Christmas heralds the beginning of the New Year for those who celebrate it. There are millions of people who observe Christmas, not necessarily because they follow Christianity. They sometimes mark this occasion because of their cultural and hereditary ties to the festival.
But it’s an unfathomable fallacy to say that Christmas is only dear to Christians or people living and celebrating it in places, which are geographically considered to be part of the ‘West’. Even in Muslim-majority countries such as Iran, there are Christians who happily observe Christmas, and there are non-Christian Iranians who joyously join them in celebration. Shops put on XMas trees, Christmas lights and Santa Clauses are noticeable across the larger cities such as Tehran, the capital, and children go on looking for gifts in socks put next to fireplaces with igniting flames.
I remember once asking my mum to buy a Christmas Tree for my paternal house in Rasht, northern Iran and attach some socks to the wall next to it, so that the morning I’d be waking up after the entire configuration is unveiled, I start looking for unexpected gifts from an uninvited Santa Claus randomly running across the flat like a confused spirit. However, my mother was not happy about any Christmas trees being put there due to the flat’s health and safety concerns and Santa Claus never fancies approaching places where Christmas is not taken seriously.
However, when I started doing my master's at the University of Kent's Centre for Journalism, thanks to a Chevening Scholarship I was awarded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I started to understand that the ambiance of Christmas was graspable, and needed some passion and enthusiasm to be realistically identified and seized.
I had travelled in a number of countries in which Christmas marks the beginning of the new calendar year. Many of those countries, such as Colombia, have had very strong and deep roots in the timeline of Christianity and are proud of their faith traditions. However, to be at the heart of a fully-fledged Christian celebration is absolutely different and differently encouraging.
Towards the end of my first term as a master’s student of journalism, I found a notice on my school’s website that Cumberland Lodge, a distinguished educational charity, would be hosting a Christmas celebration for a limited number of international students in the UK. I asked my teacher to see if I could sign up. I signed up, provided the information they were looking for and was told to get ready for an imminent departure to an exciting fiesta. More than surprisingly, during the early hours past the last day of the first academic term, I ended up in the vehicle of a very dear friend on a long Medway-London road to get to the wonderland: Windsor Park.
Having experienced a very inspiring visit to the Buckingham Palace in a sunny day I was accompanied by a young musician, I was already informed where the Queen Elizabeth’s official residence is located. However, to find out that this much-awaited Christmas Celebration was scheduled to happen in one of the former British royal residences was itself a piece of incredible inspiration.
The drive from Medway to Windsor Park was relatively long and more than relatively enjoyable – I love road trips and they happen to be always soothing, especially when they take place in the darkness of the evenings. Arrival to the Lodge was followed by crucial steps: discharging our multimedia, recording equipment; registration; finding out which room I had to spend my next three days in and a very concerted effort to squeeze myself somewhere at the dinner table after some struggle to unpack stuff and scatter them across a very majestic room I hadn’t previously experienced the likes of. Once, while reporting and traveling with the East-West Center on the Senior Journalists Seminar Fellowship 2015, I happened to reside in a room at the Shangri-La Kuala Lumpur Hotel, which can be reminiscent of the same room I was allocated at the Cumberland Lodge. However, other than a ‘modern’ and industrial luxury and extravagance, the former was in no way better than the latter!
At the dinner table, I took a seat next to a man who appeared to be too young to be called a university professor but too elegant and stylish not to be considered a classic master’s student on a prestigious scholarship! With utmost courage, in such a way that could be safely considered audacious foolishness, I asked him if he were studying something. And he replied to me nicely by saying that he taught somewhere. The embarrassment I was awarded was really massive. It became more colossal when I learned he taught philosophy at the Royal Holloway, University of London. And it turned into a crippling humiliation when I understood he was also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. However, I tried to cover it up by the justification that being a student is an eternal value, followed by similar flattering rants, etc. He kindly confirmed this in an email, and that was the end of a conversation I never understood why I had genuinely initiated! He implied that being a student isn't really derogatory, as some educational systems imply!
