Rushdie recounts life in hiding

Author Salman Rushdie addressed an audience of more than 300 in a Tuesday afternoon talk at the Yale University Art Gallery.
Author Salman Rushdie addressed an audience of more than 300 in a Tuesday afternoon talk at the Yale University Art Gallery. Photo by Jacob Geiger.

On the morning of Valentine’s Day in 1989, Salman Rushdie woke to the news that an entire region of the world wanted him dead.

Rushdie, a celebrated and controversial British Indian author, was forced to live in hiding under police protection for nearly a decade after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran from 1979 to 1989, issued a religious decree, or fatwa, calling for his death. The order came because of allegations that Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses was a blasphemous insult against Islam. In a Tuesday afternoon talk at the Yale University Art Gallery, Rushdie addressed an audience of more than 300 to speak about his works, political interests and experiences of isolation following the publication of his controversial novel.

“I’ve never been the kind of writer who kept a detailed journal,” Rushdie began. “I was never a writer of that kind, until I acquired the curse of an interesting life. When the whole [controversy] began, things moved at very great speed and I remember thinking, ‘Write this, or you’ll never remember it.’”

Rushdie was born in India in 1947 and worked as a copywriter before becoming a full-time writer and publishing “Midnight’s Children,” his first novel. He received first notice of the death warrant against him in 1989 via a phone call from a BBC journalist and remembers it as a “clearly bewildering moment,” because he did not know whether to take the threat seriously.

But soon, the threat became all too real. In the months following the death warrant, Rushdie and his wife were forced to move over 50 times, staying in homes that various friends graciously offered to vacate.

“There was this extraordinary attack, and hatred, coming in my direction, but the thing that defended me was friendship,” Rushdie said, adding that it was an “extraordinary act of collective solidarity” to see his friends in the literary community come to his aid and provide for his safety.

In response to an audience question from Zola Chihombori Quao ’13 about having to live in constant motion and secrecy, Rushdie said his life was irreversibly changed in the aftermath of the death warrant. Unable to “go home ever again” and forced to live in strict conditions with police officers at all times, Rushdie said he had to spend much of the money that he made from his novel on his own housing and physical security.

Responding to another question about the offense that certain literary works like The Satanic Verses have caused among some communities, Rushdie said he believes that the amount of offense a work causes irrelevant to its inherent value.

“If we could prevent things from happening because we were offended by them, it would empty all the bookstores and close the cinemas,” Rushdie said. “Nobody could say anything. Many people in many parts of the world think that the things that offend you are the things that define you — I think it’s a very dangerous thing to define yourself by what angers you.”

Jokingly, Rushdie said he is not a fan of fiction writer Dan Brown, but added that “he should be allowed to live.”

Rushdie is the author of nine novels and numerous other children’s and non-fiction works, including an autobiography of his time spent in hiding entitled “Joseph Anton: A Memoir.”

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