Author Salman Rushdie has a compelling story, but this New York transplant's decade of living under police protection went largely untold, until now. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 Profile.
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When you hear his name, you still think of the fatwa, the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini's death wish for Salman Rushdie, in response to his 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses." It forced Rushdie to go into hiding, living under police protection for 10 years.
But for the last decade, Rushdie has been a New Yorker. He came to the city seeking a different type of freedom — anonymity.
"I always thought of New York like that, you know. You see, 'cause New York, you see everybody walking around, you know, 'Oh yeah, Al Pacino, yeah sure. Hi,'" the writer says.
Rushdie has finally written the story of his life during the fatwa. I spoke with him before an appearance at the New York Public Library.
"How does a man recover from mass hatred? By remembering that he is and has been also loved," Rushdie said during the library talk.
The title, "Joseph Anton: A Memoir," Anton refers to his alias at the time, Joseph Anton. It was a time of personal pain and sorrow, including constant police presence, broken marriages, lost time with his older child, colleagues and politicians who publicly denounced him.
And yet, Rushdie must have thought at the time, if this all ends ok, it will make a great book.
"No question, I mean this is the disease of being a writer, you know. Even in the worst moment of it, you know, there’s a little you sitting on your shoulder, whispering in your ear, saying, 'Good story,'" says Rushdie.
As the fatwa stretched on, Rushdie faced a growing backlash.
"People began to think, 'Oh it’s not so bad, you know. I mean, the fact that he’s not killed means they’re probably nobody’s trying that hard to kill him. And so maybe he just likes having all that security,'" says Rushdie.
The Riverdale Press in the Bronx was firebombed for supporting Rushdie. His Norwegian publisher was shot, and the book's Japanese translator, Professor Hitoshi Igarashi, was murdered.
"You feel responsible and guilty, you know. You feel that these people are taking the taking the bullet for you. In a way, the reason they’d been hit 'cause it was easier to get to them," says Rushdie.
Opponents charged that "The Satanic Verses," based in part on a fictional account of the life of Muhammed, was blasphemous.
But Rushdie and many others have suggested that the public demonstrations and the fatwa itself were not so much about the book but a way to solidify Iran's troubled regime in the late 1980s and 1990s. More moderate critics could not deter Rushdie either.
"They would say, 'You can’t touch that stuff.' And my view is, if you put something over there and say 'you can’t touch it,' it’s imperative to go over there and touch it," says Rushdie. "And I think that those were the two mindsets, that if you’re looking at the serious end of it, that came into collision."
There were moments of laughter through the tears. Bono was a strong supporter, even hiding Rushdie at one point, and inviting him on stage at a U2 concert Rushdie attended with his son.
"That’s quite a good band, you know. They’re all there, there’s a good backing group and there’ll be a microphone. Maybe, maybe I’ll sing? And he said, 'No dad, you don’t understand. If you sing, I’m going to have to kill myself,'" says Rushdie.
In 1998, it was finally over. The fatwa was lifted. Rushdie recalls vividly in his memoir those who stood by him during the fatwa and those who did not, and the effect the whole experience had on his then-young son.
"On top of that, he had the tragedy of his mother passing away in that time, you know, so I’m, I’m the one that’s left. And I wasn’t, in a way I wasn’t supposed to be the one that’s left," Rushdie says. "And I think all of that has brought us very close together, you know. We sort of went through a war together."
Rushdie was born and raised in Mumbai, India, in a Muslim family proud of its culture, if more than a bit irreverent about religion.
"'Don’t trust a religion in which you have to spend so much of your time with your bottom higher than your head.' And I mean, this was the kind of comedy that used to happen in our household," says Rushdie.
He was sent off to boarding school in England, where he was very much made to feel like the outsider. It was painful at the time, but helpful to him years later as a writer.
"They like to be the observer, not the observed. And that’s certainly something that, yeah, when I was a little bit isolated at boarding school, that was something the skill that I developed," he says.
He graduated from Cambridge University in 1968. His novel "Midnight's Children" won the esteemed British literary award, the Booker Prize, in 1981. In between were years of struggle.
"Writing stuff that nobody else liked and mostly I didn’t like, you know, just getting it wrong," Rushdie says.
There has been struggle in his personal life too. Rushdie has been married four times, most recently to "Top Chef" host Padma Lakshmi.
He cited an old line from Ernest Hemingway to explain why life with a writer isn't easy.
"The only commitment a writer needs is the commitment of the seat of his pants to the seat of his chair and it’s that. That’s what you give up, you give up life outside the room in order to sit in the room to make this stuff up," says Rushdie. "And then you try and make up for lost time in between books but it’s never quite the same."
Since the end of the fatwa, we've seen a lot of Rushdie, like his cameo in the film adaptation of "Bridget Jones' Diary." Rushdie jokingly calls it "My most important work."
But he does not find the occasional media portrayal of him as a New York party animal so amusing.
"I went through all this dark thing and there’s a kind of subtext, which is, 'Maybe it was his own fault,'" says Rushdie. "For me now to have fun, instead of leading a kind of puritanical, you know, hair shirt afterlife, asking for people’s forgiveness all the time, that would be better."
Still, Rushdie is known as a bit of a ladies' man. He says his younger son doesn't like it, but his older son thinks otherwise.
"He says, 'When we go to parties, I always stand next to my dad because that’s where all the girls are,'" Rushdie says.
Rushdie now sees his experience in the late 1980s and 1990s as a harbinger of things to come for the world. He says after September 11th, friends and colleagues told him they finally understood what he went through.
"I was little shocked by that. I thought, 'Did it really have to take that to happen?'" says Rushdie. "But in a way, it sort of did, because I think in that moment that thing that had been my little story became all of our stories."
He has never stopped writing, publishing several novels since "The Satanic Verses." The questions about those years will also likely to never stop. Still, Rushdie hopes to put the matter to rest.
"It does feel like a kind of closure and I think in the future if anybody wants to ask me about this material, I'm just going hit them over the head with a 600 page book," jokes Rushdie.
One question remains, however. After Rushdie moved to New York, he had to decide — Yankees or Mets? He says he chose the team that, in his words, "wins occasionally."
Besides, let's face it, asking him to be a Mets fan after the 10-year fatwa? The man had already suffered enough.