Nick Vacarro/Columbia University School of the Arts
Cover of Midnight's Children.
Author Salman Rushdie became a household name in 1989, when Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or Islamic edict, calling for Rushdie's death. Khomeini believed Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses, blasphemed Islam.
Rushdie went into hiding for the next nine years. After the Ayatollah died in 1998, the Iranian government rescinded the fatwa.
But just last month, Iran's hard-line military group, the Revolutionary Guards, issued a statement saying the fatwa is still valid.
In an interview with NPR's Tavis Smiley, Rushdie says he doesn't take the edict as seriously as he once did. Today, he is not in hiding and is in fact juggling many projects. In addition to continuing his writing, he is currently working on a new play based on his novel Midnight's Children, which won Britain's Booker Prize for fiction in 1981.
The family saga centers around two children born at midnight on Aug. 15, 1947 — the moment at which India became an independent nation — and switched at birth. The novel traces the turbulent history of 20th century India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The adapted play, which will be performed in the United States at the University of Michigan and at Harlem's Apollo Theater, is a collaboration between Columbia University, the University of Michigan/University Musical Society and the Royal Shakespeare Company. In addition, Columbia University will present the Midnight's Children Humanities Festival.
For Rushdie, working with a large group of people on the production was a change from his usual solitary writing practices. But, he says, he "had a ball."
"Everyone brought passion to this production and it's been an enormous pleasure — brilliantly produced," Rushdie says.
In addition to discussing the play, Rushdie and Smiley also talk about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the possible war with Iraq.
Rushdie, who was in New York on Sept. 11, says Muslims are "allowing fundamentalism to exist," and urges Muslim society to "reject terrorism."
As for the Iraq issue, Rushdie says he has mixed feelings.
"I'm cognizant of how badly Saddam has treated his people," Rushdie says. But if the United States attacks Iraq, "I would like to have a clear guarantee about the successor regime, about the democratic processess replacing the regime — those are my primary concerns."
And what compels him to speak out on political issues after his experiences with The Satanic Verses?
"Writers have an opinion about the world and offer arguments about the world," Rushdie says. "They should offer contemplation."