The attack on Salman Rushdie yesterday in Chatauqua, New York, which came close to succeeding – he received damage to his liver, nerve damage in one arm, possibly a lung puncture (he is on a ventilator) and may lose an eye – was a shock to me, but not a surprise.
Those who have read Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton, my favorite of his books, knew that the fatwa instituted by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini on Feb 14,1989 because of the book The Satanic Verses, was still in place.
The Ayatollah called Rushdie an ‘apostate’, meaning someone who has abandoned his religion. But Rushdie has always been deeply interested in Islam, and concerned about it’s future.
‘Joseph Anton’ was the name Rushdie chose to use during his 10 years in the protection of the British secret service. The name is a construct of the first names of two of his favorite authors – Joseph Conrad and Anton Checkov.
The Satanic Verses, by the way, was not a shallow entertainment as some people have suggested. Rushdie’s university degree was in history and his books all reflect this. In the case of Satanic Verses, his own father had worked seriously on a book about three Arabian pagan goddesses that Muhammad allegedly included in the Quran, then deleted saying the Devil made him do it. In Joseph Anton, Rushdie explains that in detail. The Satanic Verses was an attempt at rescuing history, as is Joseph Anton.
His account of that time is often frightening (many innocent people were killed or badly injured, and bookstores were firebombed by the pursuers of Rushdie, or their would-be followers). It’s often funny too, because Rushdie’s sense of humor is instinctual, though highly developed. Even in the face of a death-sentence, he didn’t lose it. Joseph Anton is a fascinating look at how different the world becomes when you become human prey.
When I finished the book I was left with a foreboding about Rushdie’s future. With his secret service guardians gone, I wished I could talk to him about it, or even accompany him sometimes. Today it’s disturbing, but not surprising, to learn that the fatwa reward may not only remain, but allegedly has had several increases from the original reward money, maybe to adjust for inflation. I also learned today that every February 14th, year after year, Rushdie has received a ‘valentine’ reminding him that the fatwa was still in place. Think of that.
Yesterday, one of his enemies almost succeeded. But it’s gratifying to think that something or someone is still protecting him.
Here is Joseph Anton at Amazon Books where, if you click on ‘Look Inside’ you can read much of a very compelling intro, that is hyper-relevant this morning: