For the first time Salman Rushdie tells his own story of the decade following the fatwa that was placed upon by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. Following that death sentence the author’s life was not his own anymore as he had to stay away from his family and lived under constant surveillance by members of Scotland Yard.
Born in 1947 in India novelist Salman Rushdie was living in London when he wrote The Satanic Verses. It was his first novel for his new New York agent. Despite the fact that it was fiction many members of the Islamic faith took it as a condemnation of their faith. It was seen as an attack on Islam, Muhammad and the Koran. Book burnings were being held and rage against the book was building. It was banned in twelve Muslim countries like India, Tanzania, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Rushdie did not at first realize how much his life was going to change.
As a result the Iranian leader at the time, the Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa against Rushdie. The fatwa also extended to anyone with any association with the novel including his publisher, agent and family. Rushdie was 41-years-old at the time and he believed that he would not live long enough to see his 42nd birthday.
Rushdie and his second wife, novelist Mariann Wiggins, were going through marital problems at the time, but they could not really work on it. They could not even return to their home. Rushdie was really worried about his young son, Zafar. It got even worse when an Iranian cleric offered $1 million for Rushdie’s murder.
The fact that every Muslim was supposed to try to kill him put Salman Rushdie in mortal peril. This danger extended to his family including his then 9-year-old son. Scotland Yard offered him police protection though at the time they thought it was only going to take a few days to sort it all out.
In order to stay as safe as possible Rushdie began living in safe houses and places given to him by friends. He stayed at a farm in Wales and other hideouts during the next ten years. Rushdie has said that he felt a sense of shame due to the hiding.
The danger was real and was not only aimed at Rushdie. His Japanese editor was killed. His Italian translator was stabbed. A Norwegian publisher was the first to publish the paperback version of the novel. He was shot twice outside his house.
After a few years living like this Salman met his third wife, Elizabeth West. The two bought a house in Hampstead. They lived there together for seven years. Then Rushdie moved to New York City. A son named Milan was born in 1999 around the tenth anniversary of the fatwa.
Around that time it was declared by the Iranian government that they would not make any attempt on Rushdie’s life. The fatwa was never lifted, but they would no longer pursue it. In response to this Rushdie decided to begin living a very public life.
Salman Rushdie released his memoir of the time entitled Joseph Anton in 2012. BBC got access to the author, his family, friends, and business associates to construct this documentary. Watching the film really brought back all the feelings attached to this like it was happening now. Made it all fresh. Alan Yentoub is the interviewer and the two men have had a relationship for many years. Though I was at first a little doubtful about a personal friend doing the interview I later realized that no one else would have been granted this type of access to the man and his family.
Just thinking about the fatwa and the ensuing violence between the Muslim world and the West made an interesting link in my mind. It is almost impossible not to make a connection between this death sentence and the attack on the U.S. on 9/11. Intolerance between the two sides has grown since.
Despite what you might think about him, Rushdie is a fascinating subject. His perceived arrogance and insistence on remaining high profile rubbed many the wrong way. Even if this is true no one deserved to live the kind of hell he went through for a decade. Living knowing that you could be killed at any moment has got to wear on a person. In the interviews that Yentoub conducted with him Rushdie comes off as intelligent, defiant, funny, and yes, self-congratulatory. Beyond all that the man was very likeable.
What really struck me while watching this was how people reacted to Rushdie’s death sentence. His fellow authors both in England and the U.S. literally stuck their necks out defending his right to freedom of speech. In England a group of authors gained an audience with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and beseeched her to put pressure on the Iranian government to back down. On the other side of the Atlantic, in the United States authors were hosting public readings of The Satanic Verses to show their solidarity. When he began to live a more public life again people did not stay away from him fearing getting caught up in an attempt on his life. Rushdie says that people actually drew nearer to him.
It has been over ten years without police protection and there haven’t been any incidents. Though it is not guaranteed 100% that a random psycho won’t attack him.