This Is How They Saved Me

One month after her father was arrested, Neda Semnani and her family were taken on a dangerous journey to be smuggled out of Iran.

Neda Semnani | Longreads | March 2018 | 20 minutes (4,986 words)

August 8, 1982. It was nearly five in the morning when my uncle Kavoos woke up my six-year-old cousin Laleh to say goodbye. He left her his calligraphy pen and asked her to keep it safe for him until he could come back for it. She nodded sleepily and promised that she would. She kissed him before falling back to sleep. In the other room, my mother, aunts, and uncles were gathering the last of our belongings and arranging them in the trunk of the car, while Laleh’s older brother, my cousin, Asef, wailed.

Why can’t I come? he asked, tears streaming down his face. At eight years old, he knew a long road trip meant picnics, and picnics meant freshly grilled kabobs.

I want to come too! he screamed, inconsolable. I want to kabob!

For goodness sake, his mother said. No one is going to eat kabob without you.

***

When my father’s eldest brother first contacted the smugglers to get us out of Iran, they promised we would make the journey to Turkey by car. It would be a long trip, but a relatively simple and straightforward one: an eight-hour drive from Tehran to Tabriz, a city in the north near the Turkish border. From there, a five- or six-hour drive by Jeep or Land Rover to the border. Once at the border, another car would pick us up and we’d drive three hours to Van, a border city in Turkey.

My mother was seven months pregnant and worried that the car rides would be dangerous. She wouldn’t agree to the plan until her doctor assured her that, as long as she took breaks whenever possible, both she and the baby would be fine. If the pressure in her legs became too painful, he prescribed Valium to help relax her muscles. My mother’s fears assuaged, she agreed that she and I would leave the country. My mother then convinced my father’s father to send his youngest daughter, Astefe, over the border with us. She promised him that she would be safe with us. She told my father’s youngest brother, Kavoos, he must come too. His place, my mother insisted, was with his wife and daughter, not waiting for the Revolutionary Guards to find him.

Once everyone agreed on who would leave the country, my family paid the smugglers half of the almost $30,000 they demanded. The price included the cost of the three passports needed to replace those the Iranian government had confiscated the day the guards arrested my father. The smugglers would get the second half of the money once they brought my family proof that the six of us had arrived safely in Turkey.

There is a photograph from the night before we left. In it, I’m two-and-a-half and standing on the edge of the living room watching anxiously as my mother, aunts, and uncle stuff clothes and documents into large suitcases. I wasn’t allowed to bring most of my clothes, so, piece by piece, I carefully put on my favorite clothes: a sparkling costume vest over a favored dress and shiny pants. Finally, I stilled looking on as the adults worked. Somewhere in the pile of clothes is the blue windbreaker I took with me everywhere. With one hand, I would hold the jacket and rub the fabric rhythmically while I sucked my thumb. The noise and feel of the ridged material was familiar and comforting.

The day we left, my father had been gone for exactly one month. My mother told me he’d gone to Europe to finish his doctorate. He hadn’t said goodbye and we never went back to our house again. No one had acted normally since he left. They were distracted and harried. They disappeared for days at a time.

The morning of our escape, my mother woke me before daybreak. She helped me into my clothes and we walked out to the car. I climbed onto my uncle’s lap and curled into him. His wife Shahrazad sat beside him holding their five-month-old daughter. My mother sat on my uncle’s other side, while my aunts, Astefe and Afsaneh, were pushed against each other in the front seat. Another uncle was in the drivers’ seat.

The engine turned over and a song began to play about a woman whose heart had split in two: half she’s taking with her and the other half she has left behind with her lover. When the song ended, my mother asked my aunts to rewind the cassette and play it again. And then, again. The song played over and over. No one wanted to hear anything else.

They didn’t speak very much during the drive that morning. My aunt Afsaneh told her little sister Astefe not to eat any yogurt during the journey.

It won’t be pasteurized, she said, and you could get very sick.

