The story of when Salman Rushdie schooled me in authoritarian hate and intolerance.
One day, at 4pm on a Friday afternoon, around March 1996, I received a call at work from my mother. She had just heard on the radio that Salman Rushdie would be holding a public book signing in downtown Wellington on the following Monday afternoon. Invites were only open to members of the public who called some particular bookshop or publishing house phone number before 5pm today, and if I’d like the chance to go then I’d better act quick!
At that time I was a young, broke lab assistant. I worked up the courage and asked my boss for a couple of hours off work. When I called up to reserve my spot for the event, I was told that security would be tight. I would be allowed to bring one book with me to be signed, or else I could purchase a signed copy of his new book, The Moor’s Last Sigh.
I remember being excited that weekend. Salman Rushdie of course had been living in hiding since the Ayatollah (and Cat Stevens) had called for his assassination in 1989 after the publication of The Satanic Verses. Salman’s story had been sporadically covered in the media, with interesting tales of witness protection programmes, public sightings, and being hunted around the world by rogue assassins. It was clearly going to be a big deal—a personal historic moment for me—to get to see the man in person.
The big question for me was “which book do I bring?” Being an immature, naïve, self-absorbed twit at that time (I flatter myself that I have since grown up), I had an absurd and daring plan. A few years earlier I had picked up a beautiful old hardback English language copy of the Quran in a second-hand bookstore. If I brought this with me, could I maybe convince him to sign it? How cool would that be, to have my own personal copy of the Quran signed by Salman Rushdie himself! Would he go for that? Was it too bad taste? Would I be beaten up and ejected by his security detail?
In the end, I decided to bring along my copy of Midnight’s Children, which I had recently read (it won the Man Booker prize in 1981, and it’s a fantastic read). I turned up on the day, and after going through a metal detector and a bag search, I found myself in a small hotel conference room. Salman Rushdie was shorter than I expected. There were only about 30 or 40 people there. It turned out that the radio announcement on Friday afternoon had been a mistake—the message was really supposed to go out on Monday morning, so potential assassins had less time to plan. It turned out that this was his first public book signing, since the fatwa had been declared in 1989. It was calculated that New Zealand was sufficiently peaceful and far off the Ayatollah’s radar to give “appearing in public” a try at last.
Salman Rushdie was a wonderful speaker. I remember that he told stories about living in hiding, in different cities and countries around the world. He told a story about one time that he was living in London and his security detail had fit him out with a fake wig—people on the street saw through the disguise and pointed him out, laughing “Ha ha, there goes Salman Rushdie in a wig!” He spoke of how those people on the street were right, the situation was entirely absurd, to be living under fear of assassination by proclamation of a foreign leader.
But Salman Rushdie explained how it’s not such fun and games when your friends and colleagues start getting murdered. He told us about Hitoshi Igarashi, his Japanese translator, who had been stabbed and killed. He told us about Ettore Capriolo, his Italian translator, who was stabbed but lived. He told us about William Nygaard, his Norwegian publisher, who was shot three times and seriously injured. He told us about how an angry mob had burned down a hotel in Sivas, Turkey, killing 37 people, in an attempt to kill his Turkish translator. He told us how it was one thing to live with the extreme inconvenience of moving house every few days for years at a time, or having a personal 24 hour security detail, but it was another thing entirely to know that his friends and colleagues were in mortal danger without the same level of protection.
Salman Rushdie explained that his most vocal accusers had never even read The Satanic Verses, didn’t know what it was about, didn’t understand the major themes in his writing about cultural identity, fanaticism, forgiveness, living together in divided cultures… if only there was more listening and understanding then there might be less hate in the world.
Later on, when I stood before him getting my book signed, I was tongue-tied and humbled. I didn’t know what to say. I felt shame about the ignorant, offensive stunt that I had almost pulled. My heart grew three sizes that day.
Bigotry is no joke. Mob violence is no joke. Anti-immigrant hysteria is no joke. Sexual assault is no joke. Threats against the LGBTQ community are no joke. Openly talking about lynching members of the media or your killing political opponents is no joke. Donald Trump is no joke.
Hate is no joke.