page contains a list of articles, speech, interview, and snippet
by Salman Rushdie. Please click on lin for the following:
This is About Islam
1,000 Days Trapped inside a Metaphor
Simple Truths and Apostles of Death
What Kosovo and Colorado Have in Common
the Forces of Invincibility
An Interview with January Magazine
Gods and Monsters
Salman on Censorship
This is About Islam
LONDON -- "This isn't about Islam." The world's leaders
have been repeating this mantra for weeks, partly in the virtuous
hope of deterring reprisal attacks on innocent Muslims living
in the West, partly because if the United States is to maintain
its coalition against terror it can't afford to suggest that Islam
and terrorism are in any way related.
The trouble with this necessary disclaimer is that it isn't true.
If this isn't about Islam, why the worldwide Muslim demonstrations
in support of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda? Why did those 10,000
men armed with swords and axes mass on the Pakistan-Afghanistan
frontier, answering some mullah's call to jihad? Why are the war's
first British casualties three Muslim men who died fighting on
the Taliban side?
Why the routine anti-Semitism of the much-repeated Islamic slander
that "the Jews" arranged the hits on the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon, with the oddly self-deprecating explanation
offered by the Taliban leadership, among others, that Muslims
could not have the technological know-how or organizational sophistication
to pull off such a feat? Why does Imran Khan, the Pakistani ex-sports
star turned politician, demand to be shown the evidence of Al
Qaeda's guilt while apparently turning a deaf ear to the self-incriminating
statements of Al Qaeda's own spokesmen (there will be a rain of
aircraft from the skies, Muslims in the West are warned not to
live or work in tall buildings)? Why all the talk about American
military infidels desecrating the sacred soil of Saudi Arabia
if some sort of definition of what is sacred is not at the heart
of the present discontents?
Of course this is "about Islam." The question is, what
exactly does that mean? After all, most religious belief isn't
very theological. Most Muslims are not profound Koranic analysts.
For a vast number of "believing" Muslim men, "Islam"
stands, in a jumbled, half-examined way, not only for the fear
of God — the fear more than the love, one suspects —
but also for a cluster of customs, opinions and prejudices that
include their dietary practices; the sequestration or near-sequestration
of "their" women; the sermons delivered by their mullahs
of choice; a loathing of modern society in general, riddled as
it is with music, godlessness and sex; and a more particularized
loathing (and fear) of the prospect that their own immediate surroundings
could be taken over — "Westoxicated" — by
the liberal Western-style way of life.
Highly motivated organizations of Muslim men (oh, for the voices
of Muslim women to be heard!) have been engaged over the last
30 years or so in growing radical political movements out of this
mulch of "belief."
These Islamists — we must get used to this word, "Islamists,"
meaning those who are engaged upon such political projects, and
learn to distinguish it from the more general and politically
neutral "Muslim" — include the Muslim Brotherhood
in Egypt, the blood-soaked combatants of the Islamic Salvation
Front and Armed Islamic Group in Algeria, the Shiite revolutionaries
of Iran, and the Taliban. Poverty is their great helper, and the
fruit of their efforts is paranoia. This paranoid Islam, which
blames outsiders, "infidels," for all the ills of Muslim
societies, and whose proposed remedy is the closing of those societies
to the rival project of modernity, is presently the fastest growing
version of Islam in the world.
This is not wholly to go along with Samuel Huntington's thesis
about the clash of civilizations, for the simple reason that the
Islamists' project is turned not only against the West and "the
Jews," but also against their fellow Islamists. Whatever
the public rhetoric, there's little love lost between the Taliban
and Iranian regimes. Dissensions between Muslim nations run at
least as deep, if not deeper, than those nations' resentment of
the West. Nevertheless, it would be absurd to deny that this self-exculpatory,
paranoiac Islam is an ideology with widespread appeal.
Twenty years ago, when I was writing a novel about power struggles
in a fictionalized Pakistan, it was already de rigueur in the
Muslim world to blame all its troubles on the West and, in particular,
the United States. Then as now, some of these criticisms were
well-founded; no room here to rehearse the geopolitics of the
cold war and America's frequently damaging foreign policy "tilts,"
to use the Kissinger term, toward (or away from) this or that
temporarily useful (or disapproved-of) nation-state, or America's
role in the installation and deposition of sundry unsavory leaders
and regimes. But I wanted then to ask a question that is no less
important now: Suppose we say that the ills of our societies are
not primarily America's fault, that we are to blame for our own
failings? How would we understand them then? Might we not, by
accepting our own responsibility for our problems, begin to learn
to solve them for ourselves?
Many Muslims, as well as secularist analysts with roots in the
Muslim world, are beginning to ask such questions now. In recent
weeks Muslim voices have everywhere been raised against the obscurantist
hijacking of their religion. Yesterday's hotheads (among them
Yusuf Islam, a k a Cat Stevens) are improbably repackaging themselves
as today's pussycats.
An Iraqi writer quotes an earlier Iraqi satirist: "The disease
that is in us, is from us." A British Muslim writes, "Islam
has become its own enemy." A Lebanese friend, returning from
Beirut, tells me that in the aftermath of the attacks on Sept.
11, public criticism of Islamism has become much more outspoken.
Many commentators have spoken of the need for a Reformation in
the Muslim world.
I'm reminded of the way noncommunist socialists used to distance
themselves from the tyrannical socialism of the Soviets; nevertheless,
the first stirrings of this counterproject are of great significance.
If Islam is to be reconciled with modernity, these voices must
be encouraged until they swell into a roar. Many of them speak
of another Islam, their personal, private faith.
The restoration of religion to the sphere of the personal, its
depoliticization, is the nettle that all Muslim societies must
grasp in order to become modern. The only aspect of modernity
interesting to the terrorists is technology, which they see as
a weapon that can be turned on its makers. If terrorism is to
be defeated, the world of Islam must take on board the secularist-humanist
principles on which the modern is based, and without which Muslim
countries' freedom will remain a distant dream.
Credit: From the New York Times, 11/2/2001.
1,000 Days "Trapped Inside a Metaphor"
Following are excerpts from a speech at Columbia University last
night by Salman Rushdie. The speech was adapted from a forthcoming
essay titled "One Thousand Days in a Balloon":
A hot-air balloon drifts slowly over a bottomless chasm, carrying
several passengers. A leak develops. . . . The wounded balloon
can bear just one passenger to safety. . . . But who should live,
who should die? And who could make such a choice?
In point of fact, debating societies everywhere regularly make
such choices without qualms, because of course what I've described
is the given situation of that evergreen favorite, the Balloon
Debate, in which, as the speakers argue over the relative merits
and demerits of the well-known figures they have placed in disaster's
mouth, the assembled company blithely accepts the faintly unpleasant
idea that a human being's right to life is increased or diminished
by his or her virtues or vices -- that we may be born equal but
thereafter our lives weigh very differently in the scales.
. . .
I have now spent over a thousand days in just such a balloon;
but, alas, this isn't a game. For most of these thousand days,
my fellow-travelers included the Western hostages in Lebanon,
and the British businessmen imprisoned in Iran and Iraq, Roger
Cooper and Ian Richter. And I had to accept, and did accept, that
for most of my countrymen and countrywomen, my plight counted
for less than the others'. In any choice between us, I'd have
been the first to be pitched out of the basket and into the abyss.
"Our lives teach us who we are," I wrote at the end
of my essay "In Good Faith." Some of the lessons have
been harsh, and difficult to learn.
Trapped inside a metaphor, I've often felt the need to redescribe
it, to change the terms. This isn't so much a balloon, I've wanted
to say, as a bubble, within which I'm simultaneously exposed and
sealed off. The bubble floats above and through the world, depriving
me of reality, reducing me to an abstraction. For many people,
I've ceased to be a human being. I've become an issue, a bother,
an "affair." . . . And has it really been so long since
religions persecuted people, burning them as heretics, drowning
them as witches, that you can't recognize religious persecution
when you see it? . . .
What is my single life worth? Despair whispers in my ear: "Not
a lot." But I refuse to give in to despair . . . because
. . . I know that many people do care, and are appalled by the
. . . upside-down logic of the post- fatwa world, in which a .
. . novelist can be accused of having savaged or "mugged"
a whole community, becoming its tormentor (instead of its . .
