So belated I am ashamed of uploading it
It only took me 35 frigging years to read Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. I kid you not. Penguin published it in 1988. I was gifted a copy for Christmas 1989, and after several false starts, I finally said my farewells to Gibreel Farishta, Saladin Chamcha and friends just a few weeks ago.
Thirty-five frigging years, man! THIRTY-FIVE. In that timeframe, some friends have raised (and disowned) families; a few have contributed enduring scientific discoveries of note; and one has managed to develop abs despite being a voracious connoisseur of Ghormeh-sabzi.
But when an ignorant, sanctimonious, religious-fascist prick decided to provide his sad little life with a modicum of meaning by assassinating a far better human being than himself, something snapped in me. I said, “It is now or never. I owe it to myself, and perhaps to Rushdie as well, to read and understand his book.” So, I dusted off the weighty tome which had over the years gradually tumbled its way onto my shit-shelf, found an audio version online in order to enhance the reading experience, and sat down to devour all 547 pages.
And let me be upfront with you chumps and champs, the journey was never a smooth ride and in places, it proved damn choppy. The postmodern novel’s lack of a discernible grand narrative and a neat resolution means that ironically all sub-plots must be infused with an overabundance of significance. Every event is over-stylised and multi-fucking-layered, every character is good-bad before flipping bad-good, every truth sits beside many other truths, every text is inter-texted and simultaneously trans-texted, and golly, everything is just so darned hybridy and stuff (e.g., see p. 70). After a while, the shear permutation of figures and sub-plots demanding our attention becomes exhausting.
By way of a synopsis
The opening scene is a case in point: terrorists have bombed a London-bound jet in mid-flight. Everyone is killed saved for two Indian artists of varying prestige: Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha. We come to know these two fairly well by the end of the book. Various dichotomies are shaped through their interactions. Sometimes they are presented as part of a spectrum, with one being more of a British-Indian and the other tending to be more of an Indian-Brit (p. 426). Sometimes they stand for two opposing paradigms, with Gibreel as the modernist (with a rounded personality), and Saladin veering in the direction of postmodernism (with multiple identities) (p. 427). As they descend to earth, they are transmuted; one into an angel, the other into a demon. The hallucinatory discussion they pursue downwards ranges from the indignities of the British asylum system to the undermining of monotheism by the polytheistic goddess al-Lat (p. 8). Some fifty pages onwards a similarly packed paragraph glides effortlessly from commentary on the Bhopal incident to the hybrid traditions of Indian culture, and the way Hindu fundamentalism has arisen to do away with moral relativism (p. 52).
Throughout Rushdie makes historical allusions to Islam and Hinduism, but also to seminal political figures, in order to anchor his magical realism in sufficient ‘reality’ as to make the ‘magic’ believable. His main character, Gibreel, for instance, suddenly drops out of a financially lucrative Bollywood filming career at the age of forty to be reincarnated (p. 11). According to Muslim folklore, the merchant Mohammad was also initially head-hunted by the angel Gabriel near Mecca at forty. Rushdie’s Gibreel fears sleep and the spooks and spirits it brings forth, just as Mohammad worried about his sanity after grappling with visions in his dream-revelations. Jumping with dizzying speed from one self-centred narcissist to another, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (aka the Shah), is then acerbically chastised for his exuberant 1971 Imperial celebrations (p. 14), before issues around loss of faith and atheism are introduced (p. 30).
The book’s central arguments
A subversive element of the book that is deliberately planted by Rushdie and enjoyed, I would assume, by most readers is the way imagination ushers in ‘impure’ thoughts such as sexual desiring. This desiring may involve faith icons (pp. 24-25), a topic that the clergy cannot deal with psychologically or sexually. It does not even have to be top-notch, creative imaginative work. It could be humdrum and ordinary mechanical imagination. Any type of imaginative wandering opens up a front against religions that are not able to countenance impurity. The fight between Light and Dark must be demarcated otherwise ambiguity gives Shaitan the upper hand (p. 323). Rushdie is saying insecure religions must permanently and resolutely stand opposed to artistic imagination, as a matter of strategic policy. This is an important lesson.
