A New York state of mind

Salman Rushdie talks about why he was banished by Bush I, the light and dark sides of Islam, and his new life in Manhattan.

By Peter Catapano

Published October 1, 2002 3:20PM (EDT)

Salman Rushdie has been a full-time resident of Manhattan now for several years, but his pleasure at having made this indirect migration -- from India to England to the United States -- is still evident. He appeared for this interview, at the Manhattan offices of his publisher, dressed casually, upbeat and eager to talk about the world's new recognition of the threat of religious extremism and the best way to memorialize those killed on Sept. 11.

You're officially sick of talking about your experience living under the Iranian fatwa. But your new book of nonfiction, "Step Across This Line," deals extensively with your struggle against it. Do you think it will cause the issue to flare up again?

No. Really, in a way I thought it was a way of putting it to rest. Because clearly it's been a part of the last 10 years. And I can't pretend it didn't happen. And actually it was for me, in putting this book together, in the end one of the most rewarding things, [figuring out] how to deal with that stuff.

Now if anybody ever wants to know anything about what I think about the fatwa, there it is. And now I really never have to talk about it again. I think it's really been, in practical terms, over for a very long time.

You once said in an interview that the story of your life would read like "a bad Salman Rushdie novel."

Yeah, I do think there is that side to it, where if I'd thought of it as a plot I wouldn't use it. Because it's like an Indian movie. It's very overblown. I think if I get lucky enough to be 80 years old and can't think of a novel to write then maybe at that point I'll want to write an autobiography. I don't want to be like those pop stars who write autobiographies when they're 22 years old. I've just turned 55. I feel full of writing. And it just seems inappropriate to say this is my story.

The series of lectures you gave at Yale this year makes up the title piece of the new book. Why did you choose the subject of border crossing for the centerpiece?

I've been wanting to write a long piece about the frontier -- I mean "frontier" literally and morally and metaphorically and so on -- for really quite a long time. I wanted it to be the keynote piece of this book. It's been a theme that's there throughout my writing. Because it's been there throughout my life. I started crossing frontiers when I was very young. It starts off with the partition of India, which basically cut my family in half. Then I was sent to England and almost immediately after I arrived in England the Berlin Wall was built. And I remember thinking now they're partitioning Europe. Having just seen the effects of a partition over there, it was so horrifying to see it happening.

And actually, although "The Satanic Verses" got discussed for a relatively small part of what it was about, the really big part of what it's about is the theme of migration, and how when people migrate from one culture to another everything about them is put into question. In that book I was trying to explore that. And, of course, one of the things that gets put into question is religious belief. And that's where the trouble came from.

And then, Sept. 11. That really changed my perspective on it all again.

What about crossing the border from Britain to New York? Obviously that was before this stuff happened, but it's still a huge leap.

Well, actually, I think, yes, a huge leap. But I think in some ways if you're somebody who's spent his life in big cities, it's not that big a leap to go from one big city to another.

It seems that when you left London for New York, the resentment meter in the British press went off the charts.

I just think the English press is -- there's a lot of attack dogs over there. It seems to be what they like to do best. And they find out whatever it is that is this week's reason for attacking you and then they do that. For me it was a long-delayed move. I think had it not been for the fatwa I would have done this over a decade ago.

Why New York?

I've been coming here since the early '70s so it's not new for me. In fact, the first time I came to New York they were just finishing the World Trade Center. That was one of the things for me that was really a strange, bitter irony about watching it come down. Every time I've come here I've felt ridiculously comfortable, as if I actually lived here when in fact I didn't know it very well. It has to do with it being an immigrant city, a city whose culture is created by successive waves of migration. It's the only city in the world -- since I left Bombay -- where I've actually felt normal, or at least everybody else is abnormal in the same way.

It's very hard to walk into a bar in New York and find a native New Yorker.

Exactly. I like that about it.

Did Sept. 11 change your feelings about New York?

Only that it intensified my feelings towards the city. And, in a way, discovering that about myself was a way of discovering how deeply attached I'd become to it. If somebody attacks somebody you care about you don't care about them less. You care about them more. And that's sort of how I felt. And how I still feel. For me it's always been New York, not America.

Obviously, you were dealing for so long with the problems and the violence of Muslim fundamentalism. You wrote articles, gave speeches. But not much was being done. Did you have a feeling that you had been crying in the wilderness until the planes hit the towers?

