GHOSTS OF JOSEPH ANTON’S PAST
September 16, 2012 § 5 Comments
Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton is published tomorrow. (Joseph Anton, for those who don’t know, was the name that Rushdie adopted during his years in hiding, a name borrowed from two of his favourite writers, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov.) Joseph Anton is not simply a memoir; it is a vital piece of social history. It is Rushdie’s first real account of the years under the shadow of the fatwa, the story from the inside of a changing world.
I will review the book next week. In the meantime, here are four interviews from my book From Fatwa to Jihad which explored the Rushdie affair and its legacy, and in that sense treads across some of the same ground as Joseph Anton, though peering in from the outside, as it were, rather than narrating from the inside. (And, yes, I know, this is the second batch this week of extracts from the book; think of these interviews as complementing the previous extracts.) The interviews (some of them slightly shortened from the original) are with four people intimately involved in the life of Joseph Anton: Peter Mayer, CEO of Penguin at the time of the fatwa; Sher Azam, chairman of the Bradford Council of Mosques at the time, in an interview I conducted shortly after he helped torch Rushdie’s novel in an infamous demonstration in Bradford in January 1989; William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses, who was shot and left for dead; and Rushdie’s close friend, the novelist Hanif Kureishi.
CEO Penguin, 1978-96
Peter Mayer, Penguin’s CEO, was in New York on Valentine’s Day 1989. Early in the morning he received a call from Patrick Wright, the head of sales in London. ‘Have you seen the headlines?’, Wright asked. ‘What headlines?’, Mayer wanted to know. ‘The Ayatollah Khomeini’, Wright said, ‘has issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie’. ‘What’s a fatwa?’, asked a bemused Mayer.
Mayer went out to get a paper. The news was splashed on the front page of the New York Times. ‘I was astonished’, he says, ‘to see the headlines. The New York Times dealt with world stories. I was just a publisher of a novel. I still did not see it as a world event.’
As Penguin CEO, Mayer was at the heart of the mayhem unleashed by the fatwa… It is an issue that 20 years on still causes him both pain and bafflement.
‘If you’re a publisher, you will always find people offended by books you publish’, he observes. ‘That’s the fate of being a publisher. I have published books that have offended Jews and Christians. Five or six of them. People wrote to Penguin trying to suppress those books. I wrote back, explaining that as a publisher I cannot just publish books that offend no one. It was generally a civilized dialogue. We originally put The Satanic Verses controversy in the same category. We thought we were dealing with the same kind of thing, the same kind of offence. Our view was that it would soon be sorted out by dialogue, as these things always were. What we wanted to say to Muslims who were upset was that this was a novel, by a serious writer, and the right to publish included the right to publish such books. It’s what we said in all these cases. One relied on the sanity of secular democracy – that people met together, discussed their differences and sorted them out. It never occurred to us that this time it might be different or that it would become such a huge worldwide event.’
As a liberal, Mayer says, he ‘accepted that Muslims may have needed protection from discrimination and hatred. But the idea that non-Muslims should be prevented from reading a novel never entered my head. I never saw “rights” as meaning the right of the minority to impose on the majority. I saw it as meaning that the majority rules, but that minorities must have their rights protected. Those rights had to be based on the law of the land; they could not be rights that the minority simply arrogates to itself.’
When Mayer first read the manuscript of The Satanic Verses, he saw it quite straightforwardly as ‘a serious novel by a serious writer. I still don’t think that Penguin did anything extraordinary in publishing it. We never set out to incite or to inflame or to offend. We did not see the novel as blasphemous or anti-Islamic. The question never came up. Neither Salman Rushdie nor his agent alerted us to it being a controversial book. And a publisher should not have to be an authority on the Qur’an.’
The first intimation of trouble came with Kushwant Singh’s report on the possible reaction in India. ’He opined that it might cause “communal violence”’, says Mayer. ‘But Penguin only had a tiny office in India. We might have sold perhaps 150 copies. So we did not see it as a big issue.’