. victim) and the scapegoat for . . . its discontents. . . . (What
minority is smaller and weaker than a minority of one?)
I refuse to give in to despair even though, for a thousand days
and more, I've been put through a degree course in worthlessness,
my own personal and specific worthlessness. My first teachers
were the mobs marching down distant boulevards, baying for my
blood, and finding, soon enough, their echoes on English streets.
. . . At first, as I watched the marchers, I felt them trampling
on my heart.
. . .
Sometimes I think that one day, Muslims will be ashamed of what
Muslims did in these times, will find the "Rushdie affair"
as improbable as the West now finds martyr-burning. One day they
may agree that -- as the European Enlightenment demonstrated --
freedom of thought is precisely freedom from religious control,
freedom from accusations of blasphemy. Maybe they'll agree, too,
that the row over "The Satanic Verses" was at bottom
an argument about who should have power over the grand narrative,
the Story of Islam, and that that power must belong equally to
everyone. That even if my novel were incompetent, its attempt
to retell the story would still be important. That if I've failed,
others must succeed, because those who do not have power over
the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it, rethink
it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change,
truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.
One day. Maybe. But not today.
. . .
Back in the balloon, something longed-for and heartening has happened.
On this occasion, mirabile dictu, the many have not been sacrificed,
but saved. That is to say, my companions, the Western hostages
and the jailed businessmen, have by good fortune and the efforts
of others managed to descend safely to earth, and have been reunited
with their . . . own, free lives. I rejoice for them, and admire
their courage, their resilience. And now I'm alone in the balloon.
Surely I'll be safe now? Surely . . . the balloon will drop safely
towards some nearby haven? . . . Surely it's my turn now?
But the balloon is . . . still sinking. I realize that it's carrying
a great deal of valuable freight. Trading relations, armaments
deals, the balance of power in the Gulf -- these and other matters
. . . are weighing it down. . . . I hear voices suggesting that
if I stay aboard, this precious cargo will be endangered. The
national interest is being redefined; am I being redefined out
of it? Am I to be jettisoned from the balloon, after all?
When Britain renewed relations with Iran at the United Nations
in 1990, . . . British officials . . . assured me unambiguously
that something very substantial had been achieved on my behalf.
The Iranians . . . had secretly agreed to forget the fatwa. .
. . They would "neither encourage nor allow" their citizens,
surrogates or proxies to act against me. Oh, how I wanted to believe
that! But in the year-and-a-bit that followed, we saw the fatwa
restated in Iran, the bounty money doubled, the book's Italian
translator severely wounded, its Japanese translator stabbed to
death; there was news of an attempt to find and kill me by contract
killers working directly for the Iranian Government. . . .
It seems reasonable to deduce that the secret deal made at the
United Nations hasn't worked. Dismayingly, however, the talk as
I write is all of improving relations with Iran still further.
. . . Is this a balloon I'm in, or the dustbin of history?
Let me be clear: There is nothing I can do to break this impasse.
The fatwa was politically motivated to begin with, it remains
a breach of international law, and it can only be solved at the
political level. To effect the release of the Western hostages
in Lebanon, great levers were moved . . . for the businessman
Mr. Richter, 70 million pounds in frozen Iraqi assets were "thawed."
What, then, is a novelist under terrorist attack worth? Despair
murmurs, once again: "Not a plugged nickel."
But I refuse to give in to despair. You may ask why I'm so sure
there's nothing I can do to help myself. . . . At the end of 1990,
dispirited and demoralized . . . I faced my deepest grief, my
. . . sorrow at having been torn away from . . . the cultures
and societies from which I'd always drawn my . . . inspiration
-- that is, the broad community of British Asians . . . the broader
community of Indian Muslims. I determined to make my peace with
Islam, even at the cost of my pride. Those who were surprised
and displeased by what I did perhaps failed to see that . . .
I wanted to make peace between the warring halves of the world,
which were also the warring halves of my soul. . . .
The really important conversations I had in this period were with
I said: Salman, you must send a message loud enough to . . . make
ordinary Muslims see that you aren't their enemy, and you must
make the West understand a little more of the complexity of Muslim
culture . . ., and start thinking a little less stereotypically.
. . . And I said to myself: Admit it, Salman, the Story of Islam
has a deeper meaning for you than any of the other grand narratives.
Of course you're no mystic, mister. . . . No supernaturalism,
no literalist orthodoxies . . . for you. But Islam doesn't have
to mean blind faith. It can mean what it always meant in your
family, a culture, a civilization, as open-minded as your grandfather
was, as delightedly disputatious as your father was. . . . Don't
let the zealots make Muslim a terrifying word, I urged myself;
remember when it meant family . . . .
I reminded myself that I had always argued that it was necessary
to develop the nascent concept of the "secular Muslim,"
who, like the secular Jew, affirmed his membership of the culture
while being separate from the theology. . . . But, Salman, I told
myself, you can't argue from outside the debating chamber. You've
got to cross the threshold, go inside the room, and then fight
for your humanized, historicized, secularized way of being a Muslim.
. . .
It was with such things in mind -- and with my thoughts in a state
of some confusion and torment -- that I spoke the Muslim creed
before witnesses. But my fantasy of joining the fight for the
modernization of Muslim thought . . . was stillborn. It never
really had a chance. Too many people had spent too long demonizing
or totemizing me to listen seriously to what I had to say. In
the West, some "friends" turned against me, calling
me by yet another set of insulting names. Now I was spineless,
pathetic, debased; I had betrayed myself, my Cause; above all,
I had betrayed them.
I also found myself up against the granite, heartless certainties
of Actually Existing Islam, by which I mean the political and
priestly power structure that presently dominates and stifles
Muslim societies. Actually Existing Islam has failed to create
a free society anywhere on Earth, and it wasn't about to let me,
of all people, argue in favor of one. Suddenly I was (metaphorically)
among people whose social attitudes I'd fought all my life --
for example, their attitudes about women (one Islamicist boasted
to me that his wife would cut his toenails while he made telephone
calls, and suggested I find such a spouse) or about gays (one
of the Imams I met in December 1990 was on TV soon afterwards,
denouncing Muslim gays as sick creatures who brought shame on
their families and who ought to seek medical and psychiatric help).
. . .
I reluctantly concluded that there was no way for me to help bring
into being the Muslim culture I'd dreamed of, the progressive,
irreverent, skeptical, argumentative, playful and unafraid culture
which is what I've always understood as freedom. . . . Actually
Existing Islam . . . which makes literalism a weapon and redescription
a crime, will never let the likes of me in.
Ibn Rushd's ideas were silenced in their time. And throughout
the Muslim world today, progressive ideas are in retreat. Actually
Existing Islam reigns supreme, and just as the recently destroyed
"Actually Existing Socialism" of the Soviet terror-state
was horrifically unlike the utopia of peace and equality of which
democratic socialists have dreamed, so also is Actually Existing
Islam a force to which I have never given in, to which I cannot
There is a point beyond which conciliation looks like capitulation.
I do not believe I passed that point, but others have thought
I have never disowned "The Satanic Verses", nor regretted
writing it. I said I was sorry to have offended people, because
I had not set out to do so, and so I am. I explained that writers
do not agree with every word spoken by every character they create
-- a truism in the world of books, but a continuing mystery to
"The Satanic Verses' " opponents. I have always said
that this novel has been traduced. Indeed, the chief benefit to
my mind of my meeting with the six Islamic scholars on Christmas
Eve 1990 was that they agreed that the novel had no insulting
motives. "In Islam, it is a man's intention that counts,"
I was told. "Now we will launch a worldwide campaign on your
behalf to explain that there has been a great mistake." All
this with much smiling and friendliness. . . . It was in this
context that I agreed to suspend -- not cancel -- a paperback
edition, to create what I called a space for reconciliation.
Alas, I overestimated these men. Within
days, all but one of them had broken their promises, and recommenced
to vilify me and my work as if we had not shaken hands. I felt
(most probably I had been) a great fool. The suspension of the
paperback began at once to look like a surrender. In the aftermath
of the attacks on my translators, it looks even worse. It has
now been more than three years since "The Satanic Verses"
was published; that's a long, long "space for reconciliation."
