His friends, his readers, and Salman Rushdie himself eventually stopped thinking about the fatwa. He was living an almost normal life in New York. For decades, he had had no more than a very discreet, nearly invisible security detail.
I recall the day, shortly after the French presidential election in 2017, that Emmanuel Macron invited Salman and me for coffee at the Élysée Palace in Paris. He was astonished that Salman had so little protection. “I’m not the martyr type,” Salman joked. “I’m just a writer. Why would anyone hold such a big grudge against a writer?”
Well, he was wrong. This kind of killer never lets up. You can despise them, you can push them out of your mind—the bounty hunters and lunatics that history sets on your tracks—but the pack never forgets about you.
And that is what my friend Salman may have grasped, in the bewildering seconds of Friday’s attack when a man invaded the stage at the Chautauqua Institution and started stabbing him. I was reminded of the fate of those other victims of fanaticism, Samuel Paty, Father Jacques Hamel, and Daniel Pearl, when I learned that Salman’s would-be assassin had slashed at his neck. He was left fighting for his life, gravely injured, though at least now off a ventilator.
A wave of terror and horror is breaking over us all. I don’t have the heart to do much besides wait for news to trickle out from the hospital in Pennsylvania where Salman was taken by helicopter and let the memories come back to me—my memories of Salman Rushdie over the 33 years that have passed since Ayatollah Khomeini publicly sentenced him to death.
I recall a meeting of the Nordic Council in Helsinki, three years after the fatwa, when I decided to share my speaking time with Salman. We gave no advance notice, and only my friend the Swedish author Gabi Gleichmann was party to our plan. When Salman took the stage with me, the audience held its breath—as though before it was a ghost, or a man condemned to death reprieved at the 11th hour, another “man in the iron mask” on the loose from his planetary Bastille. Then he began to speak, smiling and with a twinkle in those strange, half-moon eyes of his, with their prominent pupils that eclipse the whites. He improvised a dazzling monologue on art and the power of the novel, saying that between his work and his life, he would always choose his work. He received a standing ovation.
Then there was a private trip to Nice, in the mid-1990s. Air Inter blocked off the first row. As I recall, he boarded at the last minute with his security detail, just before the doors closed, after we had witnessed a mysterious ballet of police, service vehicles, and flashing lights on the runway. On this occasion, too, when he appeared on the plane, there was generalized shock. One woman claimed that she was ill. Another woman demanded to be let off the plane. The rest of the passengers, once the initial surprise wore off, broke into sustained applause.
Another cowardly soul comes to mind. This one was once France’s foreign minister, Roland Dumas. La Règle du jeu, a literary magazine that Salman and I and some others founded in 1990, invited Salman to come to France to meet up with some of his Parisian friends. As I remember, the minister behaved shamefully, decreeing that Salman, a citizen of Europe, needed a visa to enter France. Then he denied the visa on the grounds that he couldn’t guarantee Salman’s security. Dumas’s own colleague, Minister of Culture Jack Lang, protested. My friend the businessman François Pinault offered to lend us a plane and to provide the necessary protection. President François Mitterrand himself had to settle the matter. And lo, the France that was hoping for trade deals and arms sales yielded to the spirit of Voltaire. Bienvenue, Monsieur Salman.
Yet another spineless individual: Prince Charles. In 1993, I met him at a lunch hosted by the British embassy in Paris. “Salman is not a good writer,” growled the prince when I asked him what he thought of the whole affair, adding that “protecting him costs England’s crown dearly.” On this, Martin Amis, another of Salman’s friends, later remarked: “It costs a lot more to protect the Prince of Wales, who has not, as far as I know, produced anything of interest.” The press and public opinion, for once, took the side of the persecuted writer.
Le Monde sent me to London in 1998 to report on the daily life of the world’s most reclusive writer. After lunch at Scott’s, we strolled through Mayfair. We passed Kensington Palace, to which Salman had rushed, as many Londoners did in the days after Princess Diana died, the previous year. We visited the National Portrait Gallery to see an exhibition of portraits by the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. People approached my companion: “Are you Salman Rushdie?” (“I hope so; I do my best,” he said.) He made it a point of honor, on that day, to act as if he did not have the sword of Damocles hanging over his head. He exercised his freedom, his normal life, the way others exercise to stay in shape. Upon my departure, alas, he returned to his prison without walls.
I remember the trip to Sarajevo we planned in 1993. Bosnia’s president, Alija Izetbegović, welcomed the visit in principle. Salman wanted to go. Far from being the Islamophobe the lowest of his critics make him out to be, he is a friend and ally of moderate Islam. Was he not the defender of a Quran that fights on the side of enlightenment, as were those defending Sarajevo? But a certain Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then the secretary-general of the United Nations (before falling, deservedly, into the dustbin of history), opposed the trip on spurious pretexts. We had to abandon the plan.
I remember a conversation we had in front of an audience in London, where Salman said how much he missed the Islam of his childhood in India. “The greatest of Muslim thought has been broad-minded,” he explained. “When I think back to my grandparents’ time, my parents’ time, Islam strove to be cosmopolitan. It raised questions and engaged in argument. It was alive.” Salman is the son of that form of Islam. He obviously has nothing against blasphemy, because blasphemy, in his eyes, is inseparable from freedom of expression and thought; but neither do I believe that he has ever blasphemed against the creed of his parents.
