A spy story, a mystery, a father-son heartbreaker: Cyrus Copeland seeks the truth about his father, an American executive arrested in Iran for spying at the time of the 1979 hostage crisis, then put on trial for his life in a Revolutionary Court.
As a young boy living in Tehran in 1979, Cyrus Copeland—child of an American father and Iranian mother—never dreamed that his dad, an employee of Westinghouse, would be in danger for his life. That is, until the moment his father was arrested on espionage charges and put on trial in a Revolutionary Court. Almost simultaneously, more than fifty other Americans were taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy by Islamist militants, an event that has recently captivated the world again with the success of the book and film Argo. With the hostage crisis receiving most of the attention from the media and White House, it was largely left to Copeland’s mother and family to negotiate his father’s reprieve from the firing squad. Now, more than thirty years later, Copeland sets out to find the truth about his father and his role in the Iranian hostage crisis. Was he in fact an intelligence operative—a weapons-system expert—caught red-handed by the Iranian regime, or was he innocent all along? Part mystery, part reportage, and part detective work, Copeland’s brilliantly original family epic is a powerful memoir and adventure.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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Max’s Radar Affair, the handwriting across the file said. I recognized my mother’s cursive—as well as her flair for drama. The story contained in this file had all the markings of a classical affair. Secret meetings. Unaccounted-for hours. Divided loyalties. For thirty years, the file had lain dormant at the bottom of this box—which had followed us Copelands from Iran to Pennsylvania, through four suburban homes, to the dusty corner of the library where it now resided. In a strange way, I believe it was my father’s will that I found the file. Last week, a land prospector called with news of mineral rights that once belonged to my dad. “They’re yours if you can prove ownership,” she told my mother, who promptly dispatched me to the study to locate my father’s will. I was buried deep in the wilderness of boxed diplomas, old address books, photos, tax files, and receipts, when from the bottom of a box of relics, the past coughed up a different nugget.
“Open it,” my mother said. Into our laps spilled several documents. The first was a newspaper clipping dated November 27, 1979.
Cia Agent Smuggling Radar Equipment Caught
November 27, 1979
TEHRAN—The Revolutionary Guards here arrested a CIA agent who was trying to smuggle eight console radar machines to the United States. Max Copeland, whose nationality was not identified yet, had booked eight boxes of radar equipment belonging to the Iranian Air Force at Mehrabad customs destined for the United States . . .
A succession of other documents fell from the file, their pages delicate and crisped by time. There was a formal rebuttal written by my father disputing the charges. An affidavit from Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. A packing list. A long letter from my mother to Iranian president Banisadr—a review of which brought tears to her eyes.
“You know, of course, your father was a CIA agent,” she said.
It was not the first time I’d heard her say this. I suppose a review of salient facts did suggest a career in intelligence: low-profile jobs in defense and high-tech industries. Broad knowledge of Iran. And he was caught up in an international incident that somehow never got any play beyond those couple paragraphs in the Tehran Times. But a CIA agent? I remembered him as an academic whose greatest hours were spent in the company of books. A hunter. A mindful adventurer who could never quite get enough of mountain ranges, seascapes, and the oddities of different cultures. It irked me, hearing her call Dad a spy.
“Tell me about Dad’s arrest,” I said.
“Why must we talk about the past when you know it gives me a headache?” she replied—never mind that the past was all around us, splayed out in an accordion of yellowed documents. “Anyway, haven’t you heard this story enough times?”
I knew the tale well enough, but somehow it had never sat right. My father was too sincere to traffic in government secrets. His love for Iran was genuine. But ever since the CIA had organized a revolution in 1953, Iranians have come to distrust the motivations of Americans. Just a couple of years ago, three American hikers had been accused of espionage after “inadvertently” crossing into Iran. It was of course a perfectly ridiculous claim—every bit as absurd as their choice of destination—but it prompted my mother into her latest act of volunteer diplomacy. She drew up a letter to Hillary Clinton offering personally to negotiate their freedom.
“I sacrificed much more for your father, a real-life spy, so why shouldn’t I defend these innocents?” she said.
It didn’t cross her mind that at eighty, she might no longer have the connections needed to pull it off. But even today, you cannot underestimate her.
Sadly, she did not hear back from Secretary of State Clinton. Or maybe she never got around to mailing the letter. But that afternoon for the gazillionth time, she recounted the events leading to my father’s capture and resulting trial.
Through the years, with each retelling, I felt a deeper regret that I didn’t know my father better. All children have unresolved questions about their parents, of course, but this was no trifling matter. Was he a spy? Then it struck me: I had a file on my father. If he had been a CIA agent, they’d have a file on him, too.
That week, in a bid to put the past to rest once and for all—for myself and my mother and sister—I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the CIA. Passed into law by President Clinton, the act allows previously classified documents that were more than twenty-five years old to be released. If my father were a CIA agent, his file would certainly meet these guidelines. A dead agent doesn’t worry about his cover being blown, right? I also filed inquiries with the FBI, the Department of Defense, the State Department, and President Carter. A flurry of letters flew out into the world, each a bid to open my father’s long-dormant past. I held out hope that someone, somewhere knew something—and, like the file I’d unearthed, that thing would fall gracefully into place.
Which just shows you how much I know about the world of intelligence.
While waiting for responses to come in, I began writing this book. My mother’s story is easy to tell for she is an ardent, often glittering storyteller. My father’s was trickier—the dead tell no tales. He was a notoriously private man. The story of his capture, imprisonment, and trial I pieced together from journals, notes, memories, and shards of conversation I recall from quieter moments. But much of his interior life and motivations had been shrouded from me.
While writing, a curious thing happened. At times I heard his voice in my head, which was lovely and disconcerting. I began to feel closer to him.
