Shortly before he was stabbed at an event in New York on Friday, author Salman Rushdie had agreed to serve as a traveling envoy advocating for fellow writers in peril, according to a co-founder of the group that offers refuge to exiled scribes.
The award-winning author has faced death threats for more than 30 years for his book “The Satanic Verses.” Iran’s late supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa, or Islamic edict, demanding his death, and an Iranian foundation had put up a bounty of over $3 million for the author.
“I asked Salman would he be willing to travel to promote the idea of cities of asylum and grow them in the US,” Ralph Henry Reese of the Pittsburgh-based City of Asylum told the UK Guardian newspaper. “He signed up.”
Reese was moderating the event, and was also wounded in the attack, receiving facial injuries he described as “meaningful enough, but not anything like those Salman suffered.”
He said Rushdie was in very good spirits prior to going onstage in the Chautauqua Institution and that the two were looking forward to further talking about exile for writers in danger.
“We go out minutes later on stage,” Reese said. “He wanted to talk about welcoming writers in exile into communities and how positive that is for everyone.”
Then came the attack, in which Rushdie was stabbed multiple times and left seriously injured. The suspect, Hadi Matar, 24, was arrested at the scene.
“It was a tragic irony in so many ways,” Reese said. “The horror of it, all the layering of the realities.
“Here was Rushdie who had lived this already, who was speaking so courageously for many years, who was about to talk about his experiences and the value of protecting writers, and now we have this extraordinary materialization happening right on stage. It was so resonant of why we need to defend precisely those values,” he added.
It was Rushdie’s plight under threat of death that inspired Reese to set up the City of Asylum movement. In 1997 Reese attended a talk by Rushdie at the University of Pittsburgh where the author, at the time under protection by Britain, explained the importance of helping writers who are at risk. That led Reese to form the asylum group, which currently is helping five exiled writers, providing them with housing in Pittsburgh.
Reese declined to discuss exactly what he witnessed during the assault as he may be called to testify in legal proceedings, but spoke of how at first he thought Matar’s charge at Rushdie was “the worst case joke in the world, a joke on what had happened in the past, not a real thing.”
“Looking back on it, I suppose I should never have thought that given Salman’s life story. Then, obviously, it became very real,” he said.