Salman Rushdie relives dangerous days of fatwa in new memoir
Naming a new book isn’t always easy for an author. But the task was both clear-cut and significant for Salman Rushdie on his latest effort, “Joseph Anton: A Memoir.”
Rushdie’s 633-page memoir delivers a deeply personal account of a decade spent in hiding after a fatwa, or religious edict, was issued for his death in 1989.
The fatwa was issued by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini and came in response to Rushdie’s 1988 novel, “The Satanic Verses.”
The book was inspired, in part, by the life of Muhammad, and caused a great uproar in the Muslim community for what some Muslims believed were blasphemous religious references. Rushdie, however, claimed the book was never about religion, but rather the immigration of people from India’s sub-continent to London.
“When this whole nightmare first began, everybody, including the police and me thought it would take a couple of days. You know, go lie low for a couple of days. The politicians will sort it out,” Rushdie said on Tuesday on CTV’s Canada AM.
However, Rushdie and police officials soon realized that this situation would not be easily resolved.
“At the moment when the police realized the Iranians weren’t going to back down and that this break was going to endure they said you’re going to need another name. We don’t want to blow your cover,” said Rushdie.
Rushdie came up with an alias by combining the names of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov, two authors he greatly admired. But Rushdie loathed using this alias.
“I hated being known by it. I hated when the police called me by it. I was incredibly happy to get rid of it,” said Rushdie.
“The reason for making it the title of the book was to make people understand how weird it was to be asked to surrender your name -- and never use your own name again,” he said.
“It’s a terrible loss to live with,” he added.
As the memoir begins, Rushdie recounts how one reporter telephoned for his reaction after the edict for the author’s death was issued on Feb. 14, 1989.
The book also recounts Rushdie’s struggles to parent and protect his young son, Zafar, who was nine years old at the time the fatwa was issued.
“The police were worried. He was a kid. They thought he would blab. But he never slipped up,” said Rushdie.
The author fathered the boy with first wife Clarissa Luard, whom he divorced in 1987. Rushdie married Marianne Wiggins – the second of four wives – in 1988. Wiggins helped to care for Zafar until she divorced Rushdie in 1993.
Both father and son were isolated for long stretches of times.
In one passage, Rushdie recounted his worst fears when his young son failed to answer one of their appointed telephone calls.
To help his son cope, Rushdie treated the boy in a “very adult way.”
“Whatever the news, as long as Zafar was hearing it from me first he was empowered,” said Rushdie.
Ironically, Rushdie was never confident that this situation would be resolved peacefully.
“At 41, when the attack started, for a long time I didn’t think I’d make it to 42,” said Rushdie, who is now 65.
In re-reading his journals from those dark days, Rushdie said he saw a man who “wasn’t in great shape” and was “depressed” and “knocked off balance.”
“It was very, very debilitating,” said Rushdie, who spent his days in hiding playing Super Mario games just for something to do.
However, Rushie credits the support of loved ones for saving his sanity during these difficult days.
“It was a hard time for me and it was hard for people to be around me. But what got me through was love,” said Rushdie.
“I had a close group of friends who were astonishingly loyal. Their collective efforts helped me have the strength to go on,” he said.