THE ARCHITECTURE OF THE HEIFER: Seeking A Coherent Structure of Surah Al-Baqarah This Ramadhan

شَهْرُ رَمَضَانَ الَّذِي أُنزِلَ فِيهِ الْقُرْآنُ هُدًى لِّلنَّاسِ وَبَيِّنَاتٍ مِّنَ الْهُدَىٰ وَالْفُرْقَانِ ۚ فَمَن شَهِدَ مِنكُمُ الشَّهْرَ فَلْيَصُمْهُ ۖ وَمَن كَانَ مَرِيضًا أَوْ عَلَىٰ سَفَرٍ فَعِدَّةٌ مِّنْ أَيَّامٍ أُخَرَ ۗ يُرِيدُ اللَّهُ بِكُمُ الْيُسْرَ وَلَا يُرِيدُ بِكُمُ الْعُسْرَ وَلِتُكْمِلُوا الْعِدَّةَ وَلِتُكَبِّرُوا اللَّهَ عَلَىٰ مَا هَدَاكُمْ وَلَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ – 2:185

The month of Ramadhan [is that] in which was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever sights [the new moon of] the month, let him fast it; and whoever is ill or on a journey – then an equal number of other days. Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and [wants] for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful [Sahih International]

The relationship between Ramadhan and the Quran is well-illustrated in the 185th ayat of Surah Al-Baqarah above; in fact, that relationship was mentioned even prior to Ramdhan’s connection to fasting in the same ayat. What better month could there be to delve deeper into the Quran, and what finer Surah would it be other than the longest and most comprehensive of all Surah in the Quran? The focus for this post, however, is to explore a coherent structure of this second surah in order to grasp it as a whole. Although many books have been written on the thematic aspects of the surah, where most exegetes summarise its contents at the beginning, far fewer have tried to approach it from a framework or structural perspective that would elicit a better conceptual understanding of the surah.

It may be wise to first briefly explore this surah’s relationship to the previous one, namely Ummul Kitab, and perhaps the next one, for purposes of establishing context. Neal Robinson in his “Discovering the Quran” refers to the phenomenon of the interconnection between the end of one Surah with the beginning of another as ‘dovetailing’, and this can be seen between Surah Al-Fatihah and Surah Al-Baqarah. The former ends with a prayer for guidance ([1:6-7] ‘Guide us to the Straight Path’) and the latter proclaims at the beginning “This is the Scripture concerning which there is no doubt, a guidance for the God-conscious” (2:2). Others have observed that the guidance prayed for is for “those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace. Not of those who have incurred Your wrath, nor of those who have gone astray” (1:7). Surah Al-Baqarah has a signficant focus on ‘those who have incurred Your wrath (the Jews)’, while the subsequent Surah Al-Imran on ‘those who have gone astray (the Christians)’, further cementing their linear interconnectedness. Other researchers have attempted to show the interconnections between beginnings and endings of all 114 surahs, and yet others like Islahi, Cuypers and Farrin discovered that most if not all surahs have their pairs.

In order to understand Surah Al-Baqarah itself, however, we turn to Raymond Farrin’s Ring Compisition in his ‘Structure and Quranic Interpretation‘. Following a long tradition of ‘Partisans of Coherence’ dating back to Basran writer al-Jahiz which started with a more ‘linear-atomistic’ approach, to a more holistic-chapters approach of Farahi and Amin Islahi, and then firstly Michael Cuypers and now Farrin’s approach which is primarily of a concentric rings of individual surahs and groups of surahs. He posits that Surah Al-Baqarah may be organised into seven sections in the following manner:

A (1-39): Believers vs disbelievers; Prophet challenges disbelievers to produce a surah; God gives life and resurrects

          B (40-112): Moses delivers law to Children of Israel; Children of Israel reluctant to sacrifice cow

                    C (113-141): Abraham was tested; Ka’ba built by Abraham and Ishmael; prayer that descendants submit to God

                              D (142-152): Ka’ba is the new prayer direction; this is a test of faith; compete in doing good deeds

                    C’ (153-177): Muslims will be tested; instructions about pilgrimage to Mecca; warning not to worship ancestors’ multiple gods

          B’ (178-242): Prophet delivers law to Muslims; Muslims exhorted to enter Islam wholeheartedly

A’ (243-286):Believers encouraged in struggle vs disbelievers; Abraham challenges king to affect rising of sun; God gives life and resurrects

Take your time reading the above, and analyse the symmetrical concentrism of the 7 groups of ayat. I was completely blown away when I first read about this, and it still takes my breath away every time. The Quran which was revealed over a period of 23 years, rearranged by the Prophet every time a new revelation arrived (and therefore seemingly ‘mixed up’ by the time the whole Quran was revealed), still presents to us a level of coherence that can be easily understood by the lay person – this is truly a miracle for all mankind. A good visualisation of the above can also be seen in this video.

Even within the 7 groups are various ring compositions. As an illustration we shall look at Ayat 2-5 as explained in Nouman Ali Khan and Sharif Randhawa’s recently-released “Divine Speech: Exploring the Quran as Literature“:

A. (2): (guidance) “This is the scripture concerning which there is no doubt – a guidance for the God-conscious (al-muttaqin)

         B. (3) (faith) those who believe in the unseen

                   C. (3): (action) and establish the prayer

                   C’. (3): (action) and spend of what We have provided for them

          B’: (4): (faith) those who believe in what was sent down to you and what was sent down before you, and in the afterlife they are certain

A’. (5): (guidance) It is they who are on guidance from their Lord and they who are the successful (al-muflihun)

And we have barely even scratched the surface. Not unlike viewing a fractal design, such coherence can be found at the macro level of the whole Quran (Farahi organised all surahs in 9 groups while Islahi and Farrin 7 groups) to a micro level (within Ayat Kursi [2:255] itself is a clearly perceptible Ring Composition). Additionally, Khan-Randhawa in their book also explored many literary aspects of the Quran from micro literary features such as word choice, word order, grammatical shifts, style and grammar subtleties, figuratve language and imagery, as well as macro literary features such as storytelling, coherence and structure, symmetry and order.

It is hoped that this post acts as a taster of the knowledge that is available out there, and for Muslims to approach the Quran with an understanding of not only the meaning of the words, but also the holistic context and structure of what they read and recite. May we be of those who have a closer relationshipwith the Quran, ameen.

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NOT GOING LONG, BUT GOING DEEP: Overview on the Heifer this Ramadhan

Bismillahirrahmanirrahim

I have just finished listening to an uploaded lecture by the esteemed Nouman Ali Khan from 2016 as a preparation for Ramadhan this year and found that many points that hit home so hard. He started with the significance of Al-Baqarah and the message that the religion of Islam is congruent with the religion of Ibrahim a.s. and that the Prophet pbuh had come to complete his message. Within the rest of the lecture, he gave some rather hard-hitting facts: the most powerful one for me is that the purpose of Ramadhan is to reconnect with the Book of Allah. In Taraweeh, when the sahabah listened to the Surah when standing in prayer, it was like listening to a lecture by Allah. Now, in my own experience at least, for many of us we don’t know what is being recited in Taraweeh and just look forward to the ruku’ and counting which rakaat we are currently in, often to calculate how long before we take a break and have some of the proffered food at the masjid! This does not seem to be the intended consequence and impact when Umar r.a. introduced the congregational Taraweeh prayer. Ustaz Nouman then ended with the suggestion that for that particular Ramadhan, he would like to just cover Surah Al-Baqarah over the whole of Ramadhan in Taraweeh and focus on explaining what was recited.

