Salman Rushdie talks about fatwa, new memoir

Story and photo by Timothy Gillis

PORTSMOUTH, NH –
Best-selling novelist Salman Rushdie spoke at the Music Hall last week, about his new memoir called “Joseph Anton” and the life he lived in fear since the 1989 “fatwa,” or death sentence, imposed on him by the Ayatollah Khomeini.

The fatwa was for his allegedly blasphemous novel “The Satanic Verses,” which Rushdie said is actually one of his least political works, much less so than “Midnight’s Children,” which took on the public life of India or “Shame,” which was based on “genuine political confrontation” in Pakistan.

Rushdie seems to have weathered the storm, though the 600-page book is a harrowing account of the effects of the fatwa decree, including the dissolution of a dying marriage, his raising of his nine-year-old son, and living with a 24-hour security detail from Scotland Yard.

He was shocked at the reaction to “Satanic Verses,” especially the accusations in the British press that he did it on purpose to attract attention.

“‘Joseph Anton’ is how my real life turned into a novel, stranger than anything I had ever made up,” Rushdie said.

A dream sequence from the work, in particular, seemed to incite Islamic tension. Rushdie read from this episode to start his talk, and emphasized that “Satanic Verses” was a novel “primarily about migration,” he said.

“In the middle of it there was this dream sequence… about a prophet, not called Muhammad, living in a city, not called Mecca, inventing a religion not called Islam. And the person having the dream was losing his mind and going insane. This is what we, in the trade, call ‘fiction.’ Unfortunately, it wasn’t read like that.”

The serious thing that this passage talked about, Rushdie said, was the nature of revelation, or “how does a new idea come into the world?” Also integral to the contentious passage was “what do you do when you are strong? When your enemies are at your mercy?”

After a short break, Rushdie returned to the stage with Virginia Prescott, host of Word of Mouth, for an interview. The Music Hall house band Dreadnaught played the Platters “Great Pretender,” and Rushdie noticed the tune and sang along.

Prescott asked how Islamic culture has changed since he was a child. Rushdie said he grew up in a house that was “happily godless,” where his father and his father’s friends would discuss whatever they wanted. Rushdie was free to think and express himself. That did not mean his opinions went uncontested. There just wasn’t a threat of violence for unapproved thoughts. Then came Valentine’s Day, 1989, when the fatwa was issued, and there began “the difference between rhetoric and reality,” said Rushdie, exasperated after all this time at the extreme reaction.

“Books are books. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. This is why they have books by more than one person in bookstores,” he said. The United States is a very divided country, he pointed out, where half the people are often saying things that the other half of the country can’t stand, “but it doesn’t occur to either half to burn the country down.”

Rushdie was often light-hearted and humorous on the night, belying the years of living in fear. Asked if he was still fearful or looking over his shoulder, Rushdie motioned to the audience and said “Look, there are hundreds of them in the dark. They don’t seem that scary.”

Audience reaction to Rushdie was overwhelmingly supportive of his plight, even if many in attendance knew more about his life’s story than his written works.

Peter Randall, a filmmaker on local farms, was invited to the talk by a friend. He said he was interested in the whole story of Rushdie and the fatwa against him.

“It’s ridiculous,” Randall said. “I don’t understand why people get so upset about something written. An act, I can see, but it’s just words.”

Henry Linscott said he was in grammar school when the fatwa was issued. “I didn’t know what the book was about, but it sounded scary.”

Twenty-four years after the fatwa, Rushdie feels it’s “get-along time” now and looks forward to discussing the literary merits of “Satanic Verses,” a work which has been analyzed through political and religious lenses, but has remained unstudied in the language of literature.

Rushdie said he is proud of the novel, but would have changed its history if he could. Related to the “Satanic Verses,” an Italian translator was stabbed, a Norwegian publisher was shot, and a Japanese publisher was killed.

Rushdie lived in hiding, in England first and then in the United States, and tried to provide a normal life for his young son.

“Joseph Anton” tells of his hidden life and was his alias with the police, based on two of his favorite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. His case, called Operation Malachi, was considered the most dangerous assignment for the police, and they served by volunteering instead of being required to do so. Despite the disdain from some higher-ups who didn’t feel he had done anything to deserve their protection, hadn’t “performed a service to the state,” Rushdie grew close to many of the police officers who were protecting him. He thought they had it tougher than he did, since “sitting around, looking out the window, wondering what to do next” was the typical life for a writer.

“Joseph Anton” was originally written in the first person, a standard voice for a memoir, but Rushdie changed it to third-person.

“I had to get beyond the anger and resentment. That’s why I waited so long to write it,” he said. The objective voice also gives him some emotional distance and allows him to write more “novelistically.”

“The thing about an autobiography, in the end, is to tell the truth,” he said. “Otherwise, why write it?”

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