Archive for October, 2012

Recently, I finally had the chance to be in the same room as Salman Rushdie. For someone who has been studying him and his work for seven years, this was no small matter. Over the years I have missed my chances to meet him or even to see him lecture, so I was looking forward to this opportunity. I arrived having already read his most recent work Joseph Anton: A Memoir, so many of his answers were already familiar to me. Though I can’t say I learned anything new from that interview, I can say that inspired me to dig into some of the publicity and work surrounding this book launch. In my research, I found the video of a BBC Documentary that aired last month and which I had been saving to watch. What follows are some of my observations of the film.

Airing on September 19, the BBC Documentary created by Alan Yentob takes us through many of the events described in Salman Rushdie’s latest book – Joseph Anton: A Memoir. Between the narration taken straight from the language of the book, are interviews, news clips, images, and contemporary footage of the places featured in Rushdie’s story. The overall effect is the sense of traveling along with Rushdie through his story from the first moment he heard about the fatwa to his eventual freedom from police protection and the Iranian government’s death threat. Though a there remains a price on his head, as well as many people who regularly wish him dead, Rushdie is no longer in hiding and no longer requires a security force. The documentary serves the purpose of reminding viewers of the circumstances surrounding the publication of The Satanic Verses, including film clips showing the riots which took place in response to the book and the book burning (and Rushdie effigy burning) which occurred in Bradford, England; home of the largest Muslim population in Britain. It also includes sections of the first interview Rushdie gave immediately following the announcement in which he said he wished he had written a book even more critical of Islam in light of what he was facing. The director of the documentary cleverly moves between older footage of Rushdie riding a train out to his college town and current footage of him doing the same, allowing Rushdie to compare the two selves taking the journey. In fact, this comparison extends a stylistic approach he uses throughout his memoir – a separate self looking back at this so-called “Joseph Anton” who was forced to hide from the world for over 10 years. Using the third person, Rushdie distances his present self from his past self.

The documentary attempts to contextualize the fatwa in history, using the perspective of Rushdie’s friends to describe its position in relation to other world events of the late 1980s – Tienanmen Square, The Berlin Wall, and the aftermath of the Iranian war with Iraq. Similarly, Rushdie attempts to contextualize his experience with the fatwa in his memoir using the metaphor of “The Birds,” stating that his fatwa was only the first bird. The culmination of the birds, according to Rushdie, was the events that took place in the U.S. on 9/11 and the events of 7/7 in the U.K. Likewise, the documentary takes us up to 9/11, showing footage of the memorial and the new construction rather than images of the fallen towers. In fact, the video moves even closer to the contemporary moment to include his recent confrontation with authorities in India over his attendance at the Jaipur Literary Festival and the subsequent “protest” readings of text from his novels. Rushdie says that he experienced a momentary flashback to the difficult days when countries refused him access to literary awards, airlines refused to fly him, and governments supported the threat against his life.

However, even as Rushdie points out some of the similar obstacles he faces now to when the fatwa was issued, he himself notes that he is now living in a completely different world. The Satanic Verses, he argues, would never be published today because of the political climate. Rushdie is not shy about his opinions regarding multiculturalism, hate speech laws, and what he sees as the “outrage machine” shaping many Muslim reactions to books, film, and other media. But he isn’t all doom and gloom. As this article suggests, he has faith that people are changing their minds about him and their views on free speech.

In observing him at the recent book tour interview, I noted that he is very good at engaging an audience. And while many people left in a huff even before the interview concluded, many more laughed whole-heartedly at his jokes, remarking “he is much more charming than I thought he would be.” To my mind, Rushdie remains a problematic figure, but someone whose work we should follow closely. He still shapes the way many Americans (and Brits) see Muslim culture, issues of free speech, and the politics of the Middle East. Not to mention that he is not going away – with several new projects in the pipelines, we can expect much more from Mr. Rushdie.

Here is the whole BBC Documentary – Enjoy!

Tawnya Ravy is a PhD candidate at The George Washington University. She is currently writing her dissertation on Salman Rushdie in the 21st Century, and she is the creator of the digital humanities project the Salman Rushdie Archive. She is also one of the founding members and current secretary of the Rushdie International Society. Follow her @litambitions and/or salmanrushdiearchive.com  


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