Yes, this deviates from my previous intent of explaining the Ring Theory of Dr Bruce Farrin and contributions on others on the Nazm or Coherence of the Quran. Having read more about it, I found that I could not do it justice without further research, analysis and reflection. Therefore take up the aforementioned advice of Ustaz Nouman I shall, and the Heifer is my focus. I do hope to bring a holistic perspective to the Surah, using various sources available through my act of collecting them.

Surah Al-Baqarah is the second Surah in the Quran and its longest with 286 ayat. Now, since the previous sentence mentioned that word ‘Surah’ twice, let us first define the word. The best explanation I have found thus far is in another Ustaz Nouman video (starts at 12:04): the work ‘Surah’, comes from the word ‘Sawra’, denoting a full sharp view like the one you get from standing on a really high place, a long-reaching view. Additionally, the word ‘sur’ denotes high walls that were often found surrounding ancient cities, much like how you’d see from the top of one in the game Assassin’s Creed! Continuing the idea, ‘tasawwara’ means to climb up or scaling up. And the ‘sawra’ often enclosed a whole landscape of an entire city within it with all of its disparate and unique components. Yet when perceived within that long-reaching holistic view, the ‘surah’ shows that it all comes together to form a beautiful scene; those seemingly disparate components in the city are not discrete but organically interconnected. Ustaz Nouman also spoke about his encounter with Dr. Akram Nadwi, the protagonist in Carla Power’s Amazing “If Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran” as well as the author of “Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam”, at the latter’s apartment where Dr. Nadwi likens a surah to standing at the edge of a cliff and looking onto the whole rich landscape comprising trees, rivers, waterfalls, birds in the sky, clouds and the richness of the whole scene. How inspiring!

Now the title of the Surah, ‘Al-Baqarah’ (meaning cow or heifer), is derived from the story narrated in ayat 67-73 where Prophet Musa a.s.’s interaction with the Jews on the sacrifice of a cow and the drama that followed. Yusuf Ali states in his commentary on this ‘Parable of the Heifer’ that it “illustrates the insufficiency of carping obedience” while Muhammad Asad says that it shows those Jew’s “obstinate desire to obtain closer and closer definitions of the simple commandment revealed to them through Moses had made it almost impossible for them to fulfil it.” In short, Musa a.s. had conveyed Allah’s commandment for the descendants of Israelites to sacrifice a cow, and through persistent questioning, they had made it harder on themselves as the characteristics of the cow became more particular and made it difficult to find such a cow; had they sacrificed any cow at the beginning, it would not have come to this point.

Historically, most of the Surah was revealed over the first one and a half years in Madinah after the Hijrah (622) and before the Battle of Badr (624). There was stability for the invited Muslims and their helpers (Ansar) in Madinah after the persecution that the former experienced in Makkah. They became an autonomous community regulated by Quranic revelations and had entered into pacts or covenants with the Jewish tribes to ensure relative peace. However, those tribes became increasingly antagonistic, and the Quraysh became more hostile with the prospect of war looming. It was under these circumstances that the Surah was revealed. (taken from ‘Divine Speech’ by Nouman Ali Khan and Sharif Randhawa)

Other general traits of this Surah include the fact that this is the longest Surah in the Quran and has the longest Ayat in the Quran (Ayat 282 which talks about debt and contracts, arguably describing a lawyer’s [scribe] work). It also contains Ayatul Kursi (The Ayat of the Throne), one of the most oft-recited ayat in the Quran and had been called the greatest Ayat in the Quran, and according to many hadeeth, it also acts a solid protection to those who recite it. Following this ayat is “There is no compulsion in Islam…”, an oft-quoted ayat by the more liberal Muslims justifying their various viewpoints (this really needs to be studied in context, especially what came before and what comes after). In the middle of the Surah (ayat 143 of 286), “And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way…”, one of the structural coherence of the verse. Ibn Kathir had remarked that the most fearful ayat in the Quran in ayat 279, but I will also quote 278 for context: “(278) O you who have attained faith! Remain conscious of God, and give up all outstanding gains from usury, if you are [truly] believers; (279) for if you do it not, know that you are at war with God and His Apostle. But if you repent, then you shall be entitled to [the return of] your principal; you will do no wrong, and neither will you be wronged.” The Surah ends with two ayat that were revealed during the Isra and Miraj, which includes one part that is of great solace to those who are burdened: “(286) God does not burden any human being with more than he is well able to bear…”. Lastly, in ayat 152, Allah says: “So remember Me, and I shall remember you; and be grateful unto Me, and deny Me not”. [Quran translations are taken from Muhammad Asad’s ‘The Message of the Quran’]

It is hoped that this post would serve as a little taster of what Surah Al-Baqarah offers, and piques your interest to know it better. May we know more of the Quran by the time Ramadhan ends than what we knew before, Ameen!

 

The Foundations of Conceptually Understanding the Quran

Before we start looking at the Ring Theory, as mentioned at the end of the previous article, it is imperative for us to understand the conceptual foundation of the Quran. Fundamental characteristics need elucidation prior to moving on to a conceptual understanding of this Book.

At this early juncture it seems necessary for me to emphasise that this article will be written for ease of reasoning (peppered with some unavoidable verbosity perhaps); therefore I will not intersperse it extensively with sources and origins of materials as for most of the part, the main source is M. M. Al-Azami’s “The History of the Quranic Text”. Only other sources would be named as it is referenced.

Most Muslims would be able to tell you the following: that the Quran is a collection of Allah’s words as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad pbuh over the period of his prophethood spanning 23 years. The angel Jibreel acted as an intermediary between Allah and Muhammad pbuh, save for a few verses which were revealed directly to the Prophet during Isra’ Mi’raj. More often than not, at the time of revelation, the Prophet had companions with him who memorised the verses and wrote them down for the record. The Prophet would also indicate the order of the Surahs as they were revealed, culminating with the order of the whole Quran when Jibreel oversaw his recitation twice in the year of his death.

The Quran started to appear in written form at the time of the Prophet pbuh, but only in fragments as scribes wrote them on various materials as it was revealed. Many would be familiar with the efforts of collecting the Quran as a whole volume firstly via the efforts of Abu Bakr ra at the insistence of Umar ra, appointing Zayd ibn Thabit ra as the main compiler, and culminating with the Mushaf Uthmaniyya during the caliphate of Uthman ra. Hafsa bint Umar ibn al-Khattab ra, one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad pbuh also played a role in the compilation of the Quran, often safekeeping fragments as they were compiled to a whole, as committed by her father. Al-Azami acknowledged a few other Mushaf of the sahabah or companions, even dedicating a whole chapter of his book to the “So-Called Mushaf of Ibn Mas’ud”, concluding that there was not enough evidence to show that this Mushaf was any different from that of Uthman.

