When the Fatwa Generated a Storm: The Freedom and Integrity of the Pen

When the Fatwa Generated a Storm:

The Freedom and Integrity of the Pen

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

It was December, 1992  — a quarter of a century ago — when my sister arrived, to visit me in Toronto. Wheelchair bound for many years, she travelled rarely. Thrilled that she was coming, I had planned various activities I knew she would enjoy, among them PEN Canada’s annual gala, a fund-raiser at which some of PEN’s literary celebrities (like Margaret Atwood) would perform [1]. The event was to held at the downtown Pantages Theatre in Toronto, where I reserved two seats, one of them wheelchair accessible for my sister, with great sightlines. But the night of the gala, it started to snow hard, quite hard, and so I packed my sister into the car, folded her wheelchair into the trunk, and left much earlier than I would have done normally in order to get there on time.

Canadian born, my sister and I were used to winter. My family were all skiers. I know how to drive in snow. But this night was a doozer! Despite the weather, though, when we finally got to the theatre, it was packed full of hardy souls, just as we expected. First of all, the tickets were too expensive not to come, once you had one, and secondly, none of the assembled literati, including me, were going to miss the PEN Gala. It was not exactly the Canadian version of the Oscars, but it was close.

My sister’s handicap placard wasn’t valid in Canada, but the police – oh my goodness, there seemed to be a lot of them! – kindly let me park right in front of the theatre long enough to unpack the wheelchair and push my sister, a rather hefty bundle, through the snow into the theatre. We found our seats, and then I left to park my car. By this time, the snow was heavy but still “walkable,” and I was exuberant at finding a parking space in a lot a couple of blocks away, or so it seemed to me. I quickly parked the car and briskly walked back to the theatre, sinking into my seat just a couple of minutes before the curtains parted for the show.

Nevertheless, I still had time to observe that the theatre’s interior seemed to be lined with quite a few Mounties (Royal Canadian Mounted Police, although they rarely ride horses anymore) in full ceremonial dress. These are the federal police in Canada. Interspersed among them were others in civilian dress, probably detectives, scrutinizing the crowd. And then I had no more time to think. The show had started!

It was a lot of fun, especially for people with a literary bent. My sister loved it. But then, just as the audience was starting to applaud for what we thought was the final curtain, a male figure strode onto the stage, surrounded by a semi-circle of Mounties.

The First Miracle

When the center figure of the semi-circle on the stage was introduced as Salman Rushdie, author of the satirical novel, “The Satanic Verses,” the audience gasped. We all knew that a “fatwa” calling for Rushdie’s assassination had been issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, four years earlier in 1989. Why? For satirizing the prophet Mohammed and his wife, Aisha, in “The Satanic Verses.” The Ayatollah considered it blasphemous. Salman Rushdie was therefore condemned to death, and anyone who murdered him would be well rewarded with a milliondollar bounty.

But Salman Rushdie was British-Indian, born in India, educated at Cambridge, and a British citizen. For the Ayatollah to issue a death warrant for a British subject was a great affront, not only to Britain, but to what was then called the free world – in other words, the West – whose shocked reaction was ineffective. Although Iran had thrown down the gauntlet, the Western countries seemed not to know what to do beyond diplomatic protests. Meanwhile there were public burnings of Rushdie’s books in countries with Muslim majorities.

As a result, Rushdie was put under police protection by the British government for several years. The PEN event in Canada three years after the fatwa was issued was the first time any organization had the courage to invite him to give a public reading. It took a great deal of courage and organization, and the invitation was conducted in complete secrecy. Only the top executive leaders of PEN knew Rushdie was coming.

Onstage, an immensely grateful Rushdie described what it was like to live in hiding, fleeing with his wife, and – with the help of the British government – to sleep in a different house every night, and always with the fear of being killed in his sleep. It was such a memorable event that in 2012, PEN Canada held a 20th Anniversary celebration of this occasion [2].

When Rushdie read to us excerpts from his new manuscript, “Midnight’s Children,” which he was still writing while in hiding, it was a moment that this 1992 audience would never forget. It was such a memorable event, accompanied by tumultuous applause, that in 2012, PEN Canada held a 20th Anniversary celebration of this occasion [3].