Impure thoughts tend to result in either deeply embedded guilt complexes or loss of faith. Rushdie is good at bringing out both sets of responses and playing around with their consequences. His central characters, for example, frequently lose their faith. Sometimes they regain it and sometimes not- that is not the point- the point is impurity leads to doubt, and doubt can solidify into scepticism, and once a society fortifies itself with scepticism, all leaders, whether religious or secular, will have their work cut out for them.
Impurity is not just religious; it also includes cultural mutation. Rushdie is obsessed with borders and their dissolution, cultural identities, and their fragmentation. The evolution (or is it devolution?) of one of his central characters is described in these terms: “The mutation of Salahuddin Chamchawala into Saladin Chamcha began, it will be seen, in old Bombay, long before he got close enough to hear the lions of Trafalgar roar” (p. 37). Rushdie, like a good Woody Allen movie, exposes everyone’s duplicity, including his own. He is confessing that for an Indian to lose his identity and become Anglicized is simultaneously desirable and despicable, voluntary and unavoidable, regressive as well as progressive.
Obviously for fundamentalists who require demarcated categories all these transgressions would be perceived as ‘dirty.’ As the anthropologist Mary Douglas might have averred, “Dirt is matter out of place” (Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger, 1966, p. 44). Most of Rushdie’s characters are precisely that, ‘out of place’. ‘Dirty immigrants’ are abused and insulted by British immigration officers because they are out of place. But interestingly the stigmatisation process can run both ways. Before Saladin embarks on his journey to England, he is given sage advice by his mother: “Don’t go dirty like those English … They wipe their bee tee ems with paper only. Also they get into each other’s dirty bathwater” (p. 39). After his return from England the father’s scorn for his westernised son can find a sympathetic echo in the lazy intellects of Iranians brought up on the naff notion of ‘Westoxication’: “[If my son] went abroad to learn contempt for his own kind, then his own kind can feel nothing but scorn for him” (p. 45).
Chapter II on Mahound (a barely disguised Mohammad) would be of interest to Iranian readers. It is framed through the philosophical clash between faith and doubt and charts the vicissitudes of an ascetic businessman in his quest to win over a city called Jahilia (Mecca), built on sand but producing substantial capital (pp. 92-95). The wealth is produced through trade but also pilgrimage, and Mahound is ideally suited to thrive in Jahilia but for one nagging obstacle: he is beginning to have doubts.
In some ways Jahilia is like Rushdie’s modern Bombay- it is a hybrid of pre-Islamic ‘paganism’ and nascent monotheistic belief systems, a perpetual cage fight between Lat and Allah, with numerous warm-up acts to keep the audience fixated. And like any environment that allows cultures to interact dialogically, Jahilia has developed a vibrant culture mediated through poetry and music, a culture that allows anyone with the required set of rhetorical skills to question those who put themselves forward as prophets. “A poet’s work,” the satirist Baal suggests is “to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, to start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep” (p. 97). Baal is brilliant but like most clever dudes his intellect gets in the way of recognising the contours of time. He dismisses Mahound’s entourage as “goons” and “those fucking clowns,” openly conspiring for a “revolution of water-carriers, immigrants and slaves” (p. 101). The Grandee of Jahilia is less poetic and more politically savvy than Baal, a characteristic that allows him to see Mahound as a genuine threat to his setup, precisely because of “his terrifying singularity” (p. 102).
