Battling backlash:
 Hatred puzzles S.F. man who fled Iran decades ago

San Francisco Chronicle
19 September 2001

By Kathleen Sullivan

When one of City Blend Cafe's regular customers heard that owner Nick Heydarian was getting hate calls in the wake of last week's terrorist attacks, she baked him a pie. 

An apple pie. 

It was one of many gestures -- from kind words to extra police patrols -- that have formed a protective web around the longtime San Francisco resident since two women yelled "Palestinian bastard" at him through the open doors of his popular cafe the day of the attacks. 

The angry words and hate calls took Heydarian by surprise. 

Like many Americans, he had watched the television news that morning, stunned and stricken by the devastation. 

But he didn't expect anyone to connect him to the attacks. 

"I am half Persian and half American," said Heydarian, 44, who was born in Iran, but has lived half his life in the city. "I am not an Arab. Why are they calling me?" 

Heydarian knows the insults and threats come from hatred and ignorance -- sentiments that have resulted in assaults on people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent across the nation. 

Although raised in a Muslim family, Heydarian does not practice Islam, whose members and mosques also have been targeted since Sept. 11. 

Heydarian came to the United States to escape political repression, he said. 

At 17, he was captured by Iran's secret police, interrogated and thrown in jail for writing political poetry and lyrics. There was no trial. He spent two years in jail -- six months in solitary confinement. 

When the U.S.-backed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi fled Iran in 1979, the doors of the jails were flung open, and Heydarian was released. It was the dawn of the Islamic Revolution, led by the Ayatollah Khomeini. 

His parents feared he would be targeted by the new regime. 

"We believe if you stay here, they are going to kill you," they told their third-born child, one of seven children. 

So Nasser Nickche Heydarian came to America. 

He studied psychology at the College of Alameda and earned a bachelor of arts degree in physical education at San Francisco State University. He got married. 

He became a citizen, choosing "Nick," a shortened version of his middle name -- which is Armenian, like his mother -- as his American name. 

He joined the city's small-business community. He ran a futon shop and a produce delivery company. With his wife's family, he helped run three coffee shops. 

He became a singer. On his latest CD, "Night and Day," Heydarian sings love songs written in Farsi, the language spoken by Persians. 

Asked to translate a song, the Richmond District resident recited verses expressing longing for the land he left behind -- and never saw again. 

This is not my country/I am thinking about my land. This is not my country/I am thinking about my river. This is not my country/I am thinking about my flowers. 

In early 1997, Heydarian opened City Blend Cafe on 16th Street in the Mission District. 

Its candy-apple red coffee roaster stands just inside the door, under the ceiling Heydarian painted with sponges -- a purple night sky of whimsical white clouds curving around bright yellow stars. 

Heydarian painted the cafe walls their warm yellow and brown tones, inspired by a visit to a friend who lives in New Mexico. 

Photographs and paintings by local artists line one wall. The cafe is a place where the welcome mat is always out for community groups that need a place to meet. 

Its distinctive interior attracted the producers of "Nash Bridges." The cop show has since been canceled, but an autographed picture of co-star Cheech Marin reminds patrons of his visit. 

Heydarian said his willingness to speak out -- he appeared at a press conference last week organized by the human rights group Global Exchange and has been interviewed several times on TV -- had silenced the hate calls. 

Heydarian recently taped a pair of bright yellow posters to the cafe's plate glass window. The posters, produced by Global Exchange, condemn threats and violence against Arab Americans and Muslim Americans. 

"Our community is a hate-free zone," they say. 

E-mail Kathleen Sullivan at ksullivan@sfchronicle.com



 


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