FAIRVIEW, New Jersey—British-Indian author Salman Rushdie is on a ventilator and unable to speak after a brutal on-stage stabbing attack at a western New York literary event, his agent said late Friday.
“The news is not good,” Andrew Wylie wrote in an emailed update. “Salman will likely lose one eye; the nerves in his arm were severed; and his liver was stabbed and damaged.”
The grim prognosis came shortly after a 24-year-old New Jersey man was arrested for the brazen attack.
New York State Police have identified Hadi Matar of Fairview, New Jersey, as the suspected assailant in the attack that occurred as Rushdie was about to address the Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit education center and summer resort near Buffalo, for a talk on the U.S. being an “asylum for writers and other artists in exile.” Rushdie, who was stabbed at least twice—once in the abdomen, once in the neck—was taken by helicopter to a hospital.
Police said Matar had a pass to be on the grounds of the gated Chautauqua Institution community, and that a backpack belonging to him was recovered at the scene. Anyone is able to buy a pass and they are active for varying lengths, officials said.
Wylie told The Daily Beast around 2 p.m. that the author was in surgery. State Sen. George Borrello, who represents the district where Rushdie was attacked, said in a Friday statement that authorities believe Matar was motivated “by fundamentalist extremism.”
One of Matar's former high school classmates told The Daily Beast on Friday he was shocked to hear that the 24-year-old could have been involved in such a gruesome crime. Gabriel Sanchez, 24, said that while the two were classmates at the Elizabeth Learning Center in California, Matar “was a very devout Muslim” who participated in debate and had several friends.
“He took it seriously and did the washing of the feet in our high school restroom,” Sanchez said about Matar’s faith. “The only time I ever saw him get ‘heated’ when it came to anything was with our AP Bio teacher at the end of the year where he wrote in his evaluation of the class that he hated how he talked about religion.”
Sanchez added that Matar—whom he admitted wasn’t “a social butterfly”—spent his time in school playing basketball during lunch breaks and reading frequently. He said Matar never spoke about Iran or Rushdie.
“He was a devout Muslim and one of the few things that I remember talking to him about was kindness,” Sanchez said. “That’s how I remember him and why I wish this isn’t him.”
“The Hadi that committed this attack on Salman Rushdie was not the Hadi I knew who spoke about kindness,” he added, noting that Matar had moved to New Jersey around 2014.
While it was not immediately clear what Matar has been doing for the last few years—he had apparently taken up boxing lessons in April. A spokesperson for the State of Fitness Boxing Club told The Daily Beast that Matar signed up for “boxing group classes” in April before he “just stopped his membership on 9 August.”
“Other than that, we don’t really know anything about him,” the spokesperson added.
On Friday evening, the two-story tan brick house identified as Matar’s home address looked like a crime scene, with half the block cordoned off behind police tape and a row of Fairview city police vehicles with lights blinking.
From the nearest corner, uniformed police officers could be seen periodically walking in and out of the house from alongside the driveway.
Neighbors at the corner sat on stoops or stood in doorways, or watched from the curb, and most said they did not know or recognize the man identified as Rushdie’s attacker. One neighbor parking his car around the corner said he recognized Matar from his picture on the news, and described their brief interactions as ordinary, just two neighbors sometimes waving hello as they walked by one another.
Antonio Lopa, a retired hospital worker who lives directly across the street, said he often saw Matar coming and going, but didn’t know him. In a community of close-set brick and clapboard houses, many carved up into smaller unites, Lopa, 70, said he believed that Matar lived with six or seven other people, possibly relatives, who rent the house as a single-family unit that they moved into three or four years ago.
Wilbur Iza, 40, described the neighborhood as ethnically mixed, with people of various backgrounds living side by side. He and other residents described the neighborhood as quiet, with a police helicopter buzzing overhead as their first sign anything was amiss.
Rushdie’s work, particularly his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, has attracted fierce protests, death threats, and even a fatwa for his assassination by the former religious leader of Iran, who accused Rushdie of blasphemy. A $4 million bounty on his head remains active to this day.
A witness to Friday’s attack, Ward Pautler, told The Daily Beast that Rushdie “had just come out and sat down” when he was attacked by a man whom Pautler described as “heavy set and wearing a black headpiece.”
Sitting just three rows away from the small stage next to his brother-in-law, Pautler, 76, said that at first he thought the assailant was “punching Rushdie, but then I realized he was stabbing him.”
“It didn’t take long for me to realize that he wasn’t punching Rushdie because you don’t punch with the side of your hand,” he said. Pautler said that several people quickly jumped on the attacker to subdue him while others began to treat the author.
As people moved Rushdie away from the stage, Pautler said “there were other people with towels wiping up the blood.”
Henry Reese, the co-founder and president of City of Asylum in Pittsburgh, which was founded in 2004 to provide sanctuary to writers exiled under threat of persecution, was interviewing Rushdie. He suffered “a minor head injury” and a state trooper assigned to the event “immediately took the suspect into custody,” the statement said. During a Friday press conference about red flag laws, Governor Kathy Hochul said Rushdie was “alive” and “getting the care he needs at a local hospital.”
Marion Baumgarten, who attended the talk with her husband, told The Daily Beast that the ambush “happened very quickly.”
She said she saw a man in a mask rush the stage and, from her seat in the middle of the amphitheater about eight rows up, it looked like he was punching Rushdie.
“I later heard it was a stabbing,” she said, adding that the assailant “was tackled right away.” Afterward, she said her husband saw Rushdie “able to walk with assistance.”
“Everyone was shocked,” Baumgarten said. “Many people in the audience were crying.”
An Associated Press reporter who was at the event gave a similar account, saying a man stormed the stage and began punching or stabbing Rushdie as he was being introduced. “The author was taken or fell to the floor, and the man was restrained,” AP reported.
The Satanic Verses, which uses magical realism and was partly inspired by the life of the Prophet Muhammad, has sparked bombings, attempted killings, and murders, including the fatal stabbing of its Japanese translator in 1991, and the near-fatal stabbing of its Italian translator by an Iranian who had previously asked the translator for Rushdie’s address. In 1993, Satanic’s Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard, was seriously injured in a shooting outside his home in Oslo.
Rushdie was forced into hiding for 10 years when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued the fatwa after claiming the book mocked the Islamic faith. He was the target of several unsuccessful assassination attempts, received police protection in the U.K., and was prohibited for more than a decade from visiting his native India, where the book was banned.
The novel was nevertheless critically acclaimed, earning Rushdie a Booker Prize nomination.
The Chautauqua Institution was founded partially by the Methodist church in 1874, and was the birthplace of the nationwide Chautauqua movement popular across the country in the early part of the 20th century. Over the decades, the religious emphasis has waned, and the roughly 2,000-acre compound has become more of a bucolic place where people come to soak up some culture while they vacation with their families, often for the institution’s entire summer season. During the season, the facility has its own orchestra, opera and theater companies, and a satellite branch of the state university system. It also schedules a steady stream of lecturers and artistic performances from June to August. Rushdie would have been one of those speakers.
“We ask for your prayers for Salman Rushdie and Henry Reese, and patience as we fully focus on coordinating with police officials following a tragic incident at the Amphitheater today,” the Chautauqua Institution said in a tweet Friday. “All programs are canceled for the remainder of the day. Please consult the NYS Police statement.”
—with additional reporting by Malcolm Jones and Rachel Olding