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Ahead of memoir release, Salman Rushdie opens up about knife attack

Indian-born British-American author Salman Rushdie.
Indian-born British-American author Salman Rushdie. Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Anca Ulea
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Salman Rushdie’s memoir “Knife,” about the attack that almost claimed his life, comes out on Tuesday. He described feeling death had finally come for him: “So it’s you. Here you are.”

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“I was seated at stage right,” Salman Rushdie read from his upcoming memoir, about the knife attack that almost claimed his life and left him blind in one eye.

“Then, in the corner of my right eye – the last thing my right eye would ever see – I saw the man in black running toward me down the right-hand side of the seating area. Black clothes, black face mask. He was coming in hard and low. A squat missile.

“I confess, I had sometimes imagined my assassin rising up in some public forum or other, and coming for me in just this way. So my first thought when I saw this murderous shape rushing towards me was, ‘So it’s you. Here you are.’”

His second was disbelief that it was happening so late, after decades living a normal life.

“Really?” he thought. “Why now, after all these years?”

Rushdie’s much-anticipated memoir about the attack against him, “Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder,” comes out on Tuesday (16 April).

In his first televised interview since the incident, Rushdie told US broadcaster Anderson Cooper what went through his mind when he was attacked while onstage at an event in western New York on 12 August 2022.

The chaotic scene on stage after Salman Rushdie was attacked on 12 August 2022 in Chautauqua, New York.
The chaotic scene on stage after Salman Rushdie was attacked on 12 August 2022 in Chautauqua, New York.AP/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved

“I didn’t see the knife”

Ironically, Rushdie was giving a talk about a programme that provides safe haven to writers under threat. “It just turned out not to be a safe place for me,” he said.

The Indian-born British-American author had spent 10 years in hiding in the UK with round-the-clock protection, after his 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” caused a furor in the Muslim world for its portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad.

At least 45 people were killed in riots over the book, including 12 people in Rushdie’s hometown of Mumbai. In 1991, a Japanese translator of the book was stabbed to death and an Italian translator survived a knife attack. In 1993, the book’s Norwegian publisher was shot three times and survived.

The book was banned in Iran, where the late leader Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a 1989 fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie’s death. Khomeini died that same year.

Rushdie moved to New York City in 2000 after the Iranian government called off the fatwa, and has been living a relatively quiet life ever since.

He said when he was attacked, he initially thought he’d been punched in the face.

“I didn’t see the knife,” Rushdie told Cooper. “And I didn’t realise until I saw blood coming out that there had been a knife in his fist.”

He said he doesn’t remember being stabbed in the eye, but he does remember falling. Rushdie sustained 15 wounds in total, including in his neck and abdomen. His left hand has only partially recovered and his right eye is permanently blind.

"Knife: Meditations After An Attempted Murder" by Salman Rushdie.
"Knife: Meditations After An Attempted Murder" by Salman Rushdie.Penguin Random House

Language as a knife to cut through to the truth

Police identified Rushdie’s attacker as 24-year-old Hadi Matar from New Jersey. Matar has pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree assault and second-degree attempted murder and is awaiting trial.

Matar was born a decade after “The Satanic Verses” was published. He said in an interview with the New York Post that he had only read a few pages of the book, but that he “didn’t like (Rushdie) very much” because he had “attacked Islam.”

Rushdie does not use his attacker’s name in the book. “I didn’t want his name in my book,” he said. “And I don’t use it in conversation either. He and I had 27 seconds together, that’s it. I don’t need to give him any more of my time.”

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The author had for decades expressed frustration at the fact that the controversy surrounding “The Satanic Verses” had become a defining feature of his career. He said he didn’t want to have to write this book, but admitted that it was a way to come to terms with what had happened to him.

“It became clear to me that I couldn’t write anything else, I had to write this first,” he said.

“Language can be that kind of knife, the thing that cuts through to the truth,” Rushdie said. “I wanted to use the power of literature — not just in my writing, but in literature in general, to reply to this attack.”

“Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder” is Salman Rushdie’s 22nd book and is published on Tuesday 16 April 2024..

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