An excerpt from Salman Rushdie’s new book “Joseph Anton: A Memoir”

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An excerpt from Salman Rushdie's new book "Joseph Anton: A Memoir"
An excerpt from Salman Rushdie's new book "Joseph Anton: A Memoir"

The Pakistani film  “International Gorillay” (International guerrillas), produced by Sajjad Gul,  told the story  of a  group of local heroes—of the type that would,  in the  language  of  a later  age, come to be known as jihadis   or terrorists—who vowed to find and  kill  an author  called “Salman Rushdie.” The quest for “Rushdie” formed the main action of the film and “his” death was the film’s version of  a happy ending.

“Rushdie” himself   was depicted as a  drunk,  constantly swigging from a bottle of liquor, and a sadist.   He lived in what looked very like a palace on what looked very like an island  in the Philippines  (clearly all novelists  had second homes of this kind),  being protected by what looked very like the Israeli  army (this  presumably being a  service offered by Israel to all novelists),  and he  was plotting  the overthrow  of Pakistan by the fiendish means of opening chains of discotheques and gambling  dens across that pure and virtuous  land, a  perfidious notion for which,  as the British Muslim “leader”  Iqbal Sacranie might  have said, death was too light a punishment. “Rushdie” was dressed exclusively in a   series  of  hideously  colored safari  suits—vermilion  safari suits, aubergine safari suits,  cerise safari suits—and the camera, when- ever it fell upon the figure of this vile personage, invariably started at his feet and then  panned with slow menace up to his face. So the safari suits got a lot of screen time, and when he saw a videotape of the film the fashion insult wounded him deeply. It was, however, oddly satisfying to read that one result of the film’s popularity in Pakistan was that the actor playing “Rushdie” became so hated by the film-going public that he had to go into hiding.

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At a certain point in the film one of the international gorillay was captured by the Israeli army and tied to a tree  in the garden of the palace in the Philippines so that “Rushdie” could  have his evil  way with him. Once “Rushdie” had finished drinking from his bottle and lashing the poor terrorist with a whip, once he had slaked his filthy lust for violence upon the young man’s body, he handed the innocent would-be murderer over to the Israeli  soldiers  and uttered the only genuinely funny line in the film. “Take him away,” he cried, “and read to him from The Satanic Verses all night!” Well, of course, the poor fellow cracked completely.  Not that, anything but that, he blubbered as the Israelis led him away.

At the end of the film “Rushdie” was indeed killed—not by the international gorillay, but by the Word itself, by thunderbolts unleashed by three large Qur’ans hanging in the sky over his head, which  reduced the monster to ash. Personally fried by the Book of the Almighty: There was dignity in that.

On July 22, 1990, the British Board of Film Classification refused International Gorillay a certificate, on the fairly self-evident grounds that it was libelous (and because the  BBFC feared that if it were to license the film and the  real Rushdie were to sue for defamation, the board could  be accused of having become party to the libel,  and could there- fore  be  sued  for damages  as well). This  placed the  real  Rushdie in something of a  quandary. He was fighting a battle   for free speech and yet he was being defended, in this case, by an act of censorship. On the other hand the film was a nasty   piece  of  work. In the end he wrote  a letter to the BBFC formally giving up his right of  legal recourse, as- suring  the board that he would  pursue neither  the filmmaker nor the board itself  in the courts,  and that he did not wish  to be accorded  “the dubious protection of censorship.” The film should  be shown  so that it could  be seen for the “distorted, incompetent  piece of  trash  that it is.”  On August  17, as   a  direct  result  of  his intervention,   the board unanimously  voted to license the film; whereupon, in spite of all the producer’s efforts   to  promote   it, it immediately sank without  trace, because it was a rotten movie, and no matter what its intended  audience may have thought  about “Rushdie” or even Rushdie, they were too wise  to throw their  money away on tickets  for a dreadful film.

It was, for him, an object lesson  in the importance  of  the “better out  than in” free speech argument—that it was better to allow even the most reprehensible speech than to sweep it under the carpet, better to  publicly   contest  and perhaps deride  what  was loathsome  than  to give it the glamour  of taboo, and that, for  the most part, people could be trusted  to tell the good from  the bad. If International  Gorillay had been banned, it would  have become the hottest of hot  videos and in the parlors  of  Bradford  and Whitechapel  young  Muslim men would have gathered behind  closed drapes to rejoice in the frying  of the apostate.  Out in the open, subjected to the judgment of the market, it shriveled like a vampire in sunlight, and was gone.

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An excerpt from Salman Rushdie's new book "Joseph Anton: A Memoir"

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