Near the halfway point in the journey between Tehran and Tabriz, my uncle pulled the car onto the side of the road. The family climbed out, unfolding themselves and stretching their limbs long so the blood could rush to their skins’ edge. Someone laid a blanket on the grass and we looked like a family on a summer holiday stopping for lunch.

When we finished eating, we folded ourselves back into the car and continued to drive northward. A couple hours later, the car blew out a tire and the minutes tick-tocked. Someone walked to a nearby town where we could buy a new tire to replace the flattened one. When we finally arrived in Tabriz to meet the smuggler, it was 4 p.m. We were three hours late to meet him. He was furious.

***

The smuggler was called Nariman. He was unshaven and had thick black eyebrows that met in a dark furrow over his nose. He told my uncle to follow his car to Khoy, a town several hours away. There we would meet the men who would take us to the border. When we got there, however, the men had long since left. Nariman told us to get into his car; he would take us to Salmaz, another town some miles away, where he would find someone to help us.

The day we left, my father had been gone for exactly one month. My mother told me he’d gone to Europe to finish his doctorate. He hadn’t said goodbye and we never went back to our house again.

While Nariman transferred our luggage from my aunt and uncle’s car into the trunk of his own, my mother and the others said goodbye to my aunt Afsaneh and her husband. Then, we climbed into Nariman’s car and he peeled away, barreling southward down the dark road.

When Afsaneh got back into her car, she looked into the backseat. In the commotion, we had left the baby’s bag filled with formula and diapers.

It is too late, she thought miserably. The smuggler’s tail lights had long since disappeared into the night.

***

As a smuggler sped us towards Salmaz, Astefe gripped the car’s seatback, terrified. The road was unlit except for the car’s two headlights as we raced through the turns and gunned down the straightaways. It was after 2 a.m. when he finally stopped in front of a house. A tall, wiry man called Asad opened the door and ushered our group inside, careful that no one should see us. He wouldn’t let us bring our luggage inside and berated Nariman for being late to meet the horses. My mother, aunts, and uncle exchanged looks.

The horses? someone asked Asad. What do you mean we missed the horses?’

Of course, horses, Asad said, his voice cold. Did you think you’d be smuggled out of the country in a car? I did wonder why you brought a pregnant woman and an infant.

He paused to consider us.

Don’t worry, he said, his tone lighter. It’s only a couple hours’ ride, then a car will meet you at the border to take you the rest of the way.

He smiled.

I don’t do this work for the money, he said. This is my service to God.

He gave us tea and bread and told us to rest a while. At about 4 a.m., he woke us. My aunt Shahrazad took one of his old sheets and tore it into strips to fashion a diaper for the baby. One of the smugglers led us to a car idling in the alley next to the house. He drove us to a large park in a neighboring town where we were to wait until nightfall.

For hours my family wandered the garden’s grounds. They left me to nap in the car. At midday, the driver took Shahrazad and Astefe into town to buy shoes and food, then, after sundown. We got back into the car and he drove back to Asad’s house to change clothes before the journey. As we readied to leave, Asad handed my mother and my aunts several sheep-skin bags and told them to transfer what they could from our suitcases. When they complained that our clothes would stink of livestock, he laughed.

You certainly can’t take those suitcases with you, he told them.

Finally, his men drove us to the outskirts of town and told us to get out of the car and walk along a tall wall that bordered the town. We were to stick close to the shadows.

We’ll reach the horses in twenty minutes, they said.

In the distance, we saw jagged mountain peaks piercing the horizon. The sky was inky black. My aunts couldn’t see and kept tripping over the rocks and losing their footing in the divots along the path. Shahrazad’s new shoes ripped apart.

After a while, the smugglers told us to be still and hush. Someone had seen a light in the distance. The town’s patrolman was coming towards us.

I need to pee, I said, whining at first and then starting to panic as everyone told me sharply to stay quiet and not make a noise. The patrol passed us by. Minutes later, when the smugglers were sure he was gone, I was allowed to relieve myself.

