Sir Salman Rushdie has broken his silence to speak publicly for the first time since the “colossal” attack that almost claimed his life, and left him blind in one eye.
The British Booker prize-winning author was the victim of a vicious assassination attempt last August, when he was stabbed on stage at a literary festival in upstate New York.
Rushdie, best known for his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, has long been a target of Islamic extremists over the satirical book – which is inspired in part by the life of the Islamic prophet Muhammed.
While the 1988 book garnered critical acclaim in the UK, it has caused major controversy, with Muslims accusing the text of mocking Islam and blasphemy. It ignited protests across the UK, attended by thousands of British Muslims, many of whom publicly burned the book in condemnation.
The book has been banned in Iran, with the country’s late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini having issued a fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie’s death in February 1989.
It said: “I inform all zealous Muslims of the world that the author of the book entitled The Satanic Verses – which has been compiled, printed and published in opposition to Islam, the Prophet, and the Qur’an – and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death.
“I call on all zealous Muslims to execute them quickly, wherever they may be found, so that no one else will dare to insult the Muslim sanctities. God Willing, whoever is killed on this path is a martyr.”
Since the fatwa was issued, there have been numerous attempts on Rushdie’s life, the latest being in August 2022. A bounty of more than £2.5m ($3m) had been offered to anyone who murders Rushdie.
After spending more than a decade in hiding after the fatwa was issued, Rushdie moved to the US and was able to live a relatively normal life. Prior to the attack, he believed the threat to his life was low.
In August, the Indian-born author was rushed to hospital after being stabbed on stage at the Chautauqua Institution in New York state on Friday just as he was about to give a lecture. Giving his first interview since the near-fatal stabbing to The New Yorker, Rushdie said he dreamt that an attacker would hurt him with “a sharp object” just days before the attack took place.
Sir Rushdie was stabbed repeatedly in the chest, liver, hand, face, and neck. He lost his sight in his right eye – but as the paper reports, he has not lost his sense of humour over the ordeal, telling friends the tinted lens he now has to wear over his right eye makes him look like Johnny Depp.
He revealed in the interview that he finds it impossible to type properly, because he has lost feeling in the fingertips of his left hand, requiring regular physical therapy. He told The New Yorker that the injuries to his chest and neck have now healed.
He recently shared the first image of himself since the attack, which drew an outpouring of support for the defiant writer on Twitter:
This photo seems to have vanished from my tweets. Here it is again, just for the record. pic.twitter.com/nqt34gIuRW
— Salman Rushdie (@SalmanRushdie) February 7, 2023
The interview published in The New Yorker featured a similarly striking recent photo of Rushdie, where scars on his face from the stabbing are also visible.
“The photo in The New Yorker is dramatic and powerful but this, more prosaically, is what I actually look like,” Rushdie penned on Twitter.
He described the stabbing as a “colossal attack” as he spoke of his gratitude to those who helped save his life. Video footage from the day in question shows audience members surging to the stage to help Rushdie, after the frenzied stabbing, which lasted for less than a minute, before the assailant, wearing a black mask, was restrained and taken into custody.
Following his brush with death, Rushdie says his gratitude is “overwhelming”. Doctors and emergency workers staunched his stab wounds at the scene of the attack, while a team of surgeons operated on him for eight hours in theatre. He said his survival was in part down to luck.
“I’m lucky,” he said in the interview published on Monday. “What I really want to say is that my main overwhelming feeling is gratitude.”
“There is a lot that was just lucky because the amount of injuries were such that it was more probable that I would not survive. It was a very close thing. But fortunately I came out the right side of the close thing,” he told The New Yorker.
Asked about the details of the attack, the acclaimed author said he wasn’t sure how many wounds he received: “I wasn’t counting”.
However, he said of his attacker and the duration of the assault: “I only know this from reading the newspapers but apparently he had 27 seconds before people jumped on him. So that’s how much damage you can do in 27 seconds.”
Shortly after the brutal attack, Rushdie’s alleged attacker admitted he was “surprised” the 75-year-old author survived the stabbing.
Speaking from the Chautauqua County Jail in western New York, Hadi Matar told the New York Post he could not believe the 75-year-old writer was still alive after being stabbed more than a dozen times. According to The New Yorker, one of the last emails Matar sent before the attack – cancelling his gym membership – was sent alongside an image of Ali Hosseini Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran.
“When I heard he survived, I was surprised, I guess,” the 24-year-old said. He also told the media that he had only read “a couple” of pages of the Satanic Verses.
Asked if he was inspired by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie’s death, he said:: “I respect the Ayatollah. I think he’s a great person.
“That’s as far as I will say about that,” said Mr Matar, citing a warning by his lawyer. “I read a couple pages (of Satanic Verse)… Like two pages. I didn’t read the whole thing cover to cover,” he added.
Matar, 24, who was arrested and charged with one count of second-degree attempted murder and one count of second-degree assault in relation to the attack, pleaded not guilty His trial is likely to take place in 2024. In the interview, Rushdie described Matar as “an idiot”.
In his first interview six months on, Sir Rushdie also described experiencing a nightmare where a figure “like a gladiator” came at him.
Psychologically, Sir Rushdie said he is still experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, suffers from nightmares, and struggles to write.
“There have been nightmares, not exactly of the incident but just frightening, and those seem to be diminishing. But there is such a thing as PTSD,” Rushdie, who finished his new novel, Victory City, one month before the attack, told The New Yorker.
“One of the things is, I’ve found it very, very difficult to write. I sit there to write and nothing happens. It’s a combination of blankness and junk, stuff that I write that I delete the next day. There has been a lot of that. And I’m not out of that forest yet.”
He says that writing about the traumatic assault will give him “an artistic reason to think about it” as he announced plans to write about the ordeal and its repercussions.
“It doesn’t feel third person-ish to me. When someone sticks a knife into you, that’s a first-person story,” he said, revealing that his memoir will not be written in the third person.
On his new novel, he said: “I’m hoping that to some degree it might change the subject. I’ve always thought that my books are more interesting than my life. Unfortunately, the world appears to disagree.
“What I’m hoping is that people will be able to say, ‘Oh, here’s a writer.’ I’ve tried very hard not to adopt the role of a victim. Then you’re just sitting there saying, ‘Oh, somebody stuck a knife in me, poor me.’ Which I do sometimes say. It hurts. But that’s not what I want people reading the book to think.”
The writer said he is also in the process of writing his first play, Helen, which is based on Helen of Troy. The play is scheduled to open in London next year, and Rushdie says he is hoping to attend the opening night.
Rushdie has been described by friends as “a champion of freedom of expression”. The author has said he is concerned about the situation unfolding in Iran, and the fate that awaits the country’s soccer team after they threw public support behind anti-government protests during the Qatar World Cup.
When asked by interviewer and fellow author David Remnick who he felt was responsible for the attack on his life, Rushdie said he solely blames Matar for the stabbing.
“I blame him,” he told Remnick. He has refused to place the blame with those in charge of security at the event. It has since emerged the venue did not have wand or walk-through metal detectors to ensure those in attendance did not have weapons, and security screening was reportedly very limited.
“I’ve tried very hard over these years to avoid recrimination and bitterness,” he said. “I just think it’s not a good look. One of the ways I’ve dealt with this whole thing is to look forward and not backwards. What happens tomorrow is more important than what happened yesterday.”