Salman Rushdie received death threats from Iran after his critical book, "The Satanic Verses" and lived for 13 years in hiding. His new autobiography, which he presented in Berlin, recalls everyday life during that time. By Heiner Kiesel
Salman Rushdie is light-hearted as he talks about the death threats that extremist Muslim groups made against him. He doesn't get upset when he brings up Valentine's Day 1989. On that day he learned that the highest spiritual leader in Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, passed a fatwa on him because his book, "The Satanic Verses", was seen as offensive to Islam.
To this day, Salma Rushdie's life is in danger. Just recently, Iran raised the bounty on his head to $3.3 million, noted the author, but quipped that his potential murderer might be disappointed since they probably don't even have the money.
Icon? No, thanks
The Indian-British author came to Berlin this week to present his autobiography "Joseph Anton". The title is derived from the names of Rushdie's favourite authors, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov. It was also the alias he took when he went into hiding under police protection.
Rushdie writes his autobiography in the third person, using a different name for himself. That may confuse readers in the beginning but turns out to be a clever artistic decision that allows him to recount his own experiences in a more distant and reflected way.
"It's an autobiography, so you have to tell the truth," says Rushdie, "so this is actually what a real human being in this situation was like."
Rushdie's often portrayed as an icon championing freedom of speech, but doesn't see himself as one. "I don't feel like a Statue of Liberty; I'm just a person," confesses the writer.
Though he is still under threat, he appeared at the Berlin reading without visible security. Rushdie says he hasn't felt seriously threatened in 10 years.
No trace of bitterness or revenge
Even though the biggest danger may have passed, he is a hero nonetheless. As an author he's managed to tell the everyday life story of his years under a fatwa, including details of failed romances, writing struggles and his relationship to his alcoholic father.
Rushdie speaks with a remarkable calm, with no trace of bitterness or revenge. "I haven't fallen into that trap," he explains. It would have been understandable, however: The Japanese translator of "The Satanic Verses" was murdered, the Italian translator was injured and the Norwegian publisher was shot.
Rushdie's personal freedom was severely limited for 13 years when he was forced to live under police protection and use cover names like Wilson and Wilton. He tried to maintain close ties to his children during that time. When he speaks about his family, his voice becomes rawer, quieter.
Scorn and irony return when Rushdie discusses the political aspects of his persecution. For him, the period following the fatwa was a crash course in politics, he says. "I can well remember having a meeting with [German Foreign Minister] Klaus Kinkel, in which he said that we are not going to change the foreign policy of Germany for one man. At that point, of course, Germany was Iran's number one trading partner."
The export of feta cheese was also more important for the Danes than freedom of speech, adds the author. "Denmark had to choose between their values and feta cheese", he says. "They chose the cheese." But in the newspapers, Rushdie read expressions of solidarity, like from German writer Günter Grass. "The book is also a tale of solidarity and friendship," Rushdie says of autobiography.
Essence of a free society
Most of all, Rushdie sees "Joseph Anton" as a polemic for freedom of speech and drives this point home. "If you feel offended by something, it's your problem," he says. "To be offended by a book is quite difficult; you have to work very hard at it. When you close the book, it loses its power to offend you."
Rushdie tries to avoid being instrumentalized in defence of bans on statements that may offend certain groups, an issue which came up again after the recent film, "Innocence of Muslims".
"The world is complicated and one of the nature's of a free society is that people will say and write and create all kinds of things which some other people won't like," says Rushdie. "There's no other way."
© Deutsche Welle 2012
Qantara.de editor: Lewis Gropp