The night Adnan Sarwar apologized for the fatwa
He’s here to talk about time spent under the fatwa, and that is what you do with time — spend it. It costs you, costs effort, so when you’re given your new allocation of twenty-four hours every midnight, you should decide with the most extreme care what to do with them, what effort you are going to put into them that will lead to those in the future being the ones you want to live, and if you waste them, they’re gone forever, you fool. But what if you don’t have that luxury every midnight in the early part of your dreams to decide what you’re going to do after you’ve spent the first seven or eight hours or so resting. What am I going to do today, you think, after you’ve showered, eaten, and are fastening up your shoes, the smell of polish, a smile, the smell of fresh air, a new light in the day, another day, another beautiful wonderful day with which you can do what you will, put your effort, your shoulder to anything you want, but what if you can’t? Who can’t? The prisoner.
Your crime being you wrote a book, and people said, me being one, that you should die for it, and that word, that stupid word went out into the air and stuck to the front pages of newspapers you probably read and barked out of radios you might have listened to in your jail, a word that was mine, a word that got so loud, because a flock was flocking and braying and baying and kept saying it, and it was no longer a word like the rest — it got itself a weight that worried. It worried those sent to protect you. They were alarmed and told you to hide. Hide? I wrote a book. No crime was committed. Bushwa, you say. But when many march and shout and say you should die, then others can blame you for what those shouting say is a crime. It becomes a crime, it becomes a truth, because so many say it is, so it is. And they’re angry, so people get scared. Who is this Salman bloody Rushdie anyway? How dare he insult these people. It’s his own fault, they say, because they’re scared and nobody’s thinking. And in fear anything can become real. The truth can become a lie, it can die, and writing a book can become a crime, because of the noise it made.
It takes nothing to do. Look at me, I’d never read you, never knew you but shouted on the streets of this country. I shouted Salman, with my voice, shouted it with my prepubescent, not-yet-a-man-but-pretending-to-be shriek — that you should die. And I never knew a thing about you. Oh hang on, I think it’s about to start. It’s a September’s night and we’re at the theatre: you, me, and five hundred others who I don’t know. On my right is a girl and on my left a man. Hush now, here he comes. Can you hear that? What a lovely silence, the silence of five hundred breathing. David Aaronovitch is first out and sits on the chair on the left and there’s an empty chair to his left. In his hand is Joseph Anton, Salman’s memoir, full of markers. Then he comes. The breathing increases, becomes a little word or two, but a little word or two is five hundred or a thousand little words, it’s a buzzing murmur that’s broken as he ruffles past the curtain with a couple of claps which turn into a sea of claps, little waves crashing against each other as Salman smiles at us. Happy children, we. Here he is. Salman Rushdie. Smiling. Go on, Salman! The first time I’ve seen him in real life, before only in newspapers, on television and in murderous language. I feel false sitting here in support when I was part of the machine that sent him under, so I clap harder to prove myself, and remember as I clap, I was the open angry mouths on the news years ago. I’m sorry for us both.
I smile at people. A liar’s smile. I’m early to mid-thirties, medium build, smartly dressed (blending in), no distinguishing marks, six feet at least, full beard, I could be IC4 or IC6 — I’m the profile. I’m the lone brown man digging a gun from his bag. I know what I am. I’m 9/11, I’m Bali, I’m the Taj Hotel, the Madrid train, I’m Al-Qaeda, the Taliban — I’m Osama Bin Laden. I can forgive those around me for thinking, or maybe not, just politely wondering as is the British way, whether this young man means trouble. If it’s not too much trouble would you mind not causing a fuss — they’d say, as I pulled the pin from a grenade — it’ll make an awful mess, you know. But there are no grenades, no guns, no trouble. I’m not Bin Laden, I want to say, but what a conversation to have, I mean, in a theatre? In Bloomsbury? No, no, no, that just would not do, manners must prevail and we must endure whatever is to happen with quiet acceptance. Don’t look, just accept, this is the end, don’t look just now.
She’s good looking, the one on my right, maybe I should speak to her, say hello, who knows? We both read Rushdie, it’s a start. Maybe we’ll go for coffee, talk about The Satanic Verses, about Midnight’s Children, the Booker of Bookers, the Indian boy who rocked the world of writing. Have you read it, she asks, sipping her flat white. No, I haven’t, but it’s on the list, all his books are, in fact I’m devoting a shelf to him, my Rushdie shelf. How could you not have read Midnight’s, she asks, it’s a classic. It’s a long story, I say. Oh well, she says, read Midnight’s — it’s great. I will, I’ve already bought it in fact; it’s on my Rushdie shelf. Once I’ve read it, maybe I’ll start calling it Midnight’s too. Oh, what is this? Right, stop it, it’s a dream in a dream, it’s swallowing itself, black characters eating into the white canvas, making it lighter. Use them carefully or the page will disappear. Come on out, something’s happening, he’s speaking.