As mentioned earlier, the order of the Surahs was indicated by the Prophet pbuh as the ayat were revealed. There are reports of the existence of the Mushaf of Ali ra, which is arranged according to the order of revelation which would be a historical record of the development of Islam. This was further corroborated by Arthur Jeffery in his “Materials for the History of the Text of the Quran” which lists 15 Primary and 13 Secondary Codices. There are two existing standards for a chronological reclassification of the Surah, firstly Noldeke and Schwally that is widely accepted by non-Muslim scholars, and the standard Egyptian chronology, which, according to Neal Robinson in the excellent “Discovering the Quran: A Contemporary Approach to a Veiled Text”, there is very little to choose from between them.

In any case, the Mushaf Uthman is the standard accepted Quran of the Muslim World. As the Muslim civilisation developed further from its Arabian origins, the form of the Quran took on several additions. During the time of al-Hajjaj bin Yusuf ash-Thaqafi, the notorious governor of Iraq during the Umayyad Caliphate who ruled with an Iron Fist did contribute to the form of the Quran it exists today – the division of the Quran into seven manazil and 30 juz to aid its reading over a week or a month was ‘a practical outgrowth of his curiosity’. Over time, other reading aids appeared such as dots and diacritical marks (eg. fathah, kasrah and dhamma) especially in light of the Quran reaching non-Arabs.

If a chronological compilation of the Quran would be very useful in seeing the unfolding of Islam from a historical and civilisational perspective, actually understanding the context in which the ayat was revealed would add even more weight to the nuances of the message. This was the idea of “Asbab Al Nuzul”, or “Reasons of Revelation of the Noble Quran / Occasions and Circumstances of Revelation” (two English translations of the same Arabic title by two different publishers). The most notable (and among the earliest) of these efforts was by Imam Ali Ibn Ahmad Al-Wahidi Al-Naisaburi who published occasions of about 570 ayat out of the 6253 ayat in the Quran. The ‘Asbab’ however is meant to be more exegetical than historical, as the Quran is revealed for all mankind and not just the people of a certain time in history. While this phenomenological approach of study certainly enriches one’s appreciation of the Quran and its meaning, as according to Muntasir Mir in “Coherence in the Quran” outlined that Asbab an-Nuzul was referred to by ibn Taymiyyah and Zarkashi as an exegetical principle transmitted by the Prophet’s pbuh Companions which helps establish context, it does not in itself lend a complete framework to the conceptual understanding of the Quran.

The approach of viewing the Quran as a comprehensive whole has been happening for more than a thousand years. One of the earliest examples is al-Jahiz’s “The Composition of the Quran” in the ninth century CE. A century later, Abu Bakar al-Nisaiburi would ask “Why is this verse next to the other one?” and chided the Baghdad learned men of his time for not paying more attention to these questions. This brought a rise of “Partisans of Coherence” which includes major figures of exegesis such al al-Razi (d 1209), al-Qurtubi (d 1272), Nizam al-Din al-Nisaburi (d 1327) and al-Suyuti (d 1505). Even the Andalusian judge Abu Bakr ibn al-Arabi remarked that “The verses of the Quran are joined together in such a manner that they are like a single word, harmoniously associated, structurally even.” Lately, significant developments in looking at overall themes and general structure occurred in the twentieth century with Abd al-Hamid al-Farahi (d 1930) from India and Amin Ahsan Islahi (d 1997) from Pakistan, as well as Muhammad al-Tabataba’i (d 1981) from Iran and Sayyid Qutb (d 1966) from Egypt. Most recently current Quran scholars have deepened that knowledge such as Muntasir Mir, Muhammad Abdel Haleem, Neal Robinson, Michel Cuypers and Raymond Farrin. Cuypers has shown that symmetry in the Quran manifests in form of parallelism (AB/A’B’), chiasm (inverted parallelism – AB/B’A’) and concentrism. Nouman Ali Khan, a well-known Islamic speaker on the Quran, recently co-authored with Sharif Randhawa “Divine Speech: Exploring the Quran As Literature” which borrows heavily from Mir, Robinson and Farrin.

The efforts of Farahi, Islahi, Robinson and Farrin now becomes the focus of a Framework of the Conceptual Understanding of Quran; we shall start looking at the Ring Theory of Farrin which combines the aforementioned efforts into a structural coherence in the next post onwards. May Allah guide us to knowing His Book.

The Remaining Months as a Quranic Ramadhan Prep

Yet another Ramadhan has passed, and yet another less than satisfactory ending. Eid ul Fitr on the first day of the month of Syawal in the Hijri Calendar is supposed to be a celebration of a ‘return to fitra’, a state of natural being in the order of the universe, the purposeful existence in the eyes of the Creator, a rebirth of sorts. Instead, a sense of restlessness took its place; vocational challenges, coupled with sub-optimal health and peppered with some navel gazing made up the ingredients of this deflatingly served dish.

Why was this so? Approximately seven sun-rotations ago, the mutawwif who guided my family’s conditionally compulsory Meccan pilgrimage had remarked that the whole Hajj experience was intended as a training ground for the times that came after. It made sense at the time, for the rigours and experience of Hajj is not quickly forgotten and would serve well months after leaving the Holy Land. I had inadvertently applied this logic to the month of Ramadhan as well; it seemed entirely reasonable that the ‘training ground’ rationale was equally applicable here. Having just experienced my forty-ninth cycle in my lifetime, I have come to the conclusion that it was just the opposite: the rest of the year was, in fact, preparation for the momentous month.

There were several reasons: firstly, the cyclical nature of the twelve months meant that we would repeatedly be, God willing, facing Ramadhan again and again. It is as if we are at a sports training facility practising for an annual event. Secondly, the cyclical nature also infers that there should be improvements in the future cycles. As is often the case, one often leaves the rigours of Ramadhan far behind in the other months, typically reverting to type, lending gravitas to the observable phenomenon of ‘Ramadhan Muslims’. This is due to the fact that the ‘training’ and ‘tournament’ is not planned to be cumulative but rather a turn of the hamster wheel. Thirdly, within Ramadhan is probably the most important night of all nights, the Night of a Thousand Nights, better known as ‘Lailatul Qadr’. This mysteriously placed night (where there are signs given, but only God knows for sure) contained within the last ten days of Ramadhan promises multifold rewards for those who seek and experience it. This phenomenon breaks down the “training-tournament” analogy, but implies an attitudinal concept instead: to achieve the full rewards in Ramadhan, it is not enough only to be a Competitor, but one also needs to be an active Seeker.

Taking this strand of thinking further, perhaps only the Restless Seeker stands a chance of fully experiencing the Nectars of Ramadhan. Many yearn for the ecstasy of having maximised one’s Ramadhan but piercing that veil would probably require an intertwined tapestry of ponderance and prayers, whose exposition is far beyond the capacity and capability of this writer. Perhaps a more achievable aim would be to explore one important strand of that lofty goal with a preparation of an oft-practised but maybe un-maximised action: that of Quranic Recitation.

