Interview Salman Rushdie Is Not Afraid

He thinks 'Game of Thrones' is dumb, bemoans the lack of good modern novels and believes terrorism is dying out; over 20 years after fleeing for his life from an Iranian-issued fatwa, novelist Salman Rushdie is still unafraid to speak his mind.

Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz
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Gidi Weitz
Gidi Weitz

New York. One fine evening a few weeks ago, the writer Salman Rushdie walked, unattended by bodyguards, to the site of the 9/11 memorial. "It was very strange to walk into that space after ten years," the 64-year-old recalls as we sit in the offices of the Wiley literary agency in the center of New York. "I remember post-9/11, many journalists from all over saying to me, 'Ah, now we understand what happened to you.' And I responded, 'Really? That's what it took for you to take note?!' But in some way that was the moment at which these things, like the attack on 'The Satanic Verses' or the persecution of other people in different places, suddenly became a big thing."

Salman Rushdie. 'We live in a society in which people are allowed to tell their story, and that is what I do.'Credit: Visual Studios

A few years ago, someone brought a smile to Rushdie's lips. What's worse, he asked him: living in hiding for years with a death sentence hanging over you, or being asked thousands of times what it's like to live with a death sentence hanging over you? "It's pretty close," the writer replied ironically. Since the beginning of 1989, when the aged and dying Iranian dictator Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence against him for having blasphemed Islam in his 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses," Rushdie has been not only an Indian surname of Muslim origin but a generic name for the family of those hunted by fundamentalist Islam. The writer Magdi Allam, who had the temerity to publish a book in which he attacked Islam, was dubbed "the Italian Rushdie" by the media and required bodyguards. Similarly, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who spoke out against the violent suppression of women in Muslim society, was labeled "the Dutch Rushdie" - she had to flee Holland because of threats to her life. Those are only two members of a growing family. "There is a Rushdie everywhere," Salman says.

Why is it always Muslims? Why didn't Martin Scorsese have to run for his life after making "The Last Temptation of Christ"? Why does no one want to murder Woody Allen for making fun of Jews?

"There is a widespread difficulty in the Muslim world, which has to do with how the people are taught about examining their own history. A whole range of stuff has been placed off limits. The meaning of that material is dictated by religious people, not historians and scholars. If you believe that the [Quran] is the uncreated word of God, then sociology, politics and economics have nothing to do with it; but if you believe it is a text that arose in a certain place as a result of particular social, economic and political pressures, then you explicate it in a different way.

"The problem was that I learned to look at it like that from my father, and that was crossing a boundary into heavily defended territory. The question is who has power over the story. The response of anybody interested in liberty is that we all have a say and the ability to have an argument is exactly what liberty is, even though it may never be resolved. In any authoritarian society the possessor of power dictates, and if you try and step outside he will come after you. This is equally true of Sovietism, of China and of Iran, and in our time it has happened a lot in Islam. The point is that it's worse when the authoritarianism is supported by something supernatural.

"What happened to me got extra attention because it happened in England, to a writer who writes in English, not in Arabic. But people in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and elsewhere are killed and jailed for many of the same things as me, and that draws much less attention. For a long time, what I tried to say is that it is not only me: look at what is happening there."

Muslim protesters burning an effigy of Rushdie in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1989.Credit: AP

Are you a free person today, one who can walk about without bodyguards?

"Yes. It's been like that for ten years now."

Are you still afraid?

"No. We live in a frightened time and people self-censor all the time and are afraid of going into some subjects because they are worried about violent reactions. That is one of the great damaging aspects of what has happened in the last 20 years. Someone asked me if I was afraid to write my memoirs. I told him: 'We have to stop drawing up accounts of fear! We live in a society in which people are allowed to tell their story, and that is what I do.' I am a writer. I write books."