It is long enough. I accept that I was wrong to have given way
on this point. "The Satanic Verses" must be freely available
and easily affordable, if only because if it is not read and studied,
then these years will have no meaning. Those who forget the past
are condemned to repeat it.
"Our lives teach us who we are." I have learned the
hard way that when you permit anyone else's description of reality
to supplant your own -- and such descriptions have been raining
down on me, from security advisers, governments, journalists,
Archbishops, friends, enemies, mullahs -- then you might as well
be dead. Obviously, a rigid, blinkered, absolutist world view
is the easiest to keep hold of, whereas the fluid, uncertain,
metamorphic picture I've always carried about is rather more vulnerable.
Yet I must cling with all my might to . . . my own soul; must
hold on to its mischievous, iconoclastic, out-of-step clown-instincts,
no matter how great the storm. And if that plunges me into contradiction
and paradox, so be it; I've lived in that messy ocean all my life.
I've fished in it for my art. This turbulent sea was the sea outside
my bedroom window in Bombay. It is the sea by which I was born,
and which I carry within me wherever I go.
"Free speech is a non-starter," says one of my Islamic
extremist opponents. No, sir, it is not. Free speech is the whole
thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself.
. . .
What is my single life worth?
Is it worth more or less than the fat contracts and political
treaties that are in here with me? Is it worth more or less than
good relations with a country which, in April 1991, gave 800 women
74 lashes each for not wearing a veil; in which the 80-year-old
writer Mariam Firouz is still in jail, and has been tortured;
and whose Foreign Minister says, in response to criticism of his
country's lamentable human rights record, "International
monitoring of the human rights situation in Iran should not continue
indefinitely . . . Iran could not tolerate such monitoring for
You must decide what you think a friend is worth to his friends,
what you think a son is worth to his mother, or a father to his
son. You must decide what a man's conscience and heart and soul
are worth. You must decide what you think a writer is worth, what
value you place on a maker of stories, and an arguer with the
Ladies and gentlemen, the balloon is sinking into the abyss.
[Note: These are excerpts for a speech given by Salman Rushdie
on December 12, 1991.]
Truths and Apostles of Death
Following is an open letter from Salman Rushdie to Taslima Nasrin,
a Bangladeshi physician, newspaper columnist and author of the
novel "Shame," who is under death threats from Muslim
clerics and faces criminal charges from the Government for allegedly
criticizing the Koran. Mr. Rushdie, who has been in hiding since
being sentenced to death by Iranian religious leaders in 1989,
is organizing an international protest on Ms. Nasrin's behalf
by other prominent writers.
I am sure you have become tired of being called "the female
Salman Rushdie" -- what a bizarre and comical creature that
would be! -- when all along you thought you were the female Taslima
Nasrin. I am sorry my name has been hung around your neck, but
please know that there are many people in many countries working
to make sure that such sloganizing does not obscure your identity,
the unique features of your situation and the importance of fighting
to defend you and your rights against those who would cheerfully
see you dead.
In reality it is our adversaries who seem to have things in common,
who seem to believe in divine sanction for lynching and terrorism.
So instead of turning you into a female me, the headline writers
should be describing your opponents as "the Bangladeshi Iranians."
How sad it must be to believe in a God of blood! What an Islam
they have made, these apostles of death, and how important it
is to have the courage to dissent from it!
Great writers have agreed to lend their weight to the campaign
on your behalf: Czeslaw Milosz, Mario Vargas Llosa, Milan Kundera
and more. When such campaigns were run on my behalf, I found them
immensely cheering, and I know that they helped shape public opinion
and government attitudes in many countries.
You have spoken out about the oppression of women under Islam,
and what you said needed saying. In the West, there are too many
eloquent apologists working to convince people of the fiction
that women are not discriminated against in Muslim countries or
that, if they are, it has nothing to do with the religion. The
sexual mutilation of women, according to this argument, has no
basis in Islam. This may be true in theory, but in many countries
where this goes on, the mullahs wholeheartedly support it. And
then there are the countless crimes of violence within the home,
the inequalities of legal systems that value women's evidence
below that of men, the driving of women out of the workplace in
all countries where Islamists have come to, or even near to power.
You have spoken out about the attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh
after the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque in India by Hindu
extremists. Yet any fair-minded person would agree that a religious
attack by Muslims on innocent Hindus is as bad as an attack by
Hindus on innocent Muslims. Such simple fairness is the target
of the bigots' rage, and it is that fairness which, in defending
you, we seek to defend.
You are accused of having said that the Koran should be revised
(though you have said that you were referring only to Islamic
religious code). You may have seen that only last week the Turkish
authorities have announced a project to revise these codes, so
in that regard at least you are not alone. And even if you did
say that the Koran should be revised to remove its ambiguities
about the rights of women, and even if every Muslim man in the
world were to disagree with you, it would remain a perfectly legitimate
opinion, and no society which wishes to jail or hang you for expressing
it can call itself free.
Simplicity is what fundamentalists always say they are after,
but in fact they are obscurantists in all things. What is simple
is to agree that if one may say "God exists" then another
may also say "God does not exist"; that if one may say
"I loathe this book" then another may also say "But
I like it very much." What is not at all simple is to be
asked to believe that there is only one truth, one way of expressing
that truth, and one punishment (death) for those who say this
As you know, Taslima, Bengali culture -- and I mean the culture
of Bangladesh as well as Indian Bengal -- has always prided itself
on its openness, its freedom to think and argue, its lack of bigotry.
It is a disgrace that your Government has chosen to side with
the religious extremists against their own history, their own
civilization, their own values. It is the treasure-house of the
intelligence, the imagination and the word that your opponents
are trying to loot.
I have seen and heard reports that you are all sorts of dreadful
things -- a difficult woman, an advocate (horror of horrors) of
free love. Let me assure you that those of us who are working
on your behalf are well aware that character assassination is
normal in such situations, and must be discounted. And simplicity
again has something valuable to say on this issue: even difficult
advocates of free love must be allowed to stay alive, otherwise
we would be left only with those who believe that love is something
for which there must be a price -- perhaps a terrible price --
Taslima, I know that there must be a storm inside you now. One
minute you will feel weak and helpless, another strong and defiant.
Now you will feel betrayed and alone, and now you will have the
sense of standing for many who are standing silently with you.
Perhaps in your darkest moments you will feel you did something
wrong -- that those demanding your death may have a point. This
of all your goblins you must exorcise first. You have done nothing
wrong. The wrong is committed by others against you. You have
done nothing wrong, and I am sure that one day soon you will be
Salman Rushdie is author, most recently, of "Imaginary Homelands."
From the New York Times, 6/14/1992.]
Kosovo and Colorado Have in Common
In the battle for the hotly contested title of International Moron
of the Year, two heavyweight contenders stand out.
One is the Austrian writer Peter Handke, who has astonished even
his work's most fervent admirers by a series of impassioned apologias
for the genocidal regime of Slobodan Milosevic, and who, during
a recent visit to Belgrade, received the Order of the Serbian
Knight for his propaganda services.
Handke's previous idiocies include the suggestion that Sarajevo's
Muslims regularly massacred themselves and then blamed the Serbs
and his denial of the genocide carried out by Serbs at Srebrenica.
Now he likens the NATO aerial bombardment to the alien invasion
in the movie "Mars Attacks!'' And then, foolishly mixing
his metaphors, he compares the Serbs' sufferings to the Holocaust.
His current rival in world-class folly is the movie star Charlton
Heston. As president of the U.S. National Rifle Association, Heston's
response to the massacre of innocents recently perpetrated by
young Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris at Columbine High School in
Littleton, Colo., is a masterpiece of the moronic. Heston thinks
America should arm its teachers and seems to believe that schools
would be safer if staff had the power to gun down the children
in their charge.
I will not draw glib parallels between NATO's aerial bombardments
and the Colorado killings. No, the larger violence did not breed
the lesser. Nor should too much be read into the accidental echo
between Milosevic's Hitlerian tendencies and the lethal celebration
of Hitler's birthday by the so-called "Trenchcoat Mafia''
or the even more eerie assonance between the video-game mentality
of the Colorado killers and the real-life aerial videos the NATO
publicists show us every day.