Even the protests in Britain barely registered. In hindsight the activities of the UKACIA and of the Bolton protestors, the intervention of Jamaat-e-Islami and the backroom manoeuvrings of the Saudi authorities all seem highly significant. In 1988, however, they caused hardly a ripple. ‘I cannot recall the protests here in the UK before the fatwa’, Mayer admits. He insists that he received no letter of complaint from the protestors, nor any request for a meeting. ‘If I had I would have responded as I did to all the other letters I received.’
The fatwa transformed the affair, an event both terrifying and confusing. ‘My immediate thought’, Mayer recalls, ‘was to be frightened for Salman. And frightened for Penguin staff. I didn’t know what the reach was of a fatwa, whether it could travel beyond Tehran.’
The day following the fatwa, armed police started patrolling the street outside Penguin offices. Special X-ray machines were installed to check packages for explosives. Some staff wore bullet-proof vests. ‘My fear’, says Mayer, ‘was that a member of Penguin staff would be shot or stabbed to death and note pinned on them, “This is what happens to people who work for Penguin”. I felt a terrible responsibility for all the staff. If anyone had been killed because of the decision to continue publishing The Satanic Verses it would have been sense of guilt I would have carried to the end of my life.’
Mayer himself was subject to a vicious campaign of hatred and intimidation. ‘I had letters written in blood pushed under the door of my house. I had telephone calls in the middle of the night, saying not just that they would kill me but that they take my daughter and smash her head against a concrete wall. Vile stuff.’ To this day he does not from whom the letters and calls came.
The Special Branch offered Mayer armed protection and a bullet-proof vest. ‘I said no. Of course I was scared. In New York I remember thinking, I could come out of my apartment block, there might be a car waiting outside, engine revving, and I could get sprayed by a couple of machine guns. As easy as that.” But my view was that if my number’s up, my number’s up. And I did not want to live like a victim. I did not see myself as a victim.’
Mayer still seethes with rage not simply at the intimidation he faced but also at what he sees as the callousness of others towards his predicament. ‘My daughter was nearly expelled from her school’, he recalls. ‘A group of parents said, “What would happen if the Iranians sent a hit squad and got the wrong girl?” And I was thinking, “What, you think my daughter is the right girl?”.’
In New York he applied for a co-op apartment. ‘There were objections that the Iranians could send a hit squad and target the wrong apartment’, he says. ‘As if I had done something wrong.’
Despite the constant threat of violence, Mayer never wavered in his commitment to The Satanic Verses. And Penguin never wavered in its backing of his judgement. ‘An emergency meeting of the Penguin board unanimously supported the continued publication of the novel’, Mayer recalls. ‘I told the board, “You have to take the long view. Any climbdown now will only encourage future terrorist attacks by individuals or groups offended for whatever reason by other books that we or any publisher might publish. If we capitulate, there will be no publishing as we know it.”’
The board supported Mayer, as did Pearson, Penguin’s parent company. But there was considerable unease within the organisation. ‘People would take me aside in the corridor and say, “I have Muslim friends who are very upset, it’s an anti-Muslim book.” Or, ‘It’s not right to offend Muslims, you should withdraw the book.’ And I would say, “That would be the thin end of the wedge. Next year we publish another book. And another group says you can’t do that, it’s offensive.” My view was, and still remains, that rights you possess that are not used are not rights at all.’
There was, as Mayer recalls it, almost a frontier mentality within Penguin. ‘We had never had to have this kind of discussion before’, he observes. ‘Today there is a constant stream of discussion about multiculturalism and minority rights and sharia law. Not then. We had never had to think about free speech, or about why we were publishers.’
Out of countless discussions, both in formal board meetings and in ad hoc chats with colleagues, Mayer and his colleagues ‘developed the argument that what we did now affected much more than simply the fate of this one book. How we responded to the controversy over The Satanic Verses would affect the future of free inquiry, without which there would be no publishing as we knew it, but also, by extension, no civil society as we knew it. We all came to agree that all we could do, as individuals or as a company, was to uphold the principles that underlay our profession and which, since the invention of movable type, have brought it respect. We were publishers. I thought that meant something. We all did.’