I have an American father and an Iranian mother. I have the blood of the Great Satan and the Axis of Evil in my veins. The year 1979 launched the Iranian revolution and Islamic fundamentalism on an unready world, and in revisiting that year and its dramatic events, I saw how the fracture between the two countries was written into my parents’ marriage—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.
Was my dad a spy? Were the charges leveled against him true? Were my father alive today, he’d have pushed up his glasses and said in a voice that left little room for discussion, “Cyrus, I don’t want to talk about it.” But we Copelands had an adventure, a tale that goes back three decades to the fault lines between Iran and America. And it needs to be told.
In America, a peanut farmer rules the free world. Here a king is deposed from his peacock throne, ending twenty-five hundred years of monarchy. God have mercy, the revolution has arrived.
It’s been months since the Shah left—leaving the country in the hands of bearded hooligans and a rotating roster of ministers, most of whom last barely longer than a carton of milk. The prisons have been emptied and refilled. Each day brings more prohibitions: ties, perfume, nail polish, makeup. And more executions: generals, SAVAK agents, Communists, drug offenders, Kurds, Bahais, intellectuals, political dissidents and holdovers from the prior regime, their names written on their foreheads for identification—their blood running from Evin’s prison grounds.
Welcome to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
For the record, her name is Shahin Maleki Copeland. She is an inveterate royalist and always will be. Did the Shah not launch a White Revolution that gave women the vote, peasants the land they’d farmed, illiterates an education, industrial workers the right to profits, Iran’s forests protection, and the farthest villages access to public healthcare? But you don’t hear about any of that, for bloodless revolutions rarely make headlines. Better a red revolution to take Iran back a century.
Not only does she disavow herself of all this, Shahin notes with pleasure how the Islamic Republic was certified on April 1, when the gullible are taken for a good laugh. Her countrymen marched, fought, died, ransacked, burned, stared down the barrels of guns—and now celebrated. The revolution has succeeded! Become martyrs in the path of righteousness! It’s as if they’d read the Che Guevara handbook on revolution, mixed it with fundamentalist Islam, and were now drunk on their unmixable principles. “Brother” and “sister,” they called each other.
It was the best of times followed by the worst of times.
Mornings as she passes the newsstand, Shahin glances at the headlines and photographs of executed men. She wonders if it bothers her compatriots that blood flows freely and vengefully, or that Tehran’s walls are defaced with ugly slogans calling for death. Death is all around them. By daylight and moonlight, men patrol the streets like hounds in search of Communist, royalist, traitor, and dissident—carting them off to destinations unknown. As SAVAK had done. Stories of abduction are whispered over tea: Gereftanesh. A single word, shorthand for capture and probable death: “They got him.”
November 25, 1979: Today, as she sets the table, Shahin realizes Max still has not arrived. Usually he is home by seven, whistling in the stairwell. It’s nine P.M. Kebabs and rice are on the table, losing steam. “Where is Dad?” the kids want to know.
“He went hunting,” Shahin says, the facility of her lie surprising her.
“Hunting?” Katayoun asks.
“Hunting. Yes. Your father decided—spontaneously—to take a trip up north,” Shahin says, expanding the lie and giving it room to breathe. “Now eat.”
In truth she has no idea where Max might be.
Her thoughts turn to the American embassy. A couple of weeks ago, some ruffians seized the embassy for the second time. Shahin remembers that day; the gods had set the mood perfectly. A misty gloom hung over Tehran. A light rain fell. In the late afternoon, her sister Mahin had called with news of the takeover. Shahin turned on the TV to see a gleeful mob parading its blindfolded Americans, chanting death to Carter, death to imperialism. By now death was so invoked, so ingrained in the language that she thought she was immune to it. But this? She felt embarrassed that Iran’s new face to the world was a horde of bloodthirsty hoodlums with no international etiquette.
Doubtless they’d been elated to discover the pile of documents, three CIA agents, and a cache of weapons—all of which confirmed their worst suspicions about America. Finally the revolution had found a unifying event. And hundreds of thousands took to the streets in jubilant agreement.
“This is not an occupation. We have thrown out the occupiers!” Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed.
It does not take a Nobel laureate to appreciate that of all the times in Iran’s history, this was the most inauspicious, the absolute worst, for Max to go missing. But over dinner Shahin feels a strange calm descend. After the kids retire to their rooms to finish homework, she remains anchored at the table watching the hours tick by.
Come midnight, Max is still missing.
Where, she wonders, does one search for a missing American husband? She’d been married to Max for twenty-plus years, mostly good, but ever since the revolution had ignited she’d sensed a growing rift. The night of the embassy takeover they’d argued fiercely. Where was the sense of international decency, Max wanted to know. The goddamn moral outrage? Where was the recognition that America had been riding roughshod over Iran for years, Shahin demanded. She’d not take any criticism of Iran, not now, not from an American, not when Carter had sold out her beloved Shah for a barrel of oil. The argument had ended the way most did, with Max seething and silent. That was a week ago. Now he was gone.
The following morning, she stops at Laleh hospital, a couple of blocks from home. The overwhelming nausea she’s already feeling has nothing to do with the antiseptic smells wafting in the corridors.
“Have you admitted a Dr. Copeland? A tall American man.”
“Does he work here?” the admitting clerk asks.
“Oh—no, he’s not that kind of doctor. He’s a Ph.D. And my husband.”
“I see,” the clerk says with a hint of derision. Unshaved, he barely looks at her. Yesterday people like him had washed her windows, clipped her hedges, and shined her shoes. “We have no record of him here.”
“Thank you,” she replies, the words like vinegar on her tongue.
For the next fifteen hours, this scene plays like a recurring nightmare: Surly, uninterested clerks who’ve forgotten their humble beginnings brushing her off. (Bad enough her husband is missing, Shahin’s life has become a scene from a Marxist play.) The response is always the same. At the hospital, the police station, the prison, the morgue: We have no record of him. Shahin crisscrosses Tehran knowing that with every passing hour her chances of finding Max diminish.