The Satanicness of some verses
But before imposing his discourse of ‘one, one, one’ on the inhabitants of Jahilia, Mohammad (Mahound) experiences a moment of profound doubt. This is the moment of greatest controversy. Rushdie bases his central theses for Satanic Verses (the notion that Mohammad received revelations that later turned out to have come from the Devil) on a number of eminent Islamic historians (e.g., al-Tabari and al-Waqidi). In Islam it is known as the Gharaniq incident (حادثه غرانیق). Archangel Gabriel's warning that Mohammad has been duped by the Devil was the best way of excusing away Mohammad’s compromise with the idolatry of the Meccan elite. The compromise was basically a power-sharing arrangement. Some of Mohammad's closets followers, however, resisted and Mohammad was forced to backtrack. Soon Gabriel's corrective was revealed and Mohammad's lapse (or naivety) brushed under the carpet. All very convenient. All very suspicious. Later historians denied the whole affair had ever occurred. It was fake news promoted by the ever-present enemies of the faith.
But Rushdie takes the Gharaniq incident seriously and suggests that since initially Mohammad’s message was not winning converts and Baal the satirist was exposing his illusions of grandeur at every turn, the Prophet felt dejected. At this moment the city elite bribe him with a seat on the council in return for showing more tolerance, and he meekly accepts the compromise. Sure Allah can live with Lat and the other goddesses. He’ll be happy to. It is only under immense pressure from his disciples that he reverses his decision (p. 106). Here some of Mohammad’s entourage come in for mockery as well. His uncle, Hamza, is portrayed as someone worthy of the tag, ‘fundamentalist.’ Tired of the prophet’s shilly-shallying he burst out: “I hate admitting that my enemies have a point. Damn sight better to kill the bastards, I’ve always thought. Neatest bloody solution” (p. 116). Mohammad also displays personal weakness when he is unfaithful to his wife which, given the more than ample provisions Islam makes for men’s libido, seems a tad over-indulgent (p. 119). The chapter ends with a homo-erotic wrestling duel between Mohammad and archangel Gibreel, which might have been ignored as harmless high jinks by Ayatollah Khamenei but not his predecessor Khomeini (p. 122).
Christianity learned long ago to use Jesus’s moments of weakness and doubt to its advantage. Occasional slippage makes the ultimate triumph of Christianity all the more remarkable. Alas, Islam has not accomplished the same feat with Mohammad yet. So to even imply that Mohammad can be seduced by the devil or succumb to a political compromise with rival elites is tantamount to blasphemy (p. 111).
The portrayal of Ayesha
I do not reside inside the minds of fascist clerics, but if I were a gambling man, I would wager the next theme that might have provoked them was the description of Ayesha in chapter IV. Ayesha is depicted briefly in the nude (p. 226). Muslims have always been on the defensive about her sexuality since, she was but a child when she was married off to Mohammad. Rushdie’s aim, of course, is to return to women control over their bodies but in places the message is lost in the medium.
He continues this chapter by reminding us of Islam’s traditional enmity towards the image (p. 206), and history (p. 210). The Imam, who is enjoying sanctuary in London, has nothing but contempt for the British and their perceived impurities. This nasty piece of work is clearly sketched with the fascist Khomeini in mind. There is even an oblique mention of someone who might be the singer Cat Stevens, the famed convert to Islam (p. 207). If Stevens's career was an example of downward mobility, Rushdie reminds us that for the untouchables of India converting to Islam is a step up (p. 223)! In a prescient passage that will soon become a reality for Rushdie himself, he quotes a Muslim who demands, “Burn the books and trust the Book” (p. 211).
There follows a series of acute observations related to racism (p. 252), class (p. 259), advertising and its connections to racism and classism (pp. 264-267), and the problems with patriotism (p. 268), that I leave the readers to discover for themselves. There is even a discussion of the issues surrounding fictionalising the life of Mohammad which shows how thoughtfully Rushdie had evaluated possible responses to his book (p. 272). When Rushdie indulges in rudimentary discourse analysis, it becomes abundantly clear that he is good at analysing the nuances and inflections of middle class interactions but he has difficulty comprehending the richness of working class discourse (p. 281). In short, he does not read the plebian street - be it in Bombay or London - very well (p. 286).
Around pages 295-320, I was ready for some sort of resolution but Rushdie takes this as an opportunity to introduce yet more peripheral characters. One gets the distinct impression they are being paraded for our literary delight because Rushdie isn’t sure how to complete the story.
