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December 18th, 2010 - Basmah Sakrani

What Does it Take for a Heart to Stop?

On December 18, 2010, my brother died of a cardiac arrest inside Mirdif City Center, a mall in the desert suburbs of Dubai. He was at an indoor playground, warming up for a cricket match with friends, when he collapsed. He was 30 years old. He did not gasp or callout for help. He was gone immediately because his heart had stopped, suddenly. Permanently.


Jawad Sakrani was born on a Friday, an Islamic holy day of congregational prayer and special blessing. I asked my Ami about that day; her response was sweet, meandering between memories of her beloved first born. “We were so happy. He was my world, but really it was your Abu who did all the work. He did the bathing and the nighttime feeding and the massaging and the dressing. And it was your uncle who named Jawad. It means generous and noble. I hadn’t even thought of a name. He was my special boy, he rubbed my feet and always wanted biryani every Friday.”

Bhai, as I called him, was ten years older than me; the main character in photo albums from our childhood in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. There are pictures of us grinning at our combined birthdays (only eight days apart in June). Black forest cakes with ‘Sakranis’ written in white frosting. Bhai in a prefect’s uniform, marching across the auditorium stage to receive his award for Best Quran Recitation. Evenings in the desert, the family barbecuing chicken tikka under the stars. Baby me in a yellow romper on a messy bed, Bhai with his Mr T mohawk looking at the camera like She’s okay, I guess.


My sister (Baji) and I had been shopping at Mirdif City Center. I was a college sophomore in Lahore, visiting my family in Dubai for winter break and excited to spend the pocket money Bhai had given me that morning. We were in the mall parking lot, about to head home, when Abu called. “Beta, Bhai has collapsed. Come quickly.” I mistook my father’s even tone for reassurance. Bhai’s being dramatic, I told myself. It’s not like he’s dying.

The phone rang again. It had only been seconds since the first call.

“Beta, hurry up.”

We moved quickly, unbuckling seatbelts and slamming doors. Then another, final phone call. “Beta, Bhai has died. Come now.” Abu’s words were strangled, as though he couldn’t quite believe what he was uttering.

It was madness. We sprinted through the mall weeping and screaming. I remember the bright lights of FOREVER 21, the rush outside Starbucks, and the men in white kanduras, their children shrieking, darting out of our way. I yelled at strangers, pushing and shoving. “Where is the cricket court? I have to get to my brother!” Nothing seemed real until the moment I saw Bhai, his tall, bear-like body, supine on the shiny, vinyl floor. His friends standing in a corner, stricken. A paramedic, packing up. Abu, crying into someone’s shoulder.

I remember kneeling, in tears, shaking Bhai, pleading with him to wake up. I argued with the paramedic, a kind Filipino man who teared up and said, “I’m sorry, ma’am, I’ve tried reviving him 6 times already.” Then I took Bhai’s hand, expecting his fingers to grasp mine, but they were cool and unmoving. All I wanted was for him to sit up and say, “Gotcha!” But his eyes were unfocused, devoid of their typical luster. That’s when I realized my brother was dead. I shut his eyelids and kissed his forehead.


When Jawad was 18, he brought home an acoustic guitar and started practicing for hours in the solarium of our Mississauga apartment. He recorded songs, sent them to the Pakistani musicians he idolized. Once, Ali Azmat sent him an email and Bhai went around quoting it to everyone he met. He performed at local desi weddings where he sang Vital Signs covers, some Junoon, always closing with his favorite love song, Bin Tere Kya Hai Jeena, by his namesake, Jawad Ahmed. He’d come home bubbling about the crowd, the way everyone sang along, and the girls who came up to him after.

Bhai was a true romantic. He fell in love hard and often, skipping school for a picnic date in Niagara Falls, or sleeping through work because he’d spent all night on the phone. Together, Bhai and I kept a tally of his heartbreaks. He grew contemplative and quiet at the end of relationships. Once he took me to Dairy Queen after a tough breakup. I was ten and he was twenty. We sat in the parking lot, eating our fudgy Peanut Buster Parfaits, Bhai sharing life lessons that I had no way of understanding at the time. “In the end, when the sex and the excitement fades,” he said, “you need a friend, a companion. Remember that.”

At college he tried out different careers: He worked as a car salesman, then a security guard, and spent almost every Friday at the local mosque in Mississauga. He moved to Dubai when he was 23, became a banker, and, a romantic to the end, married a girl he fell in love with in only a week. But music remained Bhai’s forever love. His wallet held more picks than cash. Old receipts bore fragments of songs in progress. Even after he was married and settled, he went to Karachi to study classical music with an Ustad. He returned with a harmonium, another instrument to master. He founded Satwa Sessions, a musical salon in old Dubai where artistes gathered every fortnight to jam. He started a blog, bought a karaoke machine, and threw parties at home, singing to his smiling wife and baby daughter.


When Baji and I reached home and told Ami that Bhai was dead, she let out a strangled cry and crumpled to the floor. Somehow in her utter wretchedness she managed, in falling, to break a toe. She wore a cast for weeks.

Bhai’s funeral took place two days later in Al Quoz cemetery, a sandy graveyard with simple white markers. Following Islamic burial practice, Abu bathed Bhai three times and dressed his body in plain white shroud, father washing and dressing the son he had cared for as a baby.

When I was finally allowed to see him, Bhai’s face was chalky, like it had been salted. His ears and nostrils were stuffed with cotton, and his broad shoulders were cold and blue. Gone was the big brother who once caught his little sister in the kitchen eating Nutella out of a jar with a knife (instead of scolding me, he found me some bread to go with it). Gone was Bhai who used to scare me with made up ghost stories about a spirit called Hawwa Koko, who threatened my boyfriends in high school and got me grounded, who did silly imitations of the delicate Meena Kumari dancing a mujra, his large thumping feet and his XL t-shirt flaring as he twirled. I wept as I said goodbye.


After my brother’s death, family gatherings were quiet, laced with echoes of his booming voice and heavy footsteps. What does it take for a heart to stop? I kept thinking. I ate nothing for days trying to see how long I could last on air and grief. I would run for hours, panting and crying, hoping the pain in my legs could overpower my sorrow. What does it take for a heart to stop?

We spoke little of our loss until his daughter Ayana got old enough to demanded stories about her Baba. In recounting the anecdotes of Bhai’s life, and seeing his face in hers, things got better. Not all at once and never entirely. In many ways, Jawad’s short life was ordinary. Now, ten years after his death, I can see it was remarkable in how much it contained. The art and music he created, the love he gave out so generously, the places he lived and embodied, the life he created in Ayana. The list is full, even if the years were short. And still, the question remains: what does it take for a heart to stop?


Basmah Sakrani is a Pakistani-Canadian writer living in Memphis TN with her husband and 2 dogs. Her recent work has appeared in Woven Tale Press, Noble Gas Quarterly and Tiferet. She works at Wunderman Thompson and holds an MFA from VCFA. You can find her on IG @basmahwrites.


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