The name Salman Rushdie and the word fatwa entered my vocabulary on the same February day in 1989. I was standing in the living room of my parents’ house in Morocco; my uncle, a newspaper rolled under one arm, had just arrived for dinner; my grandmother was sitting on the orange divan, her prayer beads wound on her right hand. Then someone pointed to the television screen and we all turned to look. Young men in the small British city of Bradford were burning copies of a book; the footage was interwoven with photographs of a hunched and dour-looking Khomeini. The ayatollah had found something offensive about a novel—wait, what was it called? Satanic something?—and had decreed that Muslims everywhere were duty-bound to kill its author.
Enter: Rushdie, fatwa.
As it happened, my entire family was Muslim. But to the ayatollah’s chagrin, no one rushed out to find the novelist. We ate dinner and talked about inflation and gas prices. I had grown up in a secular family, but as a teenager I had discovered religion and become a practicing Muslim. Of all those seated around our dinner table that night, the two who would have paid the most attention to a supposed insult against Islam were my grandmother and me. But my grandmother was illiterate and had wisely chosen not to form an opinion on something she had not read. And I loved books more than anything; I could not conceive of burning them.
Of course, the fatwa guaranteed one thing: I had to read The Satanic Verses. I needed to find out for myself what could have caused so much trouble. So, the following year, when I went to study at University College London, one of the first things I did was to march into Dillons bookshop on Gower Street and buy a copy. (That shop had been firebombed just a few months earlier for selling the novel.) I started reading the novel in the stacks, then took it home to my rented room and stayed up until I finished it.
“This is what caused all the fuss?” I remember thinking. Of course, there were dream sequences that seemed offensive: one character, for instance, goes into an underground brothel where the prostitutes have the same names as the Prophet’s wives. But I had read other novels by Muslim authors—Mohamed Choukri’s For Bread Alone and Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Harrouda—that were deemed offensive as well, and yet no one had put a $1 million bounty on the author’s head. I had bought copies of several transgressive books—D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch—from the bookstores of my own hometown without a problem. My experience in Morocco had been that when the seal of censorship fell on a book—Gilles Perrault’s Notre ami le roi or Moumen Diouri’s À qui appartient le Maroc?—it was usually for a nonfiction book, and it was usually for political reasons.
So why all this trouble over The Satanic Verses?
Then school started, and it seemed as if I was always running from one class to another. I was distracted, too, by the sudden freedoms that living alone in a place like London suddenly opened up: museums, theaters, clubs. When I read the newspaper on the Tube, it was to keep up with the Gulf War, the reunification of Germany or the civil war in Lebanon, not with the fatwa. Sometimes on the evening news, pundits brought up this or that new development in the Rushdie affair and asked: But where is the silent majority? I knew exactly where it was; I was the silent majority.
But for the man who lived in the eye of the storm, there was no possibility of distraction, no freedom of movement, no hope of closure. There was only one concern overriding all others: how to survive an edict declaring you an apostate and encouraging Muslims to kill you on sight. In his new memoir, Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie writes about the fatwa that, fortunately for both the author and his readers, never came to pass.