Answering violence with art: Salman Rushdie’s response to the knife attack that almost killed him

Salman Rushdie called it his “unfunny Valentine”. On 14 February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme leader, issued a fatwa calling on Muslims around the world to kill the author and placing a multimillion-dollar bounty on his head. What had prompted this death sentence? The previous year, Rushdie released his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, a book that some Muslims considered to be blasphemous because of its fictionalised, sometimes satirical portrayal of the prophet Muhammad. The Ayatollah’s decree turned Rushdie’s life upside down instantly, forcing the celebrated writer into hiding for a decade. It has cast a long shadow ever since.

There are few books over which so much blood has been spilt as The Satanic Verses. In 1991, the book’s Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was murdered; the Norwegian publisher and Italian translator were later viciously attacked. And in 2022, at a point when Rushdie was finally living what he called “a relatively normal” life, the writer was stabbed in a horrific attack on stage at a literary event in upstate New York. The incident left Rushdie blind in one eye and unable to use one of his hands. These injuries, though, haven’t held back the indomitable author from his work. This month sees the release of Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder, a memoir exploring the aftermath of the attack, which Rushdie has described as “a way to take charge of what happened, and to answer violence with art”.

By the late Eighties, Rushdie was one of the biggest names in contemporary literature. He was born to a wealthy, liberal Muslim family in Mumbai, then known as Bombay, in 1947, the year of the partition of India. At the age of 13, he was sent to England to attend Rugby School in Warwickshire, then later won a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge (which he had to be persuaded to take up by his father, fearing the university “would be a continuation of the same racist treatment” he’d experienced at Rugby). He began writing while working for the London ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, coining slogans like “that’ll do nicely” for American Express and “irresistibubble” for Aero chocolate bars. His debut novel Grimus came out in 1975, but it was his sprawling, often surreal second book, Midnight’s Children, a fantastical allegory of partition and its legacy, which made his reputation. It won the Booker Prize in 1981 (and has twice been declared the best ever Booker winner since then) and would go on to sell more than one million copies in the UK alone. Rushdie later admitted that pirate copies “probably sold 10 times as much as the legal edition” in India; the bootleggers would send the author birthday cards to thank him for making them rich.

The then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi took Rushdie to court over a single sentence in the book, one that seemed to imply she was responsible for the death of her husband (the case was settled when the writer agreed to remove the line). But this controversy would pale in comparison to the furore provoked by The Satanic Verses when it was published in September 1988. The book tells the story of two actors, both from Indian Muslim backgrounds, who are miraculously saved when a hijacked plane explodes over the English Channel. In the dream sequence which follows, Rushdie re-imagines Muhammad as a loosely fictionalised character named Mahound (used to refer to a false prophet since the time of the Crusades). He also invokes a contested episode in the prophet’s life, in which Satan inspires him to allow the worship of three pagan goddesses in Mecca; these “satanic verses” don’t appear in the standard version of the Quran, and the portrayal of a potentially fallible Muhammad was considered by some as deeply blasphemous.

Rushdie knew that his work would likely cause a stir. But he had no idea of the scale and speed of the backlash. “I expected a few mullahs would be offended, call me names, and then I could defend myself in public,” he said in 1992. India and Pakistan banned the book in late 1988; the following year, six protesters died in an attack on the American Cultural Centre in Islamabad. Copies of the book were burned in Bradford, England.

And then came the fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini, broadcast on Iranian radio, condemning Rushdie, “along with all the editors and publishers aware of its contents” to death (Khomeini’s son would later admit that his father had never read The Satanic Verses). That 14 February was also the funeral of the author Bruce Chatwin, a close friend of Rushdie. After the ceremony, fellow novelist Paul Theroux darkly joked that “next week, we’ll be back here for you”. The UK government immediately provided Rushdie with a round-the-clock security detail.

In the five months immediately following the fatwa, Rushdie and his then-wife Marianne Wiggins moved 56 times, with the writer using the fake name “Joseph Anton” (a nod to Conrad and Chekhov). Their first stop was the Lygon Arms, a hotel in the Cotswolds. The protection team had asked Rushdie where he wanted to spend the weekend; thinking the media storm would soon abate, he simply chose a venue that he had always fancied visiting. “The general view then was that this was such an absurdity that it would not be allowed to persist,” he later told GQ. “And that if I just lay low for a few days, the politicians would sort it out.” A married tabloid journalist was staying in the room next door with his girlfriend, with no idea that the potential scoop of his life was on the other side of his bedroom wall. Rushdie then headed to Wales, where his former agent Deborah Rogers owned a farm. It was a very literary double bluff: Rogers’s bolthole seemed an improbable spot for the writer to take shelter, as his recent departure from her company had been well-discussed in the press.

From there, the couple kept on moving. Fractures started to occur in their marriage. Rushdie and Wiggins announced their break-up in July that year, a split that the author put down to “the tension of being at the centre of an international controversy, and the irritations of spending all hours of the day together in seclusion”. Living in a string of safe houses and constantly accompanied by his Secret Service minders, Rushdie watched Dynasty re-runs and became, by his own admission, “a master of Super Mario [Bros] I and II”. He continued to write too: Blake Morrison, then the literary editor of The Observer, said that Rushdie still managed to meet the deadline for a review of the latest Philip Roth novel, days after he had been spirited away by the security services. In 1990, he released In Good Faith, a defence of The Satanic Verses and an exploration of his life after the fatwa, and a children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, written for his son Zafar; another novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh, followed in 1995.

The literary world, for the most part, rallied around Rushdie; some of his fellow writers organised readings of The Satanic Verses and even, like Rogers, housed him for short stints. But there were a few outliers. John le Carré famously refused to back Rushdie, as he believed “that there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity”. And although the British government had provided him with security, politicians weren’t necessarily on his side: Tory MP Norman Tebbit branded Rushdie an “outstanding villain” in the pages of The Independent, describing his life as “a record of despicable acts of betrayal of his upbringing, religion, adopted home and nationality”.

The controversy only seemed to strengthen Rushdie’s commitment to free speech. “What is freedom of expression?” he asked in In Good Faith. “Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” In an address at Columbia University the following year, he described free speech as “life itself” – and the attack in the summer of 2022 certainly proved it could be a matter of life or death. In 1998, Iran seemed to backtrack slightly on the fatwa, claiming it would “neither support nor hinder” Rushdie’s killing. Two years later, he moved to New York, where he lived comparatively freely. In 2022, he told the German magazine Stern that his security precautions had relaxed over the years, and that the fatwa felt like “long ago”. On 12 August, he had been due to give a lecture on artistic freedom at the Chautauqua Institution, but as he arrived on stage, a man rushed towards him, stabbing him around a dozen times and injuring interviewer Henry Reese. The attack left Rushdie on a ventilator and unable to speak; he would spend around six weeks in hospital. Hadi Matar, 24 at the time of the attack, was arrested and charged with one count of second-degree attempted murder and another of second-degree assault; he has pleaded not guilty, and the trial is set to take place later this year.

Typing remains a challenge for Rushdie, as he still lacks feeling in some fingertips. The creative process has been fraught too. “I sit down to write, and nothing happens,” he told The New Yorker last year. “I write, but it’s a combination of blankness and junk, stuff that I write and that I delete the next day.” But even if the attack has made writing itself difficult, it seems that Rushdie remains undaunted – and that this life-changing episode will not diminish the scope of his imagination. “I could write frightened or revenge books, and both would make me a creature of the event,” he has said. “So I thought: be the writer that you want to be.”

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