One hour bleeds into the next.
One prayer gives way to a hundred.
At eleven P.M. she returns home husbandless. She has not eaten—a missing husband is a wonderful appetite suppressant—and collapses onto the sofa. “Will you rub my legs?” she asks Katayoun.
That night, Shahin prays formally for the first time in years. On a rug. Facing Mecca. This was the Islamic Republic, but the mullahs weren’t the only ones with a line to God. Midprayer, she stops short, and in the way a piece of the puzzle eventually comes forward, she remembers Max’s driver. Surely he would know Max’s last whereabouts. She doesn’t bother excusing herself from God, but gathers her skirt and leaves. An hour later, she stands in the alley outside Javad’s house, and when he doesn’t answer his buzzer, Shahin yells: “JAVAD!” He comes downstairs, looking like he’s seen a ghost—which Shahin attributes to the surprise of seeing her at midnight minus makeup. In this dark alley on the other side of Tehran’s tracks, the two of them are briefly stunned by the improbability of this rendezvous. Shahin pulls him into the shadows. “Dr. Copeland is missing—do you know where my husband is?”
“Sincere apologies, khanoum,* nah.”
“Where did you take him yesterday?”
“To the warehouse. I returned after lunch, but he wasn’t there. I assumed he’d gotten a cab.”
That sounded right. Max was in charge of closing out the affairs of Westinghouse’s employees—selling their belongings to the public, returning to the warehouse after each sale to record the proceeds. But something is wrong. Javad won’t look at her. So Shahin takes a step toward him and in a move that surprises her, a desperate and conceivably widowed woman, she puts her hand to his throat and pushes Javad against the wall.
“Tell me where my husband is. I have a gun in my purse and will shoot you.”
A year ago, Shahin had been a woman of decorum—gliding through Iran’s upper echelons and hobnobbing with university presidents and four-star generals. She had an American husband. Two children. They took yearly vacations to the European capitals. Educated at Georgetown, she prided herself on speaking five languages and having been the youngest woman to leave Iran, unchaperoned, at age seventeen to study abroad. In a year, all vestiges of her privileged life have disintegrated—leaving Shahin with the one unassailable trait she’s always possessed. Practicality. To date, Shahin has never choked anyone, certainly never the help. But if violence is what it takes to shake down a lowly driver at this midnight hour, by Allah she will do it.
“Please, khanoum, let me go! I know nothing!”
She tightens her grip and Javad’s veins start pulsing—then popping. She can smell the onions from dinner on his breath, which arrives in pungent, staccato bursts.
“Do you want your children to grow up fatherless? Harf bezan, beechareh!”*
Javad gasps and a tiny web of spittle lands on her hands. A thin crescent of blood appears where her thumbnail has pierced his neck. It pearls, then meanders down Shahin’s thumb.
She releases her hold on him, and like the miserable stoolie he is, Javad pants forth a torrent of apologies. “Gereftanesh,* khanoum . . . We were outside the warehouse and two Revolutionary Guards took him away . . . They had guns . . . Tell anyone and we’ll come for you too, they said. Khanoum, I have a family! Debts! Imagine the trouble they would unleash on my poor head . . .” By now, Javad has recovered from his near strangulation and is beating himself on the head like a professional mourner. “My wife is upstairs right now, hiding with shattered nerves. Vaaaay. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, but I have a family! Debts! What is going to happen, khanoum? God help us, we are without hope!”
There it was; the well-worn phrase that ricocheted throughout Iran had landed with a thud. Gereftanesh. Frankly, she is relieved to hear someone has Max, but relief gives way to new questions: Why is he being held? What has Max done?
Naturally, she dismisses Javad. Once you choke someone, you can never be sure of their loyalties.
I’ve been wanting a stronger father recently.
A father who’ll tell me exactly how to behave. A do-this, do-that father. Instead, I have a father who makes pancakes and waffles, and dispenses bromides like “Be kind to your sister” or “Remember the little people.” Which is well and good, but it does not tell a boy how to grow up. Little people? At six-foot-three, with a colossal intellect from reading Winston Churchill, my father is a Big Person. But I gather he’s talking about something else. He says “Remember the little people” conspiratorially—like it’s the secret to life—and it annoys me, because I really don’t want to hear any sentimentality from him. He’s already too gentle.
My father is a gentle man. He does not care for cocktails or cocktail conversation, or wear European suits or talk politics, but he is indisputably a gentle man. A man of books and tentative caresses, and sideways glances. He isn’t afraid to say “I love you.” I want to change this gentleness. Mold him into a father who will take hold of me, discipline me, command my respect, and make me shut up.
He does none of those things, although he occasionally goes hunting, which confuses me, for I know that a gentleman hunts. But does a gentle man?
One afternoon he brings a pheasant home from a hunting expedition. The body hangs limply in his hand, a malleable lump of feathers and a pretty, iridescent severed head. When I go over to examine it, the enormity of its death hits me. I grab the head and run into my bedroom. “How . . . could . . . he . . . kill . . . it?” I blubber. Later I emerge to get a glass of water for the head. I dip its beak in. Then just to make sure, I dunk the entire head. The sunlight scatters its plumage across my room. I exhort it to drink and come alive again for my sake. Then I go on a Not Talking to Baba strike.
As a child, I’d reversed their heritages—calling my Iranian mother Mom and my American father Baba. They mandated that. But by the time we’d moved to Iran, I’d switched his name to Dad.
IT IS THE SPRING OF 1974 when we leave Philadelphia for Shiraz—a live-and-let-sleep city 6,578 miles east of the Liberty Bell. Rising low on the horizon, Shiraz’s chief source of drama is the Zagros mountain range that corsets it, and also its name: the City of Wine and Roses—so named by the poet Hafez. Overall I remember yellow: the yellow bricks of our house, the thatched mud walls of a nearby village, and the sun, the raging sun that sends the entire city to bed between the hours of one and three because it is too, too hot to do anything else.
