Eugene Robinson: My Dinner With Salman Rushdie

From a Washington Post column by Eugene Robinson headlined “My dinner with Salman Rushdie”:

The vicious attack Friday on author Salman Rushdie was a horror foretold. He knew such a day could come. Yet he lived — and fortunately, still lives — in defiant affirmation of the fundamental human right to free expression.

Three decades ago, I got a firsthand glimpse of Rushdie’s day-to-day existence as the most hunted man on the face of the earth. He became one of my heroes, not merely for his sublime and challenging prose but for his indomitable courage.

At the time, I was The Post’s bureau chief in London. At some otherwise forgettable reception I met a man named Udi Eichler who made television documentaries. We fell into pleasant conversation and exchanged business cards. A few weeks later, he called to invite me and my wife, Avis, to dinner.

I accepted. But as the date approached, I had second thoughts. We had visitors coming from out of town and the dinner was going to be a hassle, so I called Udi to apologize and bow out. “Um, you can’t do that,” he said. “You want to come to this dinner, trust me.” Finally, he lowered his voice and whispered, “Damn it, I can’t tell you this, but Salman Rushdie is going to be there.”

I gave the only possible response: “So will we.”

The fatwa, or death sentence, that Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini pronounced against Rushdie in 1989 for his novel “The Satanic Verses” was still fresh. Rushdie was in hiding from the fanatics who had taken up the call to hunt him, with around-the-clock security and no fixed address. No journalist could pass up the opportunity to meet an invisible man.

On the appointed evening, Avis and I walked to the house in Hampstead, not far from our own, that Udi shared with his partner and future wife, the writer Judith Summers — “Udi and Judy” was how they billed themselves. Judy led us through the sitting room — where two beefy and heavily armed British security agents smiled as we walked between them — to the terrace where the table was arranged. There sat Rushdie.

He talked about the way he was forced to live. He talked about how the British government was already balking at the expense of his security and how he was having to pay some of the costs himself. He talked about how he missed his old life — going to restaurants and book signings and cultural events — and said he believed he would be able to reclaim it someday.

A British journalist and his wife were also there, and Rushdie quizzed us about politics in Westminster and in Washington. I could tell how much he enjoyed gossiping and arguing about the news, how much he missed the feeling of being in the middle of things rather than far offstage.

He expressed gratitude for the many officials, authors, journalists and others who had stood by him, and bitterness toward the few who had not. Support from literary circles was almost absolute, but not quite. Roald Dahl had attacked “The Satanic Verses” and called Rushdie “a dangerous opportunist.” John le Carré, in a salvo in what became a years-long feud between the two men, deplored the death sentence but said writers had no right to be “impertinent to great religions with impunity.”

One thing that Rushdie said really brought his predicament home for me: There was one airline, only one, that would allow him to fly as a passenger. Under no circumstances would he tell us which carrier that was. “The minute that becomes public,” he said, “no airline will take me.”

I remember feeling perfectly safe during the dinner — I assumed, and later was told, that the two agents inside the house were supplemented by others lurking watchfully outside. But at the end of the evening, Avis and I strolled back to our normal lives. Rushdie was whisked away into the darkness.

Iran’s religious authorities never rescinded the fatwa against Rushdie, even increasing the bounty on his head from $1 million to $3 million. On Monday, the Iranian government denied any responsibility for his near-fatal stabbing. Instead, the government blamed Rushdie and his champions for the attack.

“We do not blame, or recognize worthy of condemnation, anyone except himself and his supporters,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said. The hard-line newspaper Kayhan crowed that Rushdie has lived a “hellish life” since the fatwa.

But that life continues.

The man who allegedly stabbed him onstage at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York, 24-year-old Hadi Matar, was arraigned Saturday on charges of attempted murder and assault.

Rushdie’s son Zafar said in a statement Sunday that Rushdie remains in critical condition but that “his usual feisty & defiant sense of humour remains intact.” That indeed sounds like our dinner companion.

Eugene Robinson writes a twice-a-week column on politics and culture and hosts a weekly online chat with readers. In a three-decade career at The Washington Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper’s Style section.

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