My First Time with Salman Rushdie


Amongst the most memorable names  that I heard as a child, growing up in a South Asian Muslim household, was that of (sir) Salman Rushdie. There was always an air of frustration, anger and utter hatred that seemed to accompany its mere mention by my kin. I was unaware, as a child, precisely what all the fuss was about. What I ended up gathering from the various snippets of conversations and outbursts was that he was a writer who had written some sort of a novel in which the Prophet Muhammad, alongside Islam in general, was portrayed in a most vile sense. The grouping of words of those around me – including the words of those on television who would discuss him – was enough to create an authoritative perspective on the issue that I slowly, with a naive mind, took on as my own.

Regardless of what process  of ‘enlightenment’ I went through as my years increased, that opinion of Mr. Rushdie as a vile figure persisted. It wasn’t a conscious acknowledgement – but the mere mention of the name or his novel The Satanic Verses would immediately spur reddened emotions.  I was never vocal in my dislike for Mr. Rushdie – he honestly has never served for even a topic of casual conversation. He was just a floating name, a floating figure, becoming increasingly irrelevant as he seemingly rode on the coattails of the remnants of a rather fatal fatwa issued, initially, by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for primarily political reasons in 1989, ten years after the Iranian Revolution.

I had skimmed (with much guilt) through The Satanic Verses in my first year at university, out of pure curiosity. Trivialization of familiar words and unholy parallels caught my already made-up mind and I quickly stuffed it back into the array of used books which lay before me.  A year later, a friend mentioned how in a class she had taken about Indian history a book by him had been assigned and she urged me to read it. Skimming through Midnight’s Children did not illicit any sort of interest within my, once again, made-up mind and it remains on my shelf, gathering dust along with unfortunate purchases of the likes of Camille Paglia and Noam Chomsky.

And when it was recently announced, on March 31st, that the undergraduate Student Union of my university would be hosting ‘an evening with Sir Salman Rushdie,’ my ears immediately perked up. What an odd and random choice for a speaker – what has brought him back to relevancy?, I thought to myself. At first, there was speculation that it was an April fool’s prank given the date of the announcement. But very soon it became apparent that it was not and over 800 students RSVP’d as attending on Facebook.

My concern was not for his presence on campus – I fully supported his right to come and spread his nonsense   – but I was surprised and curious as to why and how the Student Union had gone about choosing such a figure for their speaker of the year, essentially, especially given the rather large Muslim student constituency which falls under them and helped pay for Mr. Rushdie’s presence.

It just came across as poor taste, really.

But I was determined to go and see the man whose name had been a sort of fixture – of the peek-a-boo persuasion – throughout my life. Many Muslim students on campus debated attending the lecture and many non-Muslim students generally questioned the choice. As far as I was concerned, while my opinions about of him were strong, I ultimately knew very little. Attending the lecture, I figured, would hopefully serve as a means through which I could humble myself.

Please prove me wrong, Salman. Please don’t live up to the controversial fuss of writing The Satanic Verses.  Put all that controversy aside and talk about literature. Don’t be the irrelevant writer, of past fame past, who continues to cultivate his persona in a controversial manner for over twenty years. Please.

Rushdie walked out onto the stage, in a room filled with around 700 students, primarily of the Cultural/Literature Studies persuasion (thick rimmed glasses, tight jeans, White-man’s burden mindset disguised in a poor facade of moral relativism,  UTTERLY primitive), and the response was thunderous. A friend and I – two young women donning bright veils –  only found seats at the very front, in the direct view of both Rushdie and the vast and salivating audience. While we hoped otherwise, we felt curious and awaited being glanced at. Glances fall in our direction.

He began with a joke. He was articulate, eloquent, and witty. He knew what to say and precisely how to frame it. His syntax was, simply put, rather appealing. He was charismatic.

He immediately dived into his lecture, discussing the interplay between literature and the private and public lives of individuals. Literature, he explained, was the means through which news would reach the common man long before the days of the print media. Through literature, people would learn of the plight of poverty in their countries, wars in other states and issues relating to their own governments. It had real power – a power which has seemingly diminished with the increasingly trivialized nature of the news which treats sensationalist entertainment as serious issues of concern.

