Arshia Arbabbahrami

Nineteen Years In Twenty-Three Seconds

I can hear a piano playing somewhere. A low-pitch note disappears as the first missile fires.

Twenty-three seconds is not a long enough time to go back over 19 years of life, but the most pleasant memories surely come forward, the bitter ones given the backseat. The closest and most transparent is hugging your mother goodbye in the transit hall of the airport: hard even when you do it for the thousandth time but in order to achieve your dreams, you have to bear hardship.

Just like the long and punishing Tai Chi exercises. When the spectators see how suave the moves are and enjoy their beauty, will they imagine what you have done to get to move your hands like that? To dance so gorgeously with your legs to encourage the judges to fall for you? For you to win two shining gold medals? These will be added to your colorful palette of medals from around the world. They make you proud before your perennial teacher, Master Katoozi, a man who is not just a Tai Chi master but one who teaches life itself and the meaning of existence to his students. The best award you can get is to see his smile when you win, to stand next to him for a picture. It reassures you that you’ve done well.

You have now made a trip to Iran, to kill two birds with one stone. You can play in the national Tai Chi Chuan games and spend the Christmas holidays with your family, and with your friends, Mahbod, Amir, Arman and Sheyda. You can have fun for three whole weeks and make up for all the time you’ve been away from Iran. You can then go back to Calgary’s Western Canada High School, finish your last year and go to university and study medicine. It has been your dream since your parents achieved the same a long time ago. To grow up in a family where both the parents are doctors can be hard in some ways. But at least it gives you a goal. Unlike many others, becoming a doctor is not just a vision from afar; it is a clear picture. It makes it easy to choose.

If you hadn’t chosen medicine, your dream would have been to fly. You always loved sitting next to Grandpa, to hear of his years of education and pilot training. You enjoyed nothing more than his recounting memories of flying in a double rotor aircraft, and becoming a major general in the Air Force. You recorded Grandpa’s memories and carried them with you like a treasure in your laptop, and you were supposed to help your mother make a documentary out of them one day.

I can hear the piano. It is not far away. Arshan and your friend Khashayar are trying to play Evgeny Grinko’s Valse.

You go and sit next to them. You look at Arshan before starting to play. You ask yourself: “What does he think while staring at your fingers like this?”. When your brother is a national Tai Chi champion and a member of his high school’s athletics, swimming and diving teams, when he has traveled thousands of kilometers to a foreign country to continue his education, when he plays the piano like a master, when he is still kind and always smiling, he becomes a hero and a legend; someone you like to enjoy every moment of being together with, by building up new memories. You don’t know when you’ll see him again! You want to ask him all the questions in the world to ensure his friends are correct in calling him “Google”, since he has an answer to every question.

I can hear the piano. You are now playing Romeo and Juliet. Your fingers dance on the keys and the sound of the piano fills everywhere.

When you play the last note, something thunders. You don’t know that the 23 seconds have now passed. The second missile has now hit the airplane. You have no time to think of other things: of the blue shirt your father bought for your fifth birthday, the one you wanted to wear forever; of the primary school friends you went to and from school with, creating all that trouble on the way; of the swimming class you loved so much, where you would have remained in water forever if it wasn’t for the constant whistle of the lifeguard; of all the faces you made when taking selfies with friends; of dancing in the roads by the side of the forest; of climbing up on the high bars in the playground to show how fit you were; of letting others win so you won’t be the only winner and there would be room for banter; and most important of all, of dear Sanam who, for two entire years, was a second mother to you and didn’t let you feel alone in a foreign land.

The second missile stops time for you. Not only for you. For your mother who texted a friend a few moments before, saying she was worried about your flight. For your father who, in a few hours, will be unable to speak, shocked by the news. And most importantly for Arshan, who doesn’t know how to fill the void you left. Even if you were around, you couldn’t answer this question. Thousands more questions remain, asked by the survivors of your fellow passengers who become hashtags that travel the world. One day, soon or late, they’ll find answers too.

I can hear the piano. These are the notes played spontaneously, in your absence.

Writer: Ali Akbar Heydari
Translator: Arash Azizi
Editors: Hannah Sommerville, Natasha Schmidt
With the support of

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