What attack on Salman Rushdie means - Suzanne Nossel

Salman Rushdie

By Nehru Odeh

Pen America chief executive, Suzanne Nossel has said the attack on Salman Rushdie went beyond just piercing the flesh of a renowned writer.

She said the attacker sliced through time. Jolting all of us to recognize the horrors of the past were hauntingly present.

Nossel said this while giving her opening remarks at the event tagged Stand with Salman Rushdie: Defend the Freedom to Write where writers gather outside the New York Public Library in New York City to read Rushdie’s selected works in solidarity.

Pen American champions freedom to write organized the event after Rushdie survived an assassination attempt last Friday. The event held on Friday 19 August in Manhattan, New York.

“When a would-be murderer plunged a knife into Salman Rushdie’s neck, he pierced more than just the flesh of a renowned writer. He sliced through time, jolting all of us to recognize that horrors of the past were hauntingly present.

“He infiltrated across borders, enabling the long arm of a vengeful government to reach into a peaceful haven. He punctured our calm, leaving us wide awake at night, contemplating the sheer terror of those moments exactly one week ago.

“He shattered our comfort, forcing us to contemplate the frailty of our own freedom. Today, we gather to stand with Salman, our stalwart leader and comrade who is enduring agony wrought by a 33-year-old vendetta, a death warrant that refuses to die, a declaration of a never-ending war on words.

“We stand with Salman in an effort to boost his spirits but also in a determination to stiffen our spines,” she maintained.   Nossel also said: “Not even a blade to the throat could still the voice of Salman Rushdie.”

The writer said Rushdie planned to watch the live stream from his hospital room. “At a time when book bans and lies and disinformation engulf our politics,” said Nossel, “we must fight with vigor as if all our freedoms depend on it because they do.”

Students, writers, activists and tourists attended Friday’s event in Manhattan. Several police officers with dogs lined the premises, wearing helmets and carrying guns.

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One woman wore a white T-shirt that said “Read Rushdie” in colorful letters. Other participants held up large printouts of Rushdie’s book covers, including The Satanic Verses – the subject of the fatwa – Joseph Anton and Quichotte.

Several carried Pen America signs that featured Rushdie quotes. One sign read, “Art is not entertainment. At its very best, it’s a revolution” – an excerpt from Rushdie’s speech at the 2012 Pen America World Voices Festival. Another said, “If we are not confident of our freedom, then we are not free.”

Pamela Marquez, a staff member at the American Red Cross, commuted by train from Fairfield, Connecticut, to attend.

“It’s really important for us to stand for and protect the rights of writers,” she told the Guardian. “It’s really important for us to understand the work that writers do and how much effort they put into it and they don’t get enough recognition and so that’s why I’m here.

 “Knowledge is power and we get that knowledge through books and we get that knowledge through the creative minds of these writers.”

Salem Fray, an English teacher in Harlem, said he was attending in order to stand up for free speech.

Rushdie “stands as anybody who is willing to say what needs to be said, regardless of what the outcome might be, and I think that’s an important thing to support”, Fray said.

Jeffery Eugenides, the American novelist best known for The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, prefaced a reading from Rushdie’s 1981 novel Midnight’s Children by describing a time when he was a young writer touring London. Eugenides recalled how enamored he was by Rushdie’s works and wanted to meet him in person.

“I looked him up in the London phone book. There it was, under the Rs – Rushdie, Salman, along with an address and a telephone number. I took the Tube out to his house. As it turned out, Salman wasn’t at home … but his mother-in-law let me in … I told her why I was there, she got me a piece of paper and I wrote a note to Mr Rushdie and I left it for him and I went back to my hotel.

“That was a world we used to live in, a world where the only craziness that might be visited upon a writer came in the form of a young, over-exuberant reader who showed up at his doorstep. That world was called civilization. Let’s try to hang on to it.”

The crowd applauded. Other writers who read at the event included Reginald Dwayne Betts, Siri Hustvedt, Gay Talese, Colum McCann, Paul Auster, Aasif Mandvi  and Roya Hakakian.

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