We had arrived in Shiraz four years after the Shah’s anniversary celebration at Persepolis, that famous flaunting of Persian monarchy that the liberal press later derided as excessive, but which my mother considered appropriate. Two thousand five hundred years deserves more than fireworks and a parade. The Shah thought so, too. He invited five hundred heads of state to the party. The festivities took place in an elaborate tent city that sprung up like a mirage in the Persian desert—fifty white air-conditioned tents arranged in a star, accented by gardens of rosebush and cypress where every branch and bloom was tended by a Versailles florist.
But this was no mirage. The Shah’s guests confronted a menu of quail eggs brimming with Caspian caviar, crayfish mousse with Nantua sauce, roast saddle of lamb with truffles, champagne sorbet, fifty roast peacocks stuffed with foie gras, truffle and nut salad, fresh figs and cream, and raspberry champagne sorbet—all tendered on Limoges china, and topped off with five thousand bottles of wine, speeches, a parade, and a son et lumière show. It was not the party of the year. 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 $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. “I say these things because an even darker future, God forbid, lies ahead of you.” But the Shah was oblivious—and truthfully so were we. Who could have known that the sun would soon set on twenty-five hundred years? When we arrived, Shiraz was midway between anniversary and anarchy, wine and roses, history and histrionics.
Life here takes getting used to. The milk comes in glass bottles, never quite cold enough, with a thick dollop of cream afloat. There are no special surprises in cereal boxes. Weekends are Thursday and Friday. And when you ask, “How far till we get there?” you’ll get your answer in kilometers instead of miles.
For a month we’ve been living at the Kourosh Hotel, with a swimming pool and waiters who brought seconds of café glacé, but my parents say we’ve just rented a home at the foot of the mountains! My younger sister Katayoun wonders if we can take one of the hotel maids and I wonder, our house is very close to the mountains: Are there scorpions? My parents say, no, we cannot take a maid and the probability of scorpions is small, so we move in. In our new house there are two bathrooms: American, with a shower, toilet, sink. And Iranian, with a ceramic hole in the floor. There’s also a watering can to clean yourself, and a basin of water above, released by a pull string.
“Where is the toilet paper?” Katayoun asks.
“No toilet paper,” my father says. “Just a watering can. You scrub your bottom with your hand.”
I never heard of such tomfoolery. “Won’t your hands get dirty?”
“Eeewww,” Katayoun squeals and runs out.
Only three months here, and already I’m beginning to miss America. Also, it turns out there are scorpions. One night shortly after moving in, I’m doing homework when I notice one, holding his tail up and doing the lambada across my bedroom.
“Scorpion!” I shout. “There’s a scorpion in my room!”
My mother grabs a can of insecticide.
“Pif Paf? You’re going to kill it with Pif Paf?” I ask, incredulous.
But my parents head into the bedroom, armed with aerosol, and corner the scorpion. My mother sprays, and the scorpion runs toward my father, who catches the can and begins his line of attack. Back to my mom. Another pass, another burst. The scorpion is by now confused and congested and—judging from his jiggling tail—ready to unleash his deadly poison any second now. But the Pif Paf passes continue until we are all coughing in a cloud of aerosol and the scorpion has expired. My parents exchange glances—and abruptly break into high laughter. I could have died, I remind them.
I go closer to check: Dead. Covered in a thick layer of bug poison.
So’s my room, my clothes, my hair. Good work, I tell them, even though everything smells like Pif Paf. At least there are no more scorpions doing the lambada.
WEEKENDS, my father loves sitting with bazaar merchants. They don’t know what to make of him, a foreigner who doesn’t buy, just wants to have tea, thank you, and has only a cursory knowledge of Farsi. It isn’t for lack of trying, he just isn’t good with languages—and Farsi is a particularly difficult language for the Western tongue. He makes up for it with curiosity and enthusiasm. Sitting there with a small tea glass, vapors rising, he sees all facets of Shiraz: the shoeshine urchins, the tea boys, the old men with glasses so thickly ground that they appear deranged but in reality just need help focusing on the rapidly changing world, and the tribal women shopping for new fabrics. How they love gaudy colors! Hot pink, radioactive green, sunshine yellow. Dusty-faced and loudly dressed, they stalk the bazaars kicking up their skirts in layered, discordant rainbows, and as they pass my father they look at him hesitantly. “Salaam,” my father says, and they nod. It is these exchanges, small and dimly lit, that give my father immense hope about life in Iran.
Above us the mountains are buzzing with their own ecosystems. Springtime, the poppies release their red brilliance into the sunshine alongside the brambles, lizards, scorpions, and other denizens of life on Zagros, and on such days my father rises like a man possessed. “Come,” he says, to the chagrin of my sister and me, “today is a good day for mountain climbing.” He leads us upward, on the lookout for life, up and up until we’ve reached no particular place, but my father’s brought sandwiches, soft drinks, and fruit to enjoy, and we sit on a rock and look out over the Shiraz valley. Exhausted with scuffed knees, I wonder exactly what’s so great about mountain climbing. “Look, a lizard,” he says.
My father is a mystery to me.
Once, I notice he signs his checks W.A. instead of Max, which is what everybody calls him. When I ask why, he tells me, “I was born into difficult times. 1934. Lubbock, Texas. My parents didn’t have a lot of money. They wanted to name me Max, but along comes my uncle who offers them good money to name me after him, Walter Albert. He doesn’t have a son. My parents have a son but no groceries. That’s how I got my name.”
“Did it cost a lot to be a W.A.?”
