Thursday, October 24, 2013

2013.10.23 Salman Rushdie: An "Exile" Speaks

The key note speaker at this year’s annual Boston Book Festival was Salman Rushdie. I hadn’t read a word he wrote but dimly remembered the controversy about his 1988 book The Satanic Verses: hot accusations of blasphemy and the bearded face of the fierce Islamic cleric, Ayatollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of Iran. 

Ignorant and secretly loving the idea of hearing someone who, like Jesus the Christ, had been accused of blasphemy and survived, I squeezed, with my husband, Dick, into a side pew in the huge and packed Old South Church in Boston.  

The “address” was a conversational interview with Homi Bhabha, professor of English and American Literature at, where else, Harvard. Bhaba spoke of Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton which details the “afterlife” of Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie.

A fatwa, I looked this up, is an order of execution. Rushdie spent several years under police protection in the UK where he was a citizen and had lived for years.  “The police kept telling me it would be all right, over soon, but it lasted 12 years.” Rushdie remarked. He considers himself to be an “exile.” He felt locked out, though the furor was about his book.  

It is interesting to consider just how much separability there should be between an author and his/her writing? Not much I reckon, especially if the words, characters and driving rhythm of a book dethrone a religious hero. Some shrug it off, but extremists get violently defensive.

The British in time broke diplomatic relations with Iran and knighted Rushdie who now lives in NY City—mecca of publishing. He has in fact spent most of his life in the West but he writes about the East, his heartspace.

Most of us have felt like an exile from time to time: in a relatively safe comfort zone but with certain restrictions, which can be emotional as well as physical. At times I felt locked out of the "country" of my first family, and it has been so in my Church as well. The longing to belong can feel almost feral. Where? How? When? This is Rushdie's passion and his work. He's married to it—obviously since the man has had four wives. 

There is a lot more to this complex story. (Check online.) But what stood out for me was Rushdie’s adamance about not adopting the “security view” of the world, which he said was of necessity based on the worst case scenario, such as if you cross a street you might be hit by a car, so we tell you not to cross the street. That was of course an exaggerated example, but I wondered if I would cross against a red light if there were no cars around and it was 5 the morning. Probably, I’d sit there till the light turned green. And I'm not Ms. obedient.

“You cannot buy the security vision of the world, because if you do you can’t have liberty. Don’t buy it!” He's not from New Hampshire, Live free or die, though he credited America for "giving me back my freedom." Salman Rushdie has enjoyed both safety and freedom and has not died for either.   I imagine he doesn't think much of Homeland Security. 

People push different envelopes. It depends on what rules and the stakes. I’d love, for example to eliminate all the masculine pronouns we keep on using for God, but I don’t want to be “exiled,” to say nothing of really hurting someone’s sensibilities.  It’s the old question about how to balance pastoral sensitivity and prophetic action for change you believe is necessary. What ditch will you die in?   If I’m going to “die” for a vital cause, I want someone with me in the ditch. 

 Rushdie advocates for religious reform and moving beyond traditionalism in religions.  "Broadmindedness is related to tolerance; open-mindedness is the sibling of peace." 
 I agree but Rushdie is a self-declared atheist and I am not.

A man in the packed-church audience identified himself as an atheist and asked for advice on how to co-exist as a non-believer amidst believers. Rushdie didn't really answer, but said, "Well, you can console yourself with the thought that you're right and they're wrong."

I thought his tone was tongue in cheek but I felt annoyed at the attitude. I mean, here we all were in a Christian church. Okay, I felt defensive, but I thought his tone sounded as arrogant as the attitudes of the traditionalists he preaches against. Probably a slip of ego. More importantly, I’m sick of all religion(s) getting lumped in with the excesses of extremists in any religion, including atheism, as if they all were the same.

Imagine the hubris of thinking I could defend God. But what else do you do when you're in love?