Sir Salman’s Day

Valentine’s Day excerpt from Holidays and Other Disasters (Humanist Press, 2013)

On St. Valentine’s Day, 1989, the last day of her life…”

The Ground Beneath Her Feet

Both for his unflagging love of literature (despite those who would annihilate him because of it) and for his undiminished faith in the possibility of love between individuals (despite his knowledge of its fragility), Salman Rushdie could be seen as embodying Valentine’s Day values. While that certainly beats being the lifeless testament to the persistence of superstitious barbarism that he almost became, it still leaves him saddled with an unfortunate symbolic burden.

It was on February 14, 1989, that Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini announced the infamous fatwa denouncing the author of The Satanic Verses and encouraging the faithful to slaughter him. While Rushdie lived in hiding, several serious attempts were made to carry out Khomeini’s call, according to Scotland Yard. The pursuit of his death for an act of imagination attracted plenty of attention at the time, but Rushdie subsequently added more to his eventful Valentine’s Day story. In a novel published a decade later, he imagined a character’s death on the same date. While works of fiction shouldn’t—can’t—be read for reliable information about their authors, Rushdie’s use of that pivotal day in The Ground Beneath Her Feet at least indicates it was still very much on his mind. Also, on the tenth anniversary of receiving his “unfunny Valentine,” Rushdie in a New York Times column reflected more directly on the effect the edict had on him:

Life can be harsh, and for a decade St. Valentine’s Day has reminded me of that harshness. But these dark anniversaries of the appalling Valentine I was sent in 1989 have also been times to reflect upon the countervailing value of love. Love feels more and more like the only subject.

Rushdie describes his response as a writer and proclaims his intensified commitment to the art of literature. Defending uninhibited creativity by exercising it amounts to an assertion of love in defiance of hateful dogma, Rushdie says. In the same piece, he reports feeling cleft in two with one Rushdie forever associated with the fatwa and the other simply trying to get on with writing books. These two, Rushdie the symbol and Rushdie the individual, can’t cohabitate in comfort. The spokesperson for literary freedom at times overshadows the writer. Unable to ignore the “dire business” thrust upon him, he addressed it in articles and speeches, but worried that he risked “deafening the world to those other utterances, [his] books,” and helped “to conceal the real Salman behind the smoky, sulfurous Rushdie of the Affair.”

The story of the Rushdie Affair has as a subplot the pitiful group that suggested Rushdie invited his difficulties by daring to tell a tale in which Muhammad appears as part of a madman’s dream. Members of this cowering tribe of extremism excusers tried to present him as a rude blasphemer who offended a fine old religion. John Cardinal O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York, agreed with Rushdie’s would-be executioners that his novel was blasphemous and offensive. Writers who should have known better denounced not the bounty-promiser and -hunters but a colleague with a price on his head. John Le Carré, for instance, explained that all people are not “required to exhibit the same tolerance when their god is mocked” and that Rushdie consequently participated in “his own downfall.” Rushdie “knew what he was doing and he cannot plead otherwise,” opined Roald Dahl, who said that what Rushdie really was doing was aiming for the best-seller list. Graham Greene sympathized with the book burners, though he didn’t believe Rushdie’s “shocking bad taste” warranted his death. Whichever way he became perceived—hero or heel—Rushdie reasonably worried that his public role as an emblem diverted notice from his essential self’s most meaningful efforts.

On the same symbolic date five years later, Rushdie added another chapter when he sought to align himself more intimately with “the only subject.” On February, 14, 2004, he announced his engagement to model and television personality Padma Lakshmi. If on the tenth anniversary he reacted as a professional author, on the fifteenth he acted in a more personal way. If earlier statements dealt with abstractions, the pledge to marry amounted to a very particular expression of love. “To an ordinary human being,” George Orwell observes, “love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others.” By declaring his love for one woman more than any others, Rushdie, I think, tried to become a regular person rather than the divisive and divided figure of the Rushdie Affair.