“About two hundred dollars, I believe. Be grateful you have a name which is yours—no one’s ego, no money, no bribe, no groceries attached. Your name is yours alone.”
The alone part worries me. Cyrus sounds so responsible on the tongue. Dignified. So does Cyrus the Great, who, like all monarchs, was alone. And I see how with two names, three if you include Dr. Copeland, my father is still alone in the world. His story blindsides me. It raises a million questions. But the only one I ask is how much did my grandparents get for naming him Walter Albert? I could ask if it hurt having your parents sell your naming rights. But I’m afraid of the answer. I do not want a lot of introspection. I do not want to hear platitudes about the little people. I do not want to be exposed—one more time—to Max’s vulnerabilities. I want a father with no crevices or questions, who presents a united front to the world and doesn’t look to his son for understanding.
A father with one clear name and no confusion.
It wouldn’t hurt if he had a regular job either. Plumber, electrician, medical doctor, soldier, lawyer. Something concrete. But not Max. He’s got a job with Hughes Aircraft and a black briefcase into which that part of his life fits—papers, numbers, pencils, all the instruments of my father’s mind. Whenever he tries to explain his job, I think: “Dr. Copeland” is a trick, because there are no stethoscopes or prescriptions, and I wish he’d be something I can understand. At school if asked what he does, I say, “Hughes Aircraft employee,” and, if pressed, “consultant.”
I’ve heard him say this before and it sounds good.
He loves gardening. Inside my mother decorates, but outside he seeds, waters, and clips his way to contentment. Weekends when he’s not in the bazaar or up in the mountains, he is planting roses and morning glories, tomatoes and cucumbers—beauty and utility, side by side. He loves working the earth. Even the barren Shirazi earth, which is tough and leathery as a tribal woman. “Come, plant with me,” he says, surrounded by his Burpee seed packs, but I’m not one for dirtying my fingers. Maybe later?
My father’s garden is his salvation, his one path to happiness, or at least out of sadness. I don’t know what he’s got to be sad about—and I don’t want to know. When I see him alone in his garden, it reminds me how I don’t have real friends, how potentially alone I can be, too. I feel reserves of sadness rising, but who can you tell? When I see him in the garden, happy alone, sweat beading on his forehead and staining his shirt, I wish he were someone else. Later I would understand: My father’s garden equaled him. In its incandescent roses and quiet vegetables, he found the beauty and respect of his own private ecosystem. Entirely designed, cultivated, and nourished by him, reflective of him, available to him, the garden was insular and independent in its beauty.
Once, I find him on the living room floor trying to fix a radio. Transistor, batteries, wires, plugs: He is enclosed in a ring of disconnected, unworkable parts.
“Being electrocuted right now is about the best thing that could happen to me,” he says.
I don’t know why he’s upset—and don’t want to know. Instead of hugging him, I collect these moments and hold them against him, an inventory of shortcomings and vulnerabilities. “Remember the little people,” he says. And I think: Little? Like he’s Gulliver helping everyone else to build a better life, but really inside him is a vast loneliness because he’s in Lilliput—with different customs, different language, no friends really, smart-alecky kids, and broken radios.
He isn’t angry at the world, just himself. If Katayoun doesn’t put the dishes away, or if I give him lip, or if he has a Discussion With Your Mother, he rages—but only with words. He swears, degrading his own life, his fatherhood. His rage turns to sorrow, then to quiet. Sadness opens up inside him, sharp and beautiful as his morning glories, spreading its petals around his heart—and on such days he will take long walks around the neighborhood and into the mountains, and when he returns you can try to approach him for forgiveness, say you’re very sorry for giving him lip, and would he like an iced tea, here, but you will find him still hurt. He retires to bed with his Mary Renault novels, a shaft of light falling onto the pages, and he curls toward them embryonically, taking solace in history and a story that is not his.
Until, finally, he becomes a protagonist of his own invention.
Five years later in Tehran: My mother says he’s off hunting at night. But the truth is far more exciting—and less troubling—to me. He is in prison.
The first really cool thing he’s done. But this is more than I bargained for. Plumber, electrician, medical doctor, soldier, lawyer? Suddenly I have a coherent, precise definition of who my father is: Prisoner.
And for the first time I realize he isn’t the quiet, unassuming man I’d thought.
Sadegh Ghotbzadeh was once her suitor. They were enrolled in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in 1957 and saw one another with some regularity. He was handsome, though not in the conventional sense. His nose and mouth were a bit too wide. His forearms were massive, their forest of hair suggesting a coursing, untamed virility. And he was always worked up about something, which gave his otherwise sensitive eyes the sheen of indignation, passion, and strength. The thing she remembered most was his black hair, which fell in a cavalier flip over his forehead, giving Sadegh a part movie star, part ruffian look—a welcome departure from the Georgetown boys with duck haircuts.
Imagine telling an Iranian you liked his hair. She’d sooner have died.
They saw each other mainly on the weekends, but their relationship was marred by a fundamental problem. While Shahin focused on her studies, Sadegh wanted to take down the man to whom she’d pledged undying loyalty—the Shah. This made for an awkward friendship. While she pored over St. Thomas Aquinas and hobnobbed with Georgetown’s Jesuits, Sadegh led demonstrations through Washington’s wide avenues. She hunkered down in the Library of Congress. He ditched classes and read Victor Hugo, Engels, and Orwell in Farsi. They argued over politics, religion, and everything else.
When they weren’t arguing long enough to converse civilly, Sadegh spoke exultantly of his father—“Agha,”* he called him. Shahin found that ironic. He was not some high government official. He was a bazaar merchant whose son never had enough money on dates. She bit her tongue. She was a Maleki. Her father was mayor of Meshad, governor of Khorassan province, and patron saint of the impoverished who frequently returned home coatless—having encountered someone in greater need of garments. A real agha. Still, Sadegh’s reverence for his father touched her. At least he had one authority figure he did not want to burn in effigy or send to the gallows.
