Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses prompted Iran’s spiritual leader to issue a fatwa—a bounty on his head. For the next decade or so, Rushdie went into hiding. In his new memoir, Joseph Anton, which was his alias (the book is written in the third person, as if a ‘biography’ of Rushdie/Anton), the famous novelist tells the story of his years under police protection and how the threats to his life strained his marriages. From his second wife’s allegedly lying to him about a CIA plot, which caused him to mistrust her, to moving dozens of times in just months, we speed-read his absorbing book.
1. ‘Satanic Verses’
In 1966 while studying history at Cambridge, Rushdie learned about the “Satanic Verses.” They were verses that Muhammad said were given to him by the Devil, disguised as the Archangel, and should be expunged from the Quran: “Have you thought on al-Lat and al-Uzza, and, thirdly, on Manat, the other? They are Exalted Birds, and their intercession is desired indeed.” But why did the prophet accept the first revelation as true? Could there be other mistakes? “Good story, he thought ... he would find out exactly how good a story it was,” Rushdie wrote.
On Feb. 14, 1989, a few months after the publication of The Satanic Verses, the spiritual leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, called for the execution of Rushdie, calling his novel blasphemous against Islam. Rushdie heard about it from a BBC reporter who called him at his home in London: “How does it feel to know that you have just been sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini?” “It doesn’t feel good,” Rushdie replied. He and his second wife, the American novelist Marianne Wiggins, hadn’t been getting along, and days later she told him she was unhappy in the marriage. “Marianne was a fine writer and a beautiful woman, but he had been discovering things he didn’t like,” he wrote.
He left his house and wouldn’t return for another three years. He did an interview at CBS, then went to a memorial service for his friend, the writer Bruce Chatwin. Another travel writer and novelist, Paul Theroux, sat behind him. “I suppose we’ll be here for you next week, Salman,” he said.
The Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police met with Rushdie the next day, and told him he couldn’t go home. He was whisked away in an armored Jaguar whose windows wouldn’t open—he discovered this at a McDonald’s drive-through—with a protection team: Stan, Benny, Dennis, and Mick. They went to an inn called the Lygon Arms in the Cotswolds. There he stayed for two days, then on to a friend’s cottage for three, and so on, moving every few days dozens of times. Meanwhile, violence erupted around the world because of the fatwa. Bookstores that carried The Satanic Verses were firebombed. Copies of the book were burned.
His son, Zafar, and his first wife, Clarissa, were not offered police protection, however. In Wales, he had to hide behind a kitchen table when a neighbor dropped by unannounced. He was asked to wear a wig but after trying it on, he vowed never to wear it again.
4. Joseph Anton
Rushdie had to choose a name “pretty pronto.” “He thought of writers he loved and tried combinations of their names. Vladimir Joyce. Marcel Beckett. Franz Sterne. He made lists of such combinations and all of them sounded ridiculous. Then he found one that did not.” Conrad and Chekhov. “And there it was, his name for the next eleven years.”
On Aug. 3, 1989, a man named Mustafa Mahmoud Mazeh tried to set up a bomb in a hotel in London. It went off and killed Mazeh, destroying two floors of the hotel. A Lebanese group claimed Mazeh was trying to kill Rushdie.
On July 3, 1991, Ettore Capriolo, the Italian translator, was stabbed at his home by an “Iranian” man who had made an appointment to discuss “literary matters,” who was suspected to be carrying out the fatwa that condemned to death not only Rushdie but “all the editors and publishers.” Capriolo survived but would refuse to work on any of Rushdie’s future books.
Eight days later, Hitoshi Igarashi, the Japanese translator of the novel, was stabbed to death. The killer was never arrested.
On July 2, 1993, Aziz Nesin, the Turkish translator, was the intended target when a group of fundamentalists surrounded the hotel he was in and set it on fire, resulting in the death of 37 people—the incident is known as the Sivas massacre.
On Oct. 11, 1993, William Nygaard, the publisher of the novel in Norway, was shot three times by an assassin. Nygaard told Rushdie he was proud to be associated with the book.
Many more people were killed in riots.
6. The CIA Plot That Wasn't
Marianne had disliked the protection team’s invasion into their lives. “She had not bargained for this, and it wasn’t her fight.” She soon left for America. He called her one day and she said she had had dinner with Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky—“his wife was with the two alpha males of world poetry getting foot rubs.” Then she claimed to have been approached in her Boston hotel lobby by a CIA agent named Stanley Howard. She said the CIA told her they’d been inside Rushdie’s new safe house, and took papers from his desk and showed them to her as proof. The British police didn’t notice a thing, she claimed. “You can’t trust the people you have with you now. You need to leave at once,” she told him. “You need to come to America.”