One of the names for Ramadhan is Shahr ul Quran, the month of Quran. Not only was the first verse of the Quran (Surah al-Alaq, the 96th) revealed during this month, but also reciting the whole Quran is highly recommended and is common practice among Muslims. In this regard, I have insofar failed miserably at achieving this. Often when I finally get around to reading it, it is slowed down by looking at the meaning and trying to ascertain the message. Therein lies the heart of the problem; I could never seem to grasp the Quran as a whole, and therefore fail to contextualise what I am reading. For one trained as an architect who designs buildings and townships with complex relationships that need to function as a whole (and add to that a penchant for phenomenology), and now as a management consultant who constructs strategies for transformation programmes for companies and systems that need to run in tandem, the Quran is but a black box of seemingly incoherent parts. 

The search for a Gestalt-conception of the Quran has been a personal pre-occupation for many years. I have been searching through many English translations of the Quran, as well as books about the Book especially concerning thematics and conceptual frameworks. The former had taken me through from the de facto Yusuf Ali translation (I much prefer ‘ye olde’ version with a poem to introduce every surah), to the dogmatic Mawdudi, the poetic Sayyid Qutb, the new standard bearer Mohsin Khan and ending with the fascinating Muhammad Asad. For the latter, Muhammad al-Ghazali et al helped with thematics, M.M. Al-Azami with the history, Shetha Al-Dargazeli with the names of Surahs, and many others with specific interpretations of different Surahs, as well as Naisaburi’s exposition of why certain Surahs were revealed. Furthermore, the works of two of my favourite Sheikhs, Ustaz Nouman Ali Khan and Shaikh Yasir Qadhi (these two often through videos) were copiously referred. However, the real breakthrough happened in the last five years, starting with my discovery of Amin Ahsan Islahi ‘Tadabbur-i-Qur’an’ and Muntasir Mir’s study of his approach, further elaborated in Nouman Ali Khan and Sharif Randhawa’s ‘Divine Speech’. It was from that last book that I found earlier though recent works of Raymond Farrin (the discoverer of the Ring Theory in the Quran sometimes seen in videos) and Neal Robinson, both currently under study.

It is my hope to synthesise the knowledge from these and other sources into a holistic conceptual framework of the Quran, using Farrin’s Ring Theory as a point of trajectory. The primary objective remains as lending meaning to Quranic Recitation during the next Ramadhan, God willing. Gestalt and Visual Communication approaches will also be integrated, devices that make up much of my training and current way of thinking. Honestly, it is really for my own convenience and comprehension, but I hope it works for you too.

The next post will introduce some structural mechanics of the Quran, including how the Surahs may be grouped (we shall discuss approaches by different scholars), as well as the Ring Theory. Stay tuned.

iPad Pro 9.7 as a Laptop ‘Replacement’: My 6-Month Journey

My Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon finally gave up the ghost in July 2016. It gave me 4 years of dedication to my whimsical and demanding use, mainly to do Powerpoint slides and animations as well as constant foraging of images using Google

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Lenovo X1 Carbon

. While I guess I never really did test the Core i7 processor to its maximum capability, the X1 did take a lot of physical punishment, not least in my bedroom where many of the slides were completed while using the X1’s flat-positioned hinge to good effect when placed on my upturned lap. By then I had already dabbled with the iPad Pro 9.7, using it mainly to check emails on the go – but the demise of the X1 finally made me test my original purchase intent of the iPad – as a Laptop Replacement

I did have my doubts – an iPad was acceptable as an editing tool, maybe even a commentary tool, but I didn’t quite see it as a design/creation tool for my slides – and this was based on my owning a first generation iPad, and after that a Lenovo Android tablet. Therefore the X1 in that regard was replaced by the long un-updated new MacBook Air, a reliable workhorse that I had used more than 6 years ago. What I needed was something that I could bring around to meetings and still make me productive, with the ability to access documents online – especially in light of frequent travelling between my office and

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MacBook Air 13″, the Road Warrior

the HQ, where most of the meetings took place. With 12 months short of hitting 50, my back was not getting any better, and therefore any strain avoided while commuting would be most welcome. I had even tried the Microsoft Surface Pro 3, which did address the working-in-bed-on-lap ritual, but I felt the screen was too small for a Windows 8 machine (and even when upgraded to Windows 10). The iOS Operating System, unlike the Surface Pro, was designed to be in tablet form and had gone through many iterations of refinement. So an iPad it had to be. The question was, which one? Perhaps it is best to see through the lens of my criteria for a Laptop Replacement.

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iPad Pro 9.7″ with Apple Pencil and Apple Smart Keyboard

Criteria #1: Portability, Annotations and Communications

Portability was still the paramount criteria for me – and although the 12.9″ iPad Pro as very seductive, especially as I was an occasional sketcher, its bigger size meant I would have to lug around a backpack to actually carry it around (although it is so light). Ergonomically a 12.9″ screen would not be so easy in the hands when going into a full elevator unless it had an excellent grip. An iPad mini was also out of the question for me, as its screen would not be so navigable as a working table-top machine: I spend many hours in meetings where my contribution was not essential all the time. The standard size iPad sits unobtrusively on the table, not garnering unwanted attention, and therefore is ideal for me. Therefore the choice is then narrowed down to the iPad Air 2 or the iPad Pro 9.7.
As mentioned, my work often involved creating and editing/commenting Powerpoint files; while the creating and editing part I do on the MacBook Air, I have been increasingly using flattened PPT files as PDF for commenting which had become much more practical when used with the Apple Pencil. I use PDF Expert app that does the job fairly well, and iPad’s blog_imageability to zoom in and zoom out by pinching makes it so much more efficient. If you want to do this, I advise converting the PPT to PDF using Microsoft Powerpoint on the MacBook – when I converted an emailed file using PDF Convertor app (also by Readdle, the same team who brought to you PDF Expert) on the iPad, the result was less than stellar – too many native PPT boxes and text either got skewed or disappeared altogether.
The Outlook App on iOS is a tremendous improvement over the Mail app, especially when paired with an Office365 account. I can not only reply my emails at a rather satisfying rate but also organise them into folders in the Outlook App itself, which is a huge timesaver when hunting down that elusive email. However, to effectively be an email machine, the iPad Pro 9.7 has to be paired with a proper keyboard, which leads to the next criteria.

Criteria #2: Solid Performing Keyboard

There is no shortage of keyboard choices that were available for the iPad Air 2, especially with that form factor having been available on the market and is in its multiple iteration. My main issue with keyboards for the iPad is that it needed a power source, often in the form of a built-in rechargeable battery, necessarily increasing its bulk. This pet peeve of mine was elegantly resolved with the iPad Pro 9.7’s Smart Connector, located at the mid-left side of the iPad (at the portrait position), allowing an attached keyboard to connect as well as be powered directly by the iPad. No pairing required, just connect and go!
The natural option of a keyboard would be to go for the Apple Smart Keyboard for the iPad Pro 9.7″. Compared to its 12.9″ brethren, it looked a little cramped but was not uncomfortable. For those used to the MacBook Air chicklet-style keyboard, the Smart Keyboard would not be alien, as it is flat and only slightly raised. After using it in many meetings, though, the clapping sound produced during typing became increasingly annoying; your fingers literally had to ‘slap’ the keys to have enough travel to result in sequential letters on the screen. Although this was not ideal, it was the only keyboard available at the time. Also, while the Smart Keyboard looked really appealing in its charcoal grey suede-like finish, it offered protection only to the screen when closed, similar to an Apple Smart Cover. I complemented the back with an Apple Silicon Case in matching charcoal grey, adding to my already-ballooning expenditure! I must say I did like the way the Smart Keyboard folded, giving it considerable screen protection, and when unfolded it cleverly provides triangular support for the iPad with a magnetic groove to hold it in place just behind the keyboard.
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Logitech CREATE for iPad Pro 9.7.”