We walked on. An hour passed. Then another half hour. I became too heavy to carry. I had to walk, and someone held my hand. Like the bulky luggage, I must have slowed us down. As my family walked around me, I held onto my blue jacket and I tried to stay quiet for the rest of the long, strange night.

***

At 10:30 p.m. we arrived at the horses and met the Kurds who would be our guides that night. Each of us was paired with one smuggler and one horse. The new smugglers lashed our bags over the packhorses’ front haunches. The man who rode with my mother helped her climb onto her animal. She had to stretch her left leg over one bag and her right leg over the other. Without the use of her thighs to help her stay in place, she was at the mercy of the animal and the smuggler. She gripped the saddlebags with both hands.

Astefe and Kavoos helped Shahrazad zip the baby inside her quilted jacket — a light shell better suited to cool summer nights than an overnight horseback ride over frigid mountain peaks.

I don’t do this work for the money, the smuggler said. This is my service to God.

I remember nearly nothing from the journey, just shadows and impressions. I do remember wanting my mother that night. I remember when she told me I couldn’t be with her, I was confused and wondered if I was in trouble. I didn’t understand that there wasn’t enough room for me on her horse. I didn’t understand that she was too big, the horse too small, and the trail too dangerous. Now I know that it might also be true that the last thing my mother would have wanted just then was a child pressed up against her. To be strong for me, she needed space from me. I was given my own horse and my own mustachioed smuggler. He scared me, but Astefe says I didn’t ride with him the whole night. She says that she or my uncle let me ride with them at various point in the night, but I don’t remember that at all.

The night went on. My aunt Astefe’s horse wandered from the rest of ours.

Don’t be scared, the smuggler riding with my aunt told her, you’re like a sister to me. I’ll take care of you.

But when my mother realized Astefe was missing, she became panicked and upset. She pictured Astefe on the ground somewhere dead or dying. My mother thought about how she had promised her father-in-law that she would protect his daughter; he hadn’t wanted to let Astefe go. Now the girl was gone and my mother was sure her horse had lost its footing and fallen down the mountain’s edge. Or, if she wasn’t dead, she was being raped, or some other unimaginable thing was happening. My mother’s stomach hurt from the long ride; her backside was rubbed raw and her legs were numb. She saw the flicker of a flashlight. One of the smugglers near her returned the flicker. Minutes later my aunt, her smuggler, and their packhorse had rejoined the group.

The night grew later still. The horse swayed beneath me. I fell asleep against the smuggler. In my sleep, my fingers loosened their grip on my windbreaker. I woke up when it fell from my hand, floating down the mountainside. I begged the smugglers, my mother, aunts, and my uncle to stop the horses and go back and find it. My smuggler went back and tried, but he didn’t see it.

I know where it is, I told him. I can find it.

But it was dark and late. We had to keep moving. The moment they stopped looking for my jacket, I filled up with fear so profound, the rest of me shrunk to nothing. The world is unfair and I am washed away. I remember this clearly.

***

It was 3 a.m. when the smugglers led us to a barn where we could rest for the night. Someone had laid out five mattresses for us on the barn floor. The men slept on the floor at our feet. In the morning, they brought us cups of dirty tea, bowls of yogurt and hot oil and a plate of bread. As we tore off sections of bread and wiped them across the clotted layer of animal fat, the smugglers began to argue with us about their fee. They claimed Asad’s men hadn’t paid them the amount that they promised. They stabbed the bread into the hot oil to punctuate their point. They wiped their mustache bristles with the backs of their hands. My mother, Kavoos, and Astefe argued that we had already paid a fortune.

