Monday, January 28, 2013

Rushdie's revenge

[Originally posted at NOW]

In confronting the question of the relationship between politics and literature, one tends to run up against two key rejectionist camps. On the one hand sit the no-nonsense utilitarians; the hard-nosed wonks who view the reading of fiction as a frivolous, even vaguely effeminate, waste of a serious thinker’s time. On the other are the ostentatious aesthetes; the artistic puritans for whom political involvement is always and everywhere a vulgarity and barbarism.

Few writers better exhibit the poverty of both these extremes than Salman Rushdie, the political novelist who has, by both choice and circumstance, spent a hefty portion of his career embarking on some eminently literary politics. His new 630-page memoir, titled Joseph Anton after the name he adopted during nine years of hiding, is among other things a testament to the perils but also the necessity, and indeed the virtues, of being fully engaged on both literary and political fronts.

Starting - as Rushdie does - with the literature, one of the joys of Joseph Anton is the insight it gives into the practical process of writing a novel, as well as the more intangible development and maturation of the novelist’s mind itself. The seeds of what would become his most famous work (if not necessarily his most distinguished one,) The Satanic Verses, seem to have been planted during his Bombay childhood by his father Anis, a mostly nasty, cantankerous drunk who nevertheless cultivated a highly rational critique of his discarded Islam; a lesson in skeptical inquiry that evidently impressed itself upon his son. (The very name ‘Rushdie’, invented by Anis to replace ‘Dehlavi’, was taken from Ibn Rushd, the 12th-century Andalusian polymath who was, in the author’s words, “at the forefront of the rationalist argument against Islamic literalism in his time.”)

Equipped with Anis’ intellectual curiosity and irreverence, young Salman took a fancy to an obscure history course on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, whilst at Cambridge University in the 1960s, in which he learned about what were uncontroversially called the ‘Satanic Verses’. These are the heterodox Islamic scriptures that would appear two decades later, only lightly fictionalized, in the supposedly ‘offending’ passages of the novel that bore their name. It’s instructive to reflect, as he does, that the story of the verses is “essentially admiring of the Prophet of Islam and even respectful toward him” – an irony naturally lost on many of the fanatics that didn’t read the novel.

Elsewhere, the search for what he calls “the sweet recess of the mind where fiction lurked” takes him on an "odyssey” to India, where the 20-hour bus rides, vomiting chickens and peculiar Keralan storytelling techniques provide the raw materials for the Booker Prize-winning Midnight’s Children. In retrospect, one wishes there had been rather more of these pages in Joseph Anton, and less of the name-dropping celebrity-basking that populates the closing chapters (“Hugh Grant kissed him;” “The movie star Will Smith told him […].”)

On that note, now seems as good a time as any to get the book’s other shortcomings out the way: the inexcusable writing of the entire text in the third person (barring a single, erroneous sentence); the profligate use of the exclamation mark; the jarring, unnatural Americanisms ('sidewalk', 'freshmen', 'soccer' - presumably the doing of a fiendish editor); and the highly dubious assertions (e.g. the repeated claim – refutable even by the briefest Wikipedia search – that Ayatollah Khomeini started the Iran-Iraq war.)

All these flaws and more, however, can be tolerated thanks to the extraordinary drama of the story itself. This is about much more than the elite protection squad (not just “licensed to kill,” but “licensed to do soon his behalf,”) the armored Jags, the flights to the US on military jets. It is nothing less than a first-hand account of the definitive free speech battle of the 20th century. And Rushdie makes full use of the opportunity to name his allies and, more gratifyingly, shame his antagonists.

It’s never exactly been a secret that when a blood-drenched dictator put a price tag on the head of a novelist on February 14th, 1989, a number of distinguished voices on both the left and right decided the emotions of the former were worth more than the rights of the latter. Nor has it gone unnoticed that those voices grew no quieter when Rushdie’s Japanese translator was murdered, or when his Norwegian publisher was shot, or when three Iranians were found conspiring to kill him in Britain in 1992, or when the Egyptian columnist Farag Fouda and the Algerian writer Tahar Djaout were both murdered by Islamists, or when other writers like the Turkish Aziz Nesin, the Bengali Taslima Nasrin and the Egyptian Alaa Hamed were jailed or otherwise persecuted for “offending” the godly. But not until now has it been definitively established just how shockingly wide and, so to speak, high the capitulation to fascism went.

