was small going through Apak’s Andy Capp Book, a comic book featuring a bloke by that name.  In it, I remember seeing Andy Capp eating something hot and steaming out of a newspaper wrap. It made me rather curious. I didn’t know it then, but now I know Andy was having his fish and chips.

If there was one food which reminds me of England it is fish and chips. It is the quintessential English food. Typical of most food popular with the masses, the fish and chips started out as a working-class staple, especially popular with factory workers.

Fish and chips shops – or chippies as they are fondly called in the UK – began to spring up across the nation beginning the middle of the 19th century, during Victorian England. Diverse versions exist on the story of where the first fish and chips shop was opened in England. Some say it was in London. Yet another version said it was in Mossley which was just around the corner from my place of study, Manchester.

Fish and chips basically consist of deep fried battered fish and potato chips. It is prepared by first coating the fish in flour by dipping it into a batter consisting of flour mixed with liquid. The fish is then deep fried in oil –  most commonly vegetable oil  – until the batter turns golden brown. Cod and haddock were the most commonly used fish for fish and chips. Other fish such as plaice and seabass were also used, but I noticed that all of them were from the white fish variety. My personal favourite was always the cod.

The fried fish is accompanied with a generous portion of hot fried chips. Unlike the American-style French fries though, English chips were usually thicker – about the size and length of one’s little finger. This made them soft and fluffy as compared to French fries. The fish and chips combination is then served in a wrapping of old newspapers. I came to know later that this was to keep them nice and warm.

Although various condiments were available like tomato sauce, tartar sauce and so on, traditionally, the fish and chips were taken with salt and vinegar. The salt and vinegar was usually sprinkled over the fish and chips at the time it was served.

If one were to take away his fish and chips, just before the shopkeeper fully wraps it, it was customary for him to ask his customer “would you like salt and vinegar, then?”

At that point, I would always answer “yes, please” – because that’s the way I liked my fish and chips – and the salt and vinegar would be duly and swiftly sprinkled onto my fish and chips.

As I opened up the wrapping of the steaming hot fish and chips, I could just smell the aroma of the fish mixed with a whiff of vinegar. The batter would be crispy and crunchy but yet oily. As I pinched the fish, the crispy batter will crumble and expose the fish flesh inside which was white, soft and moist. With a quickly-said – and a barely audible – bismillah, the fish was already in my mouth. Mmm, absolutely scrumptious.

But one has to be careful, though. Newly prepared fish and chips is piping hot. If you were to hurriedly pop your steaming fish and chips in your mouth and try to swallow it down without thinking, you might end up with a burnt mouth and tongue. I know this for a fact since I have had the displeasure of finding it out myself – a few times, I might add. And I can assure you that it's not fun. So when consuming fish and chips served straight from the fryer, gobbling up your food like the Cookie Monster is definitely not a good idea.

A portion of fish and chips would have cost me just around one pound. Very cheap. And yet the combination of fish and potato chips was enough to make me feel full and to keep me going for at least half a day. I think that was one of the main reasons why fish and chips was very popular. It is such a filling food. But it was also a favourite for take aways and picnics because people could easily eat it without a knife and fork. It was a clear favourite for seaside day trippers and holiday makers. When I was staying in Blackpool, during the peak summer holiday season, the chippies along the promenade would shift into overdrive to feed the hungry tourists that flocked into town.

When I say that fish and chips was a popular take away, it is simply based on the observation that the fish and chips shops were on the corner of most streets. They were an ever-present feature of every local neighbourhood shopping area.

My first local chippy was on Norbreck Road where I’d been staying in Blackpool. It was called simply The Norbreck Chippy. It was just about fifty meters away from my flat. It had a glass shopfront and a glass door that allowed people visibility into the shop as they walked past by. Inside there was a fish and chips frying range with stainless steel finished panels and a counter as a serving area.  The were a few eat-in stools arranged for those who'd like to take their fish and chips at the shop.  

This was where I used to get my occasional supply of fish and chips. I remember that due to the heavy frying inside, whenever I entered the shop – especially during winter – my glasses would instantly get fogged up due to the temperature difference. Being a local chippy, it was not such a big shop, but it did its part just nicely to come to our rescue whenever my flat mates and I got a sudden attack of do-nothingness mood and decided against cooking. Sometimes, after coming home late from visiting a friend’s place, or after long hours slogging away at the study desk, it was a convenient source for a much welcomed late-night supper. 