Chairman, Bradford Council of Mosques
‘Salman Rushdie has been good for us Muslims.’ Tall, stiff-backed and with an Abraham Lincoln beard, Sher Azam, chairman of the Bradford Council of Mosques, was a patriarch from central casting. I had gone to Bradford in February 1989 to talk to him about the Rushdie affair, and it was difficult not to be impressed by his quiet self-assurance and unwavering commitment to defending what he saw as the dignity of the Muslim community. But why would the man who had helped torch The Satanic Verses think that Rushdie might be good for Muslims? ‘You’ve just burnt his book’, I said in puzzlement. ‘You’ve denounced him as a blasphemer. So why is he good for Muslims?’
‘We used to have questions about who we are and where we were going’, Azam replied. ‘Now we know. We’ve found ourselves as Muslims. There are action committees in every city up and down the country. It’s bringing us together. Muslims are becoming much more united.’
There were echoes here of what Hassan had said to me. [Hassan was an old friend, whom I had just met again in Bradford. I had known him as someone left-wing and secular, whose main interests had been 'Trotskyism, Southern Comfort, sex and Arsenal'. Now he had joined the campaign against The Satanic Verses 'to defend our dignity as Muslims, to defend our values and beliefs'.] So I told Sher Azam about meeting Hassan outside his office, and about how he had ‘found himself’ in the anti-Rushdie campaign. ‘For a long time we thought we had lost our children’, Azam replied. ‘They were growing up hating our culture. They were angry, withdrawn, we could not reach them. Now they’re coming back to us.’
Perhaps what they hated was not Sher Azam’s culture but the restrictions that subcontinental traditions placed upon them? Perhaps what they wanted were the freedoms of Western culture? ‘Freedom always comes at a price. And that price has been crime, drugs and being lost. Now they’re coming back to us. Finding themselves as Muslims has made them more British, not less. They’re calling themselves Muslims. Not Pakistanis, not Indians, but Muslims. They are British. But they are also Muslim.’
He looked at me. ‘So what about you? When are you coming back to us?’ I laughed. I am not Muslim, I told him. I was an unbeliever. And I was very happy without God.
‘Only time’, he said. ‘We will wait for you.’
Had he read The Satanic Verses, I asked him. He had not. So how did he found out about the novel?
‘We received some letters from the Hizb ul Ulama in Blackburn which had some articles from two Indian magazines which said what kind of book it was. So I asked some colleagues who were interested in books to read it. They almost fainted, it was so filthy.’
The Council of Mosques had portions of the book translated into Urdu so that ulema could rule on it. The religious scholars unanimously declared the novel blasphemous. ‘So we held some meetings to see what we could do. And we decided to write a letter to the Prime Minister’. It was Sher Azam himself who took on the task. ‘Honorable Madam’, he wrote to Mrs Thatcher, ‘The Muslims of Bradford and all over the world are shocked to hear about the Novel called SATANIC VERSES in which the writer Salman Rushdi [sic] has attacked our beloved Prophet Muhammad PBUH and his wives using such dirty language which no Muslim can tolerate.’ ‘As citizens of this great country’, he pleaded, ‘we have expressed our very ill feelings about such harmful novel and its publishers and state that the novel should be banned immediately.’
He received no reply. ‘So we held a meeting. But no one reported it. We weren’t being heard. Someone suggested that we hold a bigger meeting at the University. And then someone said that we should hold a meeting outside because it would be bigger and we could have a march. And then one of the imams – I can’t remember who – suggested that we should burn the book. Because that might attract attention. And it did.’
Didn’t Salman Rushdie have the right to criticise Islam, even to abuse it?
‘Criticise yes, abuse no. Islam is the religion of free speech. But there are limits. There are limits in England. Look at how the government banned Spycatcher. Why can’t they ban this filthy novel?’
