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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.

SPIEGEL: And?

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.

'I Don't Need Everybody To Love Me Anymore'

SPIEGEL: In the book, however, you also write that some senior police officials were guarded toward you.

Rushdie: There was that attitude. That I wasn't the sort of person who they felt deserved to be protected. The minister for Northern Ireland? Okay, we get that. But I wasn't like the others, those who deserved protection because they had done something for the country. I was someone who received protection because he had made trouble. In their view, it was my own fault that the Muslims were after me. Some members of the police, not all of them, didn't understand how anyone could be willing to cause such a fuss for such an far-off issue. At least if my book had been about England ...

SPIEGEL: The criticism wasn't just coming from the police and Muslims, but increasingly from colleagues and intellectuals. Perhaps your sharpest critic, John le Carré, accused you of having attacked a known enemy, one that reacted as was to be expected, to which you cried "foul."

Rushdie: I think he would probably regret having said these things, because it is a way of saying all intellectuals who have ever stood up against tyrants deserved what they get. García Lorca knew how brutal Franco was. Osip Mandelstam knew what to expect from Stalin. Should they just have kept their mouth shut? Raising their voices against known enemies is precisely what writers have done honorably throughout the history of literature. For le Carré to say that's their own stupid fault is naïve at best. It dishonored the history of literature.

SPIEGEL: But perhaps attacking a religion isn't the same thing as criticizing a dictatorship.

Rushdie: I insist on the right to freedom of expression, even when it comes to religions.

SPIEGEL: So for some you became a "free-speech martyr," as John Updike once put it, while for others you were a troublemaker who had unnecessarily offended millions of Muslims. This public pressure came on top of the threat against you. Is it possible to dismiss something like that?

Rushdie: No. But Günter Grass gave me a valuable tip. He has a similar problem with his very public persona. At some point, he said, he saw himself as two people. There was Günter, who he knew, and who his friends and his family knew. And then there was Grass, who went out into the world and made a noise. He once said to me: Sometimes I have the feeling that I can send Grass out into the world to make a noise, while Günter can stay quietly and peacefully at home.

SPIEGEL: So in your case there was Joe, the man your bodyguards were protecting. Then there was Joseph Anton, who rented houses and signed checks. And then there was Rushdie, the troublemaker, and Salman was the writer who sat alone in his hiding place. It's enough to drive a person crazy.

Rushdie: It was indeed crazy. There was a huge gulf between public perception and my own private truth. I believe that the more prominent you are, the bigger the divide becomes. For instance, I'm sure that Madonna doesn't think of herself as the person that she is in the newspapers. I once met her and, well, quite honestly, she was pretty conventional. She talked about property prices. The only time I ever met her -- and the only thing she discussed was real estate prices in the Marble Arch area of London.

SPIEGEL: When you're attacked and shielded like that, do you create your own reality? And you do take yourself too seriously?

Rushdie: Yes. There is a danger of becoming solipsistic. That's why I tried to break out of the security bubble in which I was caught. But I wasn't allowed to do so in England, which is why America became so important for me. There I was allowed to make my own decisions about how I wished to live, unlike in England, where a security net was thrown over me. And gradually I managed to burst the bubble around me. When I was writing "The Ground Beneath Her Feet" in 1998, I was able to live in a house on Long Island for almost three months, without policemen around me. Suddenly I was able to drive my own car. We could decide and go out for dinner. I was overjoyed.

SPIEGEL: Were there times of real depression before that?

Rushdie: Yes. I was in poor shape at times. And I know this even more now because as I read through those journals for the book, I can see at times the person who's writing this isn't doing very well at the moment. I was very unbalanced in the first two to two-and-a-half years. There were also periodic attacks of depression later on.

SPIEGEL: In the memoir, you write in the third and not the first person. It's as if you wanted to distance yourself from the character you're describing.

Rushdie: I don't want to distance myself from myself. I'm not that crazy. At first I tried to write it in the first person, but I couldn't find the voice. It sounded narcissistic or whiney. So I stopped working on the book. I wasn't enjoying it. At some point I hit upon an idea: What if I told the story as if it hadn't happened to me, but to someone else? If I would lift my character to the level of the other characters and describe it a little more objectively and from various perspectives. Suddenly I knew how I had to write the book.