Yesterday's story

The new wave: Celebrating the Arab Spring in Egypt’s Tahrir Square.Credit: AP

Even though the existential threat was formally lifted, Islamic extremists still wanted Rushdie's head, among them Iranians who vowed that they would sell a kidney to finance the writer's assassination. In 2007, when he was awarded a knighthood by Britain, the governments of Pakistan and Iran summoned British representatives to voice vigorous protests. Demonstrations were held in some cities in Pakistan, in which people shouted "Death to Rushdie" and burned him in effigy. In 2008, as part of an exhibition of manuscripts and translations of the Quran, held in the great mosque in the center of Tehran, a coffin for Rushdie was displayed (along with a second coffin, draped with the Israeli flag ). As with a hunted animal, the consciousness of being persecuted honed Rushdie's senses. In the first decade of the new century the acclaimed writer, who had been in hiding all through the last decade of the previous century, became an apocalyptic prophet who foresaw the terrorist attacks of Bin Laden and his ilk.

In his novel "Fury," published a few months before September 11, 2001, Rushdie described America reeling under a terrorist onslaught. In 2004, shortly before the horrific attack on the Madrid commuter train, Rushdie warned that it would not be long before Europe, too, became a target for mass terror. Presently, however, in the wake of the Arab Spring, Rushdie appears to be optimistic. "The age of terror might be coming to an end," he says.

How so? Were you moved by the Arab Spring?

"What has happened everywhere, to varying extents, is that the uprisings haven't been about religion but about secular things like liberty and economic betterment. They are not religious struggles. It is very exciting, because the Arab uprisings seem to discredit the terrorist Al-Qaida ideology and pave the way for a better way of doing things. If you actually want to change your world, there is a better way of doing it than blowing yourself up. What we have seen is the incredible courage of many young people in these areas doing an old-fashioned thing called direct action: you stand up and change your country. You don't have to put on a suicide belt or any of those bullshit things. Some of these countries may not end up where they want to be, it's going to be a tough battle. But already it shows that the ideology of the terrorists feels like yesterday's story."

You once wrote that Islam needs to be reformed. What did you mean?

Rushdie with first wife Clarissa Luard.Credit: Getty Images

"It's not so much about reforming Islam as it is about reforming Islamic societies. You can't have modern states based on ideas which have been out of date for a thousand years. If they don't start to adapt to the new world, they will continue to be economically poor and incompetent and authoritarian. They will be basket cases, and there isn't a successful economy there. Even with the oil, all they have is the oil, nothing else. At the time I remember people saying it was overly optimistic or Westernized nonsense, but to me what these uprisings are showing is that this is what people want. "They want to be able to share in the conversation about their societies. And they want a degree of personal freedom which has been denied them for generations. You can see that what they want is to have a voice in the shaping of their society, they want personal freedom, they want jobs. In order to generate jobs and to have an economy that functions, you have to create a modern state. That is what I was talking about, and now it seems it may be something they think, too. But it's obvious that you can't run a modern state along the principles of the seventh century."

Why is the revolutionary wave bypassing Iran?

"I think the two big problems are Iran and Saudi Arabia. The uprisings are not happening in Iran because there is greater repression in Iran. It is not the mullahs anymore, it is the Revolutionary Guard. Hillary Clinton said last year that there is a fear that Iran has gone from a religious to a military state. The repression has reached a level of brutality that makes it very difficult for people. If what happened in Tahrir Square were to happen in Iran, they would just machine-gun everyone."

Like what happened in Syria?

"Worse than Syria. I always thought that Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria would be the hardest places for the new world to come into being, even though that is what everybody wants, other than the hardliners."

Rushdie with fourth wife Padma Lakshmi.Credit: Getty Images

Will Iran collapse in the end?

"I'm not a prophet, but I always thought it was natural for dictatorships to fall. I remember in 1989, two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, had you said it was going to happen no one would have believed you. The system seemed powerful and unbreakable. Suddenly overnight it blew away like dust. It was shown to be so weak and rotten from within. We live in an age in which change, when it comes, occurs at an incredible speed."