In the matter of the war, let's agree, too, that it's OK to feel
ambiguous about the confused, changing-policy-on-the-hoof manner
of the NATO action. One minute we're told Milosevic's savage retaliatory
sssault on Kosovo couldn't have been foreseen; the next minute
we hear that it should have been. Or again: we're not going to
use ground troops. -- On second thought, maybe we are.
And our war aims? Strictly limited; we seek only to create a safe
haven to which the Kosovar refugees can return. -- No, no, we're
going to march into Belgrade and get Milosevic, we're not making
that old Saddam mistake again!
To object to vacillation and contradiction is not, however, the
same thing as Handke's half-crazy, half-cynical fellow-travelling
with evil. The moral justification for NATO's intervention is
the humanitarian disaster we see on our televisions every night,
and to blame NATO for the plight of the refugees is to absolve
the Serb army of its crimes. It needs to be said again and again:
the people to blame for death and terror are those who commit
terrorism and murder.
And in the matter of the Colorado killings, let us agree that
guns aren't the sole cause of the horror. The killers learned
how to make pipe-bombs on the Internet, and got their trenchcoats
from a Leonardo DiCaprio movie, and learned to put a low value
on human life from - whom? Their parents? Marilyn Manson? The
Which is not at all to adopt Charlton Heston's unrepentant position.
"This isn't a gun issue,'' he tells us. "It's a child
issue.'' Mr. Heston has had practice in the handing down of commandments,
thus: Thou shalt defend the right to bear arms in the teeth of
all the evidence, and Thou shalt certainly not be blamed just
because a few kids got iced.
Kosovo and Colorado do have something in common. They show that
in our unstable world, incompatible versions of reality are clashing
with one another, with murderous results.
Which does not mean that we can't make moral judgements about
the rival versions of the world that are at war. And the only
possible judgment of the Handke and Heston versions is that they
are reprehensible, indefensible and deserve to be destroyed.
Never mind that Handke is co-writer of that great movie "Wings
of Desire.'' Condemned as a "monster'' by Alain Finkielkraut
and Hans Magnus Enzensberger, by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj
Zizek and the Serbian novelist Bora Cosic, he deserves to be,
as Susan Sontag pithily puts it, "finished.''
Never mind that Heston, his face as subtly mobile as Mount Rushmore,
has helped millions of moviegoers to snatch a few hours of peaceful
leep in darkened cinemas. He deserves to be "finished,''
too. Who wins the prize? Peter Handke's folly makes him complicit
with evil on a grand scale but, fortunately, he is almost entirely
powerless. As America's foremost gun lobbyist, however, Heston
is doing his best to make sure that guns remain an integral part
of the American household; and so, one day soon, somewhere in
America, another young man will take up arms and begin to shoot
By reason of his folly's greater effectiveness, I hand Charlton
Heston the palm. But the year's not half done. Greater morons
may yet step forward to challenge him. Watch this space.
Credit: © 1999 Salman Rushdie. Article in the New York Times
the Forces of Invisibility
NEW YORK -- In January 2000 I wrote in a newspaper column that
"the defining struggle of the new age would be between Terrorism
and Security," and fretted that to live by the security experts'
worst-case scenarios might be to surrender too many of our liberties
to the invisible shadow-warriors of the secret world. Democracy
requires visibility, I argued, and in the struggle between security
and freedom we must always err on the side of freedom. On Tuesday,
Sept. 11, however, the worst-case scenario came true.
broke our city. I'm among the newest of New Yorkers, but even
people who have never set foot in Manhattan have felt its wounds
deeply, because New York is the beating heart of the visible world,
tough-talking, spirit-dazzling, Walt Whitman's "city of orgies,
walks and joys," his "proud and passionate city -- mettlesome,
mad, extravagant city!" To this bright capital of the visible,
the forces of invisibility have dealt a dreadful blow. No need
to say how dreadful; we all saw it, are all changed by it. Now
we must ensure that the wound is not mortal, that the world of
what is seen triumphs over what is cloaked, what is perceptible
only through the effects of its awful deeds.
In making free societies safe -- safer -- from terrorism, our
civil liberties will inevitably be compromised. But in return
for freedom's partial erosion, we have a right to expect that
our cities, water, planes and children really will be better protected
than they have been. The West's response to the Sept. 11 attacks
will be judged in large measure by whether people begin to feel
safe once again in their homes, their workplaces, their daily
lives. This is the confidence we have lost, and must regain.
Next: the question of the counterattack. Yes, we must send our
shadow-warriors against theirs, and hope that ours prevail. But
this secret war alone cannot bring victory. We will also need
a public, political and diplomatic offensive whose aim must be
the early resolution of some of the world's thorniest problems:
above all the battle between Israel and the Palestinian people
for space, dignity, recognition and survival. Better judgment
will be required on all sides in future. No more Sudanese aspirin
factories to be bombed, please. And now that wise American heads
appear to have understood that it would be wrong to bomb the impoverished,
oppressed Afghan people in retaliation for their tyrannous masters'
misdeeds, they might apply that wisdom, retrospectively, to what
was done to the impoverished, oppressed people of Iraq. It's time
to stop making enemies and start making friends.
To say this is in no way to join in the savaging of America by
sections of the left that has been among the most unpleasant consequences
of the terrorists' attacks on the United States. "The problem
with Americans is . . . " -- "What America needs to
understand . . . " There has been a lot of sanctimonious
moral relativism around lately, usually prefaced by such phrases
as these. A country which has just suffered the most devastating
terrorist attack in history, a country in a state of deep mourning
and horrible grief, is being told, heartlessly, that it is to
blame for its own citizens' deaths. ("Did we deserve this,
sir?" a bewildered worker at "ground zero" asked
a visiting British journalist recently. I find the grave courtesy
of that "sir" quite astonishing.)
Let's be clear about why this bien-pensant anti-American onslaught
is such appalling rubbish. Terrorism is the murder of the innocent;
this time, it was mass murder. To excuse such an atrocity by blaming
U.S. government policies is to deny the basic idea of all morality:
that individuals are responsible for their actions. Furthermore,
terrorism is not the pursuit of legitimate complaints by illegitimate
means. The terrorist wraps himself in the world's grievances to
cloak his true motives. Whatever the killers were trying to achieve,
it seems improbable that building a better world was part of it.
The fundamentalist seeks to bring down a great deal more than
buildings. Such people are against, to offer just a brief list,
freedom of speech, a multi-party political system, universal adult
suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women's rights,
pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution
theory, sex. These are tyrants, not Muslims. (Islam is tough on
suicides, who are doomed to repeat their deaths through all eternity.
However, there needs to be a thorough examination, by Muslims
everywhere, of why it is that the faith they love breeds so many
violent mutant strains. If the West needs to understand its Unabombers
and McVeighs, Islam needs to face up to its bin Ladens.) United
Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has said that we should now
define ourselves not only by what we are for but by what we are
against. I would reverse that proposition, because in the present
instance what we are against is a no-brainer. Suicidist assassins
ram wide-bodied aircraft into the World Trade Center and Pentagon
and kill thousands of people: um, I'm against that. But what are
we for? What will we risk our lives to defend? Can we unanimously
concur that all the items in the above list -- yes, even the short
skirts and dancing -- are worth dying for?
The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing. In his
world-view, he has his absolute certainties, while we are sunk
in sybaritic indulgences. To prove him wrong, we must first know
that he is wrong. We must agree on what matters: kissing in public
places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion,
literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of
the world's resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty,
love. These will be our weapons. Not by making war but by the
unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them.
How to defeat terrorism? Don't be terrorized. Don't let fear rule
your life. Even if you are scared.
[Credit: This feature appeared in The Washington Post on 10/2/2001.]
January Magazine Interview with Salman
is, arguably, one of the most controversial writers of our time.
His fourth book, The Satanic Verses, caused an international storm
so loud that, for a time, it did all but obliterate the identity
of the man who had written it. "Who would have thought this
kind of thing?" Salman Rushdie says now of the fatwa issued
by the Ayatollah Khomeini on February 14, 1989. "That the
leader of a foreign power would suddenly instruct his minions
to have me killed? It would never really happen to a writer."