Hours passed. Inside the barn, the air was heavy, itchy with dust and dander. Bits of wool and hay lifted from the fabric used to cover the work horses, landing on our eyebrows and lashes. A layer of dust covered our lips. Two days before, the smell of horses, humans, and shit would have overwhelmed my mother, aunts, and uncle, but now it barely registered. Mice ran over the top of the mattresses. Shahrazad held her daughter. She had tried for two days to keep one hand clean to coax her daughter’s mouth to her breast, but her daughter would not suckle

The packhorses snorted and slouched in the stables next door; the smugglers had gone off to find another horse for my mother so she could ride alone and relieve some of the pressure that gathered in her belly and hips. No one made a joke about a pregnant woman in a manger.

Throughout the afternoon, the men came and went, speaking to each other as if we weren’t there, their voices low and guttural. They were trying to figure out how to get more out funds from us before we had to leave that night.

Late afternoon, the light leaking through cracks in the stable’s walls shone orange and red. There was little water left and none of it clean, but we drank what we had. The baby fussed. Her face turned red. Her small body tensed, and her fists curled. Dehydrated and exhausted, she cried while my aunt tried, again and again, to feed her. Once night fell, the men came for us.

***

The third night, the smugglers promised we were close to the border.

Every half-hour, they said: See the rise in the distance? The city of Van is just beyond that hill. That’s where we’re going.

As we came closer, the terrain became more hazardous and the official checkpoints multiplied. Within a mile or two of each checkpoint, the smugglers would make us get down from the horses and walk with a guide in one direction, while the rest of them led the horses in another. Then we’d all meet again a mile or so past the checkpoint and climb back onto the horses and begin the ride again. When we came to another checkpoint, we’d have to do it all again.

The moment they stopped looking for my jacket, I filled up with fear so profound, the rest of me shrunk to nothing. The world is unfair and I am washed away.

At the first checkpoint, Shahrazad broke my mother’s Valium into shards and fed a small sliver to the baby so she would stay quiet as we made our way. The baby had started shitting herself and my aunt was nearly out of her makeshift diapers. The baby was sick, tired, and dangerously dehydrated. Each time we stopped, my aunt would tear the rags into smaller pieces to clean and diaper her daughter.

The night went on. We climbed higher. The air got colder. The horses began to pick their way over packed snow and ice. My baby cousin’s face began to turn blue. At each stop, my uncle would put his hand close to his daughter’s mouth to feel if she was breathing.

My mother wasn’t scared as we rode through the night, but she was very uncomfortable. Her legs, propped up over the sheep-skin bags, kept losing sensation. Whenever we had to stop, she had to be lowered from the horse and Astefe would rub her calves and thighs until she could feel her legs again. Her backside was skinned and bruised, and the long hours on the horse aggravated her hemorrhoids. The pain, she said, was indescribable.

At some point that night, my mother’s horse slipped, her breath caught, and her heart spiked. She gripped the reins, adrenaline coursing through her veins.

This is dangerous, she thought. It’s exciting. If Omar were here, it would be fun. It would become an adventure that we’d remember and laugh about. He should be here, she thought.

Turkey came closer, Iran yawned at our backs, and a heaviness settled over my mother. The sky lightened; she could barely make out the small village in front of her. She didn’t feel relief, only the beginning of grief pushing against her throat.

***

On the fourth morning, we were covered in dirt. Shahrazad’s shoes had already fallen apart, and now so had my mother’s. The smugglers led my family through the village. Yellow lanterns lined the streets.  Under their glow, it was easy to forget the town was deep in the heart of a lawless borderland.

The Kurdish smugglers left us at a short squat house, and another set of smugglers — this time all Turkish men — met us there. Exhausted and sore, my mother, aunts, and uncle entered the house and waited in the hallway. My mother’s legs shook. Astefe held my hand. My uncle was quiet, while my aunt Shahrazad, who spoke Azarbaijani Turkish, tried to listen to the smugglers’ conversation without letting on that she could understand. She wanted them to speak freely in front of us.

The smugglers’ house had two rooms, and in one, nearly 20 women were sitting together. Some young, others old and weathered. As my mother watched them from the hallway, she remembered a scene from Zorba the Greek. In the movie, a woman is dying in a dusty village and the other women are watching her pass. When she finally dies, the women, dressed in black, resembling a murder of crows, fall over themselves trying to grab at everything she left behind.