Recently, Rushdie and other writers - among them his good friend David Grossman - urged the United Nations to condemn Bashar Assad's murderous crackdown in Syria. I asked him whether he truly believes intellectuals have a part to play in the political game. "It depends where," he replied. "I think that in the countries where freedom is most in danger, in which the political sphere is most volatile, the views of intellectuals become more important. Why should China be afraid of Ai Weiwei as a painter? But because so few people speak up there, those who do become dangerous. "What people like David [Grossman] and Amos Oz have done is also heroic. David, especially after his personal tragedy. We have known each other for a long time. He is a great writer and also a great journalist. He handles fiction and nonfiction with equal subtlety and skill. He is a moral person who has the ability to rise above the personal and still talk in a civilized way. Many people whose child was killed would speak angrily, but violence breeds violence. For him to have a larger heart and a larger worldview was incredible, breathtaking."

Intellectuals have also done nonsense. Michel Foucault, for example, glorified Khomeini.

"Intellectuals are not saints, and can sometimes be very stupid indeed. In the United States, it is very difficult for intellectuals to have an impact on society, whereas in Europe it is more possible. I never knew Foucault. I met Jacques Derrida several times and he had a level of personal vanity which distorted the way he expressed himself. When you look at events, things look chaotic and shapeless, but there is a strong human need for form and shape. What intellectuals can offer amid the shapelessness of the everyday is a sense of 'how to look,' so that you can begin to discern shape and form. They can be fools, but they are about finding meaning and about understanding the world you live in."

The magical, horrible Oz

Salman Rushdie, who is very affable and positively brims with humor, was born in Bombay [now Mumbai] in June 1947, two months before India and Pakistan gained independence. The partition of British India swirls traumatically in his books. His family, whose origins lie in Kashmir, was part of the Muslim minority that remained in India as it emerged bleeding into the world in the form of an independent state. In his fictional masterpiece "Midnight's Children" (1981 ), Rushdie locates himself, in the character of the narrator, as having been born together with the children of midnight - the intermediate hour between Pakistan's creation and India's independence. Midnight's children were gifted with divine sparks and extraordinary powers, powers that were emasculated during the state of emergency proclaimed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the 1970s.

Rushdie's family bore a liberal orientation. His mother, Negin Bhatt, was a teacher; his father, Anis Ahmed Rushdie, a lawyer who became an industrialist, was prone to fits of rage and was very fond of alcohol. In an essay Rushdie wrote about the film version of "The Wizard of Oz," he described his father as being "prone to explosions, thunderous rages, bolts of emotional lightning, puffs of dragon-smoke." In short, he was the great, magical, horrible Oz. In time, he noted, he understood that his father had been a good man but a bad wizard.

He wrote his first book, "Over the Rainbow" - inspired by "The Wizard of Oz" - when he was ten. It was a portent of his flirtation with cinema - in recent years he has taken part in more than 40 films and television programs, mostly playing himself. In adolescence, Rushdie was sent to a private school in England, where for the first time he felt the supercilious gaze of the white man. The experience of migration, nonbelonging and wandering would become central motifs in his writing. Blurring the boundaries between fantasy and realism would perhaps help him overcome the underlying anxiety of being an outsider. In 1968, after completing his master's degree in history at Cambridge, Rushdie earned a living by working as a copywriter for David Ogilvy's advertising agency. Ogilvy, he wrote years later, "immortally instructed us that 'the consumer is not a moron, she is your wife.'"

He published his first novel, "Grimus," which attracted little attention, in 1975. He used the advance he received, 700 pounds, to travel in his homeland, India, for as long as the money lasted. It was on that journey that the epic "Midnight's Children" was conceived, bringing him international recognition and the prestigious Booker Prize.

After the book's publication, his father refused to speak to him for months. Ahmed Sinai, the father character in the novel, is, like Rushdie's father, an embittered, raging alcoholic. However, in 1984, three years after its publication, the novel plunged Rushdie into a far more public quarrel: with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It was Rushdie's first experience of a battle over the boundaries of freedom of expression. The second experience would almost cause his death.

In "Midnight's Children," whose plot interweaves the conflicted history of the subcontinent, Rushdie was severely critical of the violent emergency regime that Mrs. Gandhi introduced in the 1970s. Among other themes, Rushdie described the monstrous sterilization plan which the "Widow" (as Gandhi is referred to in the book ) concocts, as part of which the reproductive organs of many Indians, including those of 'midnight children,' are removed and afterward fried "in an iron skillet, soft unspeakable somethings spiced in turmeric, coriander, cumin and fenugreek... the pungent inescapable fumes of what-had-been-excised, cooking over a low, slow fire."

