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In an Excerpt from ‘Knife,’ Salman Rushdie Recounts His Near-Death Experience

The Booker Prize-winning author tries to extract meaning from the stabbing attack that nearly killed him 33 years after Ayatollah Khomeini condemned him for 'The Satanic Verses' / BY Susan Grimbly / May 14th, 2024


In August 2022, Salman Rushdie, the world-renowned Indian author of The Satanic Verses, was repeatedly stabbed by a 24-year-old man who charged him as he was about to speak at an event in upstate New York. He lost his right eye in the 27-second attack, and all the tendons and most of the nerves in his left hand were severed. There were more wounds: on his face, his neck and his thigh. 

At the time Rushdie was 75. It had been 33 years since Irani Islamic leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared Satanic Verses was blasphemous and issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s execution, which sent him into hiding for more than a decade. He had relaxed his guard in the intervening years, and was enjoying life with his fifth wife, artist Rachel Eliza Griffiths, whom he had married just 11 months before the attack. The Booker Prize-winning author was about to publish his 21st book, Victory, and was looking forward to its reception.

Now Rushdie delicately and precisely delineates the chaos of that harrowing scene at the Chautauqua Institution and its aftermath in Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder, where he recounts how he had been imagining a public assassination ever since Satanic Verses came out. “So my first thought when I saw this murderous shape rushing toward me was: So it’s you. Here you are,” he writes. 

 

salman rushdie

 

Rushdie refuses to use his attacker’s name in the book, and just calls him A. “My Assailant, my would-be Assassin, the Asinine man who made Assumptions about me, and with whom I had a near-lethal Assignation … I have found myself  thinking of him, perhaps forgivably, as Ass.”  (Hadi Matar, a Shia Muslim extremist from New Jersey, has been in jail without bail, awaiting trial on charges of assault and attempted murder.)

Knife is Rushdie’s attempt to glean meaning from the attack, although, as he writes, “whatever the attack was about, it wasn’t about The Satanic Verses.”

In an ironic twist not lost on the author, he was at the Chautauqua Institution “to talk about the importance of keeping writers safe from harm” and celebrate the City of Asylum Pittsburgh project. The network of safe houses for dissident writers was inspired by Rushdie’s involvement in the International Cities of Refuge network. 

In the following excerpt, Rushdie describes what he was thinking immediately after he was stabbed and audience members dragged a man – dressed in black and wearing a black face mask – off him. 

I remember lying on the floor watching the pool of my blood spreading outward from my body. That’s a lot of blood, I thought. And then I thought: I’m dying. It didn’t feel dramatic, or particularly awful. It just felt probable. Yes, that was very likely what was happening. It felt matter-of-fact.

It’s rare for anyone to be able to describe a near-death experience. Let me say first what did not happen. There was nothing supernatural about it. No “tunnel of light.” No feeling of rising out of my body. In fact, I have rarely felt so strongly connected to my body. My body was dying and it was taking me with it. It was an intensely physical sensation. Later, when I was out of danger, I would ask myself, who or what did I think the “me” was, the self that was in the body but was not the body, the thing that the philosopher Gilbert Ryle once called “the ghost in the machine.” I have never believed in the immortality of the soul, and my experience at Chautauqua seemed to confirm that. The “me,” whatever or whoever it was, was certainly on the edge of death along with the body that contained it. I had sometimes said, half-humorously, that our sense of a noncorporeal “me” or “I” might mean that we possessed a mortal soul, an entity or consciousness that ended along with our physical existence. I now think that maybe that isn’t entirely a joke.

As I lay on the floor, I wasn’t thinking about any of that. What occupied my thoughts, and was hard to bear, was the idea that I would die far away from the people I loved, in the company of strangers. What I felt most strongly was a profound loneliness. I would never see Eliza again. I would never see my sons again, or my sister, or her daughters.

Somebody tell them, I was trying to say. I don’t know if anyone heard me, or understood. My voice sounded far away from me, croaky, halting, blurry, inexact.

I could see as through a glass darkly. I could hear, indistinctly. There was a lot of noise. I was aware of a group of people surrounding me, arching over me, all shouting at the same time. A rackety dome of human beings, enclosing my prone form. A cloche, in food-world terminology. As if I were the main course on a platter – served bloody, saignant – and they were keeping me warm –keeping, so to speak, the lid on me.

I need to talk about pain, because on this subject my own recollections differ considerably from the memories of those around me, a group which contained at least two doctors who had been in the audience. Members of this group said to journalists that I was wailing with pain, that I kept asking, What’s wrong with my hand? It hurts so much! In my own memory, strangely, there’s no record of pain. Maybe shock and bewilderment overpower the mind’s perception of agony. I don’t know. It’s as if a disconnect had appeared between my “outward,” in-the-world self, which was wailing, et cetera, and my “inward,” within-myself self, which was somehow detached from my senses and was, I now think, close to delirious.

Red Rum is murder backward. – Red Rum, Red Rum is murder backward. – Red Rum, a horse, won Grand National Steeplechase three times. –’73, ’74, ’77.–This is the kind of random nonsense that was cropping up between my ears. But I did hear some of what was being said above my head.

“Cut his clothes off so we can see where the wounds are,” somebody shouted.

Oh, I thought, my nice Ralph Lauren suit.

Then there were scissors – or maybe a knife, I really have no idea – and my clothes were being torn off me; there were things that people really needed to attend to urgently. There were also things I needed to say.

“My credit cards are in that pocket,” I mumbled to whoever might be paying attention. “My house keys are in the other pocket.”

I heard a man’s voice saying, What does it matter.

Then a second voice, Of course it matters, don’t you know who this is.

It was probable that I was dying, so what did it matter, indeed. I didn’t expect to need house keys or credit cards.

But now, looking back, hearing my broken voice insist on those things, the things of my normal everyday life, I think that a part of me – some battling part deep within – simply had no plan to die, and fully intended to use those keys and cards again, in the future, on whose existence that inner part of me was insisting with all the will it possessed.

Some part of me whispering, Live. Live.

Excerpted from Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder by Salman Rushdie. Copyright © 2024 Salman Rushdie. Published by Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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