We are moved back and forth in time and space until we come to the crux of the Devil. The benefit of the Devil, Rushdie argues, is to infuse humanity with an inquiring mind, a knowledge that seeks to expand and challenge all, even the Deity itself: “Woman first, and at her suggestion man, acquired the verboten ethical standards, tastily apple-flavoured: the serpent brought them a value system. Enabling them, amongst other things, to judge the Deity Itself, making possible in good time all the awkward inquiries: why evil? Why suffering? Why death?” (p. 332).
Another jolt in time-and-space, another chronotope: Jahalia, the town which becomes a site of contestation between early Islam and polytheism, houses a brothel named Hijab (p. 376). The association between the objectification of women as sex-workers in a brothel and Muslim concubines or wives is not a novel concept, but Rushdie gives it wings, making it hard for fundamentalists to ignore. To increase the brothel’s profit margins twelve sex-workers are trained to impersonate Mahound’s twelve wives. The harem and brothel are conjoined briefly before the defeat of licentiousness by puritanism. But the fact that Mahound enjoys “God’s own permission to fuck as many women as he likes,” remains a sore point with followers and foes alike (p. 386).
Some of the criticism is still very fresh since politics remains entrapped within a reactionary discourse. As Islam begins to overcome its earlier doubts it established itself in all spheres of human activity until satire loses its subversive force: “Now there was no demand for satires – the general fear of Mahound has destroyed the market for insults and wit” (p. 362).
The Persianness of Salman
Another significant clash comes when one of Islam’s earliest converts, Salman (the Persian), breaks ranks with Mohammad (Mahound). Baal accuses Salman of treachery: “‘You were one of the closest to him [Mohammad],’ Baal said, perplexed. ‘The closer you are to a conjurer,’ Salman bitterly replied, ‘the easier to spot the trick’” (p .363). Salman then adds, “Mahound had no time for scruples … no qualms about ends and means” (p. 363). Gradually, and at Mahound’s behest, the spirit of early Islam was replaced by legal fundamentalism, “… sprouting rules, rules, rules, until the faithful could scarcely bear the prospects of any more revelations … rules about every damn thing, if a man farts let me turn his face to the wind, a rule about which hand to use for the purpose of cleaning one’s behind” (ibid.). This last sentence would have been perceived by Ayatollah Khomeini as a personal affront since dishing out bathroom rules was his forte. And the coup de grâce follows swiftly: “… Salman the Persian got to wondering what manner of God this was that sounded so much like a businessman” (p. 364). There it is! There you have it! The nub of it, the crux of it, the inner truth of Islam that all the bullshit tends to suppress. It is primarily the faith of the business class with workers, peasants, artisans, slaves and everyone else only allowed a supporting role.
But the Persian ‘immigrant’ isn’t quite done yet: “What finally finished Salman with Mahound: the question of women; and of the Satanic verses … The point about our Prophet, my dear Baal, is that he didn’t like his women to answer back, he went for mothers and daughters, think of his first wife and then Ayesha: too old and too young, his two loves. He didn’t like to pick on someone his own size” (p. 366). When on top of all this, Salman the Persian begins to question the authenticity of the Quran and the revelations, doubt solidifies into rejection (p. 367-369).
Final words then to bring my 35 year review hiatus to a close: in so far as the auteur can still be distinguished from the text and the noise surrounding it, and in so far as there is a trait clearly identifiable as ‘greatness,’ I think most would agree that Salman Rushdie belongs to the pantheon of great literary artists, although (and here is the not so well disguised sting-in-the-tail), The Satanic Verses does not qualify as a great work. That accolade is best reserved for Midnight’s Children or Shame, two books that were translated into Farsi prior to the 1989 fatwa and had cemented Rushdie’s reputation amongst Iranians.
