Condemned to death in 1989 by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini over the novel, "The Satanic Verses," revered author Salman Rushdie and his family spent almost a decade living underground under the threat of murder. In his new memoir, "Joseph Anton," Rushdie writes candidly about the experience. Here's an excerpt.
The Pakistani ﬁlm International Gorillay (International guerrillas), produced by Sajjad Gul, told the story of a group of local heroes—of the type that would, in the language of a later age, come to be known as jihadis or terrorists—who vowed to ﬁnd and kill an author called “Salman Rushdie.” The quest for “Rushdie” formed the main action of the ﬁlm and “his” death was the ﬁlm’s version of a happy ending.Story: Salman Rushdie: Film that sparked Mideast unrest ‘disgraceful’
“Rushdie” himself was depicted as a drunk, constantly swigging from a bottle of liquor, and a sadist. He lived in what looked very like a palace on what looked very like an island in the Philippines (clearly all novelists had second homes of this kind), being protected by what looked very like the Israeli army (this presumably being a service offered by Israel to all novelists), and he was plotting the overthrow of Pakistan by the ﬁendish means of opening chains of discotheques and gambling dens across that pure and virtuous land, a perﬁdious notion for which, as the British Muslim “leader” Iqbal Sacranie might have said, death was too light a punishment. “Rushdie” was dressed exclusively in a series of hideously colored safari suits—vermilion safari suits, aubergine safari suits, cerise safari suits—and the camera, whenever it fell upon the ﬁgure of this vile personage, invariably started at his feet and then panned with slow menace up to his face. So the safari suits got a lot of screen time, and when he saw a videotape of the ﬁlm the fashion insult wounded him deeply. It was, however, oddly satisfying to read that one result of the ﬁlm’s popularity in Pakistan was that the actor playing “Rushdie” became so hated by the ﬁlm-going public that he had to go into hiding.
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At a certain point in the ﬁlm one of the international gorillay was captured by the Israeli army and tied to a tree in the garden of the palace in the Philippines so that “Rushdie” could have his evil way with him. Once “Rushdie” had ﬁnished drinking from his bottle and lashing the poor terrorist with a whip, once he had slaked his ﬁlthy lust for violence upon the young man’s body, he handed the innocent would-be murderer over to the Israeli soldiers and uttered the only genuinely funny line in the ﬁlm. “Take him away,” he cried, “and read to him from The Satanic Verses all night!” Well, of course, the poor fellow cracked completely. Not that, anything but that, he blubbered as the Israelis led him away.
At the end of the ﬁlm “Rushdie” was indeed killed—not by the international gorillay, but by the Word itself, by thunderbolts unleashed by three large Qur’ans hanging in the sky over his head, which reduced the monster to ash. Personally fried by the Book of the Almighty: There was dignity in that.
On July 22, 1990, the British Board of Film Classiﬁcation refused International Gorillay a certiﬁcate, on the fairly self-evident grounds that it was libelous (and because the BBFC feared that if it were to license the ﬁlm and the real Rushdie were to sue for defamation, the board could be accused of having become party to the libel, and could therefore be sued for damages as well). This placed the real Rushdie in something of a quandary. He was ﬁghting a battle for free speech and yet he was being defended, in this case, by an act of censorship. On the other hand the ﬁlm was a nasty piece of work. In the end he wrote a letter to the BBFC formally giving up his right of legal recourse, assuring the board that he would pursue neither the ﬁlmmaker nor the board itself in the courts, and that he did not wish to be accorded “the dubious protection of censorship.” The ﬁlm should be shown so that it could be seen for the “distorted, incompetent piece of trash that it is.” On August 17, as a direct result of his intervention, the board unanimously voted to license the ﬁlm; whereupon, in spite of all the producer’s efforts to promote it, it immediately sank without trace, because it was a rotten movie, and no matter what its intended audience may have thought about “Rushdie” or even Rushdie, they were too wise to throw their money away on tickets for a dreadful ﬁlm.Video: Salman Rushdie: Friends helped me survive fatwa (on this page)
It was, for him, an object lesson in the importance of the “better out than in” free speech argument—that it was better to allow even the most reprehensible speech than to sweep it under the carpet, better to publicly contest and perhaps deride what was loathsome than to give it the glamour of taboo, and that, for the most part, people could be trusted to tell the good from the bad. If International Gorillay had been banned, it would have become the hottest of hot videos and in the parlors of Bradford and Whitechapel young Muslim men would have gathered behind closed drapes to rejoice in the frying of the apostate. Out in the open, subjected to the judgment of the market, it shriveled like a vampire in sunlight, and was gone.
Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, from “Joseph Anton" by Salman Rushdie. Copyright © 2012 by Salman Rushdie.
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