Well, it was more that I felt that something which had been seen to be a small and almost personal issue was now being re-understood as kind of everybody's problem. It's true that often I would find that when I would try to argue this case out that there would be a sense in some quarters that this was a kind of special pleading, that I was basically trying to draw attention to myself. And to seek support and sympathy for my own situation rather than trying to argue a larger case. But it was a thing that nobody really wanted to look at. And I can see why nobody wants to look at it because it's an ugly thing to look at. And now we're all forced to look at it. That's the first stage to defeating it.

You've said that there is a struggle for the soul of Islam. What is that struggle?

On the one hand, it has been an extraordinarily civilized culture with a great interest in beauty, a great interest in poetry and architecture and philosophy. And we were always told that they invented algebra, sciences and so on. On the one hand, there's this great wealth of cultural richness. And on the other hand, there is an acceptance of brute force, an easy acceptance. Cut people's hands off if they're thieves. Stone them to death if they're adultresses. It comes as a jolt when you are at the same time aware that these same people have been so interested in creating running water in palaces and extremely sophisticated philosophical ideas. Indeed, the works of Aristotle would be lost to the West if they hadn't been preserved by Muslim scholars.

You also relate this dual nature in Islam to the character of Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, whose memoirs you write about in the new book.

Yeah, I've been very interested in his character for a long time. And it's because he does seem to embody a kind of doubleness inside Islamic culture that's always been there. And that, in the character of Babur, is very powerfully expressed -- both sides, with no apparent feeling of contradiction inside the self. I quoted a passage where he's just come to this town where everybody had been massacred. And he describes this gruesome massacre. And then he says, but it's a very nice little town, pretty girls and there's a little stream here. And you think, "Excuse me?"

I've always felt that dichotomy inside Muslim culture. It's got something to do with the exclusion of women from the central places of the culture. So there's this warlike thing, and this acceptance of the cheapness of life, if you like. But, on the other side of that, high culture. There's a thing there that just needs a lot more exploration.

Explored from the outside, or from within Muslim culture itself?

If you look, everywhere in the Muslim world there are all kinds of very courageous and forward-thinking people. Islam is not just the mullahs and the Taliban. It's not just al-Qaida and the Taliban. In fact, remember that those people oppressed Muslims before they attacked the West. The first victims of the Taliban were Afghans. The first victims of the Iranian mullahs were the people of Iran. And from my knowledge of those countries the most hated group in any Muslim country is always the mullahs. Always, always hate them everywhere, for good reason.

Like father figures?

Yeah, well, also they're just awful people. But there are writers and thinkers in every Muslim country you look at. And journalists and artists and doctors, lawyers and so on, who are trying to move those societies forward -- not with much success, I have to say. One of the things that I have discussed with friends who come from the Middle East or other Muslim countries is how far backwards they've slipped in the last 50 years. If you think about Beirut in the 1950s it was a fantastically open, cultured city. So was Damascus. So was Kabul. So was Tehran. These were all places which had come a long way. And now they seem to have slid back from that moment to something much less likable. And I've tried to say that these are questions which Muslim societies really need to ask themselves. It just won't do to endlessly blame the West. Because these are self-inflicted wounds.

In Iran, the reformist movement seems to come forward every so often, then get squashed down. Do you think anything is happening there that might result in long-term change?

I think it's reaching a crisis point. The way in which the reform movement has been pushed back has created a stress in the system which can't go on being concealed. There's an election in Iran in a year and a half. I think if the reformers go back for the third time without actually having delivered any of the things that people have been voting for, there's going to be a lot of anger. And they know that they've got to make their feelings felt, make the electorate's feelings felt. So I think the stress in the system is very close to the breaking point just now.

One of the crucial things in Iran seems to be the age of the people in the country.

Yeah. It's a very young country. And therefore the vast majority of the population has no investment in the revolution. They're kids. They want to be able to have young people's lives. They want to watch MTV. The power of MTV to change the world must not be underestimated.

We won't say whether it's for good or for ill.

No. No.

How did you feel about the idea of commemorating Sept. 11, an anniversary of something that was so awful?

Well, I think with the first anniversary it's inevitable. My view is that it will go on happening until there's rebuilding and the future arrives. And when the future arrives, then we're onto the next thing. At the moment there's still this huge hole in the ground. It's difficult to walk around New York without being reminded of it. But it's a city that's always, in the end, looked forward not backwards. So I think the problem at the moment is it's hard to look forward because you don't know what the next thing is. The moment there is a next thing then the page will begin to turn.

