British author Salman Rushdie’s memoir of more than nine years in hiding after Iran’s supreme leader issued a death sentence against him hit the shelves yesterday, ending the wait for his account of a furore that has echoes across the world today.
Joseph Anton: A Memoir opens with the moment when Rushdie, already a member of London’s literary elite, received a call from a journalist asking for his reaction to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa, or religious edict, calling for his head.
“It doesn’t feel good,” was his understated reply, but at the time he recalled thinking to himself: “I’m a dead man.”
What followed was nearly a decade of life on the run, fearing for his own safety and that of his family.
The fatwa, in response to the 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, turned Rushdie into a household name that will forever be linked with the tussle between the right to freedom of expression and the need to respect religious sensitivities.
The topic is back in the headlines after violent protests spread across the Muslim world in response to a US-made video mocking the Prophet Mohammed.
“I always said that what happened to me was a prologue and there will be many, many more episodes like it,” Rushdie told the Daily Telegraph at the launch of his memoir. “Clearly, [the film is] a piece of crap, is very poorly done and is malevolent. To react to it with this kind of violence is just ludicrously inappropriate. People are being attacked who had nothing to do with it and that is not right.”
At the weekend, a state-linked Iranian religious foundation increased the bounty on his head to US$3.3 million. Its leader argued that had Rushdie been killed, later cases of Islam being insulted would have been avoided.
English PEN, a branch of the international group promoting free expression in literature, defended Rushdie.
“The film that has caused this round of unrest is an insult to everyone’s intelligence, but the means of combating that is more intelligence, not threats of reinstated fatwas and killings,” author and campaigner Lisa Appignanesi said.
The 633-page Joseph Anton, written in the third person singular, recalls Rushdie’s days as a student at Cambridge and his early literary career, including the day he won the coveted Booker Prize for Midnight’s Children in 1981.
Seven years later The Satanic Verses appeared, and for a few weeks it was, he fondly remembered, “only a novel.”
Then it was banned in India and South Africa, copies were burned in the streets of England and bookstores were firebombed.