Rushdie's most recent book, Step Across This Line -- the author's
collected non-fiction from 1992 to 2002 -- is, in part, his attempt
to stop people from asking about his years in hiding and living
under the fatwa and to just let him -- please -- get on with his
life. He says that "one of the reasons for trying to put
into this book that material which deals with those years is that
I thought it would sort of draw a line under it. Because, really,
the answers to most of the stuff that people have asked me about
those years are here, you know? So, in a way, people don't have
to ask me anymore. They just have to read the book."
The author maintains that, these days, he's living a normal life.
"Because the thing that I most keenly felt was the loss of
ordinary life. And so it's very good to have it back. Go stand
in line in the supermarket. It's just back to normal."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, back to normal looks slightly different
for Salman Rushdie than it does for many people. His highly publicized
move to New York -- from London, where he'd made his home for
30 years -- in 2000 was eclipsed only by his relationship with
Padma Lakshmi, a 20-something international model, originally
from southern India. But don't write her off because she's beautiful:
Lakshmi speaks four languages, is the author of a bestselling
cookbook and the host of a FoodTV network cooking show, Padma's
Passport. "To Indian people," Lakshmi has been quoted
as saying of Rushdie, "he's as large as Faulkner or Hemingway,
and when I think about that, I wonder when he's going to figure
out that I'm just a silly girl."
The move -- and the relationship -- earned Rushdie fire of an
entirely new sort: many critics spared no vitriol in calling the
author's 2001 novel Fury largely autobiographical, a charge the
author finds irritating. "Because what nobody wants to hear
is the actual truth. And the truth is: Well, yeah, sorta, it's
a bit. I've used some things from my life and then I've made some
other stuff up and I've changed things round and joined them together
in odd ways and that becomes fiction. But nobody wants to know
January caught up with the 55-year-old author in Vancouver, where
he appeared in a well-attended event sponsored by the Vancouver
International Writers & Readers Festival. He was taller than
expected. Perhaps gentler. No less humorous, though perhaps more
generous of his time and thoughts. He spoke engagingly -- and
at some length -- on any topic angled his way. He laughs easily
and well and though he speaks with the British accent that comes
from having spent almost his whole life as a British subject living
in England, his cadences -- and his syntax -- speak pleasantly
of his boyhood -- and his roots -- in India.
Linda Richards: Step Across This Line surprised
me. It was more hopeful than I'd expected.
Salman Rushdie: Well, I hope so. Which pieces
struck you that way?
I think all of it, in a way. And even to the way that the book
was arranged: the path from beginning to end.
I put the wizard up front. [Laughs] That's right. No, I agree.
I think the problem is that people only know one thing about me
and I thought there might be some other things they'd like to
know. So I wanted to put the other stuff up front and then get
'round to what everybody already knows.
But even the pieces that you would not think would be so hopeful
really felt that way to me. I kept, in a way, hearing you say:
All of the answers are out there if you change your perspective
or change your heart or change your mind.
I'm sometimes anxious not to sound as if I know all the answers
because, obviously, I don't. But yeah, in general, the subject
of change has been a big subject for me as it is for anybody whose
life moves so dramatically between worlds. I've always thought
of it, more or less, as a very positive force.
Is there one question that irritates you beyond all others that
journalists always ask you?
[Nods] Oh: How autobiographical is it? [Laughs] And I've discovered
the correct answer to that question. Because what nobody wants
to hear is the actual truth. And the truth is: Well, yeah, sorta,
it's a bit. I've used some things from my life and then I've made
some other stuff up and I've changed things round and joined them
together in odd ways and that becomes fiction. But nobody wants
to know that. So the correct answer is: It's completely autobiographical.
And, I guess, that question relates to Fury.
Yeah. But it's all my books. In every single book I've ever published
people have assumed that I was the central character. In Midnight's
Children they did and in Satanic Verses they did: every single
book. And yet, all of these central characters, if you look at
them, are really unlike each other, you know? So when you sort
of add them up, it doesn't add up to a person. [Laughs] But it
still happens. Especially with books that are either narrated
in the first person or which have a really tightly focused point
of view character, in the way that Fury does. There's an assumption
that it's the author but, you know, it's not.
And, for Midnight's Children, you were born in 1947 [the year
of India's independence] and....
Yeah! That's right. There are those coincidences which are deliberate
and the things in Midnight's Children that are taken from life
... [and] there's the fact that it's my generation and also the
circumstances of the book. That [the main character] essentially
grows up in my neighborhood and goes to my school and those things,
which is just the commonplace thing about writers. You set things
in the world that you know. But, beyond that, the book goes off
into very eccentric areas that have nothing to do with my family
life. That's all so interesting! But it's not what I thought would
be the most irritating question at all.
What did you think would be the most irritating question?
Well, fatwa related stuff.
Oh yeah. That's irritating too.
That would get old.
That has got old. But one of the reasons for trying to put into
this book that material which deals with those years is that I
thought it would sort of draw a line under it. Because, really,
the answers to most of the stuff that people have asked me about
those years are here [indicates a nearby copy of Step Across This
Line], you know? So, in a way, people don't have to ask me anymore.
They just have to read the book.
Do you want to put an end to it?
Well, yes. In my life it's really been effectively over for quite
a long time. It's been over for getting on for four years.
When did it start?
In February 1989. The deal that canceled the threat was four years
ago, so as I say -- except when I'm talking to journalists --
it doesn't feature in my life. It hasn't done so for a long time.
So I think it's about time to declare the subject closed. But
I can't say nothing about it. Especially if I'm writing a non-fiction
book that arises out of that decade because clearly a lot of this
material is affected by those years and so, at the moment, it's
legitimate to talk about it.
Wonderful, also, to share. I loved, particularly, the journal
you kept while traveling in India with your son. [The first trip
back after the fatwa.]
Well, that was a big moment. It was strange because when I did
that trip to India and The New Yorker suggested that I [write]
about it I said: Well, actually, I don't know how it'll go and
I don't know if there'll be a story. That's to say that I don't
want to write just another What I Did On My Holiday article, you
know? I want there to be a real reason for writing the piece and
I said: I'm just going to reserve the right to not write it. I'm
just going to go there and see what happens and see what comes
out of it.
And so you kept a journal?
Yeah, I kept a journal. But the thing that happened, well, two
things happened. One was that the journey with my son really for
me became the story, you know? That was a kind of very personal
writing that I'd not really done before. So that was interesting
to do. He felt very kind of odd about it at first and then he
felt good about it when he read it. It is difficult to be written
about anyway and it's particularly difficult, I guess, to be written
about by your father and then for it to be published. I gave him
a right of veto. I said he should read it and if there were things
he felt odd about then I would take them out. But he didn't exercise
that right of veto at all. So that was a good sign.
And it was lovely. Traveling together and reconnecting him with
the spirit of his mother. It was beautiful.
Well that stuff. That's what I felt was actually the story to
tell. And the other thing was at that reception that I had been
a little uncertain of turned out to be incredibly affectionate
and that all the stuff that people had been worried about turned
out just to be nothing. One of the things I really felt through
those years [of the fatwa] is that often, particularly in the
case of security forces, people were running from shadows. That
there actually wasn't anything to run from. That people would
just assume there was and so behave in a sort of maximum security
way when, in fact, all you were doing was walking down the street,
you know, and there was no problem there.
You speak to that in Step Across This Line. I think that makes
the timing of the book's publication so salient. A lot of people
are frightened now and you know -- firsthand -- about the threat
you speak to it, directly. You write: "How to defeat terrorism?
Don't be terrorized. Don't let fear rule your life. Even if you
Well that's the thing that I felt. We all have a kind of description
of the world and out of that come our instincts and how to behave
and what is appropriate and what is inappropriate and so on. Now
the security picture of the world is bizarre. And clearly there's
in part a reason why it's bizarre and September 11 shows you what
that reason is. But the point is, if you're listening down there
below consciousness -- you know, the unspoken, the invisible,
the ether, the crackle -- then you're always hearing bad news.
And the problem is, if you live according to that, then your life
becomes very deformed. The worst case scenario of crossing the
road is that you're going to get hit by a bus. So if you apply
the worst case scenario, you can't cross the road. But actually,
people cross the road all the time and are not hit by a bus. But
that's the thing: the worst case scenario is the worst case scenario.