Rumors swirled about Sadegh. That he worked with the Libyan secret service. That he was CIA. That he had connections with the Communist parties in France and Italy. The last accusation was certainly false. Sadegh hated the Communists and took great strides to ferret them out of his own organization—the grandly titled Freedom Movement of Iran.
Once, the Washington Post published a photo of Sadegh, identifying him as an “Irate Student.” The Post had no idea. A talented organizer and passionate orator, Sadegh was tireless in expressing his hatred of the Shah and organized a series of sit-ins and protests in front of the Iranian embassy, during which the demonstrators put paper bags over their heads and shouted, “Death to the Shah!”
Disparaging Sadegh for hiding under the bag, Shahin chided him. “Are you embarrassed? Then show your face like a man.”
But Sadegh was a zealot, not a lunatic. He was aware of a constant threat that hung over the demonstrators: the Shah’s secret police. “I would. Look at this face! But who knows how SAVAK would retaliate?”
Their courtship was doomed from the start. Doomed—because while she respected him, he was so punch-drunk with his heated beliefs that conversation was impossible. He was magnetic. Time moved faster when she was with him. But conversation was like a tennis match with no volleys, just one hard serve after another. And then there was the fact that made rapprochement with the Peacock King impossible. Sadegh had been imprisoned under the Shah. And if Sadegh’s preoccupation with matters at home muted the development of a romantic relationship, it scuttled his academic career as well. When he skipped final exams to participate in his tenth demonstration of the semester, Georgetown had had enough. He was expelled.
So that was the story of Shahin and Sadegh. The courtship was brief and contentious. When it ended, Shahin never thought of Sadegh again.
Until twenty years later, when she did.
FEBRUARY 1, 1979: The ayatollah is triumphantly flying back to Iran after fifteen years in exile. Below, millions have gathered in anticipation, feverishly chanting “God is great” and “Khomeini is the imam.” The country is mad with anticipation—awaiting the man who vanquished a monarchy with fiery underground cassettes and pamphlets, and now orbits like a lighthouse beacon. He is their new savior. In the streets, a helicopter has dropped thousands of flowers in preparation for the ayatollah’s arrival. Soon the bloodshed will begin anew, but at least his return will be perfumed and pretty.
“How do you feel about coming home after all these years?” a reporter aboard the chartered 747 asks.
“Nothing. I feel nothing,” Khomeini says, staring out the window impassively.
“Nothing?” his translator asks, surprised.
Only, the translator knows a thing or two about public relations and says, “No comment,” to the reporter.
As the scene plays out on TV, Shahin leans forward to see that the translator is quite handsome . . . and suited . . . and Sadegh.
Sadegh, who in the intervening years had thrown in his lot with the ayatollah, gained his confidence, and now returned victorious to Iran. Mash’allah!* While she’d sworn fealty to a king now dying on another continent, Sadegh had befriended a lowly cleric who would become Time’s Man of the Year, launch Islamic fundamentalism, and soon execute those with whom she’d socialized.
Game. Set. Match.
Sadegh had not only befriended the ayatollah. He had written his speeches, done his shopping, selected his cologne (Eau Sauvage by Dior, he told a journalist, “and why not, there’s no law against smelling nice!”), and brokered the deal with Air France to fly him home. Within days of his return, Sadegh climbed to new heights of power. He assumed leadership of Iranian network TV, which he purged of leftists and royalists. He looked like a TV executive, too, always wearing a suit. His revolutionary brothers had chucked the necktie as a symbol of Western decadence, but Sadegh believed in insurgency and in style. Months later, in what must have been sweet remonstrance to Georgetown—the very institution that had turned him out for being too political—he was appointed foreign minister. No homecoming was ever more gratifying, no man more patient or prepared for success.
It is at just this point—the pinnacle of his life and the veritable pit of hers—that Shahin decides they should get reacquainted. And so the day after she confirmed her husband’s disappearance, choked his driver, and admitted she’d lost all sense of direction in Iran, Shahin pays Sadegh a visit.
“TELL MR. GHOTBZADEH that Shahin Maleki wishes to see him,” she announces to the desk clerk at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, using her maiden name.
“You and a hundred other people,” the man replies in observance of the growing crowd.
“Be quick about it, brother, I don’t have time.”
And she didn’t. Max had been missing for forty-eight hours. There must have been something plaintive in her voice because the clerk looked up, clicked his tongue, and dialed Sadegh’s office.
In the elevator, Shahin regards herself in the door’s reflection and makes a few adjustments. Armed with a small canister of Chanel No. 5, she spritzes herself and pulls her headscarf back slightly—exposing a lock of freshly colored hair. If Islamic beauty was a suggestive art, Shahin knew the brushstroke. The exact angle beyond which a headscarf would fall straight off, the dab of lipstick that rouged the cheeks no more than a brisk breeze, the drape of a manteau that best accented her figure.
Stepping back to appraise herself, she remembers their first date. Twenty years ago at Howard Johnson, Sadegh collapses in a booth, flush with the excitement of a successful sit-in at the embassy. A succession of dates flit across memory. Their first football game. The first time he concedes an argument. The night she tests his affections by dinner at an expensive restaurant—knowing he’ll eat noodles for a week afterward. Back then Shahin bore a strong similarity to Jackie Kennedy. More than once an awestruck debutante had asked her for an autograph. But now? There was no mistaking her for anything other than an anxious woman whose life was careening toward disaster. Naturally, the elevator doors open to a silver-templed, Italian-suited, even handsomer Sadegh than she remembered.
“You’d better behave,” she tells him by way of hello, “or I’m going to give you a kiss in front of everyone.”
“Oh, please don’t,” he laughs.
“There was a time you would have welcomed that.”