Yet it was not this horrific passage but a marginal paragraph that outraged the Indian prime minister: "It has often been said that Mrs. Gandhi's younger son Sanjay accused his mother of being responsible, through her neglect, for his father's death; and that this gave him an unbreakable hold over her, so that she became incapable of denying him anything." Indira Gandhi, whose father was India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru (she acquired the name Gandhi through marriage and was not related to Mahatma Gandhi ), sued Rushdie for defamation of character over this passage. After negotiations, the sides reached a compromise and the offending 43 words were deleted from all editions of the book after 1984. As part of the settlement, Gandhi declared that this was her sole complaint against Rushdie and the book. "Her willingness to make such an admission felt to me like an extraordinary validation of the novel's portrait of those Emergency years," Rushdie wrote in an article marking the book's 25th anniversary. A few weeks after the two reached the out-of-court agreement, Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.

What happened to India, whose spiritual father preached nonviolence but became a brutal and corrupt nuclear power?

"All of us who love India are concerned. The level of corruption is extraordinary. There isn't a place in the political system where you can look and say, 'That's where the integrity is,' or 'That's where the good guys are.' There's no good guys. Some are worse than others. And now, with the possibility of the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, becoming a prime ministerial candidate - I mean, he is by any standards a fascistic leader. Meanwhile, there is a growing assault on intellectual liberties of all kinds, whether it's academic - where Hindu extremists are rewriting history to try and falsify the past and erasing a large part of the Muslim history of India - as well as physical attacks on art galleries, movie theaters, books and libraries. Having grown up in a tolerant and secular India, deeply committed to democracy, which [Mahatma] Gandhi and Nehru tried to create, it is hard to see the country falling away from those standards."

Yet, isn't the economic miracle which India is undergoing meant to create a middle class that will strengthen democracy?

"It used to be that 10 percent of the population were wealthy and 90 percent were destitute. Now you have the same 10 percent of super rich, then a 10 percent middle class, which is doing fine, and finally 80 percent destitute. So it has trickled down a little bit. But really, the gulf between the incredible wealth being generated and the poverty which has always been there is getting ever bigger. That creates instability, resentment and allows forms of violence to arrive into the narrative. I speak as somebody who deeply loves the country; it is my home country. And yet when I go there I just worry all the time. This is not the India that I think about when I think about India."

When McEwan sneezes

Next year will see the release of the film version of "Midnight's Children," directed by the Indian-born Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta. "It's the first time that one of my books has been filmed," Rushdie notes. "It's a very dangerous and difficult task to make any book into a film. There are so many examples of failures, of good books turned into very poor movies. Many of my friends had books turned into films and I don't think they have been exceptional films. Ian McEwan only has to sneeze and they make a movie of it, but I'm not sure if any of those films have been really outstanding.

"There are some exceptions, though. For example, at Emory University in Atlanta I taught a course in the 'best case scenario,' when a really exceptional book gets turned into an exceptional film. I taught Visconti's film 'The Leopard,' based on the book by [Giuseppe di] Lampedusa, where both the film and the book are masterpieces. 'The Age of Innocence' by Martin Scorsese, after Edith Wharton's novel, is another good example. The film version of Gunther Grass' novel 'The Tin Drum,' made by Volker Schloendorff, was also very good."

Rushdie wrote the screenplay for "Midnight's Children" and is closely following the making of the film. "There are two reasons for that," he explains. "First, it was clear that if I didn't help, it would be very hard to get the money to do it. In this economic climate it has been so hard to raise money in the independent sector. The other reason is that it's already been 30 years since the book was published, so I can look at it from a different perspective now and be less attached. Also, since I wrote it, I can also be the person who can be the most disrespectful to the text. To make a two hour movie out of a 600-page book, you need to be very disrespectful, you have to tear the text apart."