My mother thought these women looked at us the same way. The only difference was these women were dressed in white with colorful scarves tied around their heads and waists.

A few women detached themselves from the group when they saw us staring. They led us into the next room and left our bags in the hallway. As my mother, aunts, and uncle eased onto cushions on the floor, they heard the women begin to rummage through our things. Later we found they had stolen clothes, and Astefe’s contact lenses and case, and the leather purse my mother had given her on her eighteenth birthday. They also took the last of the makeshift diapers.

My mother was tired. Once they take what they want, she thought, one of them will bring us some water or tea and maybe they’ll let us sleep for a few hours. The Turkish smugglers walked into the room where we sat. They stood shoulder to shoulder and blocked the doorway.

We want more money, they said.

We don’t have more money, my family replied. We had an agreement.

If you don’t pay us more, said the smugglers, we won’t take you anywhere. You’ll have to make your own way.

Fine, my mother, aunts, and uncle said. Leave us, if that’s what you want.

The smugglers yelled. They threatened and they cajoled. My mother, aunts, and uncle were tired, hungry, and thirsty, but they dug in and refused to pay more.

The smugglers left the room. After a few minutes, they returned.

Okay, one of them said. We’ll take you, but we have to leave now.

They didn’t wait for nightfall.

***

In 1982, Van, an old city along Turkey’s eastern border, was a clearing station for Iranian refugees, so my family walked until they found the hotel filled with other refugees. When they walked into the hotel, however, the staff was amazed.

How did you get into the city? they asked. How did you get here without someone from the military junta seeing you? You should’ve been picked up, they said, impressed. You should’ve been arrested and sent to the detention center.

My mother, aunts, and uncle were too tired to think how lucky we’d been. The clerks told us we had to go to the police station and register; the officers would take our passports and we’d have to begin to bribe them. Then we could come back to the hotel to bathe and rest.

You don’t have a choice, the clerk said, everyone does this.

But this isn’t part of our plan, my family explained. We’ll only be in Van for a few days, long enough to figure out how to get to Istanbul. But then we want to leave the country.

But the hotel clerk told us, Make it easier on yourself, go to the police now.

So we did. My mother and Shahrazad walked carefully, barefoot, trying to step over the cracked bits of street. My uncle was lost in his thoughts, as he had been the whole journey. He had helped with the baby. He had helped with me. He had made nervous jokes. He was 27, the only man of the party, and equal parts scared and angry. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Not for him. But my mother had told him he had to come with us. Now he wanted to make sure everyone was safe and then he wanted to leave and go back to Iran. His wife would be fine, he told himself. She didn’t need him. He was a revolutionary, not a refugee. Revolutionaries were supposed to fight and win or fight and fall.

***

At the station, the police took our information and confiscated our papers. They wanted cartons of cigarettes as payment to ensure a message, a note, or a form would make it through the winding bureaucracy to the appropriate office. The police officers sat behind their desks sipping from glasses of sweet tea. Whatever my family asked about was declared impossible, until cigarettes or other bribes were produced. Then the officers nodded and the form was moved along the chain of command. Applying the right bribe to the right official was as important as filling out the form correctly.

How did you get into the city? they asked. How did you get here without someone from the military junta seeing you? You should’ve been picked up, they said, impressed.

My mother looked around the station and considered her situation. The best chance she had to get out of Van was to use her pregnancy. She was nearly eight months pregnant. She told an officer that the stress and strain of the journey had started her contractions.

I need to leave Van before the baby comes, she told the officer, using Shahrazad as her translator. The officer looked at my mother; she was covered in sweat, dust, and dirt, but her voice was strong.

You’re in labor, are you? he asked. She nodded.

Okay, he said, Fine. Don’t worry. Let’s go to the hospital. We have everything you’ll need there. You can have your baby here.

