STORY WRITTEN BY LINDA STEIN
@lsteinreporter on Twitter
Part biography. Part spy thriller. “Off the Radar: A Father’s Secret, a Mother’s Heroism, and a Son’s Quest” is a page turner that might keep you up at night as you try to discover whether the author’s father was a CIA spy or a hapless academic snared in the geopolitics of revolutionary Iran.
At the same age as his father was when the events of the fall of the Shah of Iran ushered in an Islamic republic, Cyrus Copeland discovered some documents including a small Tehran Times newspaper clipping about his dad’s 1979 arrest and felt an urgent need to find out what really happened more than three decades ago. That quest takes the reader on Copeland’s rollercoaster journey to discover his father’s true profession. A child of an Iranian mother — an aristocratic royalist — and an American father, Copeland was caught between the “Great Satan” and the “Axis of Evil.”
Copeland, 51, now living in New York, grew up in part in Bryn Mawr where his mother and sister still reside. A graduate of The Haverford School, who went on to Haverford College and Villanova University, after college Copeland joined that most American of industries — advertising, working on campaigns for major companies like Kodak and Chrysler.
At one point in “Off the Radar,” he writes: “No need to go to Iran. No need to scour the archives in Washington. The answers were on Philadelphia’s Main Line.”
Copeland asks his mother to tell the story of his father’s trial in an Islamic court in the early days of the revolution, even as other Americans are being held as hostages at the U.S. Embassy.
His mother, the incredibly strong and brave Shahin Maleki, fights to save her husband, Max Copeland, who was hired by Westinghouse to tie up some loose ends after the revolution when most Americans had fled. The elder Copeland is charged with espionage by the Iranians after a box he shipped by to the U.S. from the Westinghouse warehouse is found to contain radar components.
As a teenager transplanted to Iran, Cyrus Copeland longs for America, studying the Sears catalogue. But back in America, it is Iran that calls to him.
“That was very interesting,” he said. “When I was in Iran I, in a way, felt very proud of my American heritage. That was a time of anti-American sentiments. And over here, I came to think of myself as proudly Iranian. And part of that had to do with the fact that Iran, over here, was being widely assailed. Over there, there was ‘Death to America’ and over here there were the ‘Bomb Iran’ bumpers stickers on cars.”
“It was kind of like living in a reflexive parallel universe,” he said.
Asked if it was hard to deal with this reality, he said, “It was sad. I eventually learned to deal with it by not being afraid of it. A lot Iranians I know call themselves ‘Persian,’ a deflection of their heritage and a way of reaching back to a more glorious time in their history.”
But Copeland is upfront about being Iranian-American and sometimes uses humor when he encounters others who are uneasy about it.
Although Iran is in the news quite often lately as the U.S. and other countries negotiate a nuclear deal, Copeland said he does not encounter the kind of hostility he did in the 1980s.
“I’m relatively comfortable and very well-adjusted with being an Iranian American,” he said. “But I do watch how 35 years later on the world stage how the enmity between Iran and America continues. And it’s exhausting and it’s sad to watch it all. But I’m hopeful we’re kind of moving in the right direction.”
Writing the book and learning about his father in the process, Copeland said, “it allowed me to, in the process of answering the questions I had, it drew me closer to my father in a way and in the process of writing the story, I also became even more comfortable with my Iranian-American heritage.”
“I hope in the process of telling the story, a relatively improbable story, it draws the thread between Iran and America a little bit tighter,” Copeland said. “Last year I went to Iran. I wanted to write the final chapter of my book there. That was a tremendously soul-nourishing visit for me, not only for the opportunity to sit inside my own past, but visiting the misunderstood country of my childhood and seeing it anew. It went a long way in helping me hold the contradictions of my dual — and dueling — bloodlines.
Meanwhile, his mother is happy with the book.
“She did something remarkable,” he said. “I’ve always known my mother is a kind of a remarkable woman, but in the process of retelling this tale I reminded myself of how improbable a thing she did at such a difficult time, a royalist in revolutionary Iran and she’s representing an alleged American spy and using Koranic law to do so. This is the kind of stuff that John Grisham himself couldn’t make up.”
And once the family was back in America, his mother “blazed a path over here,” he said. “She was a very proud daughter of Iran but she came over here and reinvented herself and made a vibrant and successful life for herself in America.”
Copeland is the editor of two collections of eulogies: “Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time” and “A Wonderful Life: 50 Eulogies to Lift the Spirit.” While he plans to write another book but is embarking on a nationwide book tour for “OFF THE RADAR: A Fathers Secret, a Mother’s Heroism and a Son’s Quest.”
IF YOU GO: Copeland will be in the Philadelphia area at Main Point Books at 7 p.m. on June 9 for a book signing and reading for “Off the Radar.” 1041 West Lancaster Ave., Bryn Mawr. (610) 325-1480.
MORE: “Off the Radar: A Father’s Secret, a Mother’s Heroism, and a Son’s Quest” (Blue Rider Press, $27.95) is available at bookstores and as an e-book.