Thursday, July 03, 2008

On the Knighthood of Salman Rushdie

At the Wheeler School, the graduating seniors used to receive an engraved hardcover book of their choosing. We would supply the book, sans paper jacket, and the school would have its logo (in those days, a torch) engraved in gold on the cover. It was then presented to us along with our diplomas at commencement.

The year was 1989 and against the expectations of some, it looked like I would make it to graduation without flunking math or getting kicked out for being an insubordinate pup. It was time to choose my book for graduation, and I chose a book I had just started reading: Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. (Here is the original cover art.)

During senior year at Wheeler, a year which also saw the publication of my father's first novel, this novel blew up like a landmine, instantly making its author's name a household word. Initial literary reviews were positive, but the reaction in several muslim-dominated countries was like a California wildfire. It was considered blasphemous and offensive to Islam. There were demonstrations that escalated into riots and book-burnings. Several countries banned the novel. Bomb threats were called in at book stores in the US and the UK; and a few bombs actually went off. Many stores kept it behind the counter or didn't sell it at all. I seem to remember a translator of the novel being stabbed to death, and there were numerous death threats to Rushdie, publishers, and booksellers.

Around February of 1989, when I was asked to choose my book for graduation, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a religious judgment ("fatwa") against Salman Rushdie by name, calling for his execution by any faithful Muslim. An Iranian businessman offered up a bounty, and others added to the purse. Rushdie went into hiding for what would be almost a decade, never sleeping in the same location more than 2 or 3 nights consecutively. It was a bizarre and outrageously successful assault on literature, intellectual freedom, and the west itself.

I chose The Satanic Verses as my graduation book, just to express solidarity. Never heard of Rushdie. I ordered a copy from The College Hill Book Store on Thayer Street, near the school. (It still appalls me this bookstore doesn't exist anymore. It was a great bookstore with tall shelves, narrow aisles, and a black and white checkered floor.) Before I handed the book in, I read the first two chapters and was drawn in by the novel itself and its characters; I then had to wait through the spring to graduation, when I would get the book back and finish reading it that summer.

Last Wednesday, on the same day the Queen stripped Robert Mugabe of his knighthood, Rushdie was knighted. This was announced way back at the end of Tony Blair's term as Prime Minister, but the actual dubbing took place last week with little fanfare.

The palace did not mention Rushdie's honor would take place that day; and there was no mention of it on the radio news later - they only mentioned Mugabe. Rushdie's great honor before the Queen took place much as he lived from 1989-98, a time when his public appearances were exceedingly rare and always a surprise.

Sir Salman Rushdie slipped in and out of Buckingham palace, very likely for security reasons, as furtive as "Uccello di Firenze" fleeing the pirate ship in chapter two of Rushdie's new novel. A sad, lingering echo of the 'fatwa' period.

Through the chilling effects of terror and controversy, zealots and tyrants can win even when they lose. I knew it at age 18, watching a writer forced into exile by the leader of another country while the rest of the world looked on, sputtering and helpless. And I am still getting the message at age 37, watching what has happened to the United States in the name of "fighting terror." Zealots and tyrants can lose the battle yet win the battlefield.
A fitting time to learn, a week later, about Rushdie receiving his honor without announcement or fanfare, like a man who still has a bounty on his head.

1 comment:

Laurie Flynn said...

Great to read your blog and see the mention of your alma mater and its book tradition (which continues, by the way). The deliberate, careful selection of a book is a wonderful way to make a personal statement, whether for one's own collection or as a gift. And don't fear, the school seal with its flame and motto remain! We've just added a logo that pays homage to the seal.

Best to you and yours,
Laurie Flynn
The Wheeler School