Indeed, by rejecting meddlesome, illegitimate authority and endorsing loving instead of fighting, Rushdie could be said to represent the best of Valentine’s Day. One account of its origin claims a third-century Roman priest performed illegal marriages, violating a decree of emperor Claudius II, who preferred to keep young men single and therefore, he believed, more suitable soldier material. (Another account says the holiday was thrust upon an older Roman pagan feast—something of a Christian tradition that.) The union between Rushdie and his fourth wife lasted only a few years; divorce proceedings began before the other, more ominous anniversary reached another divisible-by-five stage, but this doesn’t sully the intent of Rushdie’s gesture. Loving some people more than others doesn’t always translate in to loving them—or being loved by them—unceasingly, and the unwillingness to give up on marriage despite having experienced its failure suggests an admirably undaunted romantic temperament. (In his 2012 memoir Joseph Anton, in which he describes life under the fatwa as well as his serial marriages, Rushdie confirms this assessment. Regarding Lakshmi he has mostly sour things to say, but in connection with an earlier spouse he reflects: “that love could die did not mean it had not lived.” The ability to love can survive even if a particular marriage can’t.)

Though Rushdie might have become the most famous modern near-martyr for the art of fiction (and it shouldn’t be forgotten that several people associated with The Satanic Verses were physically attacked and one of its translators was murdered), he is not alone in his efforts to salvage something of the day’s spirit of rebellion against despots determined to flex the muscles of their detestation. Saw Wai, for instance, sought to wed expressions of love with protest. The Burmese poet was arrested in January 2008 after one of his poems, with an imbedded denunciation of the ruling dictator, appeared in print. Described by the Associated Press as the author of “innocuous love poems for Burmese-language magazines and journals,” Saw Wai structured his “February 14” so that if read vertically the first word of each line formed the following: “Power crazy Senior General Than Shwe.” (The name of military junta’s head contains the Burmese words for “million” and “gold,” which the poet found ways to incorporate into his verse on the meaning of love.) After the writer’s detention, copies of the magazine that published his poem were removed from newsstands in Rangoon.

People who routinely endure the sort of tyranny that spawned the threat to Rushdie’s existence have emphasized the importance of individuals’ personal preferences, just as he tried to fifteen years after the fatwa, by celebrating Valentine’s Day where doing so is explicitly forbidden. In Saudi Arabia, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice declared it a “pagan feast” and, in February 2007, the institution that enforces the Wahhabi version of Islamic religious doctrine (the mutawwa) announced that it “would systematically inspect hotels, restaurants, coffeehouses, and gift shops to prevent Muslim couples from giving each other Valentines or other presents,” according to journalist Stephen Schwartz and Irfan al-Alawi, director of the Islamic Heritage Research Foundation. However, “Saudi subjects report that the mutawwa harassment failed. Many ordinary Saudi Muslims favored their beloved with Valentines gifts, which were more popular than ever.” Schwartz and al-Alawi see this as a possible hint of a “movement away from tyranny.” They write: “If a serious Valentine Revolution were to develop in the Saudi kingdom, its success would have incalculably beneficial effects in the Muslim world, undermining the appeal of Wahhabism and curbing the cash flow to al Qaeda, contributing to regional stability, and providing a responsible alternative to the demagogy of [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and others.”

Sending a Valentine isn’t personal, then; it’s political. If by exchanging signs of love individuals challenge rigid social control by religious rulers, then Rushdie’s announcement of his wedding plans on Valentine’s Day left him no less of a symbolic warrior in the fight against violent fundamentalism than he had been earlier. Schwartz and al-Alawi are unduly optimistic about the sharpness of red roses’ subversive thorns. After all, even in the legend associated with the day, Saint Valentine’s secret marriages didn’t bring about the downfall of the Roman Empire, and, in the real world, Saw Wai’s poetic assault toppled neither Than Shwe’s military organization (the Tatmadaw) nor the ruling regime (the State Peace and Development Council, the outfit formerly and more sinisterly known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC). Nonetheless, by insisting on the day’s implications in the public realm, they complicate Rushdie’s efforts to close the rift Khomeini opened and might actually widen it instead.