“Times have changed, Shahin khanoum. What brings you here?” Given their distant history and his new appointment she’d half expected a brush-off, but he leads her into his office. “Please. What can I do for you?”
Seeing the tufts of hair curling from his cuffs, Shahin smiles imperceptibly. Sadegh is still a bear of a man. His cologne is different, musky, French probably. He is a crossbreed of Islamic ideology and European flair—shot through with brute masculinity. She finds this oddly comforting.
It will make her act of sedition that much easier.
Three months prior to his disappearance, Max is seated alone on the living room floor. It is his fofty-fifth birthday. He has just finished pan-frying himself a burger when the lights go off, as they always did at 8:30, plunging Shiraz into darkness. Max lights a dozen candles and settles back down with a groan. The floor is bare. Carpets. Furniture. Family. All evidence of their onetime life in Shiraz has been packed up and replaced by the boxed belongings of other Americans—and Gordon Hall’s dog.
“Take care of him, he’s a rescue,” Gordon pleaded before leaving Shiraz.
Gordon Hall’s dog is the bane of Max’s existence. He pisses, barks, and craps everywhere, but until Max can figure out how to ship a dog through quarantine in England, then on to California where Gordon now lives, he’s stuck with the mutt.
What a way to spend his birthday, Max thinks.
There are random acts of aggression. There are acts of kindness. During a revolution, it is easy to confuse the two. Earlier, Max was out washing the car when a woman in a chador approached. “Are you American?” she asked. “Go home!” Then she grabbed the bucket of soapy water, gripped her chador between her teeth, and began washing the car. Max was transfixed. The revolutionaries usually preceded “Go home” with a “Yankee”—not followed it with a scrubbing.
“Why?” Max asked.
“I have a son in Texas and the Americans are kind to him,” she said, virtually pushing him away. “Please, go home! It is not safe for you.”
It was the only birthday present he received that year, but it recalibrated his expectations and reminded him of the Iran he’d once known: the hospitable country that opened to Max like an exotic hothouse flower. Then clamped itself shut with him inside.
She was right. It wasn’t safe. Martial law had been declared in the fall of 1978. There was a curfew from nine P.M. until six A.M. Soldiers manned strategic points throughout Shiraz, including Gas Circle, only three blocks from home and near the infantry training center where Max had taught English. In the center of Gas Circle stood a monument, maybe fifty feet high, erected by the Shah when oil prices had skyrocketed in 1972. A commemorative flame atop the column could be seen for miles around—a flickering reminder of Iran’s petroleum path back to greatness.
During the curfew, the power is shut off from 8:30 until 10:30. There had been occasional power outages before the current political crisis, so residents have spare candles and lanterns on hand. But these new blackouts go on for months. And while they provide the cover of darkness in which revolutionary ambitions grow and spread, the hours of darkness are especially difficult for Max. Shahin and the kids left for Tehran weeks ago, after their school closed. As Max sits alone in the candlelight with Gordon Hall’s dog—no family, no friends—his loneliness feeds on itself. He begins to suspect that this will not turn out well.
Outside, despite the curfew, the neighborhood churns with activity. Residents climb to the flat roofs of their houses. From the quiet comes the first cry: Allah-o-akbar. This is answered by another. And soon the calls come from numerous locations, young and old voices, predominantly from men and boys. This is the battle cry of the revolution.
Many nights, he climbs to the roof to listen to the growing chorus. Max recognizes more than a few voices. From across the street comes the cry of a wealthy bazaar merchant. He is answered by the chairman of the department of surgery at the university a block away. Soon others join in until the night rings with their voices—each house a minaret from which God’s greatness is proclaimed and the fires of revolution stoked.
“I too have heard the voice of your revolution,” the Shah said in his last televised address to the nation, months ago. “I promise the previous mistakes, unlawful acts, and injustice will not be repeated.”
But it was too late. The revolution had sparked and the coming fire could not be extinguished—and each death, each cry, each shared story of repression (true or not) was fuel on a flame that already burned brightly. Iran would rise like a phoenix yet again! Islam would fight the corruption of the West! A thousand times brighter than the fire atop Gas Circle, these twin flames would be so bright, so powerful, as to be seen the world over. The revolution was on.
Where did that leave the Americans?
Most left at the first signs of unrest. Hughes Aircraft, Westinghouse, Bell Helicopter, Xerox, and many other Fortune 500 firms had long since set up outposts here, which meant that by 1979, fifty thousand people had to be evacuated. Airplanes were full of fleeing Americans. They left behind luxurious homes, unpaid bills, houseplants, dogs they’d rescued from ditches, rooms stuffed with brand-name furniture, and thirty-six million Iranians who looked upon the fleeing Americans with a mix of sadness, contempt, and envy. Max wished they were leaving also and had discussed this many times with Shahin.
Generally their conversations were quiet. They treated each other with respect and affection. But discussions of nationalism struck an emotional chord. When an acquaintance disparages a relative and the whole family rushes to the relative’s defense—whether he deserves it or not—wise men scratch their chins and mutter, “Blood is thicker than water.” Well, the Copelands were Shahin’s family, but so was Iran. And the Copelands were Max’s family, but so was America. When Max suggested that the best policy might be to pull up stakes and go because Iran was not safe, Shahin reacted as though she had been personally insulted. Refinement and gentility were no longer the order of the day. Max had thrown down the gauntlet, and one proud daughter of Iran leaped to her homeland’s defense.
SHAHIN: Surely you’re not afraid of a few hoodlums?
MAX: The banks are closing. Electricity is rationed. There’s no kerosene. There are gunshots at night. Everyone is leaving. They’ve declared martial law, for God’s sake.
SHAHIN: Everyone? C’mon.
MAX: The Saravchis . . .
SHAHIN: Saravchi is CIA. Of course he’s leaving.
