The year of the fatwa, an acquaintance of ours hurried to a Walden Books store that still had copies of the book. He had called around to find them, only to be told time and again that they had been packed up and returned. This one outlet had not yet sent them back and he asked—demanded, really—that they not, he would come in and buy them all. I’m not sure why they believed him, but he told us afterward that as soon as he walked into the store all the employees showed stark terror. He was dark, black hair, what you might call Mediterranean. He looked to them, apparently, Arabic.
They had ten copies and he did in fact buy them all. He gave us one, which we still have. It’s a First Edition, second printing.
Until this global scandal and the media coverage attendant upon it, I had never heard of Salman Rushdie. This, I learned, was his fourth novel. Prior to this he was among the literary writers praised by academies, taught in creative writing courses, and of little interest to me as I was at that time pouring all my energies into trying to become a published writer of science fiction. What Rushdie wrote, I discovered, was from the literary borderlands known as magic realism, which put him in company with Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Manuel Puig and, to some degree, Carlos Castenada.
I read The Satanic Verses from a kind of voyeuristic viewpoint—what is there here that might earn a death sentence for the author? There was a sensationalist aspect to it all that was related to books that had been banned or challenged, books that had stirred public outcry or denunciation. The celebrity of the circumstance drew in readers and I confess that I wondered very briefly if this were as serious as it seemed. But bookstores, especially the chains, were yanking the book from shelves out of fear of reprisals, so if this was a promotional gimmick it was backfiring horribly. My suspicions along those lines did not last long and as details emerged, it became clear that the Ayaltollah Khomeini had indeed decreed a reward for Rushdie’s death for blasphemy.
Part of the privilege of living in America, at least until recently, is the security of greeting that kind of news with complete dismay. You don’t kill someone for blasphemy. What does that even mean? (As the Religious Right has gained more prominence in public awareness, we may be learning that.) It’s a novel, for goodness sake! Fiction!
And at some point you wonder, just how thin-skinned can they be?
After reading the novel, I was still baffled. The title and the events referred to by it are part of the lore and tradition involved. As far as I could learn, Rushdie misrepresented none of it. I honestly could not see cause for an accusation of blasphemy, but then, I am not Muslim and my own relationship with the traditions in which I was raised has been problematic since adolescence. I thought it was a good example of its kind but nothing special.
But there is a section of the novel that I thought did make sense in terms of insult, and that is the parts concerning the Imam. This character is clearly based on Khomeini, a cleric living in exile who is given a chance to return to his country and overthrow the oppressive government. It is not a flattering portrait.
‘We will make a revolution,’ the Imam proclaims…’that is a revolt not only against a tyrant, but against history.’ For there is an enemy beyond Ayesha, and it is History herself. History is the blood-wine that must no longer be drunk. History the intoxicant, the creation and possession of the Devil, of the great Shaitan, the greatest of the lies—progress, science, rights—against which the Imam has set his face.
And then a bit later:
‘Death to the tyranny of the Empress Ayesha, of calendars, of America, of time! We seek eternity, the timelessness, of God. His still waters, not her flowing wines.’ Burn the books and trust the Book; shred the papers and hear the Word…
I thought then and still do that this is what drew the ire of the clerics. It was personal and had nothing to do with any presumed blasphemy. But then, it also demonstrates how the personal had become political, in that the thing desired, according to this, was to stop anything and everything that might detract from the exaltation of a stasis anchored by a changeless devotion.
Rushdie had to go into hiding. He lost access to much of his life. He lost his wife.
Khomeini died, but the fatwa remains, reaffirmed in 2006 (on Valentine’s Day, curiously enough) that the vow to kill him is permanent.
It is still difficult for us to accept that a work of fiction could result in a death sentence, but then we have that privilege here. Though it’s not like books aren’t regularly challenged and sometimes it seems those in the forefront of condemnations might work themselves into a killing frenzy. Words are powerful and we need to remember that.
For that reason, we should cherish them and protect them, because in that power we find the capacity to conceive the world and acquire wisdom and grow. Words that cause discomfort, that stop us in our self-satisfied tracks and make us look at the world in different ways are among the best tools we have to find justice. If what we read causes the kind of dismay that only offers condemnation as a response, it may be our preconceptions and prejudices that need examination. We will never know what we can become if we arbitrarily silence the diversity of other voices.
Collisions of cultures can often result in incomprehension. As an aside, I had occasion once to discuss this issue with a Muslim, who told me she supported the fatwa because of the blasphemy. I attempted to learn what about the book was so blasphemous. Instead, I received a jeremiad on its obscenity. Now, there is talk of sex in the novel, but to my mind it is far from graphic, but she insisted, especially given the depiction of oral sex in the first chapter.
“What oral sex?” I asked, completely baffled then.
The first chapter depicts the aftermath of an airliner bombing—probably Lockerby—which has dropped the two principle characters into freefall. Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, who are bound in odd ways through the rest of the book and exhibit spiritual (and physical) mutability in very clever and insightful ways, tumble through the air and fall into a rotation around each other, head to toe, as they fall. When I read it the first time, I immediately saw it as a physical metaphor of Yin and Yang, and as the book proceeded this was clearly intended.
“What is that?” my communicant asked. She had never heard of it. The cultural literacy that might have made the scene make sense to her that way was absent. Instead, she drew the inference that they were in a 69 position, fellating each other.*
Later, I couldn’t help but wonder, what am I missing because of a lack of cultural knowledge? It’s easy to slip into judgmental mindsets without noticing that such blindnesses go both ways. Expecting everyone, everywhere, to possess the same set of cultural awarenesses is another form of privilege that fails to serve.
Burning the books would leave us bereft of the kind of global and cross-cultural familiarity that is essential to understanding each other.
But then, such knowledge leads to choices, and for a certain mindset, choices are the ultimate blasphemy. (I am mindful of the spasmadic rejection of education and information in the aftermath of 9-11 that swept this country, that any attempt to understand, to contextualize, to become aware was seen as somehow treasonous.)
Now finally someone has managed to assault Mr. Rushdie and damaged him horribly. The kind of unquestioning commitment to narrow causes is also something we often are unable to comprehend, although that may be changing even here. It still leaves us with a puzzled dismay. Why? On the one hand, it’s just a book. (Killing Rushdie will not change that, the book will not magically disappear should he die, and in fact this event will cause even more people to buy it and read it, so by what logic is this even construed as effective?) Then again, it is that the ideas in the book—in any book—cause so much fear that the choice seems to be to yield and learn or lash out and destroy, and the latter is preferable somehow.
This is something many of us have experience with, people so terrified of ideas that they will move heaven and earth to keep such things at bay. Books are being challenged and removed from libraries all the time. It’s never enough that we allow people to make such choices for themselves, some demand their fears be enforced on everyone.
So let me leave my own statement on the “virtue” of absolutist positions here:
Nothing is so sacred that it justifies killing someone because they express a different opinion about it. Nothing. The concept of blasphemy is only fear in ritual garb. We must overcome terror in the face of new ideas.
*When I asked her how her initial reading held up through the rest of the novel, she admitted she had not read past that first chapter. On that basis she was willing to accept that Rushdie’s death was justified.