Rushdie seems to be more excited about the film than he is over publishing a new novel. "Now we are cutting and editing; shooting is finished," he says. "I've seen all the material and the one thing I can say is that the cinematography looks breathtaking. It looks like we spent $150 million, but we spent only $10 million. It looks like 'The Deer Hunter' or 'Apocalypse Now,' which is astonishing for the very tight budget we have."

Is your writing influenced more by literature or the cinema?

"It's tough to answer that - maybe it's 50-50. Cambridge in the mid '60s was an amazing time for cinema. There was a tiny movie theater that showed foreign films with subtitles. I got my education in that building; now it's a coffee shop. One week they screened the new Fellini movie, then Bergman, Kurosawa, then the new Godard movie. You would go to the cinema and your eyes would open really wide and you would be shown ways of thinking and seeing which were revolutionary. The sudden great explosion of moviemaking worldwide really affected me. People who like my books always said that the books are very visual and the ones who didn't like them say the same, that they're too visual. "I was born and brought up in Bombay, a big movie city and a very visual place. Some of my family were involved in the Bombay movies, which no one called Bollywood in those days. Two of my aunts were actresses and one uncle wrote screenplays. In a pre-TV time you grew up in a world where the movie theater was a very important place. The absence of TV made us the last real movie generation."

More recently, television series have become perhaps the most significant of all forms of creativity. Do you think there is a qualitative difference between them and novels? Did you see "The Sopranos" or "The Wire"?

"Everybody loves 'The Wire' and I think it's okay, but in the end it's just a police series. I love 'The Sopranos.' 'Deadwood,' which didn't last long, was a series I liked a lot; it had more filthy language than I've ever heard on television anywhere in my life, but it was brilliantly written. I like some of what is on now, like 'Breaking Bad' and 'Dexter.'

"I mean, there is always a lot of junk; most novels published are bad novels, most plays put on are bad plays, most movies that come out are bad movies and that is also true of TV. Nineteen times out of 20 you fall asleep. There was a series called 'Game of Thrones' which was very popular here in the United States, a post-Tolkien kind of thing. It was garbage, yet very addictive garbage - because there's lots of violence, all the women take their clothes off all the time, and it's kind of fun. In the end, it's well-produced trash, but there's room for that, too.

"I watched all that because if I am going to work in this field, I need to know what it is going on. I have been making myself have whole-series marathons to get the point of how it goes. I will soon start writing my little series."

Fatwa times

Here is a story that could easily be adapted into an imagination-firing television series. On February 14, 1989, a few minutes before 2 P.M., an Iranian announcer read a fatwa (an Islamic judgment ) which had been handed down by Ayatollah Khomeini: "In the name of Allah ... I would like to inform all intrepid Muslims in the world that the author of the book 'Satanic Verses,' which has been compiled, printed, and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Quran, and those publishers who were aware of its contents, are sentenced to death. I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, where they find them, so that no one will dare to insult the Islamic sanctity." A multi-million dollar reward was promised to non-Muslims who would carry out the sentence, and was subsequently doubled.

Rushdie's first reaction to this was to light up a cigarette. Years after kicking the habit, he went back to smoking. Four days after the fatwa was issued, he tried to clarify himself like a dam in the face of a tsunami. He publicly expressed his regret over "the distress the publication has occasioned to the sincere followers of Islam." To which Khomeini retorted: "Even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and wealth, to send him to Hell." Rushdie went into hiding. The British government provided the writer and his family with personal security.

"The Satanic Verses," a hard-to-digest labyrinthine allegory, was published in late 1988. It contains the familiar Rushdie mix of fantasy and realism. The story opens with a plane, en route from India to London, crashing. There are two survivors: film star Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, the man of a thousand voices. The story moves through different levels of time and one of its themes is the alienation of Muslim immigrants in London. Other sections deal with the origins of Islam. Of the range of characters depicted by Rushdie, the eye of Muslims was drawn mainly to Mahound, the representation of Mohammed and the object of biting satire.

