he said, looking at me and then turning to look back at the road.
The smile on his face was cold and murderous. Then, he drew his
thumb across his neck, symbolically slicing the writer’s throat.
Salman Rushdie is one persistent man. A few weeks ago Emory University’s
Woodruff Library adopted Salman Rushdie’s papers, private
journals, novels and letters, and Rushdie himself was awarded a
faculty position as Distinguished Writer in Residence. It is not
the first time that Rushdie has returned to the limelight after
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued the infamous
1989 fatwa demanding Rushdie’s head. In fact, after the religious
decree, Rushdie’s new book, The Satanic Verses, sold
more copies (the number exceeded one million) than even Midnight’s
Children, the book that had won the 1981 Man Booker Prize.
He made public speeches in renowned universities, rallied in the
names of other writers and publishers suffering similar fates as
he, and met with heads of states around the globe.
There is perhaps no other place on the planet that
has been more affected by Rushdie’s writings than the Middle
East. Most people in this region may not have read him, but they
know of him. He lives in people’s minds, but no one can predict
what is to become of him. And although the mass outrage against
him from the yester-years mostly has subsided, one important question
remains unanswered: can Rushdie outlast the public’s hateful
memories of him and his book?
To seek an answer to this question, I traveled to one place where
Rushdie could not possibly be more famous and where the symbol of
the traits he represents are what Khomeini once reviled as part
of any self-respecting Islamic national character–Iran. And
I conducted what I call “The Rushdie Experiment” to
see whether Khomeini’s decree still broils in people’s
The Rushdie Experiment
The Rushdie Experiment went something along these lines: I smuggled
a copy of Rushdie’s writings into Iran and carried the book
around in my backpack wherever I went. Since it would be impossible
to simply initiate a conversation with random people about Rushdie—that
privilege is only reserved for high ranking religious clergy and
the Iranian security forces, I suppose—I had to devise a method
to get people to talk about him.
I traveled every day in Iran’s shared taxis. Iran’s
cab system is such that taxis move along major routes in the city
to and from fixed destinations. Along the way, people hop on or
off. So in any one ride, one can expect to meet at least four complete
strangers including the driver. I kept Rushdie’s book in a
very obviously visible location, such as my lap or on top of my
bag. And then I waited until someone noticed it and became interested.
It was dangerous of course. No one, to my knowledge, has tried this
before. The environment in the country isn’t very appreciative
about or conducive to such research; this was evident through some
external, unrelated events occurring in Iran at the moment. The
offices of Shargh, considered by many Iranians as the only
real newspaper in Iran, were shut down in early September when official
and unofficial complaints were lodged against the publication. Walks
along major routes in the city reveal super-sized paintings on building
walls of young children walking towards tanks with suicide bomb-belts
tied to their waists, women weeping and rejoicing the loved and
lost and soldiers marching into the battlefield. In a place where
sacrificing one’s life in the name of God is akin to divinity
and where murals of martyrdom dress almost every sidewalk, I wondered,
wouldn’t merely carrying a book by an author who has questioned
the prophet’s speeches be a surefire way of ending up in prison
at the very least? Or would people simply not care?
As I lived in and wandered around the city longer,
however, I began to realize that there was something that my experiment
hadn’t accounted for. Duality of thought is an integral part
of the texture of Iranian society. An Iranian’s anima differs
from his or her persona; what Iranians give voice to isn’t
always what they might agree with. And life in the biruni
or outdoors is very different from life in the andaruni
or behind the walls of a home. I decided to split my experiment
into two parts. One explored Rushdie’s impressions in public
life and the other investigated opinions in private homes or personal
In the month-long process of interviewing and talking to people,
I met intellectuals, ex-revolutionaries, academics, the ultra-religious
and secularists. Opinions ranged from the extreme left to the extreme
I first began working in the andaruni.
The world that is enclosed behind the safety of walls is more sophisticated
than I imagined it to be. It is a place where veils come off, where
partying and poetry slams intermingle with more dubious activities
such as drug consumption; broad-minded parents and colleagues even
encourage facial cosmetic surgery. But the andaruni is
also a world that can sometimes exist out in the open—in public
parks after dusk, in northern Tehran’s ski resorts, in underground
cafes and in parked cars along mountain trails. In such places,
where Tehranis are within public space but away from public gaze,
conversations flow as freely as the Iranian tea. It was in such
an environment where I first brought up Rushdie with two friends,
Behzad and Abdul*.