The book's observations are insightful and it has moments of genuine radicalism. God, Abraham, the totalitarian nature of religion, Mohammad, as well as his wives and close companions are scrutinised. Rushdie succeeds in part-subverting what he had set out to subvert. The tentacled octopus he wrestles with keeps coming back, however, since a final confrontation is neither scripted nor in the purview of a novelist. But at least the man tries to deal with superstition, racism, Palestine, identity-crisis, colonialism, patriarchy, exile, the seductive nature of evil and the existentiality of (mostly middle class) humans. Rushdie reminds us of the possibility and perhaps the natural right to question sacred narratives. His most subversive act may have come not in the book itself but in the acknowledgement section when he confesses to having made “a few touches of my own” to the Quran (p. 549). The monologue has been dialogised. The Quran becomes yet another text which can sit next to other books but without any special privileges. Once this is achieved, Quran’s ideological dilemmas, gaps and contradictions can be explored by anyone. For that, if nothing else, he is worthy of our attention and respect. It is now easier for all of us to play with God’s commands.
The many-headedness of the topics is both an indication of Rushdie’s ambition and his Muslim critics’ egocentricity. For it is a sign of immeasurable self-centredness to reduce a complex, multi-themed text to just one issue: a perceived blasphemy against a perceived holy-text. Khomeini’s attack on Rushdie (a liberal, left-leaning, anti-imperial, anti-Zionist, secular novelist) was a continuation of his assault on Iranian secular thinkers. Remember his fatwa against Rushdie was issued in 1989, a year after the Islamic Republic sued for peace with neighbouring Iraq and also one year after another fatwa commanding the execution of hundreds of leftist Iranian prisoners. Targeting Rushdie was a convenient method of deflecting attention from the regime’s many failures whilst silencing critics. It was also an opening bid for the leadership of the emergent global Islamic movement. The manoeuvre outflanked Khomeini’s Sunni rivals and brought him the kind of attention egocentric peacocks dream of. It is understandable that when Iranian, Arab and French intellectuals demonstrated their support for Rushdie in Paris in 1989, there was no corresponding camaraderie from inside Iran. People were genuinely scared of voicing support, and with good reason. So from the safety of my couch in exile I profess my full support for Rushdie and his right to criticise whoever he wishes, be it God, Mohammad, Iranians or Taylor Swift. He is also entitled I think to feel a little let down by the shallowness of the support he has received from Iranians thus far. He deserves better.
However, this is not a full endorsement of the artistic, literary and politics merits of the book itself. It would, for instance, be remiss of me not to point out that The Satanic Verses is replete with an inordinate amount of middle class musings and, ‘notice-how-I-have-mastered-my-craft-and-marvel-at-my-wordsmithery’ pretentiousness. Sentences that are stretched out on a rack until they almost snap out of socket, a profusion of New Delhi petty bourgeois street-chatter to provide the story with ethnic authenticity, and the outsider’s eye on Londonistan to provide the poor white European literary critic with conceptual anchors to hang their cliched expressions on. The limitations of The Satanic Verses are the limitations of a mind devoid of a class analysis. The bourgeois commentary of Rushdie make a decent point here, a clever point there. What is increasingly required, however, is a fully-fledged reckoning with all forms of reaction and that can only be inaugurated by the global working class.
Still, I must keep reminding myself that Rushdie is on the right side of history and as such worthy of working class praise and meaningful solidarity. We all have the right to question and satirize religious ignorance and superstition. Rushdie has ploughed a rather sizeable bulldozer through the maze of religious bigotry and in the process has made the task of the working class that much easier. He has courageously taken on dogma and ranting tyrants since at least 1988, and will no doubt continue to do so with his upcoming Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder (due out on 16 April 2024).
But what would this meaningful solidarity consist of, I wonder? Well, in the short term, I think public book readings should become an integral part of protests against the Islamic Republic (both inside and outside the country). I cannot think of any book more appropriate for opening the proceedings than Rushdie’s. And in the long term, the greatest gift we could offer Rushdie is to overthrow the mullah-bourgeoisie and their hangers-on. I hope one day soon he would be invited to a free Iran, to discuss his work with all and sundry. Finances permitting, the first round of Ghormeh-sabzi is on me!