Better read than dead 

Salman Rushdie comes to the Big Sky

Salman Rushdie, the author once condemned to death by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, spoke last Monday, March 7, at Montana State University in Bozeman.

During a talk titled “Step Across this Line—An Evening with Salman Rushdie,” the Indian-born author, who now lives in New York City, stood upon a stage decorated with two 100-year-old Persian rugs and spoke frankly about his own life and writing. Though the Iranian government officially withdrew its support for the fatwa, or edict against the author’s life, in 1998, Rushdie technically still labors under it (only the person who issues a fatwa or a person of higher authority may rescind it). Despite that uncomfortable fact, Rushdie joked with the sold-out Bozeman crowd, referring to “the little dispute I had with the Ayatollah Khomeini.” Only one of them, Rushdie averred, was dead.

Rushdie’s visit was part of the MSU Leadership Institute’s effort to bring world figures to campus. Past speakers have included Polish President Lech Walesa, the sons of Mt. Everest climbers Sir Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norgay, and former Chinese political prisoner Henry Wu. The $5 tickets to Rushdie’s visit were sold out weeks before his arrival. According to the Billings Gazette, Rushdie’s paycheck for the event was approximately $30,000. In addition to the Leadership Institute, the Associated Students of Montana State University (ASMSU), financial investment firm TIAA-CREF and MSU’s Office of the President sponsored the program.

Khomeini issued the fatwa against Rushdie’s life in 1989 for his supposed blasphemy against Islam in The Satanic Verses. As a work of literature, The Satanic Verses is more often talked about than actually read. The novel opens with a surreal episode in which Bollywood actor Gibreel Farishta and voice-over artist Saladin Chamcha fall from an aircraft, landing miraculously on Dover Beach. Chamcha is picked up and treated as a dangerous illegal immigrant, subject to a tyrannical British police. Farishta thinks of himself as an angel. Despite sustained criticisms of Margaret Thatcher’s England, opponents of the book focus on a scene where Gibreel Farishta re-imagines the founding of the Islamic religion, and the ways in which the holy book of Islam, the Qur’an, was dictated to the Prophet Muhammad by divine revelation.

Rushdie did not invent the episode of the Satanic Verses. Though most Islamic scholars have discounted it as a historical event, the tale was current soon after the establishment of Islam. Supposedly, Satan, impersonating the angel Gabriel, offered some verses of his own. The verses suggested that three female deities be worshipped alongside the one god Allah. The impersonation was discovered and the verses expunged. Rushdie’s novel plays with history and the nature of identity and writing, and the passages on the Satanic Verses and the founding of Islam are not offered as straightforward history.

The individual’s connection to contemporary historical events was a major theme at Monday night’s talk. Speaking to the Montana crowd about his own birth, Rushdie explained that he was born in 1947, exactly eight weeks before the enactment of India’s official independence from Britain. “My parents used to joke that I was born and eight weeks later the British ran away.” Despite the quip, Rushdie credits the time of his birth with his own acute awareness of the postcolonial state: “Americans understand this: Colonialism does not end on the day the colonialists leave. There is a moral residue.”

In his comments about religion and matters of free speech, such moral residue led to some profound words about contemporary political changes in our own country, specifically attuned to the idea of the Western frontier:

“I never thought of myself as a particularly religious writer…I thought I had many other and more interesting fish to fry. Now I find that religion is coming after us all and if we don’t confront it this particular fish may fry us. And I have to say, I don’t just mean radical Islam. The fish, if I remember, happens to be a Christian symbol.

“Talking about the attacks on this country,” Rushdie continued, “something strange has happened to the idea of ‘frontier’ in this country. The American idea of a frontier used to be incredibly optimistic; it used to be about pushing forward into the unknown and about limitless possibility. Now, in the aftermath of the attacks, we’ve become much more alarmed about the idea of frontier. The frontier seems permeable. It seems like a thing that might let in stuff, which might be dangerous to us and so suddenly we see the frontier as something to close, something to seal. And this is, in many ways, the antithesis of that statue standing in the harbor in New York. The frontier of this country is part of the defining self-image of this country and if now we don’t trust that self-image…then something very different is happening to the idea of how one is an American.”

To welcome Rushdie to the podium, ASMSU arranged a rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Bozeman’s Jeni Fleming Trio. In his slim 1992 book about The Wizard of Oz, Rushdie takes exception to the film’s ending, in which Dorothy returns to the gray and bleak Kansas home from which she had escaped into the colorful world of Oz, saying “there’s no place like home.” For Rushdie the point is twisted—no place called “home” should be so bleak and changeless. The job of the artist, he told his audience, is to “open the universe a little more,” to bring the magic of a place like Oz closer to reality. The danger of persecuting the artist, whether such persecution be Islamic in origin or otherwise, is synonymous with the danger that the universe—the ways in which we experience and understand our realities—be made smaller.

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