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Restaurant owner teaches about faith, freedom

June 15, 1998|By CLYDE FORD

by RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer

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Aram HessamiRestaurant owner teaches about faith, freedom

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - When Aram Hessami fled his native Iran as a teenager to avoid religious persecution, he did not know what the future held for him.

Certainly, he never expected to own an Italian restaurant in Charles Town.

"My family back in Iran is particularly proud of me. I don't know why. I'm selling spaghetti and meatballs," said Hessami, 38, laughing.

In 1979, Muslim revolutionaries took over Iran and Baha'is and others of different religious faiths faced danger daily.

The Baha'i belief that all religions come from the same God led to persecution of its members in Iran. Friends were killed and homes were destroyed because of their beliefs.

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"The situation was unbearable," Hessami said.

At the urging of his parents, Hessami left the country, first going to Greece and then to the United States, where he received political asylum.

"There are other Baha'is who stayed and suffered. I was one of the lucky ones," Hessami said.

Hessami said his father's side of the family consisted of poets, writers and scholars.

With little money in his pocket, Hessami started waiting on tables at an Italian restaurant while taking classes, first at Montgomery College in Maryland, then at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he earned doctoral degrees in political science and philosophy.

Hessami met his wife, Frances Morgan, at George Washington University.

Sixteen years ago, they moved into a 250-year-old farmhouse near Summit Point, W.Va., that belonged to her family. He commuted to his teaching jobs at George Washington University and other colleges while she worked as an attorney in Washington.

About six years ago they opened an Italian restaurant in Rockville, Md. Hessami said he wanted to own a business because teaching did not pay enough.

"I still want to teach, but I didn't want to be dependent on academic salaries," Hessami said.

He decided to open a restaurant based on his experience waiting on tables and he picked Italian over Iranian because he is pragmatic.

"It is the most popular food in the world," Hessami said.

Two years ago, the Hessamis closed the Rockville restaurant and opened Avanti Ristorante in Charles Town so Hessami would not have such a long commute.

The couple has three children - Sarah, 11, Cyrus, 10, and Rebecca, 11 months.

The restaurant initially had a 130-seat dining room but has expanded to 450 seats in three dining rooms and a patio. It has two dance floors and two bars.

Hessami remains active in the Baha'i faith and is one of about 20 members of the religion in the Eastern Panhandle.

"I miss my friends and family. I miss some of the food, the porridge they make for breakfast in the villages," Hessami said.

Hessami said he occasionally has faced racism in this country because of his Middle Eastern appearance. When people make biased comments about him, he said he talks to them.

"I try to educate as I go. I really believe in the Platonic idea that virtue is knowledge. My aim is to educate them as I go. I'm a born teacher," Hessami said.

"I've also come to appreciate this country and the political freedom and openness. I've come to appreciate the system as it stands. I'm not saying it's perfect, but people in America don't appreciate what they have here until they've been to other countries," Hessami said.

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