Things I Learned From Salman Rushdie – Winnipeg Free Press

Things I Learned From Salman Rushdie – Winnipeg Free Press


In April I read an article from the Associated Press in the Free press headlined “Has Salman Rushdie changed after his stabbing?”

It was a fair question, and one that many people wanted answered. But the question that burns inside me – then and now – turns that headline on its head: did the attack on Salman Rushdie change us?

Have we learned anything from the experience of a writer whose life was literally at stake for his work and for the right to free speech and self-expression, since February 14, 1989?

Evan Agostini / Associated Press files

Author Salman Rushdie survived a brutal knife attack in New York in 2022. He spent years in hiding after a bounty was placed on his head for his book The Satanic Verses.

Much has been written, including by Rushdie himself, about the date a fatwa was issued and a bounty placed on his head by the Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses.

Thirty-three years later, on August 12, 2022, when the author was stabbed multiple times by a would-be assassin in Chautauqua, New York, I had just finished reading Rushdie’s book The ground beneath her feetFor days and weeks, I compulsively scanned news sites for any word about his condition, while my brain kept repeating a mantra: Please let him live.

Because I realized then that Rushdie’s well-being—his continued proud life and creative work in the face of the constant threat of death—was greater than one man’s existence; it was a powerful and inspiring symbol of freedom. As Rushdie recovered and underwent physical therapy in New York, I read The Satanic Verses and wondering what all the hate was about. It is certainly a dense book — layered, searching, playful, hypothetical, and exploratory — but I found it hard to believe that his writing, masterful as it is, could have been a death sentence, not just for the author himself, but for the publishers and translators as well.

But the black arrows did indeed come towards them, Rushdie recalled in his memoirs Joseph Anton (2012), looking for him and others, and who knew where and when they would strike:

“When it begins, it is all about him; it is individual, particular, specific. No one feels inclined to draw conclusions from it,” writes Rushdie. “It will be a dozen years or more before the story grows until it fills the sky, like the Archangel Gabriel standing on the horizon, like a few aeroplanes crashing into tall buildings, like the plague of murderous birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s great film.”

In Joseph Anton (the pseudonym Rushdie used while in hiding), he describes finding a new sense of freedom in the United States. But in 2002, Rushdie returns to London, England — a place where he had spent most of the previous decade under police protection. And on one particularly auspicious day, he is told that the threat against him in the U.K. has diminished dramatically. At the end of Joseph AntonIn the film, we see Rushdie, stunned and relieved by this news, as he walks out of a hotel and hails a taxi. The simple gesture says so much: the autonomy to choose your own path, to go out in public without fear, to get in a taxi and just go.

But for Rushdie, those murderous birds were still circling, and would arrive in the form of a 24-year-old New Jersey man with a knife in his hand. The author was stabbed 15 times in 27 seconds on stage, blinding him in one eye and wounding his face, head, hand, neck, chest and thigh. Rushdie was about to give a speech about the importance of protecting writers. In KnifeIn his compelling account of the 2022 attack and its aftermath, he writes:

“Art is not a luxury. It is at the core of our humanity and asks for no special protection except the right to exist. It accepts arguments, criticism, even rejection. It does not accept violence.”