SPIEGEL: It makes the descriptions less emotional.

Rushdie: But the story has enough force. Here you have a plot that really doesn't require exaggeration. You don't want to overwrite it. Otherwise it would have become an opera.

SPIEGEL: Was it also part of your claim to objectivity that you had certain characters, especially your ex-wives, say pretty ugly things about you?

Rushdie: Well, yes. The only way of writing a book like this is to drop your guard. It has to be undefended. Of course there are behaviors of mine, aspects of my personality, that I'm very critical of. But they do occur. The truth is that we writers are constantly examining ourselves. The profession entails repeatedly staring at yourself. I think that's the reason why I never felt the need for psychiatric help throughout the entire time, even though I wasn't doing well. Writing is an internal investigation of the soul.

SPIEGEL: In the book you have your third wife, Elizabeth West, say that you are a selfish person who goes through life destroying the lives of others. She experienced most of the fatwa period with you, until you left her for the Indian model Padma Lakshmi. Could there have been some truth to her assessment?

Rushdie: I didn't see it that way. But I had to allow her view to be expressed. Otherwise the book would just have been polemical and self-righteous. But I want things to be three-dimensional, the way they are in a novel. I want to show the world that I am indeed capable of depicting myself.

SPIEGEL: You write in your memoir that the life of a writer is like a Faustian pact in reverse: You want to attain immortality, and so you pay the price of having a lousy life. Your life was difficult at times, but you have in fact become the world's most famous living writer.

Rushdie: That wasn't satisfying because it felt like it was for the wrong reasons. I wasn't famous for the content of my work, but for the scandal around it. But scandal doesn't guarantee you immortality. So I don't feel very comfortable with this fame. The only good thing is when I call a politician today to ask for help for a fellow writer who is being threatened, I usually get the politician on the line. Other writers probably wouldn't succeed.

SPIEGEL: Would you write "The Satanic Verses" in exactly the same way today?

Rushdie: Yes. Fortunately I don't have to because I already did it.

SPIEGEL: You wouldn't leave out the controversial dream passages about the Prophet?

Rushdie: Of course not. I think they are among the best bits of the book actually. I really like those passages.

SPIEGEL: Would it really have made the novel worse if you hadn't named the whores in the brothel after the wives of the Prophet Mohammed?

Rushdie: Yes. There is a reason for doing it. It has to do with attitudes toward women at the time. There were the wives of the Prophet. They were very famous at the time, but no other men could see them, because they were locked away in the Prophet's harem. There were in fact brothels in which women assumed the name or even adopted the persona of a wife of the Prophet. This made them accessible as an erotic fantasy. In other words, the purpose of that chapter isn't to insult the Prophet, but to address the phenomenon of women with power and the nature of male sexuality and how it is turned on by what men can't have. These passages are serious, and at no point do they suggest that the wives of the Prophet behaved inappropriately. It's not that difficult.

SPIEGEL: One of the chapters in your memoir is titled "The Trap of Wanting to be Loved." Is that your problem?

Rushdie: I got over that now. At the time, I used to think if I only had the opportunity to properly explain myself and "The Satanic Verses," people would understand that there was no reason to be pissed off with me, because I'm a nice guy. But now I've realized that there will always be people who are not going to like what I do. And you know? Too bad. I don't need everybody to love me anymore.

SPIEGEL: Is there still a threat to you today?

Rushdie: No.

SPIEGEL: Last week there were renewed attacks on US facilities in Libya, Egypt and Yemen, triggered by a film that ridicules the Prophet Muhammad. Does this seem familiar to you?

Rushdie: We don't exactly know what happened in Libya. The US administration has said that it's unclear whether the Benghazi attack was related to the video. It may have been a pre-planned jihadist attack related to the September 11 anniversary.

SPIEGEL: Are you worried that things will heat up for you again?

Rushdie: You know, I don't want to comment when I don't know what I'm talking about. I will leave that to Mitt Romney. No, we have to stop thinking this way. It's a fearful way of thinking. And besides, this is the story of my life, and I'm not going to let anyone stop me from telling it.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Rushdie, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Philipp Oehmke
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