I remember a conversation between us, in Paris, on the Jewish radio station RCJ, when he speculated on what the fatwa would have entailed if it had been issued in the era not of the fax machine but of social media. “A tweet is all it takes,” he said, as I recall, “to stir up the planet. Five minutes on YouTube is enough to trigger simultaneous demonstrations throughout the world. If my fatwa had occurred in the internet age, would it have been fatal? I don’t know.” Now he knows. Alas.
I remember his wedding to Padma Lakshmi, in 2004: the shower of rose petals, the Indian orchestra, sitars and drums, the act of slipping an amulet onto the ankle of his beloved, his friends and son in attendance. He was happy.
I remember the night of Barack Obama’s first presidential election. We were at a party in a paneled New York apartment with a mix of literary types, actors, journalists, campaign donors, and philanthropists. A cellphone rang. It was the president-elect calling to thank Salman personally for his support.
I remember the day the French historian Pierre Nora; Claude Lanzmann, the director of Shoah; and I came to interview Salman for a 1994 documentary for the European cultural TV channel Arte. We filmed the conversation, if I remember correctly, in the library of a club in an upscale London neighborhood. Lanzmann was annoyed by Salman’s air of authority. Nora was annoyed by the annoyance of his old-school friend. He wanted to protect Lanzmann from himself and his well-known tendency to rehash old quarrels. Salman enjoyed the show they put on. He liked the idea that these old-timers, whom he admired, seemed to fall back into an unresolved adolescent conversation.
I remember a day on the beach in Antibes, the pleasure of being alive, the noon sun, heat waves rippling as far as you could see, sharing a love of movies and actresses, especially Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, the real owner of the Casa Malaparte in Capri (which Godard used as his film’s main setting). That day, Salman wanted nothing so much as to be able one day to do a remake of Dr. No or From Russia With Love. The good life. An appetite for living and for multiplying the ways of living. The opposite of a condemned man.
I mull over our dinners together in New York in recent years. He didn’t want to hear any more about the fatwa. We talked about François Rabelais, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Laurence Sterne, George Eliot (a writer he could never get into), and V. S. Naipaul, whose death had devastated him. Literature before and above all else! The wish, faced with the fracas of the world, to say, “Please, turn down the sound!” Which obviously did not prevent him, a few months ago, at the very beginning of the war in Ukraine, from deciding that it was urgent for us to pen an appeal for sanctions against Russia and to help persuade Sting and Sean Penn to join the campaign.
What has struck me, over all these years, is the quiet heroism of my friend. He understood very well that, from time to time, a Western government would expel a fake Iranian diplomat and that this might be out of concern for his safety because of the fatwa. He knew that self-styled friends of the Muslim people were still insisting, despite the Charlie Hebdo massacre and other slaughters, that no one had the right to offend others’ faith and that, if harm should befall the offender, he had only himself to blame. And never did a speaking engagement go by without his being asked the eternal question: Knowing everything he knew today, did he ever regret having written The Satanic Verses, a work that has followed him like a curse?
But was he afraid? No, he was not. At most, he would confess to having a radar that sometimes warned him of possible danger.
And once—just once, a long time ago—I heard him make an odd remark about the knack master killers have for ruminating on their vengeance and carrying it out coldly when least expected. Think Mussolini and the Rosselli brothers; Stalin and Ignace Reiss; Putin and the poisoned oligarchs. And one day, a Shiite Ramón Mercader whom no one would see coming.
I believe that is where things stood, last Friday at the Chautauqua Institution, when Salman Rushdie saw the man who meant to execute him leap onto the stage.
Will this still be where things stand when he emerges from the hell of pain in which I imagine him? The artist in him will continue to believe that life is a tragedy, a tale full of sound and fury, told by an idiot. And he will not be surprised to hear friends tell him that if one can be Dickens, Balzac, and Tagore in a single life, one could well be considered immortal.
But he will read the article in Iran, the semi-official newspaper of the regime, which, while he was fighting death, rejoiced that “the devil’s neck” was “struck with a razor.” He will see the ultraconservative newspaper Kayhan pronouncing a blessing, while he was recovering, on “the hand of the man who tore the neck of the enemy of God with a knife.”
And Salman will have to get used to the idea, one that always petrified him, of being a human symbol, a hostage in a war of the worlds in which, like it or not, his own life and death have become everybody’s business. That is why those of us who could not protect him—all of us—now have a duty to perform.
This act of terror against his body and his books is an absolute act of terror against all the world’s books. Such an outrage against freedom of expression calls for a ringing response.
Individual nations will have their say. The international community, too, must signal to the sponsors of this crime that this Salman Rushdie affair has created a new division, a time before and a time after.
As for his friends, his peers, media, and others for whom public opinion counts for something, we all have a commitment to make. And that is to ensure that the author of The Satanic Verses receives the highest of literary honors. To see that, in the name of all his fellow authors and in his own name, Salman Rushdie receives the Nobel Prize in Literature that is due to be awarded in a few weeks.
I cannot imagine any other writer today would wish to win it in his stead. The campaign begins now.