Moments before Salman Rushdie was nearly murdered at a public event in western New York on Friday, he had signed up to become a roving envoy for writers in mortal peril, agreeing to travel across the United States to encourage cities to offer asylum and protection to artists in need.
The bitter irony – that within minutes of making the promise, Rushdie himself was stabbed 10 times on stage – was revealed by the event’s moderator, who was also injured in the assault.
In his first press interview since Friday’s violence, Ralph Henry Reese – co-founder of a Pittsburgh project that provides refuge for exiled writers known as the City of Asylum – told the Guardian that shortly before going on stage, he and the novelist had discussed expanding the program. across America.
“I asked Salman if he would be willing to travel to promote the idea of asylum cities and develop them in the United States,” Reese recounted. “He signed up.”
Reese said Rushdie, 75, was in an effervescent mood when they arrived at the scene, the Chautauqua facility. The author’s earlier work has drawn death threats for years. But, said Reese, “He was very upbeat in the green room, as he is.”
They were eagerly waiting to continue the discussion on the importance of offering asylum to writers at risk when the event began, taking place on stage at 10.45am. “We walk out a few minutes later on stage,” Reese said. “He wanted to talk about welcoming exiled writers into communities and how positive that is for everyone.”
Then a man jumped onto the stage and rushed towards them. “It was a tragic irony in so many ways,” Reese said. “The horror, the whole superposition of realities.”
He continued, “Here is Rushdie who had been through this before, who spoke so bravely for many years, who was about to speak about his experiences and the value of protecting writers, and now we have this extraordinary materialization that happens on stage. It resonated so much with why we need to uphold precisely those values.
Reese declined to speak about what he saw or heard during the attempt on Rushdie’s life, saying he may have to testify in future court proceedings. But he described the surreal feel as the violence unfolded.
“At first I thought it was someone making the worst joke in the world, a joke about what happened in the past, not a real thing,” Reese said. “Looking back on it, I guess I should never have thought that given Salman’s life story. Then obviously it became very real.
Reese, in Rushdie’s stabbing, suffered facial injuries that required hospital treatment. He said his ailments were “quite significant, but not like the ones Salman suffered”.
For 48 hours, Reese had no idea if the novelist would live or die. Over the weekend, it was revealed that Rushdie had been stabbed ten times in the neck, one eye, abdomen and thigh.
Reese woke up on Sunday morning to a statement from Rushdie’s son, Zafar Rushdie, who said that although the writer remained in critical condition in hospital in Erie, Pennsylvania, he had been removed from hospital. a fan and was able to say a few words.
“His usual fiery and provocative sense of humor remains intact,” said Zafar Rushdie.
Reese laughed heartily as he read the words, saying, “It’s joyful that Salman is recovering. “Provocative humor” is exactly him. If you can imagine living with such a threat over your head for years, if you didn’t have a provocative sense of humor, as he does, I don’t know how you would cope and contribute so much to the pursuit of the freedom of thought.
Rushdie has been the subject of a fatwa calling for his death since 1989, when the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran issued it following the publication of the novel The Satanic Verses, which some Islamic leaders consider blasphemous. As a result, the Indian-born British-American novelist spent much of the next decade in hiding.
In 1997, while Rushdie was under the deep protection of the British government, he gave a speech at the University of Pittsburgh at the invitation of then-faculty English writer Christopher Hitchens. Reese was there and heard Rushdie talk about the critical value of offering help to writers at risk.
This inspired Reese to create City of Asylum.
The group currently supports five exiled writers from the program, having converted several abandoned homes in Pittsburgh into safe havens.
Reese hopes Friday’s shock and horror will act as a wake-up call — and a call to action — for people in America and beyond. He hopes that in the short term additional security will be provided to Rushdie “at least until they understand what is going on here, and until he can express his own wishes”.
Longer term, he hopes writers around the world will continue to create in the spirit of Rushdie.
“A spirit of fearlessness and truth to yourself – don’t be intimidated, if anything, you should be invigorated by what we have just been through and challenged not to let you down,” added Reese.
For his part, Reese plans to move on and redouble his efforts to provide homes for writers under threat. He quotes another advocate whose mantra is that joy is an act of resistance.
“Ultimately,” Reese said, “this should inspire us all.”