Then, among others, we had this gathering of all participants in the Cumberland Lodge Christmas Celebration 2016, attended by 62 international students from 32 countries. They were enrolled in an unofficial quiz. They were either on a Commonwealth Scholarship, a Chevening Scholarship or a Cambridge Trust Scholarship – understandably, all quite proud of what they were all doing and continue to do. To maintain a reasonable balance in the level of pride, which existed in that quiz room, questions were directed at us one after the other, which happened to be intermittently very serious and very unserious. Honestly, the serious ones demanded superficial knowledge of the British culture, and the less serious ones needed a very broad knowledge – for me, none were easy. But I alternately responded to some of them accurately. None of the correct responses received any mark by the invigilators!
Then a photography competition was announced, and I was on an unusual errand to capture as many brilliant photos as I could to possibly win a Cumberland Lodge-branded prize. I never won anything, but at least took photos, which remain part of my shared memories with the Lodge, or maybe the Lodge’s memories with me. I appreciate that they will never forget my pleasurable sense of humour and astronomical photography expertise! That’s why they gave me the unexpected chance to perform a piece of piano at the closing ceremony of the celebration. It was on an evening I was casually rehearsing the ‘Golden Dreams’ by the late Iranian pianist Javad Maroufi in the other room. And by the time we got to the room the quiz had taken place on our arrival night, after a performance by a very dexterous colleague from China, I was summoned to play piano. I know the reason why I was called - at that specific moment, I hadn't realised it. It was not really out of nowhere. I had prompted some mischievous activities in filling out an application form, which I believed was not really intended at taking me to that platform to sit before the piano. But if nothing else, I performed a song I had learnt, as a kid, to practice on a green portable keyboard my mum had been keeping since she was a teenager herself – obviously, an ancient instrument of its kind!
The song was received with an applause I vaguely remember the details of – whether it was a heroic one or just a pale response to an unintended-on-my-own-behalf yet planned-by-the-lodge performance, I enjoyed the experience.
Those days passed at such an exceptionally quick pace that I cannot even imagine in retrospect! However, taking part in a few lecture sessions with artists, writers, academicians and other notable figures coming to teach seriously and learn seriously was not and is not something that can be consigned to oblivion effortlessly.
Even though there was a great deal of photography going on by the majority of scholars in attendance, the University of Kent’s Centre for Journalism won the big share of producing multimedia materials. A short film was one of the artifacts released on behalf of the school. However, I almost had the smallest share in its content and production process. You cannot watch that short film and successfully find me literally anywhere, other than in a group conversation over the usefulness of tea, in which I’m indistinctly visible from a very remote perspective. It’s an angle, which doesn’t entitle you to even recognise me!
However, although I concluded those days by struggling to book a ticket to Istanbul to spend my family vacations before the beginning of the new academic term – which I eventually delivered successfully, I came to make great inferences.
The most important observation I made was that people from different countries take pride in their cultures and civilisations and are honoured of their backgrounds in various ways. All of them feel good about great things in the history of their countries and can be similarly frustrated and angry about things their politicians are getting wrong today and things their leaders had done in the far and near past, which make them presently apologetic!
Being a journalist and being able to survive in the age of Donald Trump, ISIS, racial intolerance, chauvinism, the rise of far-right across Europe and ambitions being publicly harboured and furtively nurtured by liars in the Middle East means at least part of the job is done reliably. And in my partial, lateral worldview, in any job we accept, we can securely consider ourselves prosperous, if part of it is done well. Even for presidents who join the Twitter years after banning them and asking people to follow them when it’s too late – begging for popularity when it doesn’t exist, or presidents who go bankrupt in presiding their fake universities and jump to the higher level of running a country of 300 million people, doing part of the job correctly is a badge of honour and distinction.
My badge of honour is that even by failing to do part of my journalistic jobs correctly, Cumberland Lodge was happy give me the chance to perform the ‘Golden Dreams’.