Mazhar Tabesh always felt he was not welcome here. He had been threatened, his wife was spat at and his family received a chilly reception in stores around town. But he never imagined that anyone would try to kill him.
The unimaginable happened on a recent Sunday night as Tabesh and his wife were preparing for bed. Someone deliberately set fire to the motel owned by the Pakistani native. The family escaped without injury but watched their future and savings crackle and burn.
Tabesh, a U.S. citizen, said he has received telephone threats for about a year from an anonymous person who warned, “You don’t belong here, get out.” Authorities are investigating the blaze as a possible hate crime.
Tabesh, his wife, Samina, and in-laws are among the few Muslims in this dominantly Mormon area. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, people of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent across the country have been targets of verbal attacks and worse, like what struck this quiet town of 7,300 recently.
Residents were quick to condemn the incident and defend Heber City, a town of stout turn-of-the-century brick buildings and scraggly strip malls that draws tourists to its famous attraction, an antique steam train nicknamed the Heber Creeper.
“I’m hoping that whoever did this is from out of town,” Mayor Lynn Adams said. “It’s not typical of this community. People treat each other fairly and with respect. As with any community, there are people who don’t like outsiders and people of other faiths. But that’s not the majority.”
Police believe that a man who paid cash for Room 112 started a fire in that room’s closet, then went upstairs and poured a flammable liquid in the hallway. That person also removed the smoke detectors, they say.
Tabesh said he heard nothing until about 11 p.m., when a passerby drove into the motel’s parking lot, shouting that smoke was pouring from the second-floor eaves. Another man, an off-duty firefighter, stopped to help.
While standing in the motel’s u-shaped parking lot, bystanders told authorities they saw two people on the roof of an adjacent building. One matched the description of the man who checked in that night.
“I believe they must have been watching us, because they set the fire at a time when we normally would have been asleep,” Tabesh said.
A soft-spoken man, Tabesh works in Salt Lake City for Wells Fargo Bank. “Another three minutes and the ceiling would have come crashing down. That good Samaritan really saved our lives.”
The fire destroyed nine rooms in the motel, including those directly above where Tabesh and his wife live. Damage was estimated at $100,000.
Tabesh and his father-in-law purchased the modest 22-room motel five years ago to provide income for Tabesh’s in-laws and other relatives. But some of the extended family were unable to get visas, so Tabesh had been trying to sell the property.
“I’m in a tough spot now; someone is trying to kill me and my family,” Tabesh said, sitting in a chair outside a charred room and rubbing a hand over his face. “On the one hand, my instincts tell me to get the heck out of here, take my family and leave everything behind. Give the business to the bank. On the other hand, I think, ‘Why give in to a terrorist?’ If I could sell this place, we’d get in the car and leave this minute.”
Heber City straddles a two-lane highway that wends through what used to be lush farming and ranching land. Today the town is a bedroom community, about 30 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. Officials here say that more than 70% of the residents commute to Salt Lake City for work.
Tabesh and his family never felt comfortable here. Samina Tabesh said people in the grocery store stare at her, even though she does not dress in conservative Muslim garb. Ignorance of the Islamic faith and what Tabesh calls media distortion have led Americans to mistrust Muslims, he said.
“We need a dialogue, we need to let people know what is in the Koran and what our beliefs are,” Tabesh said, adding that he is strongly against Afghanistan’s Taliban, which he said killed a member of his family.
Naseem Ahmed, president of the Alrasool Islamic Center in Salt Lake City, said Muslims in the area have generally been left alone, but they are on guard.
“Since Sept. 11, we are more afraid,” he said, citing a handful of incidents involving arsons at a local mosque and a Muslim-owned business. “We are safe, but the threat is always out there.”
With more than 70% of Utahans identifying themselves as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it’s not unusual for newcomers to the state to feel as if they are not part of the club. The Heber Valley was settled by Mormons who emigrated from England.
The complexion of region is changing. Some events in the Winter Olympics were held here, and local officials say the influx of international visitors helped temper the region’s insular tendencies. International ski teams return for training every winter, adding to the mix.
And, mindful of their own history of religious persecution, Mormon officials preach openness and tolerance. Mormon President Gordon B. Hinckley in the past has urged Mormons not to be clannish and to befriend newcomers.
Police say they are following “pretty good leads” in the motel fire, and few in town seem on edge that an arsonist is at large.
“I haven’t heard of it,” said Ashley Smith, who works at the Sno Cone shack about a block from the motel. “I didn’t even know we had those kind of people--Muslims--here. But we’ve got all kinds of people.”
Adams said authorities have been keeping an eye on pockets of white supremacists and skinheads living in the area. This rugged region, like many rural enclaves, offers discreet hiding places.
“We saw a buildup of those types in the valley before the Olympics,” Adams said. “I thought they would be a problem.”
Gabrielle Braze, who works at a convenience store, said she has heard only vague rumors about skinheads in the area, but she added: “I think it would be good for the community if there were more diversity here. It’s pretty white around here.”
If minorities are being targeted, it would not make Heber City too different from other U.S. cities, where harassment of Muslims appears to be on the rise.
Heather Jacobson, who works at a local flower shop, called Heber City “your basic small town,” warts and all.
“People who live in little towns don’t believe things like that can happen in their town, but it can,” said Jacobson, who moved here from Las Vegas. “Some people are really open, but it’s really weird--I’ve found that people here are kind of close-minded, kind of hypocritical. I don’t think I’ll live in Utah the rest of my life.”