TERRY GROSS, HOST:
The British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie may be the world's most famous writer, but not only for literary reasons. On Valentine's Day 1989, the leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khamenei, issued a fatwah calling for Rushdie's death for writing "The Satanic Verses," a novel the Ayatollah hadn't read, but that he claimed to find blasphemous and an insult to Islam.
Rushdie was given full time government protection and spent much of the next 10 years moving between residences and going by the alias Joseph Anton. That name is the title of his new memoir about living under the fatwah.
Our critic-at-large, John Powers, is an admirer of Rushdie's work and says his memoir tells one of the emblematic stories of our time.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: In the fall of 1989, I was walking down a London street when someone handed me a flier that asked, Should Rushdie die? The following afternoon, I headed over to the Royal Albert Hall to hear that question answered by a renowned Islamic scholar.
Waiting to get in, I began talking to a group of young Muslims of Pakistani origin wearing Air Jordans, listening to Public Enemy on their boom box, and talking with East London accents. They could hardly have seemed more Westernized, but when I asked if they thought Rushdie should be killed, they said yes. He'd insulted the word of God. And had they read this insulting book, "The Satanic Verses"? Well, no. And what was spooky - they didn't seem embarrassed about this.
Something's going on here, I remember thinking, but in the midst of everything else happening that year, from Tiananmen Square to the fall of the Berlin Wall, I didn't dream that the forces underlying this anti-Rushdie event would eventually come to define our era. It all felt like a weird historical sideshow.
Of course it didn't feel that way to Rushdie, who was in the belly of the beast that I was watching safely from the observation deck. He takes us inside this whale in his new memoir, "Joseph Anton," about living in hiding for over a decade. Filled with cameos by everyone from Bill Clinton to Christopher Hitchens to Warren Beatty, this literary page-turner tells us in fascinating detail what it means to have every aspect of your life overturned.
For starters, the ayatollah's death sentence meant choosing a new non-Asian identity, Joseph Anton, which came from combining the first names of Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. It meant adjusting to live-in bodyguards and having to ask permission to do the simplest things, like meeting his son.
And forget about those cool government safe houses from spy novels. Rushdie had to rent places to stay, then got stuck with the leases when his protectors thought it necessary to move. He had to do all this while the Thatcher government treated him as an expensive troublemaker, the ghastly British media reviled his character, and several famous writers suggested that Rushdie had only himself to blame for the fatwah.
You see, Rushdie suffered from liberal society's version of the taint. When some group claims to be offended by a book or movie, it quickly comes to be believed that this book or movie surely must be offensive somehow. Why else would people be so angry? From this it follows naturally that the offending party ought to apologize. Rushdie was constantly being asked to apologize, even if the claim that his book insulted Islam is wrong and the people he's suppose to apologize to have called for his murder.
The low point comes in December 1990 when in an attempt to reclaim his life by placating his accusers he signs a statement affirming his faith in Islam, a faith he did not have, and calling for restrictions on the publication of "The Satanic Verses." It was a disastrous mistake. His accusers weren't placated, his old life wasn't reclaimed, and he felt sick with self-contempt.
But this moment of weakness leads to the book's turning point, Rushdie's realization that no matter what he does, he'll never get his detractors to love him. And so he begins to fight hard, both for himself and for what he believes in. He pushes back against his protectors' desire to keep him sequestered. He gives speeches, challenges his critics and writes more novels when many people just wish he'd shut up.
Above all, Rushdie defends the right to free speech, even offensive or blasphemous speech. Yes, even for that imbecile whose recent YouTube trailer for his movie "The Innocence of Muslims" actually is what "The Satanic Verses" was alleged to be - bigoted and deliberately insulting to Islam.
It was only by fighting that he managed to endure his constricted, often depressing life as Joseph Anton and eventually turned back into the Salman Rushdie I saw a few days ago speaking at the Los Angeles Library. He was funny and warm and only a tad vain, certainly nothing like the Rushdie on the poster for that long ago lecture at the Albert Hall, which portrayed him with devil's horns.
As it happens, an Iranian ayatollah reaffirmed the fatwah yet again on September 17th of this year inspired by the anger over "The Innocence of Muslims." I found myself wondering if at some point in the past 23 years this mullah had found time to actually read the book.
GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and Vogue.com. Salman Rushdie's new book is called "Joseph Anton, A Memoir." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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