The trouble with maximum security is that it assumes that you
always have to cater for that. That whatever you do must cover
that too, you know? So that in order to cross the road you have
to close the street so that you can cross the road and there's
no chance that a bus could come down and hit you.
And you've seen that close up.
Yes. I've seen it. And I understood quite early that in order
to retain even my sanity but also my ability to make judgments
and choices, I couldn't accept that view of the world. I was not
going to surrender my ordinary world view and replace it by the
security world view, because then I would become their creature.
I could only do what they said. I didn't feel like doing what
they said because often I felt that I was right and they were
And, had you done that, you'd probably still be doing it.
Yeah. Exactly. I think you become institutionalized. It would
be like going to jail. So, from the beginning, I started questioning
everything and that enabled me to begin the process of gradually
getting my life back.
And now you have it back?
[Nods] But some of it lingers.
I know that. For instance, in setting up this interview today,
I was meeting you at an undisclosed location, as far as I was
Well, that's just the publishers being careful. I don't do that.
What I find now, and it's actually slightly the most irritating
thing, is that people become cautious on my behalf when I've requested
nothing. As far as I'm concerned I just behave like everyone else
and I wish people would stop doing it, really, because it creates
a wrong atmosphere around me. Once upon a time that was true and
there was arguably a need for it.
You mean they didn't tell you where you were supposed to come?
Just an "undisclosed downtown location." Until today.
I'm amazed. I'm really amazed. That's bizarre. I'm sorry about
that. But it's certainly absolutely nothing to do with anything
I requested. It's just people trying to be careful on my behalf.
I guess, also, they don't want to lose you on their watch. [Laughs]
But no, again, that may once have been an issue but now it's not.
And I'm slightly annoyed that people make it an issue again when
actually I do not live like that and I strongly resent now intrusions
of security into my life because it took me a decade to get it
out of my life and I don't want it around me. And really, it isn't
[an issue]. If I'm walking around in New York and taking the subway
and so on it's kind of silly to have a cloak and dagger game about
where you should be.
And you do that? Take the subway and stuff?
Yeah. Of course.
I didn't realize. But, I guess, having just read [Step Across
This Line], I've just experienced it all with you, so it seems
very fresh. Very new. [Laughs]
So, at some point at least, doing simple things like taking the
subway must have been delicious for you.
Well it was. Certainly. Of course it was. Because the thing that
I most keenly felt was the loss of ordinary life. And so it's
very good to have it back. Go stand in line in the supermarket.
It's just back to normal. So I really don't like it when people
treat it as if it's not normal. If I were to walk around here,
people might recognize me, but so what? It doesn't stop anything.
So you just get used to it. And when people do come up it's always
just a moment and it's always friendly so it doesn't bother me,
In Step Across This Line you say that the Australian writer David
Malouf warns "particularly of the dangers of speaking about
work in progress." Despite that, do you talk about yours?
You mean about work in progress? I try not to, really. I read
an interview many years ago that Gabriel García Márquez
gave which had been done when he was writing Autumn of Patriarch.
And the interview bore so little relationship to the book that
he finally published. [Laughs] You know, because, clearly, your
ideas about your book develop all the time and the book you finish
is never really the book you begin. You discover better solutions
and more interesting ways to go. Stuff you thought was powerful
turns out to be a kind of damp squid and things you thought were
going to be three pages long turn out to be 40 pages long. So
it's very difficult to talk about it in any way that means anything.
In the piece where you quoted Malouf, you talked about inspiration
and influence. Can you talk about that in relation to what you're
One of the things that I think about the subject of influence
is that when you start as a writer it's [how you] find your way.
All books, to an extent, come from other books. As well as from
life. So when you start out you think: Oh yes, you have these
kind of guiding stars and it helps you steer. But I think what
happens is that gradually that stops away, you know? You don't
need to lean on the influence of other writers so much because
you've found your own voice and your own direction.
Sometimes writers can come in useful, they can give you tips and
hints. For instance, when I was writing Fury one of the things
I read at that time was [Honoré de] Balzac's Eugénie
Grandet. I suddenly thought: Balzac is doing something that I
could really use, which is the way in which he begins the novel
with a description of a town and then inside the town a neighborhood
inside the neighborhood the street, on the street a house, inside
the house a room, in the room a chair, on the chair a woman sitting
in the chair and this is her problem. The opening of Eugénie
Grandet is like a zoom lens. It starts off at a very wide angle
and gradually comes right in and picks out one figure and tells
you that story. But first it's created a context. And I thought
it was really interesting. And in a way very modern, cinematic,
One of the reasons Fury begins with some quite long passages just
about the city streets and about New York and so on was exactly
to say: first let's make the place vivid and then let's follow
this man's story through it. In that sense, yeah, other writers
can give you a helping hand. But it's not exactly the same as
when you start. When you start you're actually trying to define
yourself against other writers, test yourself against other writers.
You're still shaping yourself. At that point influence has a much
bigger role in your writing. By now, as I say, it can be a help
-- the work of other writers -- it can be a help, but it's no
longer a crutch in the way that it can be when you start out.
What are you reading right now?
Well, I'm reading this terrific book of Michael Ondaatje's. He's
written this book The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art
of Editing Film. [Murch] was the editor of Apocalypse Now and
The English Patient and of many, many other films besides. And,
what is interesting, listening to Murch who -- unusually for a
film editor -- [is] very articulate and has a very wide cultural
frame of reference and so he can really talk about it. He talks
about it in a way that is very reminiscent to me of many choices
that one makes as a writer. For example, he talks about how the
techniques of montage can actually help to tell the story by giving
a different feeling than what the characters are actually saying.
In writing there are moments like this. For instance, if you want
to create the mood of a relationship that's in trouble without
actually saying that it's in trouble, a way you can do this is
quite like editing technique. You can have your characters talking
to each other -- and they can be talking to each other in a completely
affectionate way, without suggesting directly that they have any
problems between them. But if you write it in a very broken up
way, if you write it in a very staccato series of sentences which
feel kind of jangling and odd, etc. the reader can actually get
the sense that something is wrong without actually being told
that there's something wrong. You create the mood with the rhythm
of the language and you don't necessarily, at that point, really
have to spell it out. You can spell it out at the appropriate
dramatic moment. But the reader kind of gets the feeling of something
tense just because you write about it that way.
So it's very interesting reading Michael's book about Murch. He
approaches film editing in exactly that way. And some of the most
interesting stuff in the book is Michael comparing his work methods
to Murch's work methods. And you begin to see how much there is
Writing is still very much on ongoing learning process for you.
Of course. One of the great things about writing is you don't
learn anything. [Laughs] Or you hardly learn anything because,
put it this way, everything you learn in the process of writing
a book is used up in the process of writing that book. And then
you get the next book and the thing you don't want to do is to
write it exactly the same way you wrote the previous book. And
therefore everything that you've painstakingly worked out for
that book is not useful now and you have to try new solutions
for the new work.
I mean, it's not true that you learn absolutely nothing. There
are certain things that do come with experience. For example,
there's almost always a moment when I'm writing a book when it
suddenly clogs and I can't go on. It sort of jams. One of the
things I've learned through experience is when that happens, the
problem is never there -- the problem is never at the point where
it jams. The problem is back somewhere. There's been something
wrongly imagined, you know, or under imagined. The wrong thing
has been set in motion or something that should have been set
in motion has not been set in motion. Then you have to go back
and find out where the blockage is. It's sort of like plumbing:
you have to find out where the blockage is and then send the rooter
guy. [Laughs] And once you've cleared the blockage then you find
can go on.
The sense in which it is not like plumbing is that often once
you've found the mistake, it requires rewriting all the way: They
shouldn't have had a fight then, because if they had a fight then
they can't get together here to do what they need to do. So you
have to undo that fight, even if you want them actually to be
in a state of high tension. They actually can't have a break there
because they need to be doing something together here. So you
have to go find out what you've done wrong and it can be the page
before, it can be 100 pages before but that's something that experience
teaches you: always don't look for the solution at the point where
you are. It's somewhere else.
Do you work on a computer? Or in longhand?
Well, I work on both. I do a lot of my preliminary work in notebooks.
I always carry a notebook and I'm always scribbling in it. Just
ideas and phrases and thoughts, little passages and so on. When
I'm actually writing writing, I do it on a laptop because, for
a start, it's just so portable and you can take 15 different versions
And you can undo those blockages 100 pages ago.