Rushdie told this to his security detail. The police said there was no evidence of any improper entry, and no sensors had been tripped. “It doesn’t add up,” they said. A senior official at the Special Branch then came to see him and suggested Marianne had made the whole story up.
When she returned, Rushdie said he couldn’t trust her anymore, and asked her to leave. “He was beginning to be scared of her now,” he wrote, and claimed that she would often lie in subsequent interviews with newspapers about what happened. He said she left him angry messages. He said she one day suddenly announced to the public her intention to take a leadership role in the campaign to defend his freedom. He insisted she must have nothing to do with the campaign.
The two would reunite later, loneliness getting the better of him, Rushdie wrote. Then he found a journal of hers that said he feared women and he mistreated his sister. “He told her he had read the journal and could not continue in the marriage.” They divorced in 1993.
7. Divorce and Sadness
Rushdie met Elizabeth West, an editor 14 years his junior. The protection team was concerned with him visiting her apartment so frequently, but by then Rushdie had gradually been given more freedom. They fell in love, though the press was quick to notice his “new love.” They soon lived together. But one day, Rushdie said Elizabeth discovered her beloved gold charm bracelet, which had belonged to her mother, was missing. She accused Rushdie’s son, Zafar, of taking it. Zafar was woken up, and he denied it. Then Elizabeth found the bracelet, which had been where it was supposed to be the whole time. “Between Elizabeth and himself a shadow fell that did not quickly fade.”
She desperately wanted a child, though it had been difficult for them to conceive. But at last on May 27, 1997, their son, Milan, was born—he was close to being a midnight’s child, eight minutes early. But he said Elizabeth wanted another child. He did not want to—instead, he wanted to move to America. Just months later she was pregnant again, but it ended in a miscarriage, and after that he said the two of them grew apart, with Elizabeth devoted mostly to Milan. They separated in 2004.
8. Bono Stands Up
During the Achtung Baby tour, Rushdie met Bono after he was invited backstage. “A friendship was born.” During the Zooropa tour, Bono wanted to make a gesture of solidarity, so he called Rushdie and asked if he’d like to come out on stage. The Special Branch did not object. Zafar said, “Dad ... don’t sing ... If you sing, I’ll have to kill myself.”
9. Pynchon Emerges
Almost every major writer lent their support to Rushdie during the fatwa years (with the notable exception of John le Carré.) One of them, “another famous invisible man,” was Thomas Pynchon, and this gave Rushdie particular excitement. The two dined together during one of Rushdie’s New York trips, and Pynchon spoke at length about American labor history. They never met again after that.
In August 1999 he attended a party on Liberty Island (thrown by Newsweek and The Daily Beast editor Tina Brown and Harvey Weinstein) where he met the actress Padma Lakshmi. He was still married to Elizabeth. “You saw an illusion and you destroyed your family for it,” he said Elizabeth told him later, and that she was right because “[Padma] seemed to contain his Indian past and his American future.” He said Padma would provoke “bewildering” quarrels and he would “say that the spell had been broken, he had come to his senses, and he was going back to his wife ... but within hours Padma was at his hotel door begging for forgiveness. By the end of the week she had turned him around again.”
He claimed “she was capable of saying things of such majestic narcissism” and that “her moodiness was unpredictable and extreme.” When her nude picture appeared on the cover of Playboy, he had to negotiate a fee for it. She was ambitious, he said, and was determined to strike out for herself. “In the end she did.” They divorced in 2007.
11. The End
The Iranian government had always renewed the fatwa every year, a sort of Valentine’s card to Rushdie. There were several attempts by the British, French, and American governments to get the fatwa revoked, but though Iran had sometimes flirted with drawing it down, it never materialized, and other Islamic groups have always threatened to carry out the attack.
On Sept. 24, 1998, CNN said Iranian President Mohammad Khatami declared the death threat “over,” that he had reached a “consensus” with spiritual leader the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khatami had been at the United Nations General Assembly, and as a precondition to restore diplomatic relations with Britain, he returned to Tehran and said, “the Salman Rushdie issue was completely finished.”
Rushdie walked outside of his house, and the cameras were waiting. “What does it mean for you?” a reporter asked. “It means everything,” he replied. “It means freedom.”
In 1999 the British intelligence services downgraded the threat to Rushdie to level three. By 2002 Rushdie was already living like an ordinary citizen in America, and during a return trip to London in March, the police told him they’ll be withdrawing all protection. The Special Branch threw a party to celebrate, inviting many members of the security team. “More than thirteen years after the police walked into his life, they spun on their heels and walked out of it.”