By the time the Logitech CREATE for iPad Pro 9.7 Inch keyboard was available, my Apple Smart Keyboard was already worn from constant use; this was even more apparent from the slight stain on the outer cover of the keyboard as I had frequently placed it onto slightly wet table surfaces (often due to mug or glass spillage). It only took a quick examination of the new product before I reached for the wallet. Firstly, the outer layer of synthetic weave had the right amount of friction to ease carrying it, as well as being dirt and moisture repellent. Its design blend of synthetic weave, jet-black rounded plastic corners and wavy sculptural back-edgings combined harmoniously, as well as its curved inner side-edges, results in a perfect balance of business and art. When folded to keyboard mode, it reveals a sleeve to hold the Apple Pencil and which, rather surprisingly, does not add much bulk to the case when closed shut.
The core criteria for a keyboard is the typing experience, and in this, the Logitech excels. The 1.4mm travel felt much more satisfying the key-slapping experience of its Apple counterpart; the fact that it is backlit by drawing power through the smart connector further shows its advantage. The addition of another set of functional keys at the top row cements its superiority, bringing the iPad Pro 9.7″ much closer to its goal as a laptop replacement. One slight difference with the Apple Smart Keyboard is that the Logitech only anchors itself to the Smart Connector when in typing position, whereas the former is continuously connected. This did not prove to be a problem when needing to use the keyboard, as even the Apple one had to be disconnected and reconnected at times to ensure its proper working.

Criteria #3: The Element of Fun

Although it might seem contradictory that “fun” is the third criteria when choosing an iPad as a laptop replacement, it makes absolute sense when the one considers that this is, in fact, a tablet, and should at least behave like one when not in work mode (and sometimes even in work mode). This article, however, focuses on choosing which iPad and why, and therefore highlights the advantage of the iPad Pro 9.7″ over other models.

 

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Apple Pencil shown with spare tip and female to female lightning adapter (comes in the package)

The first significant difference is the Apple Pencil. This is the first time that Apple had embarked on a major accessory to their core product – not unlike the keyboard and mouse to the computer. Previous iPads worked with third-party pen manufacturers to provide the paraphernalia for them. The iPad Pro screen was a total redesign to work with the Apple Pencil, with virtually imperceptible lag as it scans the signal 240 times a second, double of that when the finger or the pens are used. Pressure and Tilt produce desired responses for the applications that have been optimised for the Pencil. Palm rejection worked most of the time, hindering accidental strokes and swipes. I was reasonably happy with the battery life (never ran out on a drawing session so far fully or mostly charged), but the recharging time was utterly delightful, very close to the promised 15 seconds for 30 minutes charged- yes, it is fast! There were occasions that the charging took a little longer when over 50%, but it was not really a hindrance. Having Notes work with the pencil allowed switching between drawing and typing for capturing discussion points and diagrams, although taking pictures in between seem to have a limit, refusing additional pictures after 2-3 were shot (this was not exhaustively tested, but happened inmate than one occasion. In summary, though, the Pencil is a delight to use. The free Paper app extends to freehand diagramming in addition to the standard pen and brush strokes; more advanced users would probably prefer having the control of layers, and I am exploring the various apps right now. One other app worth purchasing is Amaziograph – a symmetry-drawing tool that is oh so satisfying and soothing. Who needs adult colouring books after using that!
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My Sketch with Pencil on iPad Pro 9.7 using Paper app

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My psychedelic pattern drawn with Amaziograph and Apple Pencil

The other highly differentiated element of the iPad Pro 9.7 is the inclusion of 4 speakers within its 6.1mm thickness, giving it a somewhat impressive soundstage. I had even used it as a ‘beatbox’ while travelling in a car without connecting to the sound system. I often watch/listen to YouTube videos while doing the dishes, and found that it was no longer necessary to connect to my trusty JBL Clip speakers anymore – the built-ins were sufficient most of the time. I did have to place the iPad speakers strategically next to hard surfaces if I wanted some amplification, sometimes necessary when the TV was going on in the living room and the highway traffic which my kitchen window faces were hosting many speedsters.
I will be testing the 12MP camera soon, another big bump up from iPad Air 2’s 8MP camera, and has the capability of taking 4K videos (the A9X chip also helps here). To really take advantage of the 9.7 in using it as a video camera, one should get a video stabiliser – I have ordered the Melamount MM-IPAD PRO 9.7 Kit from Amazon (looks like a wicked deal for beginners) and will let you know my experience in another post. Keep posted for results of this budding documentary filmmaker! I am also taking courses at Lynda.com to learn some of the techniques required – I will get there someday!

So it’s the iPad Pro 9.7 then! But here’s some Proposed Improvements

The choice is obvious – if you are willing to shell out about USD200 more over an above the iPad Air 2. The price depends on the amount of internal memory built-in, and if it includes a cellular sim card adaptor or just has Wi-Fi. I opted for the 128Gb version with Wi-Fi, as I use 2 phones, the second which has an almost unlimited broadband which I then use as a hotspot. I did not want to get an additional cellular account just for the iPad.
The biggest complaint about the iPad Pro 9.7 (or 12.9 for that matter) would undoubtedly  be related to the Apple Pencil. Firstly, it has easy-to-lose cap, a tiny object when unsheathed. Secondly, there was no place to store the Apple Pencil ( a similar problem for the Surface Pro’s pen too). These two significant annoyances gave rise to a plethora of third-party solutions, many of which are available on Amazon and many other websites that trade in Apple paraphernalia. I opted for the Fintie Cap Holder, Nib Cover and Lightning Adapter holder, a 3-1 solution for those pesky highly-losable objects, with a nib cover to boot! The second issue was fortunately addressed by the Logitech CREATE cover which cleverly inserts a slot for the Apple Pencil while not significantly increasing the bulk of the cover – ingenuity in design!
Sadly the Apple Smart Keyboard does not address the storage of the Apple Pencil. Since the keyboard only covers the front of the iPad, I had to get a separate back cover in matching grey. Switcheasy’s Coverbuddy for iPad Pro 9.7 was a good solution, but it did protrude from the back jacket – this sometimes did help as it gave a tilt when sketching. In my mind, this is the best companion to the Apple Smart Keyboard. The other downside of the keyboard, as highlighted earlier, is the slapping-style typing required to get any work done. I do hope Apple redesigns future keyboards. I was even considering getting the Microsoft Universal Foldable Keyboard, but fortunately, Logitech answered my prayers.