Yeah, but also before laptops I used to do it on a typewriter
and what I found is that when sentences were in my handwriting,
I found it difficult to be objective about their quality. I either
thought they were too good, or I thought they were too bad. I
was either too critical of them or not critical enough. I couldn't
have proper distance. And, somehow, type -- or now print on a
screen -- allows me to be much more neutral. Dispassionate. And
just look at it and say: Well, that doesn't quite work. Or: Yes,
leave that alone, it's good. But then what I do is I'm endlessly
printing it out and scribbling all over it and putting the scribbles
back into the computer. So I sort of use both processes and one
of the reasons is that I've found that when you're looking at
a sheet of paper -- your hard copy -- you actually see slightly
different things than you see on a computer screen. So what I
find is that there are things I now see on a computer screen that
maybe I was missing when there was only hard copy. But I like
to have both experiences. But I love it. I was a very late convert
1995. The Moor's Last Sigh was the first novel I wrote on a computer,
so I guess that was 93, 94.
I imagine that the technology would have been helpful to you,
because your work is so intricate. I think there must be no one
on the planet who understands all of your jokes and all of your
insides. One of the reasons I say this is because of something
that happened when I was reviewing The Ground Beneath Her Feet
back in 1999. As I was reading it I said to [January art director
and primary photographer] David [Middleton]: There's this photographer
[in The Ground Beneath her Feet] and he works for the Nebuchadnezzar
photo agency. And I said: I know that's not a real thing, but
I have the feeling there's something there I'm not getting. And
David laughed his head off, because, he told me, a nebuchadnezzar
is a bottle for champagne, but it's...
[Laughing] .... it's much bigger than a magnum.
But who's going to get that?
Well, he got it. Photographers get it. It's a photography joke.
If you want to have something that isn't Magnum [the world's largest
non-fictional photographic agency].
But I think it's wonderful. [Laughs] Because you really have to
Or not, you know. I mean, you've got to name it something. If
you're going to write about photography, obviously it starts because
you have a sort of interest in it anyway and then you go and find
out a great deal more about it in order to write the book and
so, along the way, you find yourself reading a lot about things
like Magnum Agency and the birth of it and so on.
And then when you're a wordie anyway, you go: Oh, Magnum...
What'll I call my fictional agency? It's like that. It's not really
there for people to find, even. It's really just a way for me
to find the name.
But it's a part of your humor, I think. Those little touches.
Your humor is very rich and very deep. Your work is very funny.
Often in the most unexpected places.
Well, thank you. That's what's great about coming on these tours
and doing readings in front of audiences. And they're very enjoyable
evenings if people are laughing a lot. It's one of the things
that people stopped saying about my writing at a certain point.
I think because what came at me was so unfunny there was a tendency
to believe my writing must have the characteristics of the attack
against it. If the attack was unfunny then I couldn't possibly
be a funny writer and if the attack was kind of arcane and theological
and kind of alien then the writing must be sort of arcane and
theological and alien, you know? I think, for people that had
never tried my work, it kind of put them off.
It's true. I've noticed that even while I've been reading Step
Across This Line. People said: What do you think of it? And I've
replied: It's so funny in spots. I always forget how funny he
is. And they've said: What? Rushdie funny? But, of course. That's
always been a component.
That's the thing. People who haven't read me are surprised when
you say it. People who have read me are not. And clearly there
are more people in the world who have not read me than have. Unfortunately.
With Step Across This Line we're putting the fatwa to bed then?
So I will ask you then, because this is the last time we'll speak
about it, were you surprised by it?
Yeah. Well, I wasn't surprised that a bunch of mullahs didn't
like it, because they never liked anything I wrote anyway. And
I didn't particularly write for them. They're not my team. I just
thought that people of very orthodox, religious belief might find
it not to their taste, you know. And, no doubt, they would say
so and then, no doubt, we'd have an argument and then that would
be it. After all, one of the reasons there are lots of books in
bookstores is that you don't have to buy the books you don't want.
So what? If they don't like it, buy another book. My view is that
that's what would happen. I thought there would probably be a
bit of an argument about it, you know? But I thought, that's fine.
It's actually one of the good things that books can do, is to
start interesting arguments. And then you have the argument and
then you get on to the next thing, whatever it is. So I thought
that would happen. Who would have thought this kind of thing?
That the leader of a foreign power would suddenly instruct his
minions to have me killed? It would never really happen to a writer.
And, frankly, if I'd have told you on the publication date of
Satanic Verses that that would happen, you'd have thought I was
Had you known, would you have published it?
Oh, who knows?
It changed your life.
Yeah, but I'm very proud of it as a book,
is what I'll say. I can't imagine my work without it and I think
it's as good a book as I've written. And what is good now -- now
that the fuss is mostly over -- it's finally getting read as a
book. It's getting studied a lot at colleges and it's going back
onto the book pages. It's being read as a novel. And then there's
the full range of response: there are people who love it, there
are people who sort of can't stand it, people who find it very
exciting, people who find it very boring, which is fine. That's
how everybody uses books all the time. And it's nice that it finally
gets to have a book conversation around it instead of all these
The experience made you a strident advocate for free speech.
Yeah but I always believed in free speech. It's just that I didn't
feel the need to sound off about it before.
Do you thing that the adversity of it all made you stronger? Made
you push harder?
Yeah. Well, I hope that in each book I try to push into areas
that I haven't been before. But it certainly made me feel very
determined not to be silenced. Not to be shut up. It also made
me determined not to be defined by this attack. You start as a
writer, you have your beliefs as a writer and your concerns as
a writer. You have your project. I just thought: I'm just going
to try to keep going down my road and not be turned into a creature
of the public. There were a number of elephant traps. I thought,
if I get it wrong I'd either become very timid and write very
safe little books that never went to the edge in any way and that
would be kind of destruction. But the opposite thing, I thought,
would also be damaging because if I started writing, in a way,
very angry books -- revenge books, books that were just getting
even -- then again I would be defined by the attack. So you can't
do either of those.
Because it would be affecting you.
Yeah. And it would be controlling you. So the thing that I like
about the first two books that I wrote after the fatwa -- the
first Haroun and the Sea of Stories and then The Moor's Last Sigh
-- is that they really are my books. I think if you read those
books you can hear that they are from the same person who was
writing before the attack. The voice has, of course, developed
and changed, but that happens from book to book anyway. But my
feeling was: I'm not going to let them overpower my work. My work
is going to go on being my work. It's not going to become my work
with them telling me how to do it. I discovered I had the bloodymindedness
to do that.
Why the collection of essays now?
Well, 10 or 11 years ago I published the first collection of non-fiction
[Imaginary Homelands] -- 1981 - 1991 -- and simply if you're the
kind of person who, like me, does every so often do essays and
journalism and so on and so on, gradually you get this folder
filling up and I thought: Well, here's this whole pile of stuff,
let me see what there is. So I started re-exploring it -- and
by no means all of it is in here because there's stuff you don't
particularly feel is worth preserving and you're quite happy to
see forgotten. And I rewrote all the stuff [that was included
in the book]. I mean, everything in [Step Across This Line] has
been gone over again.
I noticed the addition of the footnotes.
Yeah, but even just sentence by sentence it's been gone over.
If you compare it to the first publication, every piece is slightly
different. Journalism is a kind of ephemera. But if you're going
to put something in a really permanent form, then you want to
make sure you that you've given it all the care that you'd give
to any of your other stuff.
So you didn't just hand someone all your old stuff.
No. Absolutely not. I really worked them again.
And you sequenced them?
Yes. And what I wanted to do, in my mind there's a sort of journey
through the book. In a way, it's a self-portrait, this book. But
it's a self-portrait not so much in terms of my daily life, but
in terms of my inner workings. So I thought the first section
is this writer -- me, in other words -- talking about all kinds
of essentially artistic and cultural matters, whether it's books
or movies or whatever it might be. And that first section gives
the reader, I hope, some kind of portrait of what kind of writer
this is. And then this dreadful thing happens to him. And then
there's a second part in which the book becomes a response to
that. Here's this person and you saw what he's like. Now he has
to deal with this. The second part is the one that required the
most work, in a way, because it's the one where I really did take
bits from here and bits from there and make a kind of collage.
