As I drove down the winding road, an old man appeared in the passenger seat next to me. He was illuminated, and he had a prominent beard. I was completely in shock, trying to make sense of what I was seeing while keeping my eyes on the road. He raised his left hand and put it on my right shoulder. Looking straight into my eyes, he said calmly, “Do you know that you are going to die soon?” I was in complete shock. Everything about what was happening felt 100 percent real. I couldn’t be hallucinating and operating a vehicle at the same time. It truly felt as if a man were sitting in the car with me. And then, just like that, he was gone. I quickly pulled over on the side of the mountain; I needed to process what had just happened. As I carefully pulled over, I positioned my car so drivers from both directions could see me from far away. I took a few minutes and then decided it was time to get home. But, before I pulled away, I thought it might be as good as a time as any to break out that seatbelt. Unfortunately, I had no clue where it was. Fumbling, I found it deep between the seat and the door, still in a black mesh casing. It had never been used. I had never seen anyone wear a seatbelt before in my life, but I was determined to put it on. I fumbled for nearly twenty minutes, trying to adjust it before finally succeeding and pulling back onto the road.
My dad’s Paykan was a stick shift. I don’t know if you’ve ever driven a stick shift, but to shift to second gear, you have to speed up. So I sped up. Before I was able to shift to second gear, I felt my car start to drift toward the edge of the mountain. I tried to correct and turn the wheels back toward the road. I had driven this car so many times and never experienced this. There was no rain, and the roads weren’t slick. I could not figure out why this was happening. It happened again, and I corrected again. The third time it happened, I saw a large bus coming in the opposite direction.
It was Ashura Tasu’a, a culminating day in the month of Muharram— one of if not the most significant holy months in the Muslim faith. It is a day of mourning and remembrance of the death of Mohammad’s grand- son. Muslims take to the streets to march together, pray, cry, scream, and pay their respects. They also self-flagellate. A ritual of hitting oneself with chains, swords, or palms to acknowledge the pain and suffering Mohammad’s grandson endured. The bus that was passing was taking dozens of people to pray in observance of Ashura Tasu’a.
My car continued to drift, and I didn’t know how to stop it. I tried to turn the car as best as possible to avoid being hit by the bus. I worried if my car collided with the bus, I would be pushed off of the mountain entirely. We were so high up, you couldn’t see the valley below. If the bus hit me and pushed me off, there was zero chance I would survive. I turned my wheel just enough to avoid being ejected from the moun- tain. Everything else happened in an instant.
When I opened my eyes, the front of the bus was the very first thing I saw. We had hit head-on. Everything was dead silent as I tried making sense of what had just happened. My immediate first thought wasn’t getting to safety or crying out. It was simply coming to the real- ization I was alive. Quickly, though, the reality of the situation set in and I realized I needed to get out of that Paykan.
I tried opening the driver’s door but realized the car was just shy of the edge of the road. If I got out on that side, I would have nowhere to go but off the cliff. I wasn’t able to open the passenger door either. The accident had pushed the front wheel of the car into the interior of the cabin, and I was pinned into my seat by my ribs. I didn’t feel any pain, perhaps because of the adrenaline. But even today, one side of my ribs stick out, and the other side is inverted.
The only option I had was to flip over the seat into the back of the car and get out of the back passenger side door. Thank goodness, I had strong and flexible legs from my dance training. As I emerged from the car, two men in front of the bus looked down at me in shock. It was the bus driver and his assistant. I’m sure they thought I was dead or, at the very least, not able to move. Seeing the small gold cross hanging from my neck, the two men got out of the bus and started hurling insults at me. They knew I was Armenian because I wasn’t wearing black and not participating in the religious activities of the day. I spoke with an accent and wore gold jewelry, which was a dead giveaway in Iran of some- one who was not Muslim. They called me sag armeni, which translates loosely to “filthy Armenian, dirty as a dog.” Among Muslims, partic- ularly in Iran, dogs were considered unclean. You would never see a dog in someone’s home or as a pet. That just doesn’t happen, so calling someone was a dog an insult. The insult was very uncharacteristic of what I had experienced with Muslims in Armenia and certainly not a reflection of the overarching sentiment toward Armenians. But in this instance, specifically with these religious men, I was filth. Their hatred toward me, after such a traumatic accident, made me fearful of what might happen next. I was not prepared for a physical altercation. We also were in a pretty remote area, made more so because most people weren’t on the roads because of Ashura Tasu’a.
At this point, my car and the bus were still attached. The men were unsure whether they would be able to separate them and, if so, whether their bus would be able to drive. While they worried about that, I worried about my dad. Actually, “worry” is an understatement. I was scared shitless. Possibly more scared than I was about being ejected from the mountain in the first place. I mean, that wouldn’t have been ideal, but at least I wouldn’t have had to deal with my father’s anger when he found out I’d totaled our car. I decided to give the two men from the bus some time to figure out how to get the vehicles apart. Racking my brain, I leaned my back against the side of the car to try to figure out my story.