Astefe and Kavoos took my cousin and me back to the hotel. The officer took my mother and Shahrazad to the local hospital, a small building with a few rooms branching from a hallway. They were shown to a room with an examination area. In the corner was something that looked like an old dentist’s chair. Crouched on either side of the chair were two nurses holding a young woman’s legs open. The woman in the chair wore a tribal headdress. Her skirts were hiked up. My mother watched as a nurse bent down in front of the woman; when she straightened she was holding a newborn.

After the nurse laid the baby down, she helped move the woman into another room with bare mattresses set up on top of cots. From a distance, my mother saw that the baby’s swaddling was stained with dirt. The nurses settled the woman into a bed and brought her the baby. My mother watched the mother-and-child tableau come together and break apart and come together again reconfigured.

The nurses returned to my mother and aunt.

Okay, one of the women said to my mother, motioning towards the chair. Sit down, you need to be examined.

The chair has blood all over it, my mother said.

The nurse took some towels and old rectangles of cut canvas from a pile in the corner of the room and spread them over the chair.

Okay, she said, now go sit down.

I am not sitting on that chair, my mother said. You can’t examine me until you clean and disinfect that chair.

The nurses clicked their tongues and looked disapprovingly at the two dirty Iranian women standing in the doorway. My mother and aunt stared back.

The nurses threw more towels over the chair. They gestured impatiently for her to come forward.

My mother and my aunt left the room. As they walked through streets filled with people, animals, and cars spewing exhaust, my mother knew she needed to get out of Van quickly, or she’d be back there in that hospital.

***

After my mother and aunt returned from the hospital, my family separated into two groups: my mother, Astefe and I took one room with two narrow beds. Astefe and I shared a bed for the rest of our time in Turkey. Kavoos, Shahrazad, and their baby took the room with single bed and a telephone. We shared toilets and showers.

That night, for the first time since the morning five days ago when we left Tehran, my mother, aunts, and uncle rinsed themselves clean. They cleaned my cousin and me. Then, while my mother went to lie down, the others took me and went to find food. Shahrazad locked the doors to both rooms and we left.

My mother didn’t hear the door lock. She was looking out of the window to the bazaar below. She watched people buy fruit and vegetables from the stalls. She noticed a stand that sold shoes and reminded herself she needed to buy new ones in the morning.

She was alone for the first time in days. She stretched out over the bedcovers and closed her eyes. She was too tired to sleep. She thought about my father. She felt heavy.

Is this grief? she wondered. She thought of her unborn son; she thought of me. She realized she didn’t feel anything — no joy, no anticipation.

I want Omar. Does he think I abandoned him? Does he know that I don’t have anything without him? I have to get back to Iran. How will I get back to Iran?

Her thoughts moved fast, then faster. She opened her mouth to pull air in, but she couldn’t. There was no air in the room. She tried to calm herself. She promised herself that she’d get back to Iran. She’d give birth to my brother, get us settled in our American lives, and then in a year’s time, she’d go back to Iran the same way we got out.

The room was too small and she needed space. She got to her feet and tried the door. She pulled at the handle. It didn’t give.

I’m trapped, she thought. I can’t breathe and I’m trapped.

She pounded on the door over and over.

Let me out! she screamed. Please! Let me out!

Pounding and screaming, pounding and screaming — her thoughts circled back: I’m trapped. I’m in prison. This room is a cell. I’m trapped. I’m in prison. This room is a cell. I’m trapped. I’m in prison. This room is a cell.

Finally, she heard footsteps, the sound of keys pushing into the lock, and the door opened. Air rushed in. My aunts and uncle were there. They didn’t leave her alone again.

That was the nearest I got to losing it, my mother told me, years later. It was claustrophobia, but also my heart was breaking. My heart was bursting was what it was.

***

Neda Toloui-Semnani is a journalist and writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, New York Magazine, The LA Review of Books, The Baffler, The Week, and BuzzFeed.pull