At one point in the British film My Son the Fanatic, scripted by Hanif Kureishi and based on his short story, a white comedian performing in the 1990s in a club in the northern English town of Bradford begins referring to the sole non-white member of the audience (played by Indian actor Om Puri) as “Salman Rushdie.”
Between crude as well as racist taunts, the comic makes a terrifying statement regarding his hapless and unwilling Rushdie dummy: “If there’s any of [Iranian President Hashemi] Rafsanjani’s mates in here, slip me a tenner and I’ll shoot the bastard for ya.”
Such a remark, even if made jokingly, exemplifies the hostility Rushdie endured from many fellow Britons following the 1988 publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. That work incited Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder and supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, to issue a 1989 fatwa, or legal ruling, calling on faithful Muslims to murder the author for blasphemy.
“Polls taken after the ‘Rushdie Affair’ began,” writes Rushdie in his new memoir Joseph Anton, in which he refers to himself in the third person, “showed that a large majority of the British public felt he should apologize for his ‘offensive’ book.”
Joseph Anton derives its title from the names of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, two of Rushdie’s favorite writers. (Rushdie may like the writers, but he did not want to become someone else; he refers to himself in the third person apparently to emphasize his discomfort with his new moniker.) “Joseph Anton” became the name Rushdie used for everything but writing during the decade he spent in hiding and under police protection. “His own name was worse than useless,” he recalls. “[I]t was a name that could not be spoken, like the name Voldemort in the then-unwritten Harry Potter books.”
Rushdie, who moved to Britain from his native India at the age of 13, expresses profound gratitude to those Britons who stood by him throughout his ordeal. These include family, friends, several fellow writers and public figures, the anti-censorship organization “Article 19,” the police officers who guarded him and ordinary decent folk. (He also thanks his supporters around the world, including several Arabs and Muslims, and repeatedly writes of his sorrow regarding the deaths of demonstrators protesting his book in the Indian subcontinent, the murder of his Japanese translator and the wounding of his Italian translator and Norwegian publisher.)
Without question, however, the open contempt many Britons exhibited toward him, unconcerned as they were for the plight of a British citizen of Indian origin, turned him off the country. Rushdie moved to the United States in the early 2000s—once the fatwa had all but receded into oblivion—where he has remained.
Rushdie’s relationship with another country, his native India, features even more prominently in Joseph Anton, and proves fascinating.
“He was a writer for whom India had been the deepest wellspring of his inspiration.” But India became the first country to ban The Satanic Verses. Worse, India refused to issue Rushdie a visa for more than a decade. (The writer likely lost his Indian citizenship when he became a citizen of the United Kingdom, as India prohibited dual nationality until recently.) That Rushdie continued plunging successfully into that wellspring for novels such as Haroun and the Sea of Stories (a children’s book written for his first son) and The Moor’s Last Sigh attests to the mixture of vivid imagination and resilient memory animating his work: “He thought of [Somali novelist] Nuruddin Farah carrying Somalia in his heart wherever he traveled, and was proud that he had managed to write [The Moor’s Last Sigh] from the private India he carried everywhere with him.”
It is advisable to take Rushdie’s “Offensive, moi?” protestations regarding The Satanic Verses with a grain of salt, especially as he allows, every so often, that he meant for the novel to challenge (if not undermine) conventional notions of religion and revelation.
Rushdie recounts an experience shortly before the publication of the novel, when he was a guest on a British radio program in which interviewees list eight songs or pieces of music they would want to have with them if stranded on a desert island. Somewhat mischievously, Rushdie notes, “[One] of his choices was, perhaps, the music playing beneath the text of his new novel: ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ by the Rolling Stones.”
The Satanic Verses proved the second of Rushdie’s novels to change his life. The first, Midnight’s Children (1980), earned the Booker Prize in 1981. (In 1993, it would receive the “Booker of Bookers”—an award for the best book of the first 25 years of Booker winners—and in 2008 it would win the “Best of the Booker.”) While Midnight’s Children grapples with the creation of modern-day India in 1947, The Satanic Verses tackles the nature of divine revelation, with allusions to verses endorsing polytheism that Islam’s Prophet Muhammad initially claimed to have received from God via the Archangel Gabriel (as was the norm for Quranic revelations), but subsequently disavowed as having originated with the Devil.
The novel aroused many Muslims’ ire due to its depiction of one “Mahound” and his vilification at the hands of detractors. Though a fictitious prophet dreamed up by one of the novel’s protagonists, Mahound calls to mind a historical antecedent—the pejorative version of “Muhammad” applied to Islam’s prophet by Western Christian polemicists in medieval times. The religion Mahound propagates? Islam, as viewed by its enemies. Determining where authorial voice begins and ends in the novel proves next to impossible.
Ultimately, the furor over The Satanic Verses came to be seen as a watershed moment in the globalization of radical Islam. In today’s world of Internet and satellite television, we find it commonplace for violent protests to erupt in any number of countries over insults, real and imagined, to Islam. In 1989, the phenomenon was unprecedented. It was similarly unheard of for a Muslim cleric—even one such as Khomeini, at his entire nation’s helm—to call for the death of a citizen of another country.
The watershed moment, of course, spanned a decade or more. Joseph Anton, for which Rushdie relied on his journals to recall his activities, literary pursuits, living arrangements, romantic relationships and inner turmoil during that period, never loses sight of the most important issue at hand … one much bigger than the relative merits of The Satanic Verses or the travails of its author.
The singular issue is freedom of speech—even when it extends to subjects that many consider sacrosanct.
Rushdie, who removed a sentence from Midnight’s Children in 1984 in response to a defamation lawsuit filed by Indira Gandhi, then-Prime Minister of India (a subject he does not address in Joseph Anton), did waver when it came to defending The Satanic Verses, an experience he covers here in a forthright, intense manner. A couple of years after the fatwa, Rushdie issued an apologetic statement largely prepared for him by several Muslim figures with whom he sought an end to his predicament. He followed this move with the publication of an essay entitled “Why I Am a Muslim,” in which he disingenuously portrayed himself as a believer, instead of someone influenced—shaped, even—by Indian Muslim culture, but devoid of religious faith.
Conscience-stricken, he soon regretted his action (which, at any rate, failed to mollify his more strident critics). He then regained his resolve and shed his conciliatory tone.
Rushdie remained in hiding for several more years, an experience that took its toll on him and his loved ones. Yet eventually an increasingly pressured Iran distanced itself from the late Khomeini’s fatwa, most of its supporters around the world melted away, and Salman Rushdie, who had held fast to freedom of speech, recovered his freedom of movement … and the use of his name.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut, Lebanon.