I met Abdul and Behzad one night outside the Institute for Theoretical
Physics and Math, Iran’s version of the Bell Labs of the United
States or the TIFR labs of India. Abdul is a dazzlingly handsome
young man who has traveled the globe, and Behzad is a brilliant
academic; both men are researchers at the institute. Abdul gave
me a tour of his labs even though they were restricted from foreigners,
and he then took me for dinner to one of Tehran’s most famous
soup shops. I got to like him the moment I met him and figured it
would be easier to begin speaking with him. We were eating and chatting
in a park in northern Tehran when I slowly twisted the conversation
towards Rushdie. When I fished out the book, they were both too
shocked to speak. They hadn’t expected that anyone in his
right mind would be toting Rushdie’s writings around Tehran.
Their initial reaction quickly gave way to curiosity, and as they
browsed through the book, they began to open up about their lives,
albeit hesitantly. They spoke more about their personal experiences
than about Rushdie himself. I suppose because they had never read
the book and only had heard of him in mass-media propaganda, they
could only link him to events in their own lives. For Abdul, the
Rushdie drama is more or less a nervous joke beyond what he can
really imagine or talk about, a restricted subject that is limited
to discussions only by religious clergy. Abdul is an extreme atheist
(or “communist”, as Iranians often confuse the two terms
to mean the same thing—a result of the revolution). He does
not believe in God because it is the only practical way he can deal
with daily life. Supernatural beliefs are much too uncertain for
On the other hand, Behzad adheres to religious ideology as much
as he believes in the scientific value of the work he does in his
labs. For him, although the death verdict was a little harsh, Rushdie
deserved some sort of punishment because “people aren’t
allowed to say whatever they want to say, when they want to say
it.” Behzad is also opposed to freedom of speech and believes
that people should maintain restraint at all times.
Yet Behzad is full of contradictions. He hates being controlled.
At one point, he turned and grumbled about how difficult life has
become for him in Iran. “You can’t buy a house, can’t
get insurance and can’t buy rations without doing the military
service required for all Iranians.” He does not want to flee
Iran, but at the same time, he is disappointed with the few choices
available for him.
Later that evening, Behzad departed, leaving Abdul alone with me.
When he was gone, Abdul turned to me and said, “I was shocked
this evening. I really did not expect a highly-educated guy like
Behzad to think within such narrow boundaries.”
Parry is a God-fearing woman and a revolutionary who has supported
the Mujahideen against Hezbollah since the Revolution in Iran in
the late 1970s. I lived with her, and we often had long discussions
about Iranian politics and social issues. After being released from
torture prison, she has tended to seclude herself, confining her
life to occasional meetings with friends and family, praying and
giving French and English classes to children.
Parry is also related in blood to one of the five
grand ayatollahs during the time of the Revolution. Her ideas on
Rushdie are a mix of her personal religious beliefs and historical
events from her family. Confusion sometimes addles her mind (“Salman
Rushdie is a Muslim?” she asked me once). “I am against
Rushdie because, well, he insulted God. But at least he is not hypocritical.”
Although Parry loves Islam she does not like the
religious clergy directing the country’s path. “Marashi,
Golpayagani, Mahalati and Shariat Madari – four of the five
grand Ayatollahs at the time—sent scholars abroad for foreign
language studies and genuinely worked for a cultural revolution.
Khomeini, on the other hand, was political and wanted to show his
power to the rest of the world. The Prophet was a symbol of kindness,
yet there was no softness about Khomeini. He forced Shariat Madari
to come on TV and publicly claim for having worked with the Shah.
A man like him, when he issued the fatwa on Rushdie, was simply
trying to demonstrate to the world that he could do anything.”
Secularism vs. Hypocrisy
Nazgol is a film editor and a journalist in Tehran. But her passion
drives her beyond simply film; she is the type of person who finds
meaning in the simple activities of life: on the way to the grocery
store, when crossing the street or even while watching a movie.
She is also the epitome of the modern day secularism in young Iranians
today. I often went on evening drives with Nazgol, because it is
when her mind, a racing clock, works best. In between dodging and
cursing taxi drivers she would come up with brilliant anecdotes.
For her and for people her age, she told me, they had grown up
in an environment living through the Iran-Iraq War that went on
for several years in the 1980s. The Revolution had just occurred,
and the strict social behaviors expected of them from the mullahs
and religious clergy had a backlash effect–it turned young
people like Nazgol even more against anything religious because
“we do not see ourselves having any benefit from it, or gaining
anything valuable from it.”
She agreed with Rushdie to some extent; she believes “there
is indeed something wrong with Islam. Why is it that it is producing
so many extremists? While Islam was very reformist for its age,
it has no place in the modern day world.” As an example, she
cited the Koran’s verdict on beating a wife who disobeyed
a husband. This would have been considered lenient for the 1400’s
when women were accorded secondary class and not worth having anyway.