With my mind going a mile a minute, contemplating how exactly I would explain this to my dad, I heard the driver yell, “WATCH OUT!” I had no time to react. I had no time even to figure out what I was supposed to watch out for. Almost immediately, from behind, I felt a weight like I had never felt before.
The car swerved as it hit the driver. Then it hit me and then swerved and hit the driver’s assistant, who was standing just a few feet away. At that point, my body was pinned between the car and the bus with my butt against my car. My two legs were crushed between the bus and the car that hit me. I collapsed onto the road, completely flat.
Have you ever seen a movie where, in a moment of complete and utter chaos, everything on the screen abruptly starts moving in slow motion? That’s pretty accurate. In the few moments after I was hit, everything felt surreal. There was no rush of adrenaline. No immediate fear at the prospect of my mortality. I didn’t scream. I didn’t cry. All I did was collapse. I didn’t even feel my head hit the hard pavement. I didn’t feel anything; I couldn’t hear anything either.
As I looked up, I saw the passengers on the bus busting out of its windows and jumping down to try and get to us to help. I felt liquid running down my neck. I thought it was rain, but as I turned my head upward, I realized it was the blood of the driver’s assistant pouring down the road. Like the snap of a hypnotist’s fingers, the blood on my neck brought me out of my haze. I needed to get up. I needed to know what the hell had just happened. I tried standing. I couldn’t. I looked down and realized my feet were facing backward at almost 180 degrees. My jeans were completely torn. My right leg was covered in blood, and, through the denim, I could see my bone marrow jutting out. It was gruesome. Even so, even though I could see my legs had been mutilated, I still had no pain. Ironically, as I write this, my legs are tingling all over.
As I lay there on the asphalt, completely immobile, the driver of the car that hit us got out and walked toward me. He knelt and put his hand on my shoulder. He said, “It’s an Ashura Tasu’a day. Husayn and Hassan will heal you. Don’t worry.” That was the last anyone has ever seen of him. He left the car at the scene of the accident and disap-peared. We later found out the car belonged to the government and was part of the former President Rafsanjani’s fleet. In the following months, as my family tried to find the man the car had been assigned to so he could be held accountable, there was never any record of him. The home he had lived in was vacant. His name turned up no records. He, quite literally, vanished.
It took about thirty minutes for any help to arrive. Back then, in Iran, there were no cell phones and no immediate ways of alerting anyone an accident had happened. Since each involved car was inop- erable and all the individuals who could drive were too hurt to do so, it became a matter of waiting. Eventually, a bus carrying children down the mountain passed and saw the mayhem and offered to help. They pulled me and the bus driver and the driver’s assistant onto their bus. It was then that I noticed the bus driver also had a badly broken leg. The driver’s assistant was completely unresponsive. I later found out he was already dead. They put the driver’s assistant in the very back row of the bus. They put the other driver on the floor of the bus, and they laid me down on another seat close by. Leaving everything else behind, the bus began to make the descent down the mountain to Tehran for help.
Riding down the mountain, the pain still hadn’t hit me. I was just confused about where we were going. I gave one of the adults my father’s number and asked them to call him once we reached a phone. I am sure I was going in and out of consciousness.
Laying on the bus seat, I could see out the windows, but my vantage points allowed me to see only enough to make out where we were. I couldn’t see the ground, but I could tell we were heading into Tehran. When we reached the city limits, we were met with yet another challenge. Many of the roads were blocked off for Ashura Tasu’a, and those that weren’t were filled with mourners marching. I couldn’t see them, but I could see the tops of chains moving in unison, almost robotically, hitting mourners on their backs as they self-flagellated. During Ashura Tasu’a, there was no emergency more important than this ritual. Our bus couldn’t honk its horn to ask mourners to clear the way. We couldn’t call for help at all. We had to move with the crowd at a walking pace. And not just an average walking pace—a mourner’s walking pace. The pace at which large groups of people march in commemoration. Each whip of a chain punctuated the painstaking second after second after second as we drove toward a destination I still didn’t know. We moved so slowly; I had no concept of time at all. I couldn’t tell you whether it was an hour, two hours, or three hours. The only way I could begin to measure it was by the number of times I saw the tops of the chains.
I was raised Orthodox Christian and had lots of Muslim friends. I wouldn’t call myself religious. I don’t subscribe to any particular religion. But I think it is essential for everyone to believe in something. Even if that something is just to believe in the good in others or the idea that what you put into the world, you get back. Many people don’t believe someone appeared in my car and warned me about what was about to happen to me. I don’t necessarily expect them to. But it did happen. And whether people believe it or not, what it taught me was to trust my instincts. It taught me to believe in energy and intuition. Whatever it was that came to me that day, an omen, a vision, a warning—I don’t know what you want to call it. But it served a purpose in that it showed me things just don’t happen. There are rhyme and reason to the world, and instincts can be the factor that saves you when there is nothing else. My instincts have shaped many aspects of my career, and I’ve learned, both through successes and failures, to never go against my gut feeling. To always lean into what feels right and to walk away from any situation that feels wrong or unhealthy.