Spycatcher was the autobiography of the one-time MI5 agent Peter Wright which the British government had tried to suppress in 1985… As well as detailing Wright’s attempt to catch a Soviet mole in MI5, Spycatcher told of the MI6 plot to assassinate President Nasser during the Suez Crisis in the 1950s and of joint MI5-CIA plotting against the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in the 1960s. In America the book was, ironically, published by Viking, whose parent company was Penguin. As with The Satanic Verses, Peter Mayer had to face down calls for its suppression. ‘There was huge pressure from the British government to stop publication, not just in Britain but in America and elsewhere too’, Mayer remembers. ‘I refused to cave in.’
After the book was banned in England (bizarrely it continued to be sold legally in Scotland, thanks to a loophole in the law), a number of English newspapers attempted to cover Spycatcher‘s principal allegations. They were served with gag orders and subsequently tried for contempt of court. Again, Scottish newspapers were free to publish. Eventually, in 1988, the book was cleared for sale in England when the Law Lords acknowledged that, given its publication in Scotland and overseas, there was no point in trying to keep contents secret. In November 1991, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the government gag on newspapers had breached the Convention on Human Rights.
Was not the moral of the Spycatcher story, I asked Sher Azam, that there needed to be fewer, not greater, restrictions on free speech? No, he said, because the eventual publication of Spycatcher demonstrated this society’s weakness, not its strength. It revealed its inability to stand up for what was necessary to protect social order. The willingness of many people, including many Christians, to let blasphemy laws perish was another sign of such weakness. Islam, Sher Azam insisted, would not go the way of Christianity. ‘Christians don’t mind what people say about their God, because they no longer believe in Him. But look at what it means. It means a country where the values have gone. People drink, take drugs, have sex like dogs. If people believed in God, most of these problems would disappear. Many people in this country think that Islam is against them. With Rushdie, all those sleeping demons about Muslims have come awake. But what they don’t realize is that it is Islam that is saving this country’s morals.’
Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses
‘It was the 11th of October 1993’, he recalls, ‘I had just returned from the Frankfurt Book Fair. I left my house around about 8.30. My car was parked around the corner. As soon as I got to the car I noticed that front tyre had been punctured. “Damn it”, I thought, “I’ve got no time for this”. I opened the car door and reached in to get the phone numbers for the garage and to get a taxi. Suddenly I got what felt like an electric shock in my back and my arm. It’s like nothing you can imagine.’
He had been shot by an assailant, hiding in some bushes on the other side of the road. A second shot hit him in the shoulder. ‘I started started screaming. I threw myself down a little hill by the side of the road. That’s when I got shot a third time, in the hip. It was about half an hour before one of my neighbours found me and called an ambulance. I still did not realise I had been shot by a gunman.’
Nygaard was rushed off to hospital to undergo an emergency operation, followed by months of rehabilitation. It was two years before he could fully use his arms and legs again. ‘Journalists kept asking me, “Will you stop publishing The Satanic Verses?”. I said, “Absolutely not”.’
Like Rushdie, Kureishi is a writer who came of literary age in the 1980s, exploring the fraught relationship between race, culture, identity and politics in Thatcher’s Britain. Where Rushdie had been born in Bombay and his work deeply shaped by the politics and culture of the subcontinent, Kureishi had been born in Bromley, in south London, attended the same school as his hero David Bowie (though not at the same time) and his work was infused by the sounds and rhythms of the capital.
The writer Zadie Smith recalls reading, as a fifteen-year old, The Buddha of Suburbia, Kureishi’s semi-autobiographical first novel published in 1990. ‘There was one copy going round our school like contraband’, she says. ‘When it was my turn I read it in one sitting in the playground and missed all my classes. It’s a very simple pleasure that white readers take absolutely for granted: I’d never read a book about anyone remotely like me before.’ Kureishi’s characters were not remotely like traditional depictions of Asians either. They were as cocksure, streetwise and sexually-charged as Kureishi himself. ‘I was a Paki’, he says. ‘My family were Pakis. So there were lots of Pakis in my work. There were no representations of Pakistanis in films novels in those days. At least not Pakistanis I recognized.’
