How Salman Rushdie Has Lived and Written Under the Threat of Death: a Free Documentary

Alfred Hitch­cock spe­cial­ized in films about marked men: inno­cents, more or less, who sud­den­ly find them­selves pur­sued by sin­is­ter forces to the ends of the Earth. Lit­tle won­der, then, that Salman Rushdie would count him­self a Hitch­cock fan. The nov­el­ist ref­er­ences the film­mak­er more than once in Salman Rushdie: Writ­ing Under Death Threats, the DW tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­tary above. He remem­bers a sequence from The Birds that cuts between stu­dents in a class­room and the play­ground out­side: in one shot a black­bird comes to sit on the jun­gle gym, and just a few shots lat­er it’s been joined by 500 more. “The case of what hap­pened to The Satan­ic Vers­es was, it was some­thing like the first black­bird.”

Rushdie refers, of course, to the fat­wa called down upon him in response to that nov­el­’s sup­posed blas­phemies against Islam by Aya­tol­lah Khome­i­ni. As a result he had to spend most of the sub­se­quent decade in hid­ing, under the pro­tec­tion of the British gov­ern­ment. By the time of this doc­u­men­tary, which came out in 2018, the dan­ger seemed to have passed.

“What’s hap­pen­ing now, as the scan­dal goes away,” he says of The Satan­ic Vers­es, “is that peo­ple are able to read it as a book, rather than as some kind of scan­dalous text.” But the dan­ger had not passed, as we learned ear­li­er this month when Rushdie was stabbed onstage at a lit­er­ary event in upstate New York, avoid­ing death by what’s been report­ed as a nar­row mar­gin indeed.

This sto­ry has its ironies, not least that Rushdie’s attack­er was born in Cal­i­for­nia a decade after the Iran­ian gov­ern­men­t’s dis­avow­al of the fat­wa. But for Rushdie him­self, the attempt on his life can’t have come entire­ly as a sur­prise: he saw the gath­er­ing black­birds of vio­lent fanati­cism as well as those of met­ro­pol­i­tan com­pla­cen­cy. Reflect­ing on the 2015 attack on French satir­i­cal mag­a­zine Char­lie Heb­do, he laments that “even peo­ple who are on the lib­er­al, pro­gres­sive, left­ist end of the spec­trum now find ‘prob­lem­at­ic’ the idea of sup­port­ing peo­ple who make fun of reli­gion.” Always and every­where, writ­ing has been done under the threat of one kind of pun­ish­ment or anoth­er; more than 30 years after The Satan­ic Vers­es, Rushdie’s case remains the most har­row­ing­ly extreme illus­tra­tion of the writer’s con­di­tion.

Relat­ed con­tent:

When Christo­pher Hitchens Vig­i­lant­ly Defend­ed Salman Rushdie After the Fat­wah: “It Was a Mat­ter of Every­thing I Hat­ed Ver­sus Every­thing I Loved”

Hear Salman Rushdie Read Don­ald Barthelme’s “Con­cern­ing the Body­guard” 

Jeff Koons and Salman Rushdie Teach New Cours­es on Art, Cre­ativ­i­ty & Sto­ry­telling for Mas­ter­Class

Salman Rushdie: Machiavelli’s Bad Rap

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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