Author Salman Rushdie comes out of the shadows

September 15, 1995|By Los Angeles Times

LONDON -- He has been on the run for six years, hiding under armed guard in a network of safe houses.

Now, with old passions fading and a new book to sell, British author Salman Rushdie is ending the seclusion imposed by a zealot's death sentence.

As a survivor, he is sadly wiser in the ways of the world, Mr. Rushdie says, but no less disposed to speak his mind.

"One of the things a writer is for is REUTERSSalman Rushdieto say the unsayable, to speak the unspeakable, to ask difficult questions," he said a week ago at his first announced appearance in public since being sentenced to death by Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 for alleged blasphemy against Islam.

With European Union diplomats and Iranian officials now fencing for a graceful way to write a formal end to the death warrant "fatwa" against him, Mr. Rushdie is coming out of the shadows.

Increasingly, he is a man about town in London and a talk-show favorite after publication this month of "The Moor's Last Sigh," his first novel since "The Satanic Verses" got him into trouble.

It has been a long way back for the gregarious 48-year-old writer.

For a long time, he was unseen. Then he became a spectral figure, there-and-gone at events favored by London's literati and glitterati. Mr. Rushdie did a walk-on with David Letterman, appeared on stage with U2, attended the Salzburg Festival.

The chapter of the fleetingly seen Mr. Rushdie, watched over day and night by British government bodyguards, closed last week at a literary debate in a Methodist church hall in the heart of London.

With permission of Scotland Yard, the Times newspaper, co-sponsor with a bookstore of an authors debate titled "Writers Against the State," announced on Page 1 that morning that Mr. Rushdie would participate.

About 700 people paid $16 each to attend what he would call his "coming out."

In the end, it was less remarkable as a debate than as a celebration of self and survival. Urbane witticisms from the stage never seemed quite as telling as the knife-edge security, the metal detector, the hard-eyed watchers, the bomb specialists behind the scenes.

"It's nearly seven years since I have been able to tell my readers where I would be and where they could come talk to me. It's nice to be back," said Mr. Rushdie. "This is the biggest step yet in the process of resuming a real life."

Mr. Rushdie's debut in London drew one Muslim protester outside and one Muslim questioner after the debate who denounced "Satanic Verses" as obscene.

At a reading in Edinburgh, Scotland, Mr. Rushdie found about 50 peaceful Muslim protesters waving placards saying "Stop Rushdie's poison" and "Rushdie writes filth." Advertised in the Scottish press, the reading brought a full house to the 250-seat theater despite demands by local Muslims that it be canceled.

Accepting the passions he evokes, Mr. Rushdie insists that it is a writer's obligation to push the envelope: "Everybody has answers. Answers are cheap. Questions are hard to find. If you ask those questions and stir up society, that's a proper function of the writer."

Mr. Rushdie says what particularly disturbs him as he struggles to resume a normal life is that his plight is becoming all too familiar: Outspoken writers are fashionable targets in many countries. He lists Turkey, Nigeria, China and Algeria as some of the places where writers face imprisonment and violence for their views.

"There's a crisis at the moment because somehow it's beginning to be acceptable to do this again. The language of the gulag is back with us," he lamented.

In Mr. Rushdie's view, the pressure on him of being a marked man may have diminished, but it still exists. Khomeini is dead, but his spirit lingers. In the end, only his heirs in Iran can set Mr. Rushdie free.

"The problem hasn't gone away. It's still necessary to pressure Iran," he said.

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