“The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie: a crime film with German subtitles

When the first English-language edition of Salman Rushdie’s fourth novel “The Satanic Verses” was released on September 26, 1988, the writer had no idea that this book would radically change his life. Now, 34 years later, many literary festivals and associations are inviting people for readings in solidarity – not because of the erratic anniversaries, but because of an assassination attempt that no one expected, more than 30 years after Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini called for murder on February 14, 1989

The Satanic Verses appeared first in the UK, then in the USA, Italy and France. Soon, angry Muslims protested the novel and its South African, Indian, and Pakistani author stopped importing the book, and people died in the demonstrations. Also in London, where the writer lived at that time, there were violent protests, arson and threats to bookstores selling the novel.

Rushdie’s story is about two Indian actors who survived a plane crash. One becomes an archangel and the other looks like Satan. The title of the novel refers to two verses that Satan attached to the Prophet Muhammad and were said to have been omitted from the Qur’an.

In fact, Rushdie’s novel is not a critique of Islam, but rather a tale about post-colonialism and immigration. Rushdie later said that he never intended to offend Islam. He could have done it in five minutes instead of spending five years on a book.

Nearly six months after the novel was published, Khomeini issued an Islamic fatwa, calling on all Muslims to kill the British-Indian writer for allegedly contempt of religion. Rushdie immediately goes into hiding, lives in hiding for nine years and is under personal protection.

Freedom of art despite the danger to life?

Khomeini called for death not only against Rushdie, but against everyone who participated in the publication of the novel. A quarter of a year ago, Reinhold Neven Dumont, Head of Publishing at Kiepenheuer & Witsch, acquired the rights to the book for the German-speaking market. He later described it as the biggest mistake he made in not reading the entire manuscript beforehand—not because of the impending danger itself, but because he didn’t see it coming.

“The fatwa paralyzed the publishing house,” Helge Malchow, editor-in-chief and then head of the publishing house, recalled in an interview with Deutsche Welle. Because of the life-threatening situation, some employees wanted to give up publishing with a sad heart, “others wanted to defend artistic freedom and publish the book.”

The translator who has already been commissioned is putting in place her work and Kiepenheuer & Witsch is also refraining from the planned publication for the time being. Public criticism of the hesitant position is growing, but according to Helge Malchow: “We must not forget that it was the first Islamic threat of this kind that left us completely unprepared.”

printed in “Taz”

Arno Weidmann, co-founder of the left-leaning daily Taze, saw things differently at the time: “I thought it was a crime not to publish the book,” he said in an interview with Deutsche Welle. After all, “there is no art to publish a book if there is no threat.” At that time, writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger turned to Weidmann’s friend Frank Berberich, who published the cultural magazine Lettre International. Enzensberger suggested that excerpts from Rushdie’s book be printed there, but the Quarterly Publishing Cycle opposes this. Berberich suggests leaving the post to Taz.

“I thought she was too young,” remembers Arno Weidmann, head of culture at the paper at the time. He therefore sent a fax to other editors with the idea of ​​reprinting the sections accused of solidarity on the same day of publication. Only Frank Schermacher, head of the literature department and later co-editor of the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, supported this plan.

At the time, Weidmann harshly criticized the publishing industry in several articles. Germany is hiding, while freedom of expression is defended in other countries and publishers there are not intimidated by protests.

Other media also convey criticism of the hesitant position, but she does not want to act herself.

The planned solidarity action will be a small political issue. Since no other editorial team was involved, Schirmacher, who died in 2014, could not pass the joint campaign with “Taz” in his home – the publications were very dogmatic at that time in political terms. “We did it on our own, which unfortunately – as expected – has received very little attention,” Weidmann says.

Attacks claim dozens of victims

As loud as criticism of the publisher’s decisions is, the concerns are justified, as the following years show. In July 1991, Italian translator Ettore Capriolo survived a knife attack in Milan with only serious injuries. A few days later, Japanese translator and Islamic scholar Hitoshi Igarashi is stabbed to death by one or more strangers in front of his desk at the University of Tsukuba.

