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April 17, 1997

Salman Rushdie shares insights in tightly guarded lecture on campus

Prior to his April 9 visit here, the last time Salman Rushdie was on the Pittsburgh campus was in 1987 for a literary conference – "in slightly less security-conscious times," the author quipped.

Specifically, it was two years before the publication of Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses," which the fundamentalist Islamic government of Iran condemned as blasphemous. The late Ayatollah Khomeini imposed a death sentence, or fatwa, against Rushdie, who grew up in a Muslim family in Bombay but who now is a British resident and citizen.

This year, the Iranian government upped the bounty on Rushdie's balding, sleepy-eyed, bespectacled head from the original $2 million to $2.5 million. "A cost of living increase," the author calls it.

Rushdie continues to write and appear in public, although usually he does the latter on short notice, and always under guard. Some 500 people attended Rushdie's reading at the Masonic Temple despite the fact that Pitt's English department (which sponsored his visit and spent months planning for it) gave most attendees just one or two days' notice. Security personnel in civilian clothes accompanied Rushdie on- and off-stage. Pitt police herded audience members through a metal detector as they entered the Temple.

At a press conference preceding the reading, Rushdie came across as witty, low-key, thoughtful, modest and defiant.

"The best way of fighting and responding to the kind of threat that came my way is to show that it doesn't work, to show that the ordinary business of writing and reading and discussing and publishing and buying books just continues," he said.

Of Iran's fundamentalist leaders, Rushie added: "I've grown quite fond of saying recently, 'To hell with them.'" Rushdie also talked about: Overcoming his fear of assassination "You really have only two choices," he said. "One is to give in to it, to sit in a corner and gibber and quake, and the other is to get on with it. There is no third possibility. So it actually has naught to do with anything romantic such as courage. It just has to do with the choices you have." Rushdie admitted he was making the process sound simpler than it was.

"Being a member of the human race, I am vulnerable to fear, and there were plenty of scary moments. I guess one of the things is that even if, like me, you're a reasonably political creature, and even if, like me, you were a reasonably politicized writer before any of this happened – I mean, that's one thing. But to become a kind of storm center of great world political events is a completely different order of thing. And to put it quite simply, you have to learn how to fight. You don't do that overnight. You do it by stumbling towards it and going down blind alleys, making wrong decisions and right decisions and so on and eventually learning." The fatwa's failures Rushdie said the death sentence against him has failed in two of its three purposes: to suppress "The Satanic Verses," which is widely available around the world, and to suppress his own writing career. "Actually, since the publication of 'The Satanic Verses' I've published as many books as I had before," he pointed out.

Unfortunately, Rushdie said, the death threat has succeeded in its third aim of inspiring terror, not just in himself but in many writers throughout the world.

"In many ways, I am the best-defended person who is threatened in this way. There are many others whose names are not household words, who are being rubbed out every day for the cost of a pack of cigarettes. It's an open season on writers in many of these countries" like Iran and Algeria, he said.

Yet sometimes, extremists can be beaten just by standing up to them – as, for example, when Rushdie's supporters threatened to take legal action recently against the Hindu fundamentalist government of Bombay, which sought to suppress one of Rushdie's books. The government backed down.

The implications of losing the fight to protect him "The implications of losing it would be to say that even the all-mighty West was not able to defend one writer against the wrath of fundamentalists. If that's true, then what chance does anyone else have? On the other hand, if the tide can be stopped here, then perhaps this thing can be beaten." The true fight, Rushdie told his listeners, "is not just about my right to write. It's also about your right to read." American vs. European policy "There was a point at which it was, in Europe anyway, uncool to meet me if you happened to be running a country. And then President Clinton met with me and it suddenly became extremely cool to meet me," Rushdie said.

He praised the U.S. gov-ernment's consistent condemnation of the fatwa and said European governments are "slowly being dragged 'round to that position." Once again, Europeans are being reminded of the folly of appeasement, Rushdie said. "If you're nice to the Iranians, they have contempt for you. They only understand if you stand up against them." Security precautions "I find that what I've been doing for the last several years is saying, 'Please give me less of it [protection],'" Rushdie said. "Sometimes, less is more." "I think sometimes we give the Iranians too much credit. They're delighted when the countries of the world have to turn themselves inside out to protect Rushdie." Recently, Rushdie's public appearances in Europe have been advertised as long as three weeks in advance. It's only fair that the public be given time to decide whether to attend, he said.

The worst aspect of being under constant police protection is the loss of spontaneity in one's life, Rushdie said. "Sometimes, it's embarrassing, really. There was once, I recall, an occasion in France when they closed the Place de la Concorde so that I could cross it. And I must say, it didn't feel good. It didn't feel exciting. It felt disappointing." Rushdie recalled staring wistfully that day at Parisians walking freely in and out of shops and cafes.

All of the elaborate security arrangements to protect Salman Rushdie distract people from the real issue, he said. "This is a fight about what one is allowed to say, who gives you permission to say it, and what should be the limits, if any, of that speech." Limits Rushdie said he opposes all censorship. "That's my view, but I'm also conscious of the fact that there's another view. I suppose it's inevitable and true that different societies at different times impose censorship limits" – during wartime, for example.

"In my view, I would always seek to fight against that. But what I'm saying is that you can't have a theory of censorshipaIt's always for the censor to justify any individual act of censorship. The principle should be 'no censorship' unless you can produce a very, very, very, very good reason, and even then I would dispute it." Confessional memoirs "It obviously is true that this nonfictional, confessional mode is having a great vogue at the moment. In parallel to that, there seems to be a kind of loss of not just writers' energy but the readers' energy in regard to fiction." Rushdie predicted that forthcoming works by Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon will help to reassert the power of the novel over even the most sensational nonfiction. He attributed the current "general distrust" of fiction to the fact that so many people feel surrounded by lies directed at them by politicians, TV and other sources.

While most writers live boring lives of solitary labor, Rushdie said, he now finds himself with plenty of material for a lively autobiography – which he plans someday to write. "So I hope that the boom in confessional memoirs continues at least that long," he said.

Being cut off from everyday life Asked whether his writing has suffered from his seclusion, Rushdie pointed out that the fatwa has led to experiences that he would not otherwise have had.

"I mean, eight years ago I hadn't been onstage with U2 at Wembley Stadium. Now I have. I'm able to tell you what it feels like to look out at 85,000 people – more than you get at the average literary evening in Pittsburgh." Writers draw on human interaction, and Rushdie said he has witnessed "incredible" extremes of human behavior in the last eight years.

Whether he ever wishes he hadn't written "The Satanic Verses" "No, no. Becauseahow could one do that?" Rushdie replied, sounding taken aback. "That would mean not wishing to have led five years of my life. The writing of a novel is so deeply ingrained in your whole process of living that you can't reject it without rejecting your life..

"And also, I like 'The Satanic Verses,' certainly as well as anything else I've written."

-Bruce Steele

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