Rushdie Returns to Columbia
“Everyone lives inside his own picture of the world. It
felt like someone had smashed mine.”
On March 22, Salman Rushdie returned to the Columbia campus
to participate in a discussion hosted by President Lee C. Bollinger
before a capacity crowd in Altschul Auditorium. The interview was
one of the featured events in the month-long Humanities Festival
that accompanied the staging of Rushdie’s Midnight’s
Children by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Apollo Theater,
a production that Columbia co-produced.
It was Rushdie’s first appearance at Columbia since December
11, 1991, when he briefly emerged from hiding to attend a ceremony
in Low Library honoring the First Amendment and the late Supreme
Court Justice William Brennan. Rushdie had been forced underground
after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death order following the
publication of Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses, in 1988.
Although the Ayatollah died in 1989, the fatwa remained in effect
until it was finally lifted by the Iranian government in 1998. In
welcoming Rushdie back to the campus, Bollinger noted that in his
1991 remarks, Rushdie said, “Free speech is the whole ballgame.
It is life itself,” and centered the discussion on the importance
of free speech. During their talk, Rushdie reflected on his years
in hiding and the fundamental value of free speech:
“It was an amazing thing coming to Columbia at that time.
It was a very bad time, the worst time, actually. Until that moment,
I hadn’t really been able to fight back. I had been kept,
against my will, out of the public eye. But at that point, I did
begin a kind of political, intellectual fight back.”
“Everyone got very excited. The police had me in the middle
of an 11-car motorcade. All the cars were black except mine, which
was a white armored vehicle. It was like a neon sign. There was
a police lieutenant who was in charge whom I called Lt. Bob. I said
to him, ‘This is a lot.’ He replied, ‘It’s
what we do for Arafat.’”
“I was in a depressed state of mind. Everyone had a point
of view about me, and many of those views were negative even though
these people had never met me. People get tired of saying, ‘Poor
guy, he’s in danger.’ They look for another angle, and
it’s, ‘What did he do?’ It was horrifying to have
my character questioned, my writing torn apart.”
“Everyone lives inside his own picture of the world. It felt
like someone had smashed mine. I had to start to put it back together.”
“I was obliged to learn about free speech by the process
of someone trying to take mine away. I suddenly became very conscious
of something I had always taken for granted. It is like oxygen.
You don’t notice it until it is taken away.”
“We are unique in that we are the only story-telling animals.
We define ourselves by telling our stories. We are people who exist
in stories and by stories. That’s why I consider free speech
a human value and not a culture-specific value.”
“Ideas don’t cease to exist because we suppress them.
They are still there.”
“Democracy, freedom, art, literature — these are not
tea parties. These are turbulent, brawling, argumentative things.
But without that turbulence, in a calm sea, nothing happens. Let’s
have the storm.”