At the end of second part you come out of the tunnel and then
that sensibility, which has now been shaped by all this stuff,
you take that and look at the world. Instead of turning inward
to argue about yourself, you turn it outwards. That's the journey
through the book, I think. I tried to make it feel like that.
And then it's not just a grab bag of old bits. It becomes a book
which has a shape and a flow, like any book should, and feels
like a whole. So that's how it emerged. So there's a lot more
shaping work in it than people might think from it being called
And so you begin with a very intimate look at The Wizard of Oz,
which I thought was a good starting point. It invites you in gently.
I think in any book, whatever it is, fiction or non-fiction, it's
very important more or less straight away to say to the reader:
It's going to be this kind of ride. In every book the writer makes
a contract with the reader. You have to respect that. You can't
have a book that's a naturalistic novel on page one that becomes
a science fiction novel on page 100 because it annoys people.
Or, if you're going to do it, you have to do it very deliberately
and know why you're doing it and etc. So I thought, if I put political
material up at the front it's going to be impossible to have this
other cultural and funnier and lighter stuff later on because
people will assume they're getting book A and they'll be disappointed
when it turns into book B. But if you say: I'm going to start
by telling you who I am and what I think and then we'll get into
that other stuff, then people accept that. That's why I think
that having things like the wizard up front helps that.
What makes you happiest in your life right now?
Well, there are so many ways of answering that. In one sense what
makes me happiest is my children and in another sense what makes
me happiest is that I'm at quite a good place in my life where
I'm fortunate personally both in my private life and in my professional
life. You know, I don't know how to answer the question. A good
day at the office makes me happy. There are days when the writing
goes well and the world seems to hum because you feel really good
and then, the next day, you feel like a donkey again.
[Linda Richards is editor of January Magazine. Interview done
in September 2002.]
the leaders of al Qaeda evade capture, regroup and return to the
al-Jazeera airwaves to offer menaces and derision, the United
States looks increasingly like a blind giant, flailing uselessly
about: like, in fact, the blinded Cyclops Polyphemus of Homeric
myth, who was only one-eyed to begin with, who had that eye put
out by Ulysses and his fugitive companions, and who was reduced
to roaring in impotent rage and hurling boulders in the general
direction of Ulysses' taunting voice.
Indeed, the allegedly still-living Osama bin Laden might find
the story of Ulysses and Polyphemus useful as an allegory of his
own battle against the Great Satan of America. (Polyphemus, after
all, is a sort of evil superpower, a stupid creature of great,
brute force who respects no laws or gods and devours human flesh,
whereas Ulysses is crafty, devious, slippery, uncatchable and
dangerous.) Then again, he might not, for by wounding Polyphemus
Ulysses aroused the wrath of the Cyclops's father, Poseidon, the
sea god who rules over the fate of all wanderers and fugitives,
and was doomed never to return home until all his men were lost
and home itself had grown anything but homely.
Allegory will take you only so far, however, and I rather doubt
that Osama bin Laden spends much time poring over Book 9 of "The
Odyssey"; but one of the more worrying aspects of our more-than-worrying
times is the extent to which the ordinary citizenry of the Muslim
world is prepared to go along with the Osama bin Laden mob's characterization
of America in particular, and of the West and "the Jews"
in general, as monstrous.
This, in spite of a concerted Western effort to counter the opposite
of this kind of demonization. In the United States since Sept.
11, and also in a Europe alarmed by the resurgence of the far
right, there have been and continue to be laudable efforts to
prevent Muslims from being tarred with the terrorist brush. Muslim
voices, those of the people on the Arab, Afghan, Pakistani or
Kashmiri streets as well as those of intellectuals and politicians,
are being given media time and space, and are being listened to.
(The British Guardian newspaper's decision to spend a whole week
spotlighting "Islamophobia" is a recent example.) Most
of the voices we have heard have had extremely harsh things to
say about the United States of America, and its arrogance, brutality,
ignorance and so on.
It is difficult not to feel that even in the most civilized of
these voices there is less passion for the battle against terrorism
than there is for the polemics of victimization by the American
Cyclops. It is difficult not to hear, in the widespread condemnations
of the West's sybaritic, hedonist, sex-obsessed individualism,
milder echoes of the fanatical puritanism of the Islamist extremists.
It is difficult not to hear, beneath the condemnations of America's
suffering at the hands of Sept. 11 murderers, a gleeful note of
schadenfreude; it is difficult to ignore the admiration for the
terrorists' success in giving America a bloody nose. It is hard,
too, to forget that Gallup poll, taken across the Muslim world
a few months ago, in which, by a big margin, those interviewed
denied Muslim responsibility for Sept. 11.
Some of us have been listening out for something else: the emergence
of a genuine Muslim polemic against the harm the terrorists are
doing to their "own people." The war against Islamist
terror will only be won when Muslims around the world begin to
believe that fanaticism is a greater evil than that which they
believe the United States to embody -- an evil, moreover, more
damaging to Muslims, more socially, economically and politically
destructive, and possessed by the nightmare vision of the Talibanization
of the planet. After nine months during which it has been repeatedly
stressed that most Muslims are not terrorists, but ordinary, decent
human beings, it would be good to point to the birth of an international
Muslim movement against terrorism. Unfortunately no such movement
has emerged, nor is there the slightest indication that it may
yet do so.
It's true that the U.S. government has seemed at times to be doing
its best to justify comparisons to the blinded Cyclops -- except
that this is a Polyphemus whose blindness is largely self-inflicted.
The litany of pre-9/11 intelligence errors has been repeated many
times -- the shelved reports, the untranslated warnings, the sheer
doltishness of American officialdom. We know now that many prominent
Bushies were busily opposing the allocation of resources to intelligence
work right up to the moment of the attacks. And we know that in
spite of the full deployment of all America's resources, no one
has come up with a location for the hiding place of her greatest
foe. One can't help feeling that the word "intelligence"
is a misnomer here -- that "unintelligence" might be
more accurate, or even "stupidity." The U.S. authorities
claim that this period of blindness is at an end, that many conspiracies
have been frustrated, many threats identified, and some arrests
made (even though, as in the case of the execrable Jose Padilla,
they have been made on the very flimsiest of evidence). Time will
tell who is right: al Qaeda's blood-curdling spokesman Sulaiman
Abu-Ghaith or the U.S. government. Nobody I know is confident
of the outcome.
America can indeed look much like an ugly, blundering giant. America's
Middle East policy, for example, is the terrorists' single greatest
propaganda weapon, and the new Bush hard line is not exactly designed
to change that. But if, indeed, most of the world's 1 billion
Muslims want nothing to do with terrorism, as we are constantly
being told, then it's time that their leaders, educators, information
media and intelligentsia stopped creating the preconditions for
that terrorism by perpetuating the image of a satanic, Polyphemus-like
America that is well worth destroying.
New York Times, dated 6/28/2002.
those of us who cannot imagine a future without books, it is disturbing
to note how many present-day visions have no room for books at
all. The view from Bill Gates to Blade Runner is distinctly post-literate.
For those of us who write books, it sometimes seems that it's
open season on writers around the world nowadays, a horrifying
state of affairs which this indispensable magazine does so much
to record and to protest against. And for those of us who are
as concerned about the right to read what we choose as the right
to write what we choose, it is alarming that the business of demanding
bans on whatever ideas get up people's noses is getting to be
respectable. It's getting to be cool.
can be defined as the science of being wrong about the future,
and novelists are no better at this kind of speculation than anyone
else. Bad news being more glamorous than good, dystopic predictions
are far easier to come up with than optimistic ones, and have
more apparent credibility. Trapped between indifference and persecution,
looking increasingly anachronistic beside the new information
technology, what chance of survival does literature have? It's
easy to shrug despairingly and start preparing the obituaries.
yet, I find myself wanting to take issue with this facile despair.
It is perhaps the low-tech nature of the act of writing that will
save it. Means of artistic expression that require large quantities
of finance and sophisticated technology, films, plays, records,
become, by virtue of that dependence, easy to censor and to control.
But what one writer can make in the solitude of one room is something
no power can easily destroy.
Salman Rushdie, 1996. Also credit to Index on Censorship.