Conclusion

So is the iPad Pro 9.7 a Laptop Replacement? Well, after spending more than six months with it, I consider it an excellent Laptop Companion. I still do the heavy lifting on my MacBook Air (with Parallels and Windows 10 installed), but it is the iPad Pro 9.7 that accompanies me just about everywhere, usually tucked in the outer back pocket of my Hedgren Connect Belief Vertical Crossover Bag. It is my mobile office when away from the office. And that, in the end, was what I was looking for.
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My trusty Hedgren Connect Sling

Facing an Artistic Mid-Life Crisis Part III: The Art Awakens

It has been four months since Part II, where there was a flurry in accumulation of tools, books and some steps in actually drawing. I tried to draw whenever I could, whenever the opportunity arises, and this usually happens at meal times (while waiting for food), meetings (especially when someone else is presenting) or just snippets in-between times. I remember learning art history in sixth form at Portora, the story where a Edgar Degas asked Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres advice about becoming a better artist, and he famously said, “Draw lines, young man, many, many lines – it is in this way that you will become a good artist”. And draw many, many lines I did, in my Typo “Draw Something Everyday” sketchbook.

I started to like using the Faber Castell Pitt Artists Pen Size XS as it suited my brownian meandering sketching style, sometimes combining it with the grey shades as below:

drmadskeyslara

bojanroofflowers

I also went through a spell of drawing people, with a focus on my kids (and a portrait of the VC during the long hours of convo sesat in there somehow). The XS pen tend to favour organic drawings rather than objects, and the shadow lines/etchings work rather well with the fine strokes.

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dariahncatabangndariahsakina

While waiting for meals, I am currently going through a cups and teapot phase at the moment, whilst testing out brush-pen shading against line-shadows:

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cup2cup3

Had also wanted to fulfill a life-long ambition of drawing comics but never really got started. So 3 months ago I made a feeble attempt at a start, bringing to life an old idea on a title called “Johan Dol“. More explained at the link, even started a whole wordpress site for it, but yet to update.

So thus is the final part of my artisitc journey revival, will update more on this through other relevant posts inshaaAllah.

Be well.

 

Of Snakes and Ladders, and Dance

There was a time when kids used to spend their free time playing board games. Sometimes it was a whole family affair; at other times it was when friends came over on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It even used to be part of one’s repertoire of packed time-fillers when the family traveled. Games ranged from the four-cornered Ludo (didn’t everyone have their own favourite colours to start from?) to the strategic Battleship (particularly enjoyed the battery-operated version, complete with missile launch and explosion sounds) to the whodunits like Cluedo, and the empire-building Monopoly. I must say that the most complex board game I have ever played (once) was Poleconomy, a Monopoly-like game that swapped companies for properties and had a parallel political and capitalist actions. There was one particular game though which more often than not introduced kids to the whole concept of board games; it was none other than Snake and Ladders.

For many, Snakes and Ladders was probably the first board game they ever played, and one that most never say no too. Its simple mechanics would encourage anyone to start, and the gameplay gave a relatively equal chance for anyone to win. In addition, one could easily acquire it at the nearest mamak sundry or magazine shop. Many would have moved on to other more complex games, without knowing the rich background of this up and down game. I had earlier thought of the game as a good summary of one’s journey of faith without realising that the game itself was borne out of a spiritual context.

Reportedly Snakes and Ladders was born out of India, together with its dice-based siblings called  Gyan chauper and pachisi (present-day Ludo and Parcheesi). It was known as  Moksha Patam in ancient India and was associated with the Hindu and Jain philosophy which contrasts destiny and desire. The ladders represented positive virtues such as generosity, faith and humility, contrasted by those such as theft, anger and murder, symbolised by the snake. Salvation (Moksha) was achieved by doing good, whereas evil results in a rebirth to lower forms of life (and having to start at the lower rungs).

It may not be too far a stretch to bring this analogy to one’s spiritual progression in Islam. While the board game, normally in grids of 8×8, 9×9 or more often than not 10×10, is usually viewed in two dimensions, I had always imagined the game to be much more complex continuous three-dimensioned environment. This was due to the fact that if one were transported from square number 47 from the head of a snake to its tail at number 24 for a second time or after several ups and down, surely one was probably wiser and had a higher spiritual level than when one went through square number 24 for the first time.

The other aspect that would underline one’s attitude to life was how one moves from one square to another. Do you treat it like a sprint, front-loading all your good deeds but potentially burn out and change? Do you take a slow stroll, promising yourself that piety should be reserved for a later age once you have maxed-out your partying in the squares that you occupy right now? Do you take your time, studying the significance of the squares before you, and how it should impact your current and future squares? Or do you dance to and fro, treating all squares as your destined playground, moving to a beat resonant with all that is created, and therefore potentially also the rhythm of your Creator?

Another interesting analogy is also the dice. Without going into the whole fatalism and choice debate, and taking it into a more rudimentary level, how you throw is often a determinant in how the dice lands. Is the chance factor just the universe colluding (or itself having no other chance) to make what the Creator had pre-determined happen? Or does it even matter, for in the end we are accountable to how we react to the choices that are put before us, which may be understood as the real test. Did the Creator not say that whom He loves the most, would be the most tested?

Maybe it is because I am way into my fourth decade on this earth, and speedily approaching my fifth. I try to oscillate between the third and fourth way mentioned above – to study, and to dance. What is ecstasy without grounding, but a fleeting moment whose meaning dissipates with the wind? What is knowledge, if it does not permeate through one’s being, and where knowledge begins and being end is no longer defined, and in fact longer matters?

Is there any other way to live?

 

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Gateway to Consciousness: My (Continuous) Journey to Accessing the Arabic Language

I now know why I MUST study Arabic.

Today was the fourth lesson for my wife and I. Ustazah Faezah was very accommodating about me not completing my homework, saying that it was more important to practice verbally, at the very least. Against the backdrop of the other student, my soul mate of 19 years, I was supremely pathetic. Zawjati (my wife) had even done some of the homework on my behalf last week. I had tried numerous excuses to get the lesson postponed, as it was always a rush to revise and get my wajib (homework) done on time. I thought it could wait, but the conversation with our ustazah just after our fourth class totally changed my perception – no more excuses, just do it to the best of our abilities and do not relent – no retreat, no surrender!

My first flirtation with the Arabic language began in 1990 when I was studying architecture in Cambridge. I had to write a thesis for my final year, and after some soul-searching the topic of arrived at was “The Problem with Defining Islamic Architecture”. The previous two-plus years were entrenched in the history and theory of architecture from a primarily western perspective – I wanted to discover my own weltanschauung of architecture, and what better to focus on the more universal Islamic architecture rather than just traditional vernacular Malay architecture (where the latter was also somewhat influenced by the former). Having done some desktop research, I had felt that I should be visiting the actual buildings in the Middle East, whilst at least having some rudimentary grasp of the local language. I had therefore signed up for an Arabic course (probably at the Faculty of Linguistics, I forget which). It was unfortunate that after attending five or six lessons, I started missing the classes as I had to spend more time at the studio to compete lagging design projects. The silver lining was that I did finish my thesis, which in itself was a process of self-discovery, but never did complete one level of Arabic language nor did I go to visit the targeted buildings and regions.