But Rushdie wanted to make a case for the ever increasing relevancy of literature – he claimed that it is precisely literature, as a medium of storytelling, which serves to truly examine the lives we lead and the world in which we live. Which claims are certainly far from ‘ordinary.’ He pointed to David Egger’s Zeitoun and What is the What as examples of this sort of contemporary story-telling which blends the spheres of journalism and literature. Such literature commands a humanization of history – it goes up against the ‘official history’ and allows us, the writers and readers, to really engage with who we are, our narratives and our place in this world – essentially, our whole existence.

Storytelling, according to Rushdie, is an integral part of our existence as human beings. We are the only creatures, he claims, who tell stories. Therefore there is something about the story, about the narrative, which creates an innate attraction within us to it. And it is most important during times of political upheaval as it sustains the humanity of everything. After all, at the center of literature is the human being.

The public and private spheres, Rushdie continued, have clashed together in a way unseen before. There is no longer a space between them; they are no longer individual spaces – they are one. He cites the example of Jane Austen, who lived during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, yet when you read any of her novels you would never come close to a hint of the presence of war. Politics and worldly events were not a part – an integral part, especially – of one’s life and existence. It has only been recent that we’ve adopted such a characterization of ourselves.

He quotes Herclitus, who once said: a man’s character is his fate. You are your destiny. Charlie Brown was and is Charlie Brown because he could never quite kick that football.  Lucy was Lucy because she would never fail to remove that football from Charlie Brown’s fast approaching kick. To change that destiny would be to change their characters. Were Lucy to not remove the football and were Charlie Brown to kick it, both characters would have lost a very real part of what made them.

Yet we also know that this issue of our character being determined by our fate is not necessarily always the case, such as with acts of violence. Regardless of whether a person was  a good father, a good son, a bad husband or a lousy cook – when those three thousand individuals were killed on 9/11, as per the example used by Rushdie, the wealth of their character was not based on where their destiny led them. And even then, we are well aware of the importance of the character in our ability to make a decision; in our capability or inability to pick up arms, use unkind words and commit acts of horror. The difference between two people living in the same war, poverty and plague stricken area, of which one picks up arms and the other resists, is simply their character. It is our character which is the fine line between life and death, between good and evil; between everything.

Literature upholds the importance of a multifaceted character, a sort of character which needs to be promoted. We live as multiple selves, thus our identity must be one which is open and broad rather than one which is narrow. A narrow identity, Rushdie claims, leads to conflict; it is hard to find a common group and the self becomes essentialized. The broad identity, however, allows for increased and growing common ground; we relate to others easily thus the impetus for conflict is hindered.

Literature creates and promotes a broad identity; it is the ‘civilized’ response to the persisting problems plaguing our world.

Rushdie then finally tackled the textual elephant in the room: The Satanic Verses controversy.

His entire discussion thus far seemed to culminate in what he discusses primarily about the controversy and its implications. According to Rushdie, and I’m somewhat inclined to agree, when the book came out people were being defined by what made them angry. Your commitment to your identity – in this case Islamic – was based on the sort of anger you showed towards Rushdie and his Satanic associates.

This led Rushdie to ask us who exactly has the power to tell stories? Who has the power to tell the grand narrative? The answer, Rushdie says, is us. We should be the ones in charge of the narrative.

In an open society the narrative is constantly being challenged, constantly in flux, and thus consistently changing; it is never ‘changed.’ Rather it remains in that state of change with no real end. To limit people in how they create and engage with a narrative is to go against the earlier discussed basic nature of man to which storytelling and creating is innate.

The novel persists, despite the internet, radio, and other various forms of media, because it upholds and values the voice of the individual. There is no ownership of this voice – no corporate interest, no lobby group. It is just a voice that speaks to whomever is there, waiting to listen.

Thus came the end to a rather well-structured, humorous and charming lecture. I sat there, sifting through my pages of notes I had been rigorously writing throughout the hour and a half. I sat there, applauding and smiling – some questionable underlying assumptions aside, his lecture was a pleasure to listen to. As someone with an interest in using literature as a form and tool of history, I was immediately consumed by his words which certainly weren’t new but did a rather attractive job of putting together various existing ideas. I turned to my friend, grinned and said “That was really, really great.” She smiled in return and agreed.

Then, the question/answer session began.

