Salman Rushdie on Life Under a Fatwa: 'I Insist on the Right to Freedom of Expression'
For over a decade, author Salman Rushdie had to live in hiding from Muslim extremists intent on assassinating him in accordance with an Iranian fatwa. SPIEGEL spoke with Rushdie about the trying experience and why he has now chosen to write about it in his new memoir.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Rushdie, you named your memoir after the alias you assumed during the period when you were in hiding.
Rushdie: Yes. The first thing the police officers told me was that I needed an alias in order to make possible certain practical things: secret houses had to be rented, and I needed a fake bank account and had to write checks. Besides, my bodyguards needed a code name to use when they talked about me. But just try coming up with one. I thought about it for days.
SPIEGEL: And then, of all things, you decided on "Joseph Anton?"
Rushdie: The names of two of my favorite writers: Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. At first I wanted to use the name of a character I had developed for a new novel. The character was a little mentally confused, also a writer, and he was named Ajeeb Mamouli. It seemed fitting. Ajeeb means "strange," while Mamouli means "normal." So I was Mr. Strange Normal, a changing contradiction. That's how I felt about myself.
Rushdie: Well, my security people didn't like the name. Too hard to remember, too hard to pronounce, too Asian. Our enemies would eventually be able to put two and two together, they said. Then I combined the names of other writers I like: Marcel Beckett, Vladimir Joyce, Franz Sterne. They were all ridiculous.
SPIEGEL: But your bodyguards liked Joseph Anton?
Rushdie: They loved it. From then on I was Joe, for 10 years. Hey Joe. I hated it. When I was alone in the house with them, I would always say: Hey guys, why don't you stop calling me Joe for a bit? No one's here, and we all know who we are. It was pointless. Then I said to myself: Joe, you must live until you die.
SPIEGEL: Did Joe die when your personal security was discontinued in 1999?
Rushdie: Yes. I was relieved.
SPIEGEL: And yet now you've resurrected him.
Rushdie: Because I wanted people to understand how strange it is to live in a world in which you are ordered to give up your name.
SPIEGEL: In a SPIEGEL interview a year-and-a-half ago, you told us that this period was very damaging to you emotionally and psychologically. Has it helped you now to write about it?
Rushdie: For a long time, I didn't feel emotionally capable of reliving the reality of those days. I didn't want to. I thought: I've emerged from this dark tunnel and have somehow managed to slam the door behind me. Just leave the door shut! But I always knew that I would eventually write about it. I kept a journal, almost from day one.
SPIEGEL: Every day?
Rushdie: Almost every day. Sometimes they were just short entries, and sometimes longer stories. It turned into thousands of pages -- total chaos. Emory University in Atlanta catalogued them for me. Suddenly I had my life under the fatwa laid out in front of me, day by day. It was quite a shock. The entries went from the fall of 1988, when "The Satanic Verses" was published, to 2003.
SPIEGEL: Did you know that you would eventually write about it? Or was it a form of self-therapy?
Rushdie: I wrote so that I would be able to remember. The events were so powerful, and everything happened so quickly, that I knew that I wouldn't be able to remember what had happened. In those extremely lonely, isolated days, writing was sometimes the only thing I had left.
SPIEGEL: How were those days?
Rushdie: On the day the fatwa was published, Feb. 14, 1989, I left my house in London and didn't know that I wouldn't be able to return for years. Operation Malachite, the name the Special Branch of the London Police gave to my case, began the next day. They moved me around in the first few months, to hotels, strange bed and breakfasts run by retired police officers, apartments of friends and, later, apartments and houses that were rented at the last minute. I started my days by running into my bodyguards in the kitchen while I was still in my pajamas.
SPIEGEL: How many bodyguards did you have?
Rushdie: Over all the years, I always had two bodyguards with me around the clock. There were also two drivers and two armored cars, an old Jaguar and an even older Land Rover. The second car was always brought along in case the first one broke down.
SPIEGEL: Is it possible to get used to that?
Rushdie: Yes, of course. But there was a strong voice in my head that refused to do so. I refused to allow myself to accept it as my life. Throughout the entire time, I was trying to get it to end.
SPIEGEL: You fought publicly. You defended yourself, and you tried to convince Iran to remove the fatwa. You wore yourself out and made more and more enemies as a result of your struggle. Was it the right thing to do?
Rushdie: I refused to allow myself to give up my own picture of the world and accept the security picture provided by the police instead. When that happens, you become their creature, and you have to do what they say. I greatly valued the way I was being protected, I understood how important it was, and some of the bodyguards became my friends. But my public campaign and the negotiations with the security personnel were consistently aimed at regaining a normal life.
SPIEGEL: What could a normal life have looked like, given the circumstances?
Rushdie: Simply the opportunity to meet readers when a book was published, or to do a book signing. But the bodyguards didn't want that. Their rationality consisted of pure risk assessments. They were proud of the fact that they had never lost a "principal," which is what they called the people they protected. They wanted it to remain that way. They did understand the basic needs in a person's life, such as being able to meet my wife and my son, or even going out to eat with friends once in a while. But a wretched book signing? For my bodyguards, the security effort was out of proportion with the benefit. Eventually I did manage to convince them to try it. They had expected thousands of protesters, but none showed up. So it was easier the next time. There were many such battles. It's what my life consisted of.
SPIEGEL: Do you know now how real and concrete the threat against your life really was?
Rushdie: When I met my bodyguards the day after the fatwa was announced, they were still saying that they were going to keep me hidden and protected at a hotel for a few days, until "the matter had resolved itself." But nothing resolved. Later on, there were incidents that made the threat palpable. A man in a cheap hotel in Paddington blew himself up while attempting to assemble a bomb. It turned out that it was meant for me. Then there were serious attacks on two of my translators and my Norwegian publisher. All of these attacks were not coming from amateurs, but professional killers, presumably hired by the Iranian regime.
SPIEGEL: Were you kept updated on the status of the threat?
Rushdie: The police officers told me when the threat level went up, and once or twice a year I was taken to the headquarters of British intelligence to meet with the officers in charge of my case. They were impressive. They were no-bullshit people who knew what they were talking about.
- Part 1: 'I Insist on the Right to Freedom of Expression'
- Part 2: 'I Don't Need Everybody To Love Me Anymore'
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