Informed readers will already have known about the sinister fatuity of characters like Germaine Greer, John le Carré, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Cat Stevens, and of course the entire Islamic, Christian and Jewish religious establishments when it came to the Rushdie “affair”. But I for one hadn’t realized the list also included Prince Charles, Rupert Murdoch, Roald Dahl, Louis de Bernières, Naguib Mahfouz (who initially defended him) and even (how could you!) Kingsley Amis. Tariq Ali lied, for presumably self-promoting reasons, about going to dinner with him. Alexander Cockburn attacked him hysterically in print. The Oxford University Press refused to publish an extract of his (from Midnight’s Children, for Christ’s sake). And Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the 'Iron Lady' herself, ignored and essentially disowned him, perpetually afraid of upsetting an Iranian government whose proxy guns in Lebanon were holding Britons hostage.

Indeed, Lebanon is more involved – and implicated – in Rushdie’s ordeal than most Lebanese probably realize. Hussein Musawi, founder of the Islamic Amal militia that would later merge with other Islamist factions to form Hezbollah, took something of a personal interest in the 'cause', threatening to kill the British hostages if the fatwa wasn’t carried out and even proposing sparing one of their lives if Rushdie were delivered to Beirut. In London, Rushdie was told by British intelligence that Hezbollah was trying to cut out the middleman and kill him themselves as late as 1998. This seems far-fetched, although wilayat al-faqih doesn’t leave much room for disobeying the Supreme Leader’s orders, and as recently as 2006 an irate Hassan Nasrallah could be found articulating his disgust that the 'apostate' was never liquidated.

With that said, there were also Lebanese fighting on his behalf. The novelist Hanan al-Shaykh seems to have never wavered in her many years of friendship with him, and another novelist, Elias Khoury, wrote in 1993 that “[Rushdie] personifies our solitude [and] his story is our own,” sentiments also echoed in print by Amin Maalouf. Indeed, this was the position of Arab and Muslim writers and intellectuals generally: Edward Said, Adonis, Mahmoud Darwish, Emile Habibi and literally dozens more of the finest pens in the region put their craven Western counterparts to shame by squarely and unambiguously fighting for Rushdie’s freedom of speech – a liberty they had reason to know could never be taken for granted.

As it still cannot. Though Rushdie now lives a considerably freer existence, the “affair” refuses to die. Just this Monday, a group of Indian Muslim clerics demanded the exclusion from this year’s Jaipur literary festival of speakers who had read passages of the Verses last year – an act that was itself a protest against death threats that had prevented Rushdie himself from appearing at the festival.

More generally, not a day goes by anymore that an artist or journalist or publisher isn’t being menaced by religious fanatics – in Tunis, or Gaza, or Riyadh, but equally in Amsterdam or Copenhagen – and yet we continue to be told, every time, that taking care not to 'offend' the thugs is the priority. Incredibly, proposals for a worldwide ban on 'blasphemy' are being taken seriously by the United Nations, with secretary-general Ban Ki-moon among the many enthusiasts. When Hamid al-Thani, the Qatari theocrat and Muslim Brotherhood patron told the General Assembly that “freedom should not […] become a tool to hurt and insult the dignity of […] sacred beliefs,” he was saying what almost no world leader would dare dispute nowadays, least of all the US President, who condemned “all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others” while the body of his ambassador to Benghazi, murdered in a frenzy of piety, was still warm.

Fortunately, books like Joseph Anton offer us another option – the humorous instead of the stern; the ironic instead of the fanatical; the literary instead of the philistine. And they also offer a welcome deterrent to future fatwa sympathizers and would-be censorship-enablers: the prospect of one day having one’s name disgraced, in cold print, for all of posterity to see.

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