You mean when they decide what's going to happen down there?

Yeah. Yeah. I think, I hope that they don't end up with some dreadful cobbled-together compromise.

Yeah, the stuff hasn't looked too visionary so far.

But in a way nothing looks like a good idea. And I don't believe in making it some kind of commemorative garden either. This was, after all, a part of the powerhouse of the city. It's a working district. And I think you need to put back working buildings there. It's interesting to me that every time they've actually asked not just the population of New York as a whole, but actually the population of Lower Manhattan, they all vote for building the towers back.

Yeah, I read that the other day, too. A big group of people who would like them back.

Big majority. A big majority just wants to put them back.

Which in a way is very New York.

I'm not sure that I disagree either. If you compare it to what happened in London after a bomb fell on the House of Parliament, that's what they did. They didn't build some modern House of Parliament. They rebuilt the Palace of Westminster and now you can't tell where the bomb fell. People feel sometimes that you can't undo the nightmare but you can fix the scar it left behind. I must say I'm beginning to think, especially given the relative dullness of what's so far been proposed, that perhaps the least dull thing would be to have the towers back, at least externally back. I think actually if I had a vote that's what I'd vote for.

So you've become just one of the mass of New Yorkers?

For me, the experience of being in the majority is completely new.

Obviously, you deal with partition in the book quite a bit. And also well before Sept. 11, you had strong words about Musharraf. I was wondering what you thought of his role now and of how he has comported himself through the changes.

Well, I think Musharraf was useful during the war against Afghanistan. And that's so. However, Musharraf is, so to speak, not one of the good guys. Because until two weeks before that he was the general responsible for training the terrorist groups that operate in Kashmir. And guess where he sent them to be trained? So the deep complicity of Pakistani intelligence and of the dictator with these groups and with al-Qaida in the past, it's just simply -- I don't think you'd even get anybody in the CIA to give you an argument about that.

Those deeds aren't erasable?

No. And there's even now, I was told by American journalists actually, that there seems to be evidence that this guy, Omar Sheikh, who killed Daniel Pearl, that he is also very deeply implicated with Pakistani intelligence and with Musharraf. So Musharraf is playing a very double game.

One of the things that you wrote about was a visit to the U.S. in '92 when Senators Leahy and Moynihan spoke out on your behalf and that this was a crucial moment. Was your feeling at that time that the U.S. had done enough?

No. No. At that time, George Bush Sr., his regime -- regime? His administration -- you have to admit that he was legitimately elected unlike ... They were completely uninterested in being involved at all and refused all overtures from me to meet with any member of the administration at any level and said a number of very dismissive things. So in that context the support of those senators, whatever it was, a dozen or so of them, was really the first act of political support from the United States. And given the power of the United States in the world, that actually had a big consequence in Europe. Then, when the government changed here and when the Clinton administration came in, the attitude of the U.S. government changed completely. It became very, very much more supportive and committed. I met with Clinton and so on. That was also a very big moment in getting the thing resolved.

As it transpired in the end, the moment the Iranians understood that Western governments were serious about getting this thing resolved, they canceled it. And until that moment they didn't because nobody had really made them feel that it was a big deal. The Clinton government joined forces and said, "Look, there's no way around this. You can't go over it or under it or through it. You can't sweep it under the carpet. You have to deal with it."

Within months it was solved. And it made me feel a little sick. It made me feel that, well, if it's that straightforward this could have been done years and years and years ago if anybody really had the political will to do it. And really that's what the campaign was about. It was just to generate the political will. And in that sense the meeting with Moynihan and Leahy, etc., was very significant. There was a wonderfully comic moment when we'd all had lunch in the senators' dining room. And then they said there's this press conference. And the press are all waiting outside the foreign policy boardroom where they have foreign policy committees. And so we went and stood in front of this door. Every single senator -- I guess 12 or 15 of them -- was holding a paperback copy of "The Satanic Verses." So they were like chorus girls. I felt this was one of the strangest moments of my life. I've got 12 U.S. senators advertising my book with the world's press in front of them. Then they, all of them, Leahy, Luger, Senator Paul Simon, all sorts of people were there. They all spoke very passionately. It began to change the political climate here. I think there had always been in America an enormous amount of public support just in terms of ordinary people. And that wasn't easily translated into political support.

Peter Catapano

Peter Catapano has written for the New York Times, ARTnews and Musician.

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