Even more than Rushdie, Kureishi became a talisman to a new generation of Asians who were kicking out not just against racism but also against the conventional image of what an Asian should be. Kureishi’s work, the cultural critic Sukhdev Sandu recalls, transformed the way that both he and his white friends saw what it meant to be Asian. Asians, ‘had previously been mocked for our deference and timidity. We were too scared to look people in the eye when they spoke to us. We weren’t gobby or dissing.’ Not so Kureishi’s Asians. ‘Kureishi’s language was a revelation. It was neither meek nor subservient. It wasn’t fake posh. Instead it was playful and casually knowing.’
Kureishi hit the mark with My Beautiful Laundrette, his 1985 screenplay that told the story of a gay love affair between bored Asian teenager Omar and working class white lad Johnny, set against the backdrop of racism and recession in eighties Britain. It was shocking, sexy and funny, and quite unlike any other ‘ethnic’ film. But in detonating all manner of cultural assumptions, it also upset the traditional narratives of immigrant life. Sandhu recalls how his father beat him up after he persuaded his family to watch the film on TV. The teenage Sandhu knew nothing about the film, except that it was about Asians. ‘The night it was on TV’, he wrote, ‘I swept the carpet, prepared snacks – some Nice biscuits and a mug of hot milk each – and sat my parents down.’ But the nudity, gay sex, immoral Pakistani businessmen, and drug smugglers disguised as mullahs did not go down very well. ‘Why are you showing us such filth?’, Sandhu’s father yelled, his fists flying. ‘Just as well we never got to the scene where Omar and Johnny start fucking in the laundrette’, Sandhu wryly observes. ‘My father was right to be appalled’, he added. ‘The film celebrated precisely those things – irony, youth, family instability, sexual desire – that he most feared. It taught him, though it would take years for the lesson to sink in fully, that he could not control the future. And control – over their wives, their children, their finances – was what Asian immigrants like him coveted.’
It was not just Sandhu’s father who took umbrage. Three years before The Satanic Verses, Kureishi’s screenplay incurred the wrath of Islamists. ‘There were demos in New York against it’, Kureishi remembers, ‘organised by something called the Pakistani Action Group. About a hundred people, all men, all middle aged, would turn up every Friday to demonstrate outside cinemas shouting “No homosexuals in Pakistan”.’
What particularly upset Kureishi’s critics was his refusal to play along with the idea that Asian writers had to treat Asian characters with respect and to present them in a good light. ‘I am a professional businessman, not a professional Pakistani’, the landlord Nasser tells his white sidekick Johnny in Kureishi’s screen play for My Beautiful Laundrette when Johnny protests that as a non-white Nasser should not evict an black tenant. ‘It was a new idea of being Asian’, Kuresihi says, ‘not the traditional notion of victims cowering in the corner. I wanted to show that Asians were not all progressive or nice – so I had an Asian as a vicious Thatcherite.’
But the idea of victimhood not only proved highly seductive, it also helped create strange bedfellows. ‘It was the first time that I remember the left and the Islamists joining hands’, Kuresihi recalls. ‘Islamic critics would say, “You’re saying we’re all homosexuals” and “You shouldn’t wash dirty linen in public”. And the left would say, “You should be standing up for your community” and “You should not attack minority communities”.’
Despite Kuresihi’s brush with Islamism, he never saw The Satanic Verses controversy coming. ‘I first read The Satanic Verses in proof copy. I didn’t notice anything about it that might rouse the fundamentalists. I saw it as a book about psychosis, about newness and change. The eighties was an age of fusion – in music, in food, in literature. The Satanic Verses was part of that postmodern fusion.’
Even when the protests began against Rushdie’s novel, he did not take them seriously. ‘The demos against My Beautiful Launderette had fizzled out after a few months. I thought the same would happen with The Satanic Verses.’ Kureishi does not even remember the book-burning. ‘It didn’t register’, he says. ‘Only with the fatwa did it become clear how serious and dangerous it was. It seemed mad to imagine that someone could be killed over a book. And I was flabbergasted. How could a community that I identified with turn against a writer who was one of its most articulate voices?’