But today, beating a woman would be out of the question.
Nazgol likes Rushdie because he is not hypocritical.
Contemporary Iranians are plagued with double standards, and she
dislikes this intensely. We went dining at Niavaran’s Culture
Center one day, when a female guard in a black tunic and heavy make-up
approached us. She asked us to leave the Culture Center because
Nazgol’s trousers were inappropriate and were polluting the
environment of the place. As Nazgol left in a huff, she whispered
to me, “Did you notice her hypocrisy? Did you see those big
fake eyelashes that she was wearing when she told me I was being
inappropriate? Those eyelashes … they looked like cockroach
The biruni or the outside world is poles apart. Away from
private eyes, and in the public glare, people morph into different
beings altogether. Arbitrary arrests are still in vogue, and Iran’s
secret police roam neighborhoods. But there is also the squalor
of southern Tehran, construction half-done and foreign goods priced
at five times the original price. The outside, apart from being
a place where more caution is needed, is also a place where
national failures are more evident.
Everyone is aware of this economic and political
letdown, but there are essentially two camps—the people who
believe the government will see its shortcomings and do something
about it (hence, continued support of the government by these people),
and others who are uncertain about the country’s future who do
not expect officials to do much.
Of all the taxi drivers, fruit sellers and food
vendors I spoke to about Rushdie, they did not think much of him.
Most couldn’t give a damn what happened to him (after all,
he isn’t in the news in Iran these days nor are most people
entirely sure what exactly he had done. They do know he had said
or done something to anger Khomeini and that’s about it)—yet,
these discussions would always inevitably lead to a gathering of
people complaining about personal economic and social problems.
Some of these people would blame the government; others would more
ominously state that Iran was just going through a bad stage in
history and that the country needed time.
In one particularly memorable encounter, in the aforementioned
taxi, one man sitting in the back seat flared with emotions and
burst into a barrage of insults against God and Khomeini and how
“they’ve screwed up this nation, its people and its
image to the rest of the world, and how they should both end up
in ‘f***land.’”. When I later mentioned this to
another friend, she simply said that I was being too dramatic in
my description of what happened in the taxi. But the truth is that
I was simply stating what I observed and not giving personal opinions.
The Rushdie dilemma, I began to understand, was
no longer about the writer, but about Iranians—a dilemma that
they felt they have to confront at some point of time, although
no one is sure when that time will come or how this confrontation
would be carried out, and against who.
The Rushdie Experiment came to an end when I was later arrested
in an unrelated event. I was at the Palestine Day celebration, held
on the last Friday of Ramadan. When snapping pictures of a VIP location
at the event, I was summoned to a corner by a young lad from Iran’s
Basij forces. Officers began to lead me away to the prison, when
a crowd of Hezbollah affiliates began to gather around me and shout
at me. (They probably had their own version of a police station
where they wanted to keep me.) Unnerved by the fact that my arrest
was drawing emotionally-charged people, the police ultimately let
me go after a half-hour intense negotiation, during which I somehow
managed to convince a senior officer that arresting me would only
add to his troubles.
This event, although not directly associated with Rushdie or his
writings, knocked some sense into my mind–Iran is still populated
by a group of extreme hardliners, and although their numbers were
small and growing smaller each day, they still control a lot of
the decision-making and the rule of law in the country. Fortunately,
I wasn’t carrying my book that particular day; otherwise I
would have ended up in prison for at least six months (“Optimistically
speaking,” according to a friend). For some ultra-religious-minded
people present at the event, Rushdie is a confusing symbol encompassing
everything they hated: secularism, western cultural and political
imperialism and tolerance. But they were not born with this hatred.
Rather it had been instilled in them when preachers gave religious
endorsements to conduct activities like killing authors.
Factionalism is still very much a part of Iranian society. And
that in itself is a sign for a democratic process. But while a majority
of Iranians are embracing openness with open arms and are receiving
little political challenge (a recent event in which a woman on death
parole put up a touring exhibition of paintings she made while in
prison has received wide spread recognition is one such example),
there is still much left to change. If Rushdie were to dare visit
Iran in the near future, he may or may not receive a fair trial,
but he will receive a lot of empathy. But the sad truth is even
though empathy is necessary and important for Rushdie in a place
like Iran, it will most probably be conspicuously silent in the
public space. And what good is that for a dead person.
*Names of people have been changed to protect
Our correspondent reported on this topic from
Tehran, Iran. Due to security concerns, the author's name has been
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