Write when they put a price on your head

Write when they put a price on your head

The attack in New York last Friday on British writer of Indian descent Salman Rushdie, 33 years after the Iranian regime issued an edict placing a price on his head, is a chilling reminder of the pressure and threats faced Writers around the world are exposed. The latest 2021 report by the PEN organization, created a century ago to defend literature and freedom of expression, lists more than 200 cases of persecuted writers and journalists, a list updated on 15 every year. It also includes some cartoonists and artists who face severe threats, harassment, house arrest or imprisonment. In addition to the assassination of the Lebanese Hezbollah critic Lokman Slim in February last year or the disappearance of the Rwandan poet Innocent Bahati, PEN mentions the writer Sergio Ramírez, against whom Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega issued an arrest warrant in November, imprisoning his whereabouts in Spain as a forced exile.

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Fame and international recognition do not absolve perpetrators of harassment, as evidenced by the report’s case of Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, who has been living in Berlin for two years after she was accused by the government and her books were removed from the country’s school curriculum. The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, also a winner of the Swedish Academy’s highest literary prize, also had problems in 2021: After the publication of his latest book “The Nights of the Plague” he was accused of having insulted the Turkish flag on these pages and the historical leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. But perhaps the case that more directly relates to what happened to Rushdie relates to Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfuz in 1994 at the hands of Islamic extremists, in which he lost an eye and the mobility of an arm, although he managed to do so to write.

Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfuz.Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfuz. BERNARDO PEREZ

It could be said that the banning of certain books and the harassment of their authors are as old as the printing press – just think of Luther or Fray Luis de León being imprisoned and put on trial for the Song of Songs. But the pursuit of Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses (1988) has certain peculiarities that make it a very special case. On the one hand, the persecution of writers usually takes place within the borders of their country of origin or residence, and the threats mostly come from the state, from mafia groups, as in the case of the Mexican Lydia Cacho or the Italian Roberto Saviano, or from terrorist groups like ETA in Spain, whose threats were aimed at intellectuals and journalists such as Fernando Savater and José María Calleja. None of this was fulfilled in the case of the British: Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa from Iran in 1989 against the London-based, Bombay-born writer, for which he was sentenced to death and offered three million dollars to finish him off.

Hostilities against Rushdie’s novel, in which he raved about the life of the Prophet Muhammad and his contact with the Archangel Gabriel, had shown since its publication in the fall of 1988 that it was a transnational issue. Before Khomeini’s edict there had been piles of books, riots in the streets of Britain and attacks on shops in various countries; India, Pakistan, Egypt and South Africa had banned it, and dozens of people died in street riots. Two years after the edict, and with Rushdie hidden and protected by British authorities, the Japanese translator of the Satanic Verses, Hitoshi Igarashi, was stabbed to death at the university where he taught in Tokyo, a crime that has never been solved . The Italian translator was also attacked by an Iranian in his apartment in Milan at the time, and in 1993 the Norwegian publisher of the book, William Nygaard, was shot several times and seriously injured.

The writer Roberto Saviano with the head of his police escort in 2009 at the restaurant on Calle de Toledo in Naples.The writer Roberto Saviano with the head of his police escort in 2009 at the restaurant on Calle de Toledo in Naples.JOAO PINA

What other 20th-century novel has evoked such an angry reaction? “None,” said Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya over the phone, who decided to seek refuge outside of Central America after the publication of his book El Asco. It first came to Berlin in a program born at the initiative of Salman Rushdie himself, who in 1993, while in hiding, promoted the creation of the now defunct International Parliament of Writers in response to the rise in attacks on writers and killings In Argelia. Through this organization, several European cities like Barcelona agreed to welcome and support writers whose lives were in danger for a year or two.

In 1997, American businessman Henry Reese and his wife Diane Samuels heard Salman Rushdie talk about this network of sanctuary cities that wanted to protect not only freedom of expression but also the physical safety of writers, and decided to set up the same program in his own Pittsburgh city in the United States. Thus was born City of Asylum, whose mission Rushdie and Reese were scheduled to discuss last Friday when the attack took place. Castellanos Moya was the second author to participate in this program. “It’s a tragic paradox that Henry Reese was on the scene because he created this program in Pittsburgh, inspired by the Rushdie case,” he says over the phone, mentioning other authors like Venezuelan Israel Centeno, with whom he has a hand was this same apartment.

Demonstration in Paris against the attacks on the satirical weekly Demonstration in Paris against the attacks on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. GETTY IMAGES

The author of The Satanic Verses was threatened by religious power, but his stabbing apparently didn’t have the pattern of the rifle and firearm attack in Paris by the Kouachi brothers on the editorial staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015, in which 11 people were injured and 12 were killed, including director Stéphane Charbonnier, Charb, who was identified by Al Qaeda in 2010 as the perpetrator to be destroyed. About the feminist Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, a Dutch woman of Somali origin who has been in politics and has written several books, also has a fatwa and has been living in the US for a number of years.

Castellanos Moya points to a difference between authors who are harassed for what they write and those who are threatened for their civic engagement as activists. It also points to a shift in Latin America: “Writers are not being threatened as much as journalists, who are now being killed and persecuted. Perhaps because they are no longer afraid of fiction, but of truth and those who uncover underhanded deals. Perhaps the most ideological part was in the last century, when you were called an apostate for breaking beliefs with novels or for proving the corruption of governments in a novel. The perpetual game of mirrors between reality and fiction established by novels since Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quixote, the work Rushdie admires so much, leads to tragic misunderstandings when the fictional is treated as truth. “Fiction is then read as truth because there’s no space to fantasize and they think you’re making a manifesto,” concludes Castellanos Moya.

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