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

Salman Rushdie's other novels include Midnight's Children, Shame and Luka and the Fire of Life. (Random House)

The recent violence sparked by the film Innocence of Muslims recalls a very different controversy from more than 20 years ago:

In 1988, Salman Rushdie published a novel, The Satanic Verses, that many Muslims declared to be offensive, whether they'd read it or not. In 1989, Iran's leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, calling for the death of the author and anyone associated with the book's publication. Bounties were offered and translators and others were attacked, some even murdered. Rushdie, who was born in India but lived in England at the time, went into hiding.

Today, Rushdie is again living in the open, and he has finished a memoir about the experience, called Joseph Anton. He tells NPR's Steve Inskeep that Joseph Anton was an alias he created for himself when he was forced into hiding.

"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," he says. "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."

Rushdie also invented a life story for Anton: He was a nervous American publisher who felt he needed a lot of bulletproof glass. No one could have predicted just how long Rushdie would be living under that pseudonym.

"One of the strangest aspects of it is that nobody thought that this was going to last very long," he says. "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."

In all that time, Rushdie says, his weakest point came around year two, when he tried to compromise with a group of Islamic leaders in London by negotiating a statement that said, among other things, that he believed there was no god but Allah and that he would not issue a paperback version of The Satanic Verses.

"I think it actually reads like something that an inquisition would make you sign," he says. "And that's more or less what it was. And I immediately — the moment I left that room in which I'd 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 oneself 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."

The Original Satanic Verses

The source of Rushdie's trouble was a section of The Satanic Verses that he based on a disputed incident.

"[The Satanic Verses] is the title given to an episode which exists in the traditions of the life of the Prophet Muhammad," Rushdie says. "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."

Historians and religious scholars debate the truth of that anecdote, but there's no denying the explosive nature of just the idea that the Prophet Muhammad may have flirted with polytheism. Judging from the reaction, Rushdie says, you'd think his book was a kind of anti-Islamic polemic. In reality, the incident only appears as a subplot in 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?" he says. "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."

Sept. 11 And 'The Birds'

At the beginning of Joseph Anton, Rushdie reflects on religious extremism through the lens of Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 film The Birds. In it, one bird appears, and it's a little hostile; then more birds appear and they begin attacking people, and pretty soon the world is covered with birds in a mysterious and terrifying way. Referring to himself in the third person, Rushdie writes:

"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 blackbird 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."

In other words, even though the fatwa was issued well before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the two events are connected.

"I think the same mindset, the same extremism that attacked those buildings in New York and Washington, was the one that attacked me," Rushdie says. "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 Sept. 11 attacks, that narrative became the narrative of all our lives."

The story of Rushdie's time in hiding is one of excessive anxiety, constant security and trying desperately to figure out how to fight your way out. In many ways, he lived the post-Sept. 11 story before it even happened.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

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.

INSKEEP: Hmm.

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

(LAUGHTER)

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.

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

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.

RUSHDIE: Yes.

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...

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

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 ...

RUSHDIE: Yeah.

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."

RUSHDIE: Yes.

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.

RUSHDIE: Yes.

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.

RUSHDIE: Yes.

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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