“And that over there”, said Mikael, pointing at the podium standing in grandeur, symbolizing the collective greatness of the women and men who stood behind it “is where Nobel laureates deliver their short speeches at the banquet”.
“Whoa” I whispered silently, breathlessly, my heart audibly throbbing, as if vehemently trying to escape from its cage. All sounds seemed to fade away. The cacophony of squeaks and creaks from the microphone’s test, the sporadic bursts of laughter and the rhythmic clicking of shoes seemed to have vanished momentarily, as if in response to a scolding “shush” from an omnipotent being. Mikael’s gregarious smile was blurry and distant, as if he was floating away.
There was only me, standing in the middle of the century-old empty hall, utterly speechless. My eyes wide open with excitement and my heart completely overtaken by emotion too powerful to put in words. I, a mere mortal, one of the billions who once walked, laughed, loved and passed leaving nothing but a small scratch on the wall of time, is standing in the pantheon of immortals. Those whose names we will remember thousands of years from now stood here, in this very spot.
O sweet nectar of day dreaming. Today I’m a Nobel laureate. I saw myself on the second floor of the Blue Hall, scratching my beard as I often do when I’m nervous. I was a lot older, probably in my early-sixties. The swaths of hair I had left were grey, and my mid-section was bulging, announcing to the world that my days of weight training and vigorous exercise were long, long gone. My foot found the first step down the white marble stairs, with the queen of Sweden by my side; her grace and poise were in stark contrast to my clumsiness. “I, too, will join the ranks of the unforgettable”, imaginary old me thought. I took a hesitant step towards the podium, and the audience spontaneously erupted in parochial chanting, like devoted medieval monks: “duuude”… “duuude”
My friend’s scornful tone woke me up from my vivid daydream. Still reeling from the post-best-day-dream-ever vertigo, my friend forcibly put a trendy smartphone in my hand and shouted with uncontained excitement ‘QUICK. Take my picture standing at the podium’, so I did. And when I gave him his phone back I could see the glisten in his eyes as he was looking approvingly at his picture, perhaps dreaming of a not-too-distant future where another picture of him standing behind that podium will be a permanent addition to the Nobel gallery.
I wasn’t Lady Nobel’s only captive that day.
I was slowly getting back to reality from what I imagined to be a profoundly gratifying mental trance. I looked around, and SI team members were everywhere, moving so fast – and so quietly – from one place to another as if they were gently floating over an invisible cushion of air. The guests started to arrive, and the grand hall bustled with chatter. SI Scholars from 66 different countries were there, and they were undeniably exhilarated. It was their big day. It was the SI diploma ceremony.
Being in one room with so many bright people is a life-changing experience. If you close your eyes and point randomly, chances are whoever you aim at will one day make the world a better place. A smile sneaked onto my face as I remembered what it was like growing up listening to my grandfather telling the story of how he met her majesty Queen Elizabeth when she visited Sudan, time and again. “Will I be telling my grandchildren that I fist-bumped Robert? Or bestowed my wisdom regarding how to finalize one’s thesis upon Randa? Or took silly selfies with Oliver and Ali?” I could almost see my imaginary grandchildren rolling their eyes in boredom and disbelief having listened to that story for the hundredth time, and thinking “yeah, right. You fist-bumped the secretary general of the United Nations!”
A wave of pure euphoria washed over me, as if my nervous system was being softly and playfully caressed by an entity of pure happiness; an indescribable feeling if there ever was one. I, an excessively talkative person, was bereft of words, probably for the first time in my life. When my friend asked me how I felt about being in this iconic place, in the company of these stellar scholars, I mumbled “good. It feels good. Good it feels.”
We took our seats, and the ceremony began. And what a ceremony it was! I don’t know if it was the scintillating oratory of the speakers, the Nobel heritage of the venue or both, but every single statement seemed perfect for one of those quote pictures we love to share on Facebook! The speakers took us on an emotional roller coaster, urging us to be proud of what we’ve accomplished so far, but also reminding us of the challenges lying a head; not only the challenges that we need to face as young people venturing into life, but also those facing a world torn by stark inequality, rise of blind hate and “clash of civilization” rhetoric, and looming environmental disaster.
As we were making our way to the podium to take pictures with the SI director general, I couldn’t help but wonder how different my life could have been if I listened to that incessant, nagging noise inside my head that kept telling me it’s pointless to apply to the SI scholarship because I wasn’t nearly as good as the other applicants. “They’ll probably laugh when they read your application”, that mischievous little naysayer used to whisper.
“Who’s laughing now” I thought, smiling, as the camera shutters close, immortalizing one the happiest nights of my life.