Interview: Salman Rushdie, Author Of 'Joseph Anton' | How Rushdie Survived A Fatwa In 1989, Iran's leader issued an edict that sentenced Salman Rushdie to death for writing the novel The Satanic Verses. Rushdie reflects on the fallout from that order — from the years spent in hiding to the alias he created to avoid detection — in a new memoir called Joseph Anton.
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Becoming 'Anton,' Or, How Rushdie Survived A Fatwa

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Becoming 'Anton,' Or, How Rushdie Survived A Fatwa

Becoming 'Anton,' Or, How Rushdie Survived A Fatwa

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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An Iranian religious foundation says it's increasing its reward for killing the British author Salman Rushdie. The foundation says nobody would have made a recent film attacking the Prophet Muhammad if only Rushdie had been killed over his 1988 novel, "The Satanic Verses." Iran's leader demanded the death - for Rushdie, at that time. Translators and others linked with the book were attacked, even murdered; and Salman Rushdie went into hiding for a dozen years. Now, he's finished a memoir of his experiences, called "Joseph Anton."

Maybe you should explain by telling us who Joseph Anton was.

SALMAN RUSHDIE: Well, Joseph Anton was me. The police asked me to come up with a pseudonym - partly because I needed to rent properties and so on; and obviously, couldn't do it in my own name.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

RUSHDIE: And I was asked to make it not an Indian name. And so deprived of one nationality, I retreated into literature - which is, you could say, my other country - and chose this name from the first names of Conrad and Chekhov. Joseph Conrad, Anton Chekhov equals Joseph Anton.

INSKEEP: And we should mention to people, you were born in India. You were living in England, at the time - in Britain, at the time.

RUSHDIE: Yes. Yes.

INSKEEP: And so you not only had to go to an undisclosed location, but to create an entirely new identity for yourself.

RUSHDIE: I had to be invisible, and this name - the name is all that could be visible. We even invented a life story for him. He was an American publisher, actually.


RUSHDIE: A rather nervous American publisher who felt he needed a lot of bulletproof glass.


INSKEEP: Were you working out some of your frustrations there, Mr. Rushdie?

RUSHDIE: Well - yes, in a secret way, perhaps.

INSKEEP: So you get started involuntarily on this odyssey, trying not to call attention to yourself.


INSKEEP: Did that get stranger and stranger, as you went?

RUSHDIE: Yes, it did. And one of the strangest aspects of it is that nobody thought that this was going to last very long. They said, just lie low for a few days, and let the diplomats and politicians do their work; and this will be resolved. Instead, in the end, it took almost 12 years.

INSKEEP: There were a lot of people who took offense at the book, and presumed that it was an offensive book - whether they read it or not. And perhaps the situation invited that because the title - it's got Satan right in the title; "The Satanic Verses."

RUSHDIE: Well, that phrase is not invented by me. That is the title given to an episode which exists in the traditions of the life of the Prophet Muhammad. It suggests that at one point, the devil appeared to him in the guise of the archangel; and asked him to recite verses, which accepted as semi-divine the three most popular pagan goddesses of pre-Islamic Mecca.

INSKEEP: It's been discussed by historians. Some accept the incident; some do not ...

RUSHDIE: Exactly.

INSKEEP: ...accept the incident. But of course, an explosive notion for a religion that begins with the statement, "there is no God but Allah"; to describe the Prophet Muhammad flirting with the idea of other gods being out there, in some form or another.

RUSHDIE: Yes, although - I mean, the fact is, you would think from what you heard about it, is that this book was some kind of an anti-Islamic polemic; whereas actually, these things that we're talking about are a subplot, which occur as a dream sequence. My purpose was not to write only about Islam. It was to talk about the nature of revelation and also, to suggest that when a big, new idea comes into the world, it must answer two challenges. One is the challenge of, how do you behave when you're weak? And the other, how do you behave when you're strong?

When you're weak, do you bend, do you compromise; or are you unyielding and firm? And when you're strong, when you're victorious, are you cruel and vengeful; or are you merciful and forgiving? And actually, in my view, the story - as it exists in the novel - reflects rather well on the new idea of the religion being born because it shows that it actually may have flirted with compromise, but then rejected it; and when in triumph, it was pretty merciful.

INSKEEP: Let's stay with those questions you pose in the novel - how you behave when you're weak; how you behave when you're strong - because we've been reading this memoir of your life in hiding.


INSKEEP: What's a moment when you felt that you were weak, while in hiding; and a moment when you felt you were strong?

RUSHDIE: I would have said the weakest point is sort of somewhere around the two-year mark of this 12-year experience. I - how shall I put it? I sort of cracked, and tried to make a compromise with a group of Islamic leaders in London.

INSKEEP: You negotiated this statement that looks like something...


INSKEEP: ...that would come out of a global summit, and says that you believe there's no God but Allah. It goes on to make some ...


INSKEEP: ...other statements, and also says you're not going to issue a paperback version of the book.

RUSHDIE: Yes. Well, I think it actually reads like something that an inquisition would make you sign. And that's, more or less, what it was. And I immediately - the moment I left that room in which I had had that meeting, I began to feel physically ill because I understood that I'd, in some way, betrayed myself. I felt obliged to repudiate that statement; and try and regain myself, for myself. It made me understand that this idea of trying to ingratiate one's self with the enemy, was not only absurd but improper; and in a way now, looking back at it, I can see that it was beneficial to me because it clarified certain things in my head, which were confused up to then.

INSKEEP: I wonder if I can get you to read a paragraph from an early passage of this memoir. You begin with an analogy. There's a famous Alfred Hitchcock movie, "The Birds."


INSKEEP: One bird appears, it's a little hostile; more birds appear, they begin attacking people; and pretty soon, the world is covered with birds, in a mysterious and terrifying way. You're talking about yourself in the third person here, and you're thinking about this gathering of the birds. And of course, this is all happening to you in the years before 9/11.


INSKEEP: This is the 1980s.

RUSHDIE: Yes. (Reading) In the years to come, he will dream about this scene, understanding that his story is a sort of prologue, the tale of the moment when the first black bird lands. When it begins, it's just about him. It's individual, particular, specific. Nobody feels inclined to draw any conclusions from it. It will be a dozen years - and more - before the story grows until it fills the sky like the Archangel Gabriel standing upon the horizon; like a pair of planes flying into tall buildings; like the plague of murderous birds, in Alfred Hitchcock's great film.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by that?

RUSHDIE: Well, I mean that I think the same mindset, the same extremism that attacked those buildings in New York and Washington, was the one that attacked me. And I think one of the strange things is that when it happened to me, people didn't really understand it in the West because they couldn't set it into a narrative that they understood. And after the 9/11 attacks, that narrative became the narrative of all our lives.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about your story of these 12 years in hiding - excessive anxiety, constant security, constant watchfulness of your own movements, and trying desperately to figure how to get out this, how to fight.


INSKEEP: Are you saying that that's been the story of us all since 9/11?

RUSHDIE: I think we - that's the world we live in, isn't it?

INSKEEP: Salman Rushdie's memoir is called "Joseph Anton." Thanks very much.

RUSHDIE: Thank you. Thanks very much.

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