After graduating from Cambridge during an economic downturn in 1991 (72 applications to work in the UK, only one offer subject to them getting projects), I decided to head home to Malaysia where jobs were aplenty. Whilst learning the ropes at Damansara Architect, I undertook to pursue Arabic again, this time by taking night classes at the International Islamic University in Petaling Jaya. Having enrolled in the only class that teaches in English, I tried to absorb as much as I could. Inadvertently, work started getting much busier and I started skipping every other class. I did actually sit for the final exam, but my lecturer as kind enough to not let me know my results, God bless his kind soul!

After that practicum year, I continued on to Part II of Architecture by enrolling in the post-graduate Dip (Arch) in Edinburgh. Those two years were a fairly reflective period in my life, a certain level of maturity setting in after working during the year out. While at Cambridge I was elected as the Vice President of the Cambridge Islamic Society during my second year, in Edinburgh I had a short stint as the President for the Malaysian Islamic Study Group. The yearning to study the Quran became greater, and I began attending numerous usrah (Islamic discussion gatherings) and conferences. I read voraciously to try to understand the Quran more, yet the roadblock was always appreciating the nuances of the Blessed Book through its linguistic medium.

Subsequently back home, the same problem gnawed at me. My motivation to learn Arabic was to really immerse myself in the Quran, to be a better Muslim. I collected and read Yusuf Ali, Pickthall, Thomas Irving, Muhsin Khan, Muhammad Al-Ghazali, all translations that gave one exposure, but rarely piercing the veil of enlightenment. The discovery of Muhammad Asad’s “The Message of the Quran”, written by the grandson of a rabbi who then embraced (in the full sense of the word) Islam and chose to live among the bedouins, experiencing their lives and immersing in the culture and traditions in which the Quran was revealed, brought me a little closer. Having been schooled in concepts and Gestalt theory, finding Ahmad Ahsan Islahi’s “Pondering on the Quran” was a revelation, and was further fulfilled by Nouman Ali Khan’s approach to the Quran. Still, it was not enough.

There was a further dalliance with Arabic when my family organised a weekly class at my Kak Long’s house, conducted by Ustazah Faezah some years ago; work pressures, like study  pressures put paid to that ambition after several months. So just over a month ago, my beloved contacted our ustazah again to arrange for weekend classes, but having to start over from the beginning in order to ensure our fundamentals were strong. No, this time it would be different.

Our ustazah’s little pep-talk after that fourth class would not have hit home as hard if I had not been actively studying Imperialism and Decolonisation. It was Raman Ragunathan, my fourth year thesis supervisor, who had put me on the path by introducing me to Edward Said’s “Culture and Imperialism” and Syed Hossein Al-Attas’ “The Myth of the Lazy Native”, which formed the basis of my study on Abdel Wahid El-Wakeel’s architectural journey from a western education to a traditionalist approach. The work at University Sains Malaysia on “Decolonising Our Universities”, led by Tan Sri Dzulkifli Abdul Razak coupled with my discovery of Pankaj Mishra’s “From the Ruins of the Empire” further fueled my desire to free myself, and hopefully others, from cultural and mental imperialism which besiege us way past our post-colonial ‘independence’.

Ustazah Faezah, our Yemeni teacher of Arabic Language, underlined the importance of learning Fusha (Classical) Arabic. She surprised us with the fact that many native Arabic speakers do not understand the Quran as they often speak only Colloquial (Ammiya) Arabic, in which there are significant variations in the different nation-states. The colloquialism of Arabic was an effective tool in the pre and post Imperialism Divide and Conquer strategy, not unlike how our previous Imperial governors divided the Malay, Chinese and Indians economically in Malaysia, whose effects we are still battling to this day. How can one embrace the Quran (a phenomenal uniting factor, a major threat to those with imperialistic ambitions, although more from an economic/political perspective these days) if one is linguistically distant from it, bereft of its fine nuances and context? How, when for any one word, there are approximately 90 variations in meaning, depending on context and intonation? How lost are those who superficially quote the Quran without considering its context, especially when seeking to justify their own agenda?

In this light, it is an absolute crime for a Muslim not to study the language of the Quran, if one were to really seek its meaning. So no more excuses, just do it to the best of our abilities and do not relent – no retreat, no surrender!

Ameen.

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Facing an Artistic Mid-Life Crisis Part II

So I had decided to fulfill a life-long ambition to draw comics. I haven’t drawn a line for years, and hardly remember whether I could. The last time I really drew was at my ‘A’ Levels era, under the tutelage of the late Douglas Hutton, both my art teacher as well as squash coach. Here’s some things I produced at the time:

terence

Ok, these were probably some of the best work I did at the time. On the left is the Terence Trent D’arby’s debut album cover, “Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby” done with the ubiquitous orange and black pen called the Biro. Must’ve taken me some 4 hours to do, undertaken on a rather cold winter night in my room at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen in 1989.

The legendary Biro

coverdaleThe second sketch which had survived the rigours of time was a pencil sketch of the then lead singer of Whitesnake, David Coverdale. Incidentally, I did go watch a Whitesnake concert some years later with him singing live.

This sketch also took ages, especially getting his hair right! Used quite a range of Derwent pencils too, and although I did spray-fix the drawing it still had a couple of smudges.

Ok, so those drawings were done over 27 years ago when I was drawing regularly. During my time as an architecture student at Catz in Cambridge I mostly did collages and isometrics, and cut-away sections which did not really involve drawing skills. So in order to restart my drawing fingers some quarter of a decade later, I did what any sane retired artist would do – I went shopping!

First, the tools. I wanted to start to learn how to do inking, which is the fundamental transitioning skills to turn penciled drawings into recognisable comics – inking. Inking was something that I had always feared, as many a fine pencil outline of mine had been summarily annihilated by my feeble inept attempts at inking them. So between chance encounters of the Faber Castell booth at the New Wing of One Utama, the expansive Art Friend on the upper echelons of the Curve, Damansara and a quick dash visit to Bangsar’s C-Zip Lee, I had procured the following items:

Faber Castell 4 Pitt Artist Pen – Manga Black Set

The set comprises felt nibs in sizes XS (very thin, good for detailing), S (best for drawing), F (good for outlines and emphasis) and B (brush nib which I have never used before and wanted to try). The featured image at the top of this post are depict the four pens and their line weights. I also purchased a Rotring Clutch pencil with a built-in sharpener (at the top of the cap).

For the paper I chose:

Daler Rowney Jumbo Heavyweight Cartridge Pad  -220g/m2

This was to be my testing paper – heavy enough to take watercolours and other medium. So immediately upon purchasing these, I did a Batman sketch whilst waiting for dessert at Franco’s, the Curve. The outlines looked OK until I tried inking – yikes!

batmansketchbatmaninked

Now I really knew I had a problem with inking. But before even looking into inking in detail, I knew I had to start drawing regularly, just to loosen my artistic muscles. I also needed to develop my own drawing style if I wanted to get some level of consistency. Then I remembered that during on of my visits to Nu Sentral, I had picked up a drawing journal called “Draw Something Everyday” at a cool shop called Typo. Now that would be a way to start, methinks.

