Read, speak to thwart those who would like to silence us
When I bought the book, I had no intention of reading it. It was an act of solidarity, I said to myself at 18. Surely there was a bit of a challenge, a dig at my prep school, mixed up too.
The Wheeler School used to encourage seniors to purchase a hardcover book of their choice before graduation. The school would stamp it with the school seal and present it to us at the start. I considered volumes of Swift, Twain, Rabelais, and others before settling on a very recent book that had become international short story: Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.”
In the spring of 1989, it was banned in several countries, bookstores were set on fire, riots broke out in Pakistan, and the novel’s alleged blasphemies were cited by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, as the reason for a death sentence, calling on Muslims everywhere to assassinate the novelist.
Buying the book and using it as a prop in my debut was an act of resistance to censorship and terrorism, for sure; yet it was funny that, like most who threatened or criticized Rushdie, I hadn’t read the book either.
That summer, out of curiosity, I opened the book and a jet plane exploded. Two men, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, fell through the sky ― one upside down and the other with his head held high like a strange human ying-yang – talk, joke, sing, as told in the infectious voice of a fun storyteller who drops puns and song quotes in multiple languages. They survived and then transformed physically, with one seemingly becoming the Archangel Gabriel and the other an evil goat-like creature. And that was just the start.
“The Satanic Verses” is a dazzling and crazy book, a demanding read as much as it is fun with its interwoven plots and its mixture of realism with dreamlike sequences and supernatural events.
The novel explores identity, migration and colonialism and, inevitably, the birth of a religion very much like Islam within a polytheistic desert tribal culture. He is decidedly irreverent towards the authority of religion, political leaders and prophets.
Interestingly, this sparked in me an unexpected curiosity about Islam, of which I was totally unaware. This, and the military conflict with Iraq, led me to devote my first year and a half at university to oriental studies, a few notions of Arabic and the reading of the Q’ran (a curious book in itself ).
Rushdie went into hiding in 1989 for what became almost a decade with a security detail. He continues to write books and gradually resumes an open and public life. Yet the Ayatollah’s death sentence remained in force and Rushdie’s name rose to fame again last month when he was attacked and nearly killed, aged 75, by a man who admitted he hadn’t read the book either.
Renewed curiosity about “The Satanic Verses” boosted sales in August, and it deserves an open-minded read on its own merits. Alternatively, I might suggest Rushdie’s next work, the first produced in his actual captivity: 1990s “Haroun and the Sea of Stories”.
Dedicated to a son Rushdie was estranged from, it’s a children’s novel about storytelling and imagination, oppressive censorship, the divide between reason and absurdity and more, in a tapestry of idioms and western and eastern folklore not to mention pop music. It is a book that lends itself to being read aloud, as I do for my own children.
The book’s central villain is Khattam-Shud (“the end”), a deeply annoying but powerful guy who struggles to silence all stories and even language itself because, he says, “The world is out for control. …and inside every story…there is a world, a story-world, that I cannot govern at all.
Rushdie’s attacker may as well be called Khattam-Shud in news reports, and that’s certainly his name to me.
The forces of the world that silence, threaten and murder novelists, journalists and artists attack not only their targets, but everyone’s right to consider their work for themselves. And again, Khattam-Shud failed. The storyteller lives, the books exist and the ocean of stories flows.
Or write to him at PO Box 84, Deming, NM 88031.
desert sage now works monthly. Here are some recent columns: