“Off the Radar” Grapples with Iranian-American Identities

1 July, 2015
The author as an adolescent with his family.


Off the Radar: A Father’s Secret, a Mother’s Heroism, and a Son’s Quest, by Cyrus Copeland
Blue Rider Press (2015)
ISBN: 9780399158506

Jordan Elgrably

Cyrus Copeland read from his memoir in Los Angeles at The Last Bookstore.

Having parents from two different countries or cultures has its challenges, as we learn in Cyrus Copeland’s recent memoir, Off the Radar. In fact, there is a body of literature coming to the fore, in the United States and around the globe, that essentially weaves together the experiences of children composed of mixed heritage—those of us who have parents from two or more different countries, religious beliefs or ethnicities. In some circles, this is described as “being between worlds.” I am one of those children, with grandparents from Morocco and Lithuania. Cyrus Copeland—whose mother is Iranian and father American—is another instance of someone who has endeavored to find his place in the world while deciphering the histories and hostilities of two countries that have been at odds with each other for most of his life.

In Off the Radar, A Father’s Secret A Mother’s Heroism, and a Son’s Quest, Copeland weaves a personal narrative on a large canvas, with the backdrop of the 1979 Iranian revolution—I dislike referring to it as the “Islamic Revolution” because it began as a popular movement with significant support from students and women; the Islamists overtook it and created a regime that while independent from the United States, has not been more humane than the Shah’s despotic regime.

At the outset of the book, the Copeland-Maleki family is living in Iran while the Shah’s regime is turned upside down and soon, hostages are taken at the American Embassy. Then his father, a quiet American, is taken away, accused of being a spy. Off the Radar is a son’s investigation into the truth about these accusations. “The year 1979 launched the Iranian revolution and Islamic fundamentalism on an unready world, and in revisiting that year and its dramatic events,” Copeland writes, “I saw how the fracture between the two countries was written into our lives—and played itself out in microcosm while Iran and America did battle. Our story was a prism. While all eyes were on the hostages, our crisis played out in jail, in court, across international borders—and in private.”

Fortunately for the reader, Copeland writes with the heart of a poet about his Iranian homeland and his mysterious American father. Early on, for instance, he describes the family move to Shiraz from Philadelphia, and how this came after the Shah’s 2,500th anniversary celebration at Persepolis—an international festivity for two and a half millennia of Persian history. “It was the international social event of twenty-five centuries, and it colored my dreams more than any Grimm’s fairy tale. Press accounts estimated that the party cost more than $15 million, money that might have been spent on social services. A pesky ayatollah known as Khomeini had a field day, madly denouncing the ‘evil celebrations’ and making outlandish threats to the Shah…But the Shah was oblivious—and truthfully so were we. Who could have known that the sun would soon sun on twenty-five hundred years? When we arrived, Shiraz was midway between anniversary and anarchy, wine and roses, history and histrionics.”

Near the conclusion of this compelling book, Cyrus Copeland is honest about his identity. “When Kazem Khan asks if I am Iranian or American, I have no answer for him,” he writes. “I do not know how to integrate both aspects of my bloodlines into a healthy, whole psyche, for they are contradictory in every way that the two countries can contradict each other. They are perpetually at odds…”

We might remind the author that, like any two siblings—or almost any couple for that matter—relationships are often complex and contradictory. And so perhaps it is not unreasonable to suggest that Iranians and Americans are perhaps more alike than any of us realizes or wishes to admit. As such, this memoir contributes to our mutual understanding while reducing our mutual suspicion.