Salman Rushdie, hero of free expression, will write about the fatwa
Salman Rushdie, by any measure the most important writer of the past 30 years, announced this week plans to write a book about the decade he spent in hiding after Iranian tyrant Ayatollah Khomeini placed a bounty on his head. Ironically, a British bookseller says such a book would sell better than anything Rushdie’s written in years.
Rushdie’s remarks came Tuesday at Emory University, where an exhibit of his personal papers opens on Friday, according to the Associated Press.
“It’s my story and at some point it needs to be told,” Rushdie told assembled reporters. “That point is getting closer, I think.”
Now 62, Rushdie was forced into hiding in Great Britain after Khomeini, Iran’s religious and political ruler, issued a “fatwa” against the Anglo-Indian writer for his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses.
“This is one of the most fascinating chapters in recent literary history,” Jon Howells, of the British bookstore chain Waterstone’s, told the Guardian. “The ironic thing is that this may be his most commercial book in years.”
Taking offense at what he considered sacrilegious depictions of the Prophet Mohammed in the book, Khomeini declared it every Muslim’s duty to murder Rushdie on sight, and offered a $3 million reward. A secular Muslim, Rushdie went into hiding for the next decade, protected by British police.
Already one of the most honored writers in the world — his 1981 novel Midnight’s Children has won the Man Booker Prize three times — Rushdie refused to be silenced by the fatwa, producing a string of novels during his decade underground, including Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) and The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999).
After the Iranian government, seeking normal relations with Britain, promised not to pursue the fatwa in 1998, Rushdie gradually emerged into public life again. By the time of the 2001 terror attacks, he was living openly in New York. He’s written steadily, producing novels such as Fury (2001), Shalimar the Clown (2005), and The Enchantress of Florence (2008).
Rushdie has also traveled whenever and wherever he likes, and without bodyguards. I’ve had the chance to meet him in South Florida several times in recent years. In 2008, I chatted with him in the rabbi’s office at Temple Judea in Coral Gables before he took the stage to address a sold-out crowd of some 600 book lovers.
He sipped vodka behind the rabbi’s desk, greeting well wishers. He expounded freely on literature and politics, but unlike many celebrated brainiacs, Rushdie was also clearly interested in hearing what other people in the room had to say. You could see the gleam of active listening in his famous hooded eyes.
Even without the fatwa and the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses, Rushdie would be a major world writer. But with them, he becomes the most important writer alive — more famous than Stephen King, more politically significant than Vaclav Havel, more honored than almost anyone.
The fatwa, which occasioned riots in Muslim cities worldwide, and bomb threats against Rushdie’s publishers and booksellers, prefigured the cultural tension between Islamic fundamentalism and Western liberalism that came to the forefront after 9-11.
I should note that Iran has never rescinded the fatwa, but merely agreed not to push it. Theoretically, Rushdie is still subject to assassination.
“I returned to public life just by wanting to,” Rushdie said that evening in the rabbi’s office. “Yes, there is an agreement with Iran, but in the end it’s your head. If I wait for the moment when it’s 100 percent fine, that moment will never come.
“I think that has a wider implication than me. There’s nothing like 100 percent security, only levels of insecurity. Once you accept that, you’re free.”