The first question asked was a reference to Rushdie’s cameo in Bridget Jones’ Diary. When the laughs subsided, however, the second inquisitive mind decided to provoke a fun response; after all, what good is Rushdie without some controversial perspectives? He was asked of his opinion on the recent legislation in Quebec which has sought to ban the adornment of the niqab from public spaces.

My stomach turned, leading me to reach for the non-existent Pepto Bismol lying somewhere in my recently purchased H&M handbag. Why was this being brought up? What was the relevance of this to his lecture? Since when was Rushdie an authority on minority rights and issues relating to Quebec history and identity complexes?

It was Rushdie’s response, however, which would elicit illicit a complete reddened response from my face.

Simply put, and general sexism aside, Rushdie said he ‘did not like his women behind a cloth.’ How he agreed with the legislation in essence, even though he had not read it, as he felt that was of dire importance that he be able to see the face of a woman who may be serving him in a government office. He didn’t need to see something in a ‘bag.’

I suppose bedding the likes of Padma Lakshmi makes one rather interested in the full exploration of the female body, regardless of her own choice. Again, an overly-enthusiastic advocate of Roman Polanski’s drugged and one-way consensual adventures with a twelve-year-old. Makes sense.

He went onto claim that the women in his family were strong, independent and critical minded individuals who would be ‘very, very, very cross’ were anyone to suggest the veil – no longer just the niqab – to them. He said he felt, quite honestly, the veil was a form of oppression. That while many women here may have the choice to wear the veil, many women around the world did not and were forced to comply with the religious dress code.

As two of three veiled women in the audience – and at the very  front, ten feet from Rushdie with whom constant eye contact was made throughout the lecture – my friend and I immediately found ourselves quietened internally. We were shocked. We felt targeted and we felt isolated as we could almost feel 700 pairs of eyes slowly glance in our direction, wondering about the sort of facial reaction his response would force.

I sat there, numbed. I was not just upset at the rather alienating and completely insulting comment made by Rushdie – implying women, such as myself, who are veiled aren’t the most critical of thinkers or intelligent enough to ‘resist’ such an oppression of the expression of our faith – but I was upset because I knew that very few in the audience would engage with that particular topic any further and even fewer in an at least enlightened or tolerant manner. A crowd, from which questions to this distinguished author consisted of asking his opinion on Twenty/Twenty Cricket World Cup, bloggers as credible experts (about which he knew very little but continued to dispense his opinion to the masses), Slumdog Millionaire’s success, and general advice to aspiring writers, was not one from which I would expect a great deal of ‘critical thinking’ itself. Pretentious perhaps on my part, yes, but I’m the one creating this narrative aren’t I?

What upset me the most, however, was how completely useless Rushdie’s words became once he made that comment. He immediately had forgotten the importance of ‘tolerance’ and finding ‘common-ground.’ Rather than perhaps looking at different ways to live the narrative shared across borders by all of us (amongst our own national, regional, individual narratives) he chose to make it abundantly clear that it was ultimately only his own narrative that mattered. That he was unwilling to listen to or acknowledge the narrative of others, because ‘bags’ just aren’t his thing. Mr. Rushdie spoke of how in an open society, the narrative must be constantly challenged and reworked – the (small) presence of the niqab and the (large) presence of the hijab in Quebec, in particular, are doing precisely that, sir (in the least royal sense of that word). So, what of that?

I attended the lecture with a made-up mind about Salman Rushdie, hoping that he’d be able to somehow prove me wrong despite all that I had read about and by him. That by becoming humanized – the most important thing, he mentioned – my dislike for him would weaken and he would merely become another writer whose work I could respect even with reservations in regards to his beliefs and actions. And during the lecture itself, he grew on me. He was quick, charming and eloquent – it is hard to hate someone who possesses such qualities.

But I left feeling completely to the contrary. The way I was made to feel – alienated – and the way he completely deviated from an hour and a half of his own words, especially, left me completely disappointed with Salman Rushdie. Not as a writer, but as a person. Believe, internalize and exhibit what you say and promote, sir (again, in the least royal sense of that word).

Then again, whatever. Muslims don’t care about Rushdie anymore.

It’s all about Ayaan Hirsi Ali now.

Sana Saeed is studying for her MA in Islamic Studies at McGill University.