TORONTO — Renowned British author Salman Rushdie says Israel is high on his list of places he’d like to visit.
“I’ve always wanted to go. Just speaking as a writer, when my first novel [1975’s Grimus] was published, only two translation rights were sold – one in France and the other in Israel,” he told The CJN in an interview Oct. 26.
Every book he’s written since has been “immediately” published in Hebrew, Rushdie, 65, said. And his Israeli writer-friends tell him there’s a huge appetite in the Jewish state for his work.
“It’s one of the countries where my work is published where I’d most like to go, where I haven’t been. I’ve always been a supporter of Israel’s right to exist and of a two-state solution.”
Rushdie spoke to The CJN on a stopover in Toronto in support of his latest book, Joseph Anton, a 636-page autobiographical account of his 13 years in hiding from Islamic fanatics intent on killing him for his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses.
That book triggered controversy when ultra-conservative Muslim clerics accused Rushdie of blasphemy and mocking their faith. In 1989, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a worldwide fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death.
Rushdie called this event unique at the time, in that it was what he calls the first “extraterritorial” death edict against an author.
“Writers have often been persecuted in their own countries by their own governments. But the thing that was different about [the fatwa] was that finger pointing across the world backed up by death squads,” he said.
In 2002, Rushdie, who had been living under the assumed name of Joseph Anton – or “Joe” as he was called by the numerous security details assigned to protect him – was finally told he could come out of the shadows and live a free life once more, as the British Secret Intelligence Service lowered the threat assessment on his life.
He said it took him a decade to be able to write the book and that it was one of the more difficult manuscripts he’s ever worked on.
“It was the last thing in the world I wanted to write about” for the longest time, Rushdie said, referring to constant requests by publishers for him to write a tell-all book about his life in hiding. “I just wanted to slam the door on that period of my life and just go forward.”
He said he was finally able to write the story once he’d gotten enough distance from that part of his life.
In fact, the book is written in the third person specifically because to Rushdie, it now seems like those events happened to someone who no longer exists.
“I came to feel that the me I was writing about… I’m no longer exactly that person,” he said. “Myself as a subject in the book is not exactly the same person writing it.”
Using the third person also helped him write the book as a novel instead of a first-person memoir.
“In a first person autobiography, the ‘I’ feels apart from all the other characters. In the third person, he becomes part of all the other characters. I liked the feeling of that.”
He said that these days, he feels “lighter” and more “unburdened” than he has in years, and that writing this book has lifted a great weight from him.
While the death threats and danger to him and his family have disappeared, the only remnant of the clandestine life he was forced to lead is that there are still places in the world he can’t visit.
“Basically, I doubt I’ll ever be able to visit [most] Muslim countries,” he said.
Asked if during his years in hiding he felt like a symbol of resistance to the forces of radical Islam, Rushdie said he never conceived of his life that way.
“I don’t feel symbolic, and I always worried about that whole iconic thing. In a way, one of the things I felt writing Joseph Anton were that there were these portraits of me both by friends and enemies that didn’t feel like me. There was a demonized me by those attacking me and there was this idealized me… that was being put out by my supporters. And I thought ‘I’m not the Statue of Liberty any more than I’m the devil.’ And writing this novel was aimed at presenting the non-stylized version of me. Here’s the actual person. Not the shining light and also not the black rogue. Just a human being in the middle.”
Speaking about his thoughts on what has been described as the clash between the West and the Muslim world, Rushdie said he’s more interested these days in what’s happening inside Muslim countries, given the Arab Spring and other recent changes.
“Obviously there is this kind of Islam that feels itself to be at war with the idea of the West, and there’s a kind of western political mindset that believes itself to be at war with a kind of Islam.
“But I think what’s more important, in a way, is the battle that’s happening inside Muslim countries, which is a battle for the future. Clearly there is a problem about modernity in the Muslim world. How do you live in the modern world? And I think most of those countries have failed to answer that question properly and are trying to hold onto a worldview that hamstrings them because of these stupid medieval restraints imposed on their populations.”
Rusdhie said that whether it be via intimidation or apathy, in general, citizens of Muslim countries are allowing extremists to define their lives.
“Some of us try to make the distinction between the mass of ordinary Muslims and the fanatics. It’s getting harder to make that distinction and [stopping this trend] can’t be done from the outside. It’s up to Muslims to reject that,” he said.
Rushdie, an agnostic, said he never saw himself as a writer about religion.
“I’m not interested in religion. To me it’s a waste of time.”
As for what’s next on his writing agenda, Rushdie said he has some ideas about a new novel, and he’s developing an idea for a “crazy science fiction series” for the Showtime Network in the United States.
However, all the travel promoting his new book and his work with the launch of the film adaptation of his 1980 novel Midnight’s Children – which opens this Friday across Canada – has him longing for solitude.
“There’s a part of me that is really anxious to go sit in a corner for a couple of years and make up” a new novel, he said.
“I think I need to get back to my day job – fiction.”