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The Rushdie Experiment

“What is this? Salman…Rushdie?!” My taxi driver looked into my eyes with disbelief. It was five pm, rush hour in Tehran, Iran’s busy capital. Cars honked furiously and spewed filthy smoke into the air. But none of these things could distract my driver. He looked down again at the book lying on my lap, picked it up and pulled it closer to his squinted eyes as if he were trying to confirm what he had just read. He looked at me again, his eyes and lips tied in a mix between complete surprise and a frown. I tried to smile but failed miserably because his face looked so hard. I glanced nervously behind me. Three other passengers, two middle-aged men and an old lady, were looking at me. Their faces also had the same hard look. I tried to look away and stare out the window, but the silence that followed was too uncomfortable. I turned to my driver and asked him with as much innocence as my voice could muster, “You know Rushdie?”

“Yes,” 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 minds.

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 meetings.

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 right.

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 him.

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.”

An ex-Revolutionary
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 feet.”

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 End
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 their identities.

Our correspondent reported on this topic from Tehran, Iran. Due to security concerns, the author's name has been kept confidential.

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