In Manchester, while staying at the Cornbrook hall of residence, my local chippy was down at the Precinct Centre. It was a very small but popular chippy which was always full of hungry students and lecturers.

But there was also this place called Rusholme, a ten minutes bus ride away from Cornbrook. Rusholme was famous for its big number of Asian restaurants and take away food outlets. It was here that I learnt to enjoy fish and chips with curry. It was totally different experience and taste to the salt and vinegar version but still palatable and quite to my taste.

Away from home, fish and chips was my food of choice whenever I could find them. It was cheap and it was convenient to consume on the go. Once, on a university project trip Amsterdam, I still managed to get a fish and chips.

Chippies are a true friend of the masses, especially for the hungry and the not so well-heeled students like me. Travelling around UK, whenever I suddenly had the hunger pangs, I just followed the smells of  the fish and chips to get myself fed. For, the fish and chips has a distinctive aroma, and plus you could always smell it from half way up the street.

It remains one of my favourite smells of Britain.


Saturday, February 06, 2016

My Introduction to Islam as a Way of Life

In the 1970s, throughout the Muslim world, various social and political events were unfolding. One of the most significant was the Iranian Revolution which climaxed in 1979 when Ayatollah Khomeini deposed the Shah of Iran and formed the Islamic Republic. This event in particular gave lots of encouragement and influenced many Islamic activists the world over not just in political activism, but also growing consciousness in social and individual lives.

But typical of the level of Islamic consciousness in Malaysia those days – or rather, the lack of it – to most of us, Islam was just the religion one was born into. Sure, we prayed every day. We also fasted during Ramadhan and then happily followed that with the Hari Raya celebrations. But these were more like rituals and traditions that we just followed and took for granted.

If I may say so, our understanding of the true meaning of being a Muslim was lost upon us. We never gave any serious thought as to what would be the implications of Islam on the way we lead our life, or the way we carry ourselves?

If there was one significant impact on me as a student in the UK – apart from becoming a town planner – it was my new understanding on Islam as being not just a religion, but also a way of life.

To be sure, the signs of Islamic resurgence in Malaysia were already there before I left for UK. I remember Chuck, my class monitor, regaling us with stories during prep-classes about a certain Anwar Ibrahim and his band of young Muslim supporters. And, for the first time, we were seeing young Muslim ladies adorning the tudung.

My journey towards a better understanding of Islam in the UK could be ascribed to the usrah programs organized by my seniors in Blackpool, and then in Manchester. Usrah, in Arabic, basically means the family. But in the context of one’s Islamic awakening, it is more a method for developing the Muslim character and preparation for da’awah responsibilities.

Living in a foreign land, away from the watchful eyes of our parents, it was just as well that we’d occasionally have our little usrah gatherings where we’d read the Quran and discuss some Islamic-related topics. It helped to develop our limited knowledge of Islam.

But it also served to foster our ukhuwah or bond of friendship and the sense of togetherness and cooperation amongst us. For example, to ensure continuous supply of halal meat for our little community in Blackpool, we worked out a duty roster whereby every fortnight two of us guys would travel to a city called Preston to purchase two weeks’ supply of chicken and mutton. We organized a prayer room for use by all Muslim students in the college which included arranging for the weekly Friday prayers.

Barely a few months after arriving in Blackpool, we were already onto our first project together which was to organize an exhibition on Islam at the college main hall. The highlight of the program was to be a talk by Cat Stevens, the famous British singer-songwriter, who a few years earlier had converted to Islam and assumed the name Yusuf Islam. Alas, Yusuf couldn’t turn up at the last minute.

The initiative for our usrah get-together could be credited to the Islamic Representative Council or the IRC. The IRC was an Islamic body formed by Malaysian students in the UK in the early 1970s. During its heydays the IRC was instrumental in helping new Malaysian students to settle down in UK. But more importantly, it helped the young impressionable students to cushion the culture shock by bringing them close to Islam.

I managed to join some of their programs in Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. Printing and binding of bulletins were some of the chores that were assigned to us younger students. In line with the Sunnah of the Prophet, it was common those days for the guys to grow beards – or at least tried to. Most sisters wore the jubbah which was an ankle-length, robe-like garment and complemented with the tudung labuh, or the hijab.

