I attended a Salman Rushdie lecture with a made-up mind about him, hoping that he’d be able to somehow prove me wrong despite all that I had read. And during the lecture itself, he grew on me. He was quick, charming, and eloquent. But I left feeling completely to the contrary, completely disappointed with Salman Rushdie. Not as a writer, talented as he may be, but as a person.
Amongst the most memorable names to cross my ears as a child growing up in a South Asian Muslim household was that of Salman Rushdie; it was always uttered with an air of frustration and complete hatred. The constant barrage of negativity was enough to create an authoritative perspective on the issue that I slowly, with a naïve and impressionable mind, took on as my own.
Regardless of what sort of enlightenment grew within me as my years increased, the opinion that Mr. Rushdie was a vile figure persisted. I had skimmed, albeit with much guilt, through The Satanic Verses. I was quick to stuff it back into the array of used books before me. Yet, when it was recently announced that my university would be hosting “an evening with Sir Salman Rushdie,” I was determined to go and see the man whose name had been a fixture of the peek-a-boo persuasion throughout my life.
Rushdie walked out onto the stage, in a room filled with around 700 students, to a thunderous response. A friend and I – brightly veiled – had only found seats at the very front, in the direct view of both Rushdie and the salivating audience. Curious and awaiting glances fell in our direction.
He immediately dived into his lecture, discussing the interplay between literature and the private and public lives of individuals. Literature, he explained, was the means through which news would reach the common man long before the days of the print media. It had real power, which has diminished with the increasingly trivialized and sensationalized nature of the news. He claimed that it is precisely literature, as a medium of storytelling, which serves to truly examine the lives we lead and the “far from ordinary” world in which we live. Literature such as David Eggers’ Zeitoun is an example of this sort of contemporary story-telling that humanizes history, going against the “official” story. Storytelling is an integral part of humanity, most important during times of political upheaval as it sustains the humanity of everything. In an open society the Narrative is constantly being challenged, in flux, and thus consistently changing albeit never “changed.” To limit people in how they create and engage with the Narrative is to go against the basic nature of man.
I sat there, sifting through rigorously taken pages of notes. I sat there, applauding and smiling. Some questionable assumptions aside, his lecture was a pleasure to listen to. Until, the question/answer session began.
My stomach turned as his opinion on the recent legislation in Quebec which has sought to ban the adornment of the niqab from public spaces, was asked.
All of a sudden, Rushdie was an authority on minority rights and issues relating to Quebec history and identity complexes. Simply put, he “did not like his women behind a cloth.” He agreed with the legislation in essence, even though he had not read it, as he felt that was of dire importance that he be able to see the face of a woman who may be serving him in a government office. He didn’t need to see something in a “bag.” I suppose bedding the likes of Padma Lakshmi makes one rather interested in the full exploration of the female body. He went onto claim that the women in his family were strong, independent and critical minded individuals who would be “very, very, very cross” were anyone to suggest the veil – no longer just the niqab – to them. He said he felt the veil was a form of oppression, and that while many women here may have the choice, many women around the world did not and were forced to comply.
My friend and I immediately found ourselves hushed, feeling 700 pairs of eyes slowly glance in our direction, awaiting our facial responses. I sat there, not just upset at the rather alienating and completely insulted comment made by Rushdie – implying women who veil are not critical of thinkers or intelligent enough to “resist” such an oppression of the expression of our faith. I was upset because I knew that very few in the audience would engage with that particular topic any further, and even fewer would do so in an enlightened or tolerant manner. A crowd whose questions to this distinguished author consisted of asking his opinion on the Twenty/Twenty Cricket World Cup, bloggers as credible experts, Slumdog Millionaire’s success, and general advice to aspiring writers, was not one from which I would expect a great deal of critical thinking itself. Perhaps this was pretentious on my part, yes, but I’m the one creating this narrative.
What was ultimately upsetting, however, was how completely useless Rushdie’s words became once he made that comment. He immediately had forgotten the importance of tolerance and finding common ground. Rather than perhaps looking at different ways to live The Narrative shared across borders by all of us he chose to make it abundantly clear that it was ultimately only his own narrative that mattered. He was unwilling to listen to or acknowledge the narrative of others, because “bags” just aren’t his thing. Mr. Rushdie spoke of how in an open society, the narrative must be constantly challenged and reworked – the (small) presence of the niqab and the (large) presence of the hijab in Quebec, in particular, are doing precisely that, sir (in the least royal sense of that word). So, what of that?
I attended the lecture with a made-up mind about Salman Rushdie, hoping that he’d be able to somehow prove me wrong despite all that I had read about and by him. And during the lecture itself, he grew on me. He was quick, charming, and eloquent. But I left feeling completely to the contrary, completely disappointed with Salman Rushdie. Not as a writer, talented as he may be, but as a person. Believe, internalize, and exhibit what you say and promote, sir (again, in the least royal sense of that word)!
Then again, whatever. It’s all about Ayaan Hirsi Ali now.
Sana Saeed is a Montreal-based writer and graduate student of Islamic Studies. She blogs at Kabobfest.com and MuslimahMediaWatch. Her own personal blog can be found at aristotleslackey.wordpress.com, where the original version of this article can be found.