The fatwa was traumatic for Kureishi, and not just because he was, and remains, a close friend of Rushdie’s. ‘It changed the direction of my writing. Unlike Salman I had never taken a real interest in Islam. I come from a Muslim family. But they were middle class – intellectuals, journalists, writers – and very anti-clerical. I was an atheist, like Salman, like many Asians of our generation were. I was interested in race, in identity, in mixture, but never in Islam. The fatwa changed all that. I started researching fundamentalism. I started visiting mosques, talking to Islamists.’
Six years after the fatwa Kureishi produced his first major post-Rushdie work. Set in 1989, The Black Album tells the story of Shahid, a lonely, vulnerable student torn between liberalism and fundamentalism – between Deedee, his lecturer and lover who introduces him to Lacan, sex, Madonna and Prince (the title of the novel is borrowed from a Prince album) and Riaz, for whom all pop music is decadent and who teaches Shahid how to pray, fast and submit. Rushdie celebrated his existence ‘in between’ cultures. Shahid was terrified that his ignorance of Islam ‘would place him in no man’s land.’ At a time when ‘everyone was insisting on their identity, coming out as a man, woman, gay, black, Jew – brandishing whichever features they could claim, as if without a tag they wouldn’t be human’, so ‘Shahid, too, wanted to belong to his people. But first he had to know them, their past, and what they hoped for.’
Two years later came My Son the Fanatic, a short story, later turned into a film, about the fraught relationship between Parvez, a Bradford taxi driver, who dreamed of material riches and of ‘fitting in’ to British culture, and his son, Ali, who turns to Islamic fundamentalism to find a sense of moral order and belonging. ‘I love England’, Parvez tells his son. ‘They let you do almost anything here.’ ‘That is the problem’, Ali replies.
The fundamentalists in Kureishi’s stories are not first generation immigrants bemoaning a world that has been taken from them, like Sukhdev Sandhu’s father or the New York protestors against My Beautiful Laundrette, but their children yeaning for an Islam they have never known. It is less a clash of civilizations than a war of generations. The first generation desire material prosperity, the second seek to fill a spiritual void. ‘I have a belief’, Shahid’s father says in The Black Album. ‘It’s called working until my arse aches’. When Ali confronts Parvez about his drinking in My Son the Fanatic, the father explains ‘that for years he had worked more than ten hours a day, that he had few enjoyments or hobbies and never went on holiday. Surely it wasn’t a crime to drink when he wanted one?’ Ali insists it is and accuses his father of being ‘too implicated in Western civilization’.
‘The fundamentalists I met’, says Kureishi, ‘were educated, integrated, as English as David Beckham. But they thought that England was a cesspit. They had an apocalyptic view of the future. They lived in a parallel universe. They had no idea what life would be like in an Islamic country but they yearned for everything sharia. And they had a kind of Islam that would have disgusted their parents.’ Kureishi recalls visiting the house of Farid Kassim, one of the founders of the British branch of Hizb-ut-Tahrir. ‘Four women brought in the food. They came into the room backwards, bent over, so we could not see their faces. I have never seen that anywhere else.’
The Rushdie affair, Kureishi believes, transformed not just his own work, but also ‘the very notion of writing’. The fatwa ‘created a climate of terror and fear. Writers had to think about what they were writing in a way they never had to before. Free speech became an issue as it had not been before. Liberals had to take a stand, to defend an ideology they had not really had to think about before.’
How have they borne up to the task? ‘The attacks on Rushdie showed that words can be dangerous. They also showed why critical thought is more important than ever, why blasphemy and immorality and insult need protection. But most people, most writers, want to keep their heads down, live a quiet life. They don’t want a bomb in the letterbox. They have succumbed to the fear.’
The photo of Salman Rushdie is from 1994, and was taken by Richard Avedon. It was published in the New Yorker to accompany an extract from Joseph Anton.