After the reading, my sister’s face was flushed with excitement and appreciation. When Rushdie had first appeared on the stage, the audience had almost collapsed in, as one writer put it, “collective disbelief.” It seemed like a miracle. For my sister and myself, it was to be only the first miraculous event of the evening.

The Second Miracle

The second miracle didn’t feel like a miracle at first. It felt more like a disaster. After I parked my sister in the theatre lobby in front of a large glass window looking out at the street, I said, “I’m going to get the car now. I won’t be long. I’m just parked a couple of blocks away.”

But when I stepped outside, the driving snow had turned into a veritable blizzard, and the direction I was walking was heading right into it. The snow had already built up halfway to my knees. So I crouched down low, lifting one foot up from the thick snow and planting it down further ahead in more thick snow, and then the same thing with the other foot. Methodically I advanced toward the parking lot a couple of blocks away. On the South East corner of the street, right? That’s what I had noted when I originally parked there just two and a half hours earlier.

When I finally plodded through the snow to the parking lot on the corner, it was still full of cars. Only they all looked the same. Completely covered with snow. And guess what color my car was? You guessed it! White. Never buy a white car in Canada. I tried to determine the approximate place in which I had parked my car – and brushed away the snow from the license plates in that general area. Brush, brush! Not my car. Brush, brush! Not my car. After a lot of brush, brushing and many wrong license plates, I determined that 1) my car was not in that parking lot, no way, and 2) that I had better get back to the theatre lobby before they closed, and my sister was out in the street.

Plod, plod, plod, plod. “I’ll never make it to the theatre.” I was shivering. Just at that moment, I spotted an ambulance, a police ambulance, parked at the side of the road and just starting up the engine. “Wait, wait,” I yelled at the top of my lungs. “Wait for me.”

The ambulance driver did. I managed to reach his window and begged him to 1) help me pick up my invalid sister and 2) help me find my lost car. “Well, it’s against the regulations” he hemmed and hawed, but as he watched my tears freeze on my face, he said, “Okay. Get in. I’ll help you.”

So we got my sister, to the worried manager’s relief, and the three of us lifted the wheelchair, and my sister in it, into the ambulance. Thank God. My sister could not conceal her amazement. Where had this ambulance come from? I realized it had been parked on the street as a precaution in case there were any problems associated with the Rushdie reading. Well, now we were the problem, my sister and I.

“Show me this parking lot,” the ambulance driver said kindly.

“The South East corner, two blocks down.” So he drove me there, and I told him about my earlier brush, brush routine. He understood. “A white car,” he groaned. His ambulance was white too. White and blue.

“You know,” he said, “there’s actually another parking lot on the South East corner, but it’s one block over to the right. Do you think you could have parked there?”

A light went on in my head. Could it be?

So he drove us to the next lot, and after a lot of brush, brush on my part, the letters and numbers of my totally snow-covered license were revealed. My car! My white car!

We thanked him a million times as he transferred my sister to my car, helped me fold up the wheelchair and pack it in the trunk, and waited until I cleared the snow off my windows, the front and rear lights, and my tailpipe, revved up the car, and backed out. Ready to go.

“Drive slowly,” he said. And with a wave of his hand, the officer and his ambulance were gone.

My sister and I were giddy with relief. We laughed and laughed and giggled and giggled. We couldn’t stop. “No one will believe me,” my sister chortled. She was known to embellish a tale or two. And then there was a third miracle.

The third miracle was that by keeping my eyes focused on the red tail lights of the cars directly in front of me, I managed to see my way through the blizzard. When we got home, we were still laughing.

So that’s how it happened. Three miraculous events in one night. And all of them were generated by the courageous leadership of Canadian writers who respected the integrity and freedom of the pen. Even in a snowstorm.

* * * *

[1] PEN was originally an acronym for Poets, Essayists, and Novelists, and you had to be invited to belong. Today this international organization includes Playwrights and diverse other writers as well.

[2] Graham Gibson, then President of PEN Canada, and the husband of Margaret Atwood, and several others like John Ralston Saul are to be commended for inviting Rushdie and for the complex organization and security arrangements that followed.

[3] “On December 7, 1992, PEN Canada held a benefit for Salman Rushdie at which then Ontario premier Bob Rae became the first head of government to welcome Rushdie in a public forum anywhere in the world…. Rushdie later described the evening as one ‘he would never forget’” (PEN newsletter).

©️Corinne Copnick, 2017. All rights reserved.