The writer Salman Rushdie was 42 years old when his novel the satanic verses came into the hands of the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini. The religious leader sentenced him to death for blasphemy, in 1989, in a fatwa that spread like wildfire among Muslims. Rushdie was a well-known author having won the Booker Prize for a previous novel, children of midnight, but his prestige or living in the United Kingdom, far from Iran, was of no use to him. To the fatwa was added a reward that exceeds three million dollars for the executor of the sentence. The writer had to disappear into hiding, protected day and night by Scotland Yard, under the fictitious name of Joseph Anton, in homage to Conrad and Chekhov.
After ten years of living under the dictate of fear, Rushdie decided to come out into the open. He recovered his true name and left his fate in the hands of providence. Since then, his baraca has protected him: he has continued to publish successfully and has maintained an intense social life. Until this Friday. Thirty-three years after Khomeini sentenced him to death, Rushdie was assaulted as he was preparing to give a lecture in a town in western New York. A man dressed in black emerged from the crowd that packed the Chautauqua Institution auditorium, ran onto the stage and lunged at the 75-year-old writer. When he was arrested, he had already stabbed Rushdie, who was lying on the ground, in the neck.
The attack seems like one more episode in a story that has left behind a tortuous trail of blood and whose trigger was a translation error.
According to Islamic tradition, the writing of the Koran was dictated to Muhammad by Allah through the Archangel Gabriel. To overcome resistance from his Meccan neighbors to conversion, Muhammad included four verses about three local goddesses. He later declared that he had been the victim of Satan’s ruse and suppressed them. Although in Arabic these verses are known as gharaniq (cranes), the British orientalists of the nineteenth century baptized them as “satanic verses” and so Rushdie called his novel: The Satanic Verses. When it was published in Arabic, the title was literally translated as Al-Ayat ash-Shataniya. Shataniya means Satan, but ayat it refers to the verses of the Qur’an as a whole and not to those four verses. Although the original error came from the translation of the British Orientalists, in the round trip from Arabic to English and from English to Arabic, the title took the part for the whole and became blasphemy.
The power of a fatwa, like that of any curse, is measured by the terror caused by the bloody spectacle of its victims. Following Khomeini’s conviction, Rushdie disappeared, but the fatwa found the path of her blood to stay alive. The Japanese translator of satanic verses, Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death in 1991. A few days earlier, in Milan, an unknown person attacked the Italian translator, Ettore Capriolo, with a knife. In 1993, in Sivas, a Turkish city, Islamic extremists burned down the hotel where Aziz Nesin, the Turkish translator, was staying. In the same year, the Norwegian publisher of Rushdie’s novel was shot in the back.
How terrifying it would be to see that, in a world marked by transience, fanaticism makes such a show of patience. Hopefully Rushdie’s baraca continues to protect him.
Nuria Barrios she is a writer Her latest book, ‘La impostora’, is an essay on the translation profession and has won the Málaga Essay Prize.
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