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December 2, 2009

Mahbod Seraji: My First Christmas in the US, My First Book

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Sometimes, there is nothing more difficult around the holidays than being away from your home and family. Below, Mahbod Seraji --- author of ROOFTOPS OF TEHRAN --- recalls how he survived his first Christmas in America with the help of some kind friends and a really great book.

I left Iran in 1976 and ended up in Milton, Wisconsin, a little town of a few thousand people, to attend its small four-year college that eventually folded in the early 1980s.

My first year at Milton was miserable. Lonely, cold, and depressed, I watched through the frost-tinged window of my dorm room as other kids loaded up their cars with dirty clothes, suitcases and gifts to leave for the long Christmas holiday. The same scene played out over and over below my window: kids with steam blowing from their mouths and faces reddened by the sub-zero temperatures said their goodbyes, hugged, and shook hands before taking off. This was all new to me. Coming from a middle-class Muslim neighborhood in Tehran, celebrating Christmas would have been as unusual as an American going all out on the Chinese New Year!
Watching the mayhem outside my window, homesick for Tehran nearly 11,000 miles away, I realized for the first time that I was going to miss my obnoxious, loud roommate, Joe. All semester long, I had hated his unsophisticated, rude ways, his late-night noisy drunk entrances, the smell of alcohol on his snores as he slept late in the mornings while I rushed quietly to my early-morning classes.

Joe and his parents, who had come to pick him up, were getting ready to leave, when they turned around, looked up, and waved good bye to me from the parking lot. I waved back. They rushed into their car to escape the brutal wind-chill. And then they were gone and there was nothing but silence, an empty frozen parking lot crisscrossed by tire tracks, the tree branches weighted by the heavy snow that had fallen the night before, and me, still in my dorm room, silent, disheartened, and overwhelmed by a profound sense of loneliness. How was I going to manage four weeks by myself in that huge, completely empty dormitory?

As darkness fell, I turned the TV on and watched the national news, followed by the local, and then "The Odd Couple," and "The Dick Van Dyke Show." The movie of the night was Frank Capra’s classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, which I had seen many times before and loved (it might surprise you to know that the story of George Bailey from Bedford Falls reached us in Iran, but it did --- American movies were extremely popular in Iran prior to the revolution). Feeling a widening pit in my heart and an anger toward that “unidentified everything” which had become my lonely life, I tried to pretend as if I wasn’t crying, but I knew that I was. I wished I was home with my own family, not alone, not in that prison-like fortress, not by myself on Christmas Eve. Where was my guardian angel? Where was my Wonderful Life?

I dozed off in front of the TV and was awoken by a knock on my door. Was I dreaming? It became louder and louder, then I heard the sound of the key in the keyhole and I reached for Joe’s baseball bat, my heart pounding, my breath trapped in my chest.

The door opened and Joe flew in. “Pack your stuff. You’re spending the holidays with us. Hurry up, man, move your lazy Persian ass.”

Joe’s parents stormed in behind him. “Bring your dirty cloths, we’ll wash them at our home,” his mom said with a smile, as she joined Joe, who had begun dragging my suitcase out of the closet.

“I wouldn’t say no, if I were you,” his father, a professor in psychology, whispered. “No sense arguing, after these two make up their minds.” He nodded with a helpless expression that conveyed a lifetime’s attitude of ‘going along.’ They had driven all the way to Chicago before coming back for me.

The next day, at their spacious beautiful suburban home, I received a wonderful gift --- a book called THE ART OF LOVING by Eric Fromm. Love in its purest form, Fromm had argued, was the capacity to love others, to love life, and making the conscious choice of being human.

Nothing, I realized after reading the book, could have made Joe and his parents more human to me that day! For over thirty years now, I call them every Christmas, watch It’s a Wonderful Life, re-read THE ART OF LOVING and remember the love and compassion of people I will never forget.

-- Mahbod Seraji

Tomorrow, Dolen Perkins Valdez delves into her true appreciation of the written word --- one that came after many years of confusion, fear, and trepidation.