Another notable student body was the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, or FOSIS. This was a national umbrella organization for Islamic societies at colleges and universities throughout UK. FOSIS Conferences saw Muslim students of various nationalities getting together to discuss issues facing the Muslim world and plan programs. I followed my seniors once or twice to the FOSIS Winter Conferences held at Dewsbury in West Yorkshire. It was through such programs that I got to appreciate the Palestine statehood issues and the Islamist group struggles in various Muslim countries.

Living the life of a Muslim in a non-Muslim majority country had its challenges. For one thing, the liberal attitudes towards social life could prove to be a great, great temptation and a distraction, not just from our studies but our observance of Islamic values. For another, even doing seemingly simple tasks such as performing the daily prayers could be a real test on our resoluteness.

The Brits  they just loved to drink. No, not your mundane coke or the harmless orange juice. I mean alcoholic beverages. When I was staying at the university student hall of residence, during weekends there’d be lots of invitations to potluck parties. And where there’s a party, there was bound to be lots of alcohol. It’s their idea of having a good time. I did have a tough time at first explaining to my English friends that I just don’t drink. I was pretty sure that, initially, they took me as being anti-social or snobbish or something.

With no prayer room provided at public places, performing our prayers away from home could prove tricky. When performing ablution, for example, we had no choice but to lift our feet and wash them in the washbowls at public toilets. Often times we’d get stares and weird looks from the English for this. To pray, we’d have to be smart enough to look for some quite corners away from the crowd and passers-by. If that was not possible, then we’d just have to be bold and lay our jackets down on the ground to act as sajjadah and fulfil our obligations in full view of the public. This usually happened at train stations when we were on long distance travelling.

But for all those challenges, a lot more could be said about the interesting and rewarding experiences of being a Muslim in the UK.

Large British cities used to have a sizeable local Muslim community. They comprised mainly of Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrants. Typically hardworking, most were active in retail, setting up sundry shops and halal butchers which was a boon for us Malaysian students. Interacting with these fellow Muslims and the camaraderie we developed with them was one of the best parts of my stay at Cheetham Hill in Manchester. One friendly Pakistani brother, Mohammed Afzal Khan – who was our butcher then – was active in politics, serving the local Asian interests. I learnt much later that he rose on to become the Lord Mayor of Manchester.

Our local mosque located at No. 443 Cheetham Hill Road was an exceptional place of worship which also acted as a community centre. It was run by the local Pakistani community and was affiliated to the UK Islamic Mission. The bespectacled imam, who wore a long flowing beard, was specially brought in from Pakistan.

During Ramadhan we’d all break our fast together down in the basement of the mosque and the iftar spread which was a combination of Malaysian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi favourites, was a sight to behold – very diverse as it was delicious. The fact that fasting in UK during summer was a tough test on our stamina and patience for the extra-long hours of abstinence from food and drink – sometimes up to eighteen hours – made the iftar sessions a very happy and jovial occasion for all.

Come Aidil Fitri it would be an even more joyous occasion. Everyone would try to be dressed in their best national attires. But if the auspicious day fell on a working day, it was a quick Aidil Fitri prayer at the mosque and then everyone would be on their way to work, or classes in our case.

It was through one of the Pakistani brothers that I also started dabbling in Arabic. Lessons were held at an old office block in downtown Manchester, not far from the famous Manchester Arndale shopping centre. I didn’t quite catch up and were miles away from becoming a proper student of the language. But it did further spur my interest in this language of the Qurán for me to continue my lifelong learning process.

As a norm, products of the formal British education system should be expected to return to Malaysia all full of poise and confidence, with a touch of Anglophile. But as fate would have it, I also underwent a life changing experience, one that would shape my whole outlook towards my religion, Islam.  And for that, I am ever grateful to my Creator.


Monday, January 25, 2016

GCE A Levels in the UK: Arrival at Heathrow

By the grace of Allah, I am one of a handful lucky young Malaysians to have been sent by the Government of Malaysia to study overseas. It was a life-changing experience. One that would shape my life.

I remember receiving a green coloured letter from Blackpool dated 19th July 1979. It was a letter of offer for admission to the Blackpool College of Technology and Art – to do GCE A Levels – signed by M.J. McAllister, the college principal. So, on a warm and humid night, on 9th of September of 1979, after bidding my family farewell, I boarded a Malaysian Airlines System DC 10 aircraft at the Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Subang Airport bound for London.

There was a tinge of sadness at the thought of having to be so far away from my family to stay in a strange new land. But if I was honest, for the most part, I felt very excited at the prospect.

