By Tony Mochama
Updated Saturday, February 13th 2016 at 15:10 GMT +3
‘How do you feel about being sentenced to death by the Ayatollah?’
The question was from a BBC radio reporter who had rang him, and the British-Indian author, Salman Rushdie, was understandably at a loss for words – not a good thing for any writer. On St Valentine’s Day, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa (call for the dead head) of Salman Rushdie for ‘blaspheming against the faith’ in his novel, The Satanic Verses, and the writer was understandably scared.
As Rushdie writes in Josef Anton, a memoir of his life after the fatwa, “Reality seemed to be generally elusive on that Valentine’s Day of 1989. Even the sky, I remember, was preternaturally radiant. At such moments you think all the cheesy things. Not being able to watch your children grow up! Not being able to do the work you want to do. Oddly, it is those things that hurt more than the overall idea of being physically dead.” Last public appearance
On that bright dark Tuesday, the author of the Booker winning book Midnight’s Children – ironically, the best-selling book that week was Midnight, a horror novel by Dean Koontz – attended the funeral service of his close friend, Bruce Chatwin, who had introduced him to the Australian writer Robyn Davidson, whom he left his first wife for in the mid-1980s after ten years of marriage, for a fling.
(Salman Rushdie is one of those matrimonial optimists, he has been entangled in marriages four times.)
After the Orthodox service – one of those that involve several sittings, standings and chantings, with the robed clerics waving fuming caskets in the air like Greek waiters removing incendiary ashtrays – Paul Theroux, the world famous travel writer (with whom our own Binyavanga Wainaina got into a literary tiff sometime back), with a perfect sense of gallows’ humour said to Rushdie: “Next week, Salman, we’ll be back here for your service.”
It was to be Rushdie’s last public appearance for a rather long time, as he immediately vanished into hiding. The following day, and for weeks after, Rushdie, and his ‘blasphemous’ book, were the news. ‘Execute Rushdie, orders the Ayatollah’ read the headline on the Evening Standard, with a variation in every national newspaper in the world – The Argus, Bradford Telegraph, the South African Weekly Mail, India Today, Al-Noor, Osservatore Romano, the Salzburg Kronen Zeitung, the Muslim Voice, Al Ahram and even The Standard.
Rushdie, who had skirmished with Pakistani dictator General Zia for ‘Shame’, and been sued for libel by India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for his depiction of her in ‘Midnight’s Children’, had finally become a household name thanks to the Ayatollah of Iran; and his book Satanic Verses, published by Viking, a best seller that by the end of that scarlet letter year of 1989 had pushed Danielle Steele to second place, eventually earning Rushdie about Sh200 million over the past quarter century since its publication, all thanks be to the supreme leader. But there was a heavy toll and personal cost to the author, who lamented that he had been ‘handcuffed to history.’ Rushdie got divorced from his second wife, American novelist Marianne Wiggins, in mid-1993 citing ‘the tension of being at the centre of an international controversy and the irritations of spending all hours of the day together in seclusion’ as the reason of the separation.
Question: What’s got long blonde hair, drooping eyes, big tits and lives in an igloo in Iceland?
Answer: Salman Rushdie
Such jokes became the staple of late night comedians in 1989, much as Osama bin Laden was to be a dozen years later as the symbol of the Hunted and the Marked, the latter up until the night of his death when comedian Seth Myers, in front of president Barack Obama, quipped (roasting a TV network about its low ratings): “People think Mr Osama is hiding in the caves of the Hindu Kush, but did you know every weekday between 4 and 5pm, he hosts his own television show on C-SPAN?”
Life on the run for Rushdie was not fun, nor was it particularly an adrenaline rush. “I did not have average days because there was always the possibility of having to move with my 24 hour State provided security personnel. I read a lot. I talk on the phone two to three hours a day. I play chess on the computer. I am now a master of Supermario I and expert of Supermario II (this was 1989).” Rushdie said the strange thing, really, was not being able to go out in the evening. Or afternoon. Or evening – to clear his head out.
As a writer myself, I can tell you that on the whole, writers are most alive when alone – then you can get on with the very real business of conjuring up other people, imagining other lives, and get it down on paper. That is why 4am in my estimation is the writer’s best friend, that quiet hour before the world begins to stir at 5am, the cock to crow – and the muezzin in the mosque to call the faithful to prayer. But to live the life that Sir Salman Rushdie did, of ostracism, exile, disjuncture and, eventually, personal reinvention, is extraordinary. There are some people, Ngugi wa Thiong’o comes to mind, for whom exile offers opportunities for expansion and even self-mythologising – and Rushdie is reluctantly one of these.
Twenty seven Saint Valentine’s day years ago, this author found himself in a situation that was at once ardent and ironical, mundane yet potentially murderous , radically protean yet darkly comical. For example, a would-be Rushdie assassin called Mustafa Mazeh, while padding a book bomb meant for the writer with RDX explosive in a central London hotel room in Paddington, accidentally blew himself up – and was declared a martyr.
That was in the August of 1989, six months after the fatwa on Rushdie.
The writer is the Secretary General of PEN, Kenya Chapter, a worldwide organisation that defends the rights of poets, journalist and novelists to exercise free speech in its entirety