In one passage, Rushdie describes a brothel in which the courtesans play the role of Mahound's wives (it is clear from the text that Mahound would be very angry if he knew about this service ). In another section, Rushdie is scornful of the suffocating ring of commandments and prohibitions in which the followers of religions are caught: "In those years Mahound - or should one say the Archangel Gibreel? - should one say Al-Lah? - became obsessed by the law. Amid the palm trees of the oasis, Gibreel appeared to the prophet and found himself sprouting rules, rules, rules, until the faithful could scarcely bear the prospect of any more revelation, Salman said, rules about every damn thing. If a man farts let him turn his face to the wind, a rule about which hand to use for the purpose of cleaning one's behind."

The reactions were furious. "The Satanic Verses" was banned in many countries, including India, Bangladesh, Sudan and others. In Pakistan the book was the object of a stormy demonstration ("Liquidate the heretic," the inflamed demonstrators called ) in which six people were killed. An English imam burned copies of the book in front of his mosque. One person was killed and dozens injured in a demonstration against Rushdie in Kashmir. Publishing houses around the world received explicit threats against printing the "abomination." The imam of Brussels was murdered after stating that in his view the death sentence against the gifted author should not have been issued. But it was the Iranian spiritual leader Khomeini who delivered the most crushing blow to Rushdie.

Today, Rushdie can talk about the deep geopolitical streams that placed him on the wrong side of the story. "After Khomeini's defeat in the Iran-Iraq war, toward the end of his life," Rushdie says, "he looked for a way to rally the troops and revive the revolution. I guess I had the bad luck to come at that point. I think Khomeini was a tactically brilliant politician and saw this opportunity to revive a flagging revolution in Iran." Khomeini died four months after issuing the fatwa against Rushdie, but his successors did not revoke the death sentence. Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani claimed that "The Satanic Verses" was no less than "an organized and planned effort" by the British, French, German and American undercover services.

The fugitive writer moved from one safe house to another at the behest of Scotland Yard; in the first four months following the fatwa, Rushdie slept in 56 different beds. According to media reports, six detectives watched over him 24 hours a day in three shifts. Rushdie's life became a nightmare. He compared life under the fatwa to "a bad Salman Rushdie novel. And, believe me, it's a very dreadful thing to be stuck in a bad novel." His friend, the writer Ian McEwan, joined the effort and for a short time hid Rushdie in his cottage in the Cotswolds, in central England. In 1989, after the fatwa was issued, four bombs went off outside bookstores in England that were selling the book, and stormy demonstrations continued against Rushdie around the world. "It's interesting how you can find yourself by chance at the center of things, and even more an event that defines the period in which you live," he says.

The death decree triggered an unprecedented international crisis. Member states of the European Union recalled their ambassadors from Tehran. Britain broke off diplomatic relations with Iran and paid for part of Rushdie's protection. However, demonstrations against the book by Muslims in Britain continued. Arab professors of Islamic culture appeared on panel debates on British television to declare that they were ready to carry out the death sentence. The singer Yusuf Islam - known as Cat Stevens before he converted to Islam in 1977 - stated in one such discussion that Rushdie deserved to die. British Airways refused to accept Rushdie as a passenger, fearing the plane would be blown up in midair. A Pakistani film portrayed the writer as a pro-Israel alcoholic who murders Muslims. British censorship prevented the film's screening, but Rushdie, always a fierce advocate of freedom of expression, demanded that it be shown. In the summer of 1989, a bomb exploded in central London, destroying two floors of a hotel. Years later, it turned out that a young man on a mujahideen mission to assassinate Rushdie had been preparing a bomb when it accidentally went off.

Elements of the grotesque were also not lacking in the period of hiding. At one point, the British security services urged Rushdie to wear a wig when he went out. "Even your best friends won't recognize you," they promised him. A short outing under the hairpiece during which total strangers recognized him induced Rushdie to go back to his original hair style.

In July 1991, the book's Japanese translator was murdered. In the same month, its Italian translator was attacked by a man claiming to be an Iranian who tried to force him to divulge Rushdie's whereabouts. When the book appeared in a Polish version, the translator's name was kept secret. In Israel, too, the name of the translator, Moshe Hanaami (Singer ), was not revealed until after his death in 1994. In Britain a few more attempts were made to burn bookshops that sold the novel. "That is justified under the precepts of Islam," Muslim clerics said.