It was really an A5 sized hardcover journal with various backgrounds intended to inspire putting ink (or pencil) to paper. I thought this would be a good trajectory to take, so the following sketches were produced:

nordic car finger gym bag car wash mak

While those sketches were being produced, I thought I would expand my repertoire of tools, just to go beyond the black pens. In particular, I had wanted to test brush pens to see their effect. There was, of course, another major factor that would influence what I buy – I was colour blind. So I would rather stick to earthen tones and greys, and I did find the following sets meeting my criteria:

So I had more tools at my disposal, but needed more guidance. In order to ensure I do not stray from the original intent of producing comics, I was looking for books that would help me sketch better, and ink better. God’s grace certainly shone through that day when I was rummaging through MPH at One Utama and came across 2 books that fit both criteria. The first being James Hobb’s “Sketch your World: Essential Techniques for Drawing on Location”, a guide that looks at various techniques and methods for drawing on-the-go, an imperative skill that I need to acquire if I were ever to rediscover and further develop my drawing chops. It even intersperses the chapters with profiles of featured artists, delving a little deeper on their particular methods. Heartily recommended, this book got a 4.5 stars rating on Amazon, and 5/5 at Barnes & Noble!

cbaThe other delightful find was John Paul Lowe’s “Foundations in Comic Book Art”. While not strictly a ‘how-to’ book nor is it a history of sequential art, this book manages to find an amazing balance of method and meaning, whilst using his own artwork as well as those from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) where he has been teaching for over 20 years. Whilst the composition and construction of objects may seem a tad overblown (although useful or those really starting with basics), his exposition on inking (hurray!) is extensive and instructive for a neophyte like moi. Touche! interestingly, this book also received the same ratings as the above!

Thus is the restart of my journey in rekindling old passions. I hope that my sharing may inspire you to explore your own artistic inclinations, and may it bring you the fulfillment that I am starting to experience. After all, according to a great artist,

The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.

Pablo Picasso

Facing an Artistic Mid-Life Crisis Part I

Bookshops have always instilled a sense of wistfulness and adventure every time anyone steps into one. It is almost impossible to pass by a bookshop without stopping, if only to browse, to look, to linger. One could even sense one’s IQ almost increasing by just being there. I am sure my Fitbit Charge HR records increased palpitations wrapped around serenity in the vicinity of tomes.

Art shops are different. One can not help feeling a sense of creative surge, a sense of endless possibilities waiting to be unleashed. Pencils, pens and paintbrushes seem to wobble as soon as eager hands get within touching distance, almost as if one had entered Ollivander’s Wand Shop in Diagon Alley, where each art instrument aches and shivers in anticipation of being within its destined master’s possession. Discernment in the feel of the trade tools, and the weight and surface of the designated paper (not unlike thread-count of bed sheets) is personal. If bookshops made one feel more intellectual, art shops made one regard oneself as infinitely creative.

Although in the past few weeks all of the feelings above were sparked by a visit to Art Friend at the Curve, Mutiara Damansara, the origin of that ignition was an event that happened at St. John’s Primary (1) 40 years ago. Towards the end of every school year students were normally required to fill in a card, updating general information about themselves. There was a field, though, that was probably the most subjective thing anyone would ever ask you throughout your entire life, which more often than not morphs into different forms and elicit different answers, depending on the stage of one’s life. The field, or word, was ambition.

I was in Standard One after all, and therefore the pressure to be a doctor, lawyer or accountant did not suffocate my answer as yet, unlike an SPM-bound 17 year old hormone-maxed student. At 7, most would be guileless, where the imperative would be what one would get for one’s next birthday, or what’s showing on the telly later. The answer would even be expected to be inconsequential, as it would probably change if the same question were to be asked next week, not even next year. So with aplomb, and a total lack of commitment (or maybe even full, hard to tell right now), my seven year-old self answered what made sense at that time. The answer was two straightforward words: comic artist.

In the mid-seventies, comics in Malaysia were sold at newsagents and mamak grocery shops, often affixed to a suspended cotton or nylon rope with a wooden or stainless steel peg perched way above a 7-year old’s head. Sometimes it would get delivered to the home by the newspaper delivery guy, often wearing and off-centre motorcycle helmet aboard a kapchai, expertly throwing rubber-band-bound bundles of pre-ordered newspapers with unflinching accuracy into rain-safe nooks in close proximity to the front door. The world of Dandy and Beano, or the diminutive war or silat comics, were standard fare at the time. Occasionally, one would get a glimpse of a broadsheet Conan issue, and much later a 2000 AD, amidst SHOOT magazines and newspapers. What had really caught my fancy, though, and stayed as an effective bribe for me to go to the dentist, was American superhero comics.

The American superhero comics, mainly from DC and Marvel, were of approximately the same dimensions today as they were 40 years ago. The white box at the bottom left or right, which today indicates whether the comic was obtained from normal retail channels or specialty shops, was filled with bar codes as it was from the former. There were no dedicated comic shops at the time till maybe the late 80’s or early 90’s. The form felt comfortable to a 7 year old, or even a 47 year old today. X-Men, Superman, Aquaman and the Avengers ruled the roost. Hardcover Annuals were coveted and sometimes gleefully received as birthday presents.

Among the attractions of the American superhero comics was its temporal continuity, and one would await the next issue with bated breath only to be satisfied (and again tensely awaiting) a month or two later. They were also a tool for me to further learn English vocabulary; one particular episode of the Avengers, where the Vision was saved by another less-memorable character, I had learnt phrase “to be in one’s debt”, uttered by the former to the latter. Had to go to my father to get an explanation of that one, and the meaning stuck hard in my mind, especially when accompanied with the visual reinforcement.

But it was that reinforcement, wonderfully visual, that stayed with me the most. Whilst distinct panels contained the artwork, the panels did not stay uniform, contextually reforming like a storytelling ether-chameleon, where words and art danced to depict a story whose pace was half in control of the producer, and the other half by the reader. While the composition of views of bodies and surroundings uncovers the narrative(s), it was the inking and colouring that lent it emotion and motion, superiority and/or utmost insignificance. Jack Kirby and Neal Adams led the way for me, to be joined by later giants as John Romita Jr, Brian Bolland and the ambidextrous writer-artist combination of the brooding world of Frank Miller, the delightful yet scary world of Bone by Jeff Smith or the insane multi-media stylistics of Bill Sienkiwicz and later Dave McKean. These artists, and who had every right to be called Artists, made my world. At the time, for a time.

Fast forward 40 years. I am in my 10th job, having experienced various fairly diverse industries, yet none close to what my 7 year old self had opined. During a conversation with my second-born, when talking about ‘ambition when one grows up’ (have I even grown up?), he further quizzed me on why I have not fulfilled my ambition. When I thought about it, I then asked myself, why not indeed?

Part II deals with what comes next.

(This blog post, minus these bracketed words, is eerily 1000 words exactly, again.)

Face, empty space

Face, empty space