Jamshid Khasani, who translated “The Satanic Verses” into Persian, fled from Tehran to Israel in 1992, and through several countries, where he lived under a new name. After Turkish writer Aziz Nesin announced that he would publish excerpts from Rushdie’s book, Islamists launched a premeditated attack on a 1993 cultural festival—because Nesin performed there as well.

He escapes, but 37 people die. In the same year, one of the perpetrators in Oslo shot three times the Norwegian publisher of the book, William Nygaard, who narrowly escaped the assassination.

Several years later, on August 12, 2022, Rushdie survived an assassination attempt, he was seriously injured. It will have to be ventilated occasionally and will suffer permanent damage. After years of working underground and under police protection, Rushdie now lives in New York – for a long time free and without concern for his life, he said in interviews.

Establishing a publishing house for only one book

Back in 1989: In order to publish “The Satanic Verses” in German without a single publisher in the crosshairs as the only target of possible revenge attacks, a plan ripens for a new publishing house. About 100 publishers and associations of writers, editors and authors join the campaign, which is primarily a solidarity campaign. Kiepenheuer & Witsch remains responsible for printing and sales.

Artikel 19 Verlag, whose name refers to freedom of expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, serves the sole purpose of publishing Rushdie’s novel. The group donates profits from publications published by Artikel 19 Verlag to the PEN Writers Association for the benefit of persecuted authors.

Rushdie himself is not enthusiastic about the collective solution, he would like his publisher to take a clear position. “He was really angry, for him the decision was to step back from the threat,” Helge Malchow says.

On October 17, 1989, “The Satanic Verses” entered the German-speaking market – intentionally a day after the end of the Frankfurt Book Fair. The security authorities were unable to assess the risks that the presentation of the trade fair might pose. The publication date is not the only precaution: to this day it is not publicly known who translated the novel into German.

“Concentrated hate”

“Thank God this cup has fallen before me,” says Bernard Rubin, who later translated many of Rushdie’s works. As much as he would have liked to translate the book, he admitted in an interview with Deutsche Welle: “I can hardly imagine what it means to live in fear of death.” “I myself saw the violence in the counter-demonstration,” he says. “It gave me goosebumps to see the hatred that imagination can generate.” Rushdie’s book was burned down in central London – ‘by people who may have never read it’.

Bernard met Robin Rushdie before the scandal through a mutual friend, British writer Ian McEwan. Reuben was living in Oxford at the time, had translated “John Dollar” by Marianne Wiggins, Rushdie’s then-wife, and had recently read “The Satanic Verses” on vacation. He and Rushdie get along well, and they arrange another meeting, which doesn’t happen because Rushdie has to go into hiding.

According to the fatwa, Bernard Rubin agrees with the translation of “The Satanic Verses”. “It led to heated discussions with friends who said, ‘You can’t do that!'” he recalls. “I just said: I can’t do it.” For him, it was unreasonable that this book should not be published in German and that the attack on freedom of expression would be successful.

In the end, however, the publishing group decided that several translators would work at the same time so that publication would not be delayed any further. In order to be able to coordinate better, everyone should gather in one city.

Will The Satanic Verses still be published today?

On the occasion of writing his autobiography “Joseph Anton” (C. Bertelsmann Verlag), published in 2012, codenamed as the title under police protection, Rushdie doubts that “The Satanic Verses” will not find a publisher today.

If this is true? “I’m sure it won’t be published today,” believes Bernard Rubin, who co-translated “Joseph Anton.” Now in his daily life he is faced with questions about whether, as a white man, he could translate literature for a black writer or author. “No novel that deals ironically with the history of the origins of Islam will not be published in this climate.”

“I can’t judge that, but I think Salman Rushdie is one of the most intelligent people ever and wouldn’t contradict him,” says Arno Weidmann.

Today, questions about identity politics are being added, the potential vulnerability of groups flows into decisions differently, according to Helge Malchow. “The witnesses in which the controversial literature appeared on the fatwa no longer exists after that.”

Torsten Landsberg

© Deutsche Welle 2022

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