On Christmas Eve, 1990, Rushdie met with Muslim moderates at a place of hiding, and afterward a statement was published in which Rushdie affirmed "the two central tenets of Islam - the oneness of God and the genuineness of the prophecy of the Prophet Mohammed." Shortly afterward, Rushdie published an article titled "Why I have embraced Islam," in which he clarified to some extent the confusion in the wake of what was perceived as a denial of his book. Although he was "raised in an atmosphere of what is broadly known as secular humanism," he wrote, religion for him meant only Islam. He described the noise generated by "The Satanic Verses" as a "family quarrel." Rushdie later regretted these statements, but the truth is that even this constrained attempt at penitence did not aid him.

In July 1993, 37 people died when a hotel was burned down in Sivas, Turkey, during a demonstration held there against a public reading of passages from "The Satanic Verses." All the fatalities were guests or workers of the hotel, most of the former writers and intellectuals who were taking part in a literary festival at the site. Rushdie said bitterly that Western countries were not acting forcefully enough to get the threat to his life removed and were allowing Tehran to proceed with its campaign of terror against him and against everyone who had anything to do with the book. He continued to live on the run, constantly switching addresses, surrounded by a phalanx of bodyguards.

In October 1993, the book's Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, was shot and seriously injured. The following month, a meeting Rushdie had with U.S. President Bill Clinton stirred Muslim outrage, prompting Clinton to declare a few days later, "I respect the religion [Islam] and I respect the culture enormously, so I mean no disrespect to the people who have that religious faith."

Do you ever think about those who paid with their lives because of the book?

"Yes. Many people suffered. People got killed and many people almost got killed. People might think that because I didn't get killed no one was trying to kill me. No one remembers anymore. We live in an age of short-term memory, and it started a long time ago, in 1989."

Toward the end of the long nightmare decade, the threats against Rushdie's life began to subside. This followed a statement by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami that Iran was no longer going to seek the writer's death. The declaration was made as part of a package aimed at normalizing relations between Britain and Iran.

In 2000, Rushdie moved from London to New York. The British press reported that a few celebrities had left a Manhattan restaurant when they spotted Rushdie dining there, for fear of being in the company of an ex-No.1 wanted individual. Recently, Rushdie has completed a voluminous autobiography which deals extensively with the fatwa period. It is due for publication next year. "For a long time there were many things I couldn't say, because they were confidential and involved the time when there was police protection," he notes. "There was a level of danger then. So now it is a relief to be able to say: here is what happened.

"I went through that experience and then wanted to go forward. Not go back and relive the whole thing. I wasn't in the mood to do it for a long time. Then suddenly, I just changed my mind. I realized that there was an interesting story, a story which has resonances which are still very much with us. Having done it, I am pleased with it as a piece of writing. I didn't want it to feel like a confession or journal. I wanted it to feel like a book by me. You read Garcia Marquez's autobiography and it feels like a book by him. I wanted it to feel equal, not like some sort of lesser confessional tale. Apart from finding the voice and the manner, I also feel like it's taken the monkey off my back, so in future, if someone asks me about my past I can just tell them to read the book. I wanted to draw the line under a stage of my life."

A few weeks ago, a reporter from a British tabloid asked Rushdie who he would like to play him on the screen if the memoirs are filmed. "Johnny Depp," he replied without hesitation, "we are very similar." The reporter immediately published the scoop. "It was a joke," Rushdie says with a smile. "My son, who works in public relations, told me not to make jokes with tabloid journalists because they don't get it."

Back to the fire

Rushdie's latest novel, "Luka and the Fire of Life," was published in 2010. Aimed at younger readers and at adults who are young at heart, it is dedicated to Milan, the author's 14-year-old son from his third wife, Elizabeth West. (Rushdie has been married and divorced four times, most recently to the Indian model and actress Padma Lakshmi. ) "Luka" is effectively a continuation of "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" (1990 ), which Rushdie wrote during his period of hiding and dedicated to his first son, Zafar. That story tells how a boy named Haroun sets about saving his father, the storyteller Rashid Khalifa, who has lost his storytelling ability, and on the way encounters magical and frightening realms.