After a long and tiring eighteen hours flight, which included a stopover in Dubai – and if memory serves, Frankfurt, we finally arrived at London Heathrow Airport.

Now, I had imagined that the world famous London Heathrow would be more modern-looking and breath-taking compared to our Subang. This was after all Britain’s premier international airport. World famous.

Was I in for a disappointment.

 As it turned out, London Heathrow was much, much older than Subang. That’s for sure. But what struck me also as soon as I had cleared the customs and immigration checkpoints was that it was one very cramped and congested airport, too. It was a hive of activity. You’d see streams of people walking up and down. Some, lugging their bags. Others just walking along, but looking very purposeful in their strides.

Being a bit of an aviation buff, airplanes and airports was the surest way to stir some excitement in me. Quietly, I declared to myself, “welcome to London Heathrow, the busiest airport in the world!”

As I surveyed the building and people within, I remember seeing clear way finding signage and information boards everywhere I looked. The standard colour and design theme was black letterings on yellow background. They were very effective in guiding us, a bunch of wide-eyed kampong kids who had just stepped foot in England, to find our way around the building and find the exit points and passenger arrival waiting area.

And then there were Mat Sallehs – all over the place! Heck, what was I talking about? This was England. This is where they come from.

Although they were all air travellers, most of them at the airport were dressed casually and in light clothing as it was still early autumn. In contrast, my friends and I had our suits on looking very business-like – or nerd-like, take your pick – and ready to get down straight to work as diligent government sponsored students should. In fact, on that inauspicious day, I actually had my brown coloured school prefect’s blazer on me. I must have looked rather smart, resplendent.

My first true encounter with a local happened within the airport itself when a lady came up to my friends and I peddling music records and cassettes.

I still remember it very clearly when she mentioned in her deep gruff voice that her name was Nina Simone, and that she was offering us to buy her record album and cassette. As I squinted my eyes and peered closely, it was her picture on the cover of the album alright. But being fresh out of KL, of course none of us knew her, let alone her music. So we just smiled at her sheepishly and moved along.

But Nina was not in the least disappointed and straight away turned to other passers-by instead. It was only much latter on that I found out that Nina Simone was actually a great American singer songwriter.

As was always the tradition, we were met at the airport by senior Malaysian students. Having been informed by the Malaysian Students Department in London of our arrival, they were there to bring us to our temporary lodging in London before our onward trip to our respective colleges at various localities in England.

The seniors – or brothers, as we would be calling them - were from Blackpool which was the place where we would be studying for our A Levels over the next two years.

I remember the seniors came across as being cool and confident as they went about their ways. I was deeply impressed. I guess it is normal the world over for juniors to look up to their seniors and be in awe of their style and mannerisms. Then again, I suspect the fancy, casual, autumn jackets which they donned, as compared to our mundane suits, had also contributed to that.

One thing that stuck to mind also was the fact that they were very approachable and so accommodating of us freshies. Some of them at the airport on that particular day were Amaran Abu Bakar, Saad Abbas, Khairul Anuar Hashim, Abu Bakar Sahari and Halimi Abdul Hamid. I noticed that most of them had goatees. Some had heavy stubbles, yet others just had a few miserable strands of hairs on the chin to show.  

All of the brothers were two years our senior. They had already successfully sat for their GCE A Levels and were about to enrol into universities to do their undergraduate courses. Most, as the case with Amaran, would be doing civil engineering. Yet there were also others who weren’t planning on becoming engineers – like Khairul Anuar Hashim for example, who was going into Physics.

We were led by Amaran, Khairul and the others to a waiting coach which would take us to London.  As we left the terminal building to walk to the coach whilst passing by rows of very odd, boxy-looking black cabs, I could feel the nice chill of the early autumn English weather. It was quite similar to the coolness one feels during subuh time in Malaysia, I thought to myself.

Now, if this is how the typical English weather would be like, then I’m going to love it here, I told myself.

A few minutes later our coach was well on its way, negotiating the morning traffic, steadily crawling into the heart of London.

I looked out the window of the coach. Nice weather. Nice new place. New friends. And the promise of a whole new experience. How I looked forward to all these.

And then, suddenly, I remembered Apak. This must have been exactly how he felt just more than twenty years earlier when he arrived in London to do his teaching training in Kirkby, Liverpool.

I guess history repeats itself. Once again, a whole new world beckoned for another kampong boy from Ipoh.