Arshia Arbabbahrami

Nineteen years and 23 seconds


The sound of piano is heard from somewhere. As one listens, the low note fades away against the roar of the first missile. 23 seconds is probably too short of a time to have 19 years of life flashing before one’s eyes, but surely the more pleasant memories jump ahead, dominate, and push the more bitter ones to the back. The closest and clearest memory is that of embracing the mother at the airport transit hall to bid her farewell. If the hug is repeated a thousand times, it is still hard to let go, but you need to face the hardships in order to realize your dreams and ambitions. Just like the long, challenging Tai chi practice: when the spectators see and enjoy the flexibility and beauty of the movements during your performance, they would never imagine what you had been through to accomplish the flexibility you display, the control of the hands you exhibit, and the leg dance movements which win the heart of the referees during national competitions and gains you two bright gold medals around your neck on the podium. These medals are added to the colorful collection of your national and international medals and are a source of pride for you before your instructor, Master Katouzi. He is not just a simple Tai chi master but also teaches his students about life and the meaning of existence. Seeing his smile and taking your picture next to him after a competition win is the best reward because you are sure then that you have done your job well.

With this trip to Iran, you shot two birds with one stone: you could participate in national Tai chi Chuan competitions and spend Christmas holidays with your family and friends Mehbod, Amir, Arman, and Shida and have fun for the whole three weeks and make up for staying away from Iran for a long time. Then you will go back to Calgary “Western” High School, which is waiting for you to successfully finish your last year and go to university and study medicine, which is your own dream because your parents have already achieved their own. Growing up in a family where both parents are doctors may have difficulties, but it has the advantage of settling the question of what you want. Unlike many others, studying and practicing medicine are not mere beautiful and successful prospects but are tangible experiences which have given you a clear idea of what the experience in real life entails and have made it easier for you to make your decision.

If you had not chosen medicine, you would have dreamed of flying because sitting next to your grandfather and listening to his memories of studying and training to become a pilot and flying a twin turbo prop plane until reaching the rank of major general at the Air Force was always one of the most enjoyable experiences of your life. You used to say that finally one day, along with your mother, you will make a thrilling documentary about your grandfather from his memories which you have all recorded and carried in your laptop like a precious treasure.

The sound of piano being played can be heard; it is not too far away. It is yesterday. Arshan and your friend Khashayar are trying to identify and figure out the notes to Grinko’s waltz. You go sit next to them on the piano bench. Before you start, you look at Arshan. What do you think is going on in his head while he is staring at your fingers like that: six years apart in age with a brother who is a champion and a member of Tai chi national team as well as a member of their high school’s track and field, swimming, and diving teams. The brother who left two years before to continue his education abroad and achieve his dreams. He has gone to a country miles away, he plays the piano expertly, he is kind, never fails to smile, you could make a hero and a legend out of him so that you enjoy every moment of his presence and company and savour every memory because you don’t know how long it will be until the next time you see him. You like to ask him all the questions in the world to validate that the nickname “Google”, given to him by his friends, is fitting, that he has the answer to all the questions in the world, even the unanswerable ones.

Someone is playing on piano. It is you who are starting to play Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Fingers dance on the keyboards and the sound of the piano reverberates everywhere. As you hit the last note, there is a jarring and terrifying sound. You don’t know that twenty-three seconds have already passed, and the second missile has pierced the passenger airplane. You don’t have time to think about and reminisce other things: about the sky blue shirt that your father bought you for your fifth birthday, and you loved to wear it all the time, or about the elementary school friends with whom you used to go to and return from school, a boisterous group wrecking havoc during these trips, or about the swimming class that you loved so much that if it wasn’t for the constant whistles of the trainer, you would have stayed in the water forever, or about pretending to take selfies with your friends, or dancing on the forest trail, doing pull-ups on the playground and showing off your physical fitness, or letting others win in a running match, so you won’t be the sole winner of all competitions and leave others the opportunity to boast about something, and most importantly, you won’t have time to think about dear Sanam, who, during your two years of stay abroad, was like a second mother to you by not letting you feel lonely or homesick.

The second missile stops the time for you. Not only for you but for your mother, who just a few moments before the plane was struck sent an SMS to her friend saying that she was worried about your flight. It stopped for your father who, in a few hours, will be speechless for some time from the shock of hearing the news, and most importantly for Arshan, who doesn’t know how to fill your void. How to fill the void is a question which you couldn’t answer even if you were here. That and thousands of other questions, the questions of the families of your fellow travelers, have become hashtags and travelled around the world, and finally, one day, sooner or later, they will be answered. The music of the piano fills the air. It is the melody of notes that are improvised to mark your loss.

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