In the new book, too, a boy, Luka - Haroun's younger brother - embarks on a mission to save his father, who has now fallen into a deep sleep. Luka sets out in the company of a creature who totally resembles his father on a challenging quest to a magical land in order to steal the Fire of Life.

Why is the saving of a parent by his son a recurring motif in both books?

"I think it's because children rescue their parents every day. I wanted in both books to have the idea that the parent is in an unsafe place somehow, being in danger, but the danger is different. This time round it really just arose out of the situation with my son, my younger son. I was already 50 years 0old when he was born. When you are an older father you think about wanting to be around for your children when they grow up, you want to watch them grow up and bring them into adulthood. You want them to have a father. And that question is more present at my age than if you have a child when you are 25. That was the natural engine for the story.

"It was existential. In the case of Haroun, he loses his gift of telling stories, but in this case it's actually about the possibility of losing his life. It actually becomes about life and death. I wanted the book, like 'Haroun,' to have a light and playful voice, but underneath that I wanted something real that it's talking about. And that was what came naturally, given the relationship with my son."

There is a huge difference between the loving father in "Luka" and the character of the raging father in "Midnight's Children."

"When you are younger you write from the point of view of a child, you see the world looking up toward the adult word. When you become a parent, your perspective reverses and you look at it as a parent, not as a child. I was aware of it happening around the time I had my first son - he is now 32, so around 30 years ago - when I realized that I was seeing things differently. He was born more or less around the same time I published 'Midnight's Children.' So it wasn't overnight but gradually, as the business of being a father takes over. You begin to see the world differently and to understand your parents in a way that you never did."

You stop blaming them?

"Yes, because you see that being a parent is very difficult and that you make mistakes the whole time, so you begin to have more compassion for your parents."

And you forgive them?

"Yes. I think it is obvious to anyone who has read my books that I had quite a difficult relationship with my father. I mean, he drank too much and so on and so forth, but now I don't feel any of that resentment, anger or opposition that was between us. Not at all. I understand him and I understand how much of him is in me."

You wrote this book at your son's request?

"Yes, initially because he didn't think it was fair that his brother had a book and he didn't. In both cases I showed them the book, the first 30-40 pages, to make sure it was along the right lines. In this case, I was worried about the 'death' character because it was quite dark, but I discovered that this was actually his favorite character. So I thought, this kid has a little bit of a dark side so I might be able to push it a little bit.

"The intimacy of writing a book to please one person is a special thing and I enjoyed that aspect. Many children's books have been written for a specific person. The two 'Alice' books, for example, were written for a real person. You find by writing for a specific person you have a wider appeal; I think it is because it makes the children specific. Alice in 'Alice in Wonderland' is not just a routine pretty little girl, she had a distinct character, she is opinionated and orders people around, and I thought that this was a girl the author knew. In the Winnie the Pooh stories, A.A. Milne was writing for his son, and if you think about 'Peter Pan,' J.M. Barrie had these five children and was making up the stories to please those children."

Yet, computer games and gods from various mythologies are very prominent in your new book, and these are two areas in which death almost does not exist.

"That's right. I thought, on the one hand you have human life, there's only one and you can't have another one. And then Luka goes into this world where there is a very different idea of life - life is something you have a thousand of, so you can lose almost a whole thousand but you can collect more. So life becomes a much cheaper currency. I wanted the book to show this contrast between two ideas of the value of life. One in which you spend it all the time because, who cares, there's lots more; and the other in which it's incredibly precious because there's only one and it matters. And of course the one whose life matters is Luka's father, which makes it even more important."

Isn't it dangerous to fool young people with the delusion of eternity?

"No, I think young people are not easily fooled. I think they have a very clear distinction in their mind between fiction and reality. I don't think children run away from the big subjects. You don't have to give children only escapist fantasy; you can give them very dark material. You can see that books for young people talk about drug addiction, sexual harassment, crime and poverty. Young people read those books with great pleasure. Children are now shockingly grown-up with everything they know, so you treat them as the people they are and not as the idealized child, and they respond to it." W



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