MAX: . . . the Johnsons, the Farmers, the Pascals, the Kendricks . . .
SHAHIN: I hear from the developer our new apartment will be ready in a few months. If we left now we would lose that. And my family is here! I can’t just leave them behind, can I?
MAX: I’m telling you, I have a bad feeling about this.
SHAHIN: What’s back in the U.S.? So a few revolutionaries are causing problems. It’s nothing. Our life is here. Let’s stay a few more months, see what happens.
So what happens? The Shah leaves. The schools close. The banks close. The ninth circle of hell breaks loose. Shahin and the kids move to Tehran to set up a new life in the capital.
And Max stays behind in Shiraz.
Nightly he sits by candlelight—cursing and daydreaming about a life back in America. He makes lists of all the animals on the farm he’ll buy if they ever return (chickens: 12, roosters: 1, pigs: 2, horses: 4). He writes his inventory on the backs of envelopes, on napkins, on scraps, anywhere but on the pages of books, which are sacrosanct to him. Some nights he just listens. He wants to commit all this to memory, for his life has finally converged with the history books he reads. It turns out he is more than an eyewitness. Unexpectedly, Max is a player.
A bit player at first. When Westinghouse approaches him to help shut down its operations, Max says yes. Westinghouse had hundreds of employees in Shiraz, and he is tasked with closing their homes, shipping or selling their possessions, and paying off their debts. A tough task in any climate, but in revolutionary Iran the difficulties of getting around, doing business, and communicating with his (admittedly atrocious) Farsi are magnified.
Still, he swings into action. After months of unemployment, that feels good.
More than three hundred people line up for his first sale at the home of the Kendricks, an American family who’d returned to Falls Church. Hoping to test a small bit of the market, Max had posted notices at two food stores in the city, and the market now overwhelms him. Inside the apartment, women clad head-to-toe in chadors avidly negotiate better prices while the men hurry from room to room to examine every bit of merchandise. Bargaining is the rule of the day. Every article of furniture, cooking utensil, plant, and decoration has been priced, but that is no deterrent to negotiation. It is a fire sale, bazaar-style, in an American home.
“Death to America, but long live her appliances,” Max jokes.
“I like this,” Dr. Deghan says, pausing before a chest of drawers for perhaps the fifth time, “but it’s overpriced.”
“It’s only six hundred tomans,” Max replies—about ninety dollars—“and the other discounts I’ve given you far exceed that.” It isn’t as though he can’t afford it. Dr. Deghan is not only the Kendricks’s landlord but also a physician who owns and operates his own clinic.
“Let me have it for three hundred.”
“We’re selling the furnishings of all the Westinghouse families to meet their obligations for rent, utility bills, and other financial obligations. Would you give the Kendricks a three-hundred-toman reduction in rent?”
“It’s different. Anyway, you will see—by the end of the day you will not be offered even three hundred tomans for this piece of furniture. Then you will ask me to kindly take it off your hands. I may not be interested in it later.”
By the end of the day the only unsold items are a fly swatter and a jaundiced houseplant. Max takes the proceeds—about ten thousand dollars—and pays off the help, the landlord (whose wife eventually bought the dresser with her own money), and the electric company, then mails a check for the balance directly to the Kendricks in Falls Church.
So it goes. He develops a routine: Advertise the week before (food stores were perfect—reliable traffic by all cross sections), three sales a day, Fridays off. He hires a beefy man named Almas to guard the door, while three others price and sell. They greet the multitudes joyously.
Selling hundreds of pieces of furniture every day, Max begins to fixate on things—one or two items per household—and invent histories. This bed? It was from here that insomniac Randy Budsman had watched the waiters and shopkeepers trudge home after their shifts. This sofa? On it the Farmer kids had sleepovers, built forts, and taught each other sign language by the light of the Shiraz moon filtering through window slats. Later he’d realize these were stories he’d brought forward from his own childhood, cut and pasted over other American identities in solidarity. In this way Max keeps the spirit of Americans alive after they leave—and his loneliness in a harness. He regains traction. Life has purpose. He turns away from his garden’s paltry offerings toward sturdier life forms—woods, plastics, metals—and in their commerce discovers what all great entrepreneurs know: There is joy in a good sale.
AT THE END OF THE SIXTH WEEK, he receives a call. The line crackles and echoes with a three-second delay—indicating an overseas caller. “Max? Max Copeland? George Demougeot here. I understand you’ve been doing a good job for us. How’re things in Shiraz? What time is it there?”
“Good. Who are you?”
“George Demougeot. Westinghouse. I’ve been getting calls from a lot of people asking me to thank you. Including a Gordon Hall. Did you ship a mutt from Tehran all the way to Encino?”
Table of Contents
Part 1 A Hunting Expedition 5
Part 2 The Forgotten Hostage 41
Part 3 Trial and Tribulation 99
Part 4 A Tale of Two Countries 175
Part 5 One Last Try 217
Part 6 An Experiment in Understanding 275
Epilogue: Paradaiza Lost 317
Author's Note 345
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I just finished Cyrus Copeland's amazing book "Off the Radar". For those of us who are children of Iran and America the book spoke to me so strongly. It took me back to my own memories and also revealed the intricacies and subtleties of Iranian/American relations in a poetic manner. To my Iranian friends, a must read. To my American friends who have lived in Iran or just curious about this mystical country it's a must read.
Off The Radar is a kind of oral history of events surrounding the Iranian Revolution. It is a story about a boy in search of his father and a man in search of his heritage. It puts a face on the conflicts of war and reveals the heart of the families that serve. The book is written from the human side of war. It gives a human perspective to historical events that today often become numbing endlessly-looped news feeds. For a first novel (and now winner of a national book award!), I was shocked that I had to force myself to stop reading and go to bed. I was riveted. A very perseverant effort in research and writing. Kudos for Cyrus Copeland and his family!