I pull out my copy of The Satanic Verses, which I’ve just finished, all five hundred and forty-seven pages of it. Should I show it to her, you know, just show it and smile? She’d smile back no doubt, smile to say, oh look, it’s one of his books, not a grenade or a knife, or smile to say, yeah, it’s okay, I don’t think every brown person is a terrorist. Sorry, a dreamer dreaming a dream’s dream again, right on with it. I open it. Each word leads to a perfect sentence and onwards to a paragraph that sang to me, cultural references that made me smile and think about growing up watching Bollywood, a real love in the book. I don’t want to be biased and maybe I am, because after reading it I’m ashamed of being that eleven-year-old boy shouting in the street against him. I feel stupid. And after reading it, I researched him — who is Salman Rushdie? Before the reading and the research, he was nothing. Whilst reading, he grew into a person, someone important to me, and after the research, a man, a human being to whom we weren’t being human. He’s got a son called Zafar, the same age as me. So when I was eleven shouting his daddy’s name — what was he feeling? Thinking? How would I have felt if this was my dad? We all had a dad, all of us in that crowd, but none of us thought about it. I never thought what this meant to me.
He wasn’t just a name to shout, he wasn’t “Salman Rushdie,” “Rushdie,” “Devil,” “Shaythan,” wasn’t just some lone writer. There was a family here, a wife, a son, people he cared about, people who cared about him and went cold inside as I marched streets. Why was I allowed to? Somebody should have stopped us, but the blame’s not theirs, whoever they are — the police, the government, the public — it’s ours. We made it ours when we put on our chappals that day and decided to use our hours to shout for death. The Imams we followed should have stopped us, but it was them we were following. They were at the front of the march with the megaphones leading the children and back here men taking their chappals off their feet and waving them in the air. But then what do eleven-year-old boys know? Not much. They can be led by old men who should know better. But then what do old men know if they never read and just follow orders of other men? They knew nothing, but this was nothing new. Men have been led by men forever. Men who follow rules will be ruled. They’ll be led, be bled, and time’s wheel will turn on after they’ve gone. There was nothing new they could show me.
A Muslim who was higher up than other Muslims, though everybody was equal, said it was bad, so all the Muslims who were equal to him and should have made their own judgments followed his, because his was more equal than theirs was, and the mosques which were there for guidance guided them down streets in English towns, and so eleven-year-old boys like me shouted “Kill Him!” It was only after reading that I saw. A man writes a book, not to make the world cleave open but to write, because that’s what he is — a writer. Some people are born to write; it comes to some. And what a majesty to find the thing that you can do and want to do and that will give you enough to make it through until you’re through. So he writes this book with as much love and effort as a human can have at the point of where he is: he’s more than yesterday, less than tomorrow, but in today, in this day he gives his all. He writes the first draft and then, no, it’s not good enough, tears it up. It’s rubbish, he thinks, I am and have nothing. Later he rescues it from the bin. Right, nobody will read this but I’ll write it. I’ll write it because of all those who’ve gone before me who had to write. I’m one of those in the middle, and there will be others who will come after me who will write because I did. Wouldn’t that be a dream?
I’ve got to do that, be one of those in the middle, push this forward, be part of the story of story, be the one who turned the page a little more, took my heart, pinned it to paper, cut it open and bled. I have to, have to, because when I get it right, when writing feels right, it fills me. I dance in clouds. I’ve read writing that did things to me, and yes, I want to do those things to others. I want them to move while sitting. Disturb them. Devastate them. Make them love love. Make them love me. Make them see what I can. Hear my secrets. And yes, I want people to look at me and say wow. Wow, they say, did you really write this? You took some risk putting your heart out there for all of us to see. We might have laughed at you. Yeah, I’d say, I wrote it with the all of everything I had in me. So he writes. And others read. And they read the love in there and it moves them into the page, and they put the book down because it’s done something to them, something physical, something inside. How can words on a page make your blood warmer? And they sit and look at the cover again and run a finger along the spine — Salman Rushdie.
You do everything to me, you stop me, still me, steal me, make me stare into a space on the page and then into space, then into a space in that space until it blurs and I’m staring into thoughts and they’re not in English or any language but in dreams, and they make sense and I know that if I can catch them, somehow, even a little bit of them, hold them in my head, put them in my pen, then when I write words and close off individual letters with a stroke and lift off that in that letter will be a feeling, will be blood, and it will stand next to another letter and together they’ll make a word that, when it sits amongst others in regimented order in a dictionary somewhere, is small, might garner a little attention, but when you’ve captured feeling, because that’s what it is — a feeling — you’ll have these letters filled inside with dark blood that make them pump warm, and along with the words, letters, commas, and full stops around them, they’ll make a chorus, a rhapsody, a beauty, and they’ll make a sentence that stuns you softly, and you’re spinning in space for a while until you forget what it is you’re doing, and then you look down and realize it’s a book you’re reading with lines that you’ll have to keep repeating, lines that will never leave you, which will become paragraphs that will become a book that you’ll tell others to read and you’ll madden them with your love for it — I want to do that too because you did that to me, you made me.
David asks him if he’s ever spoken to the Iranians about this. Salman has this he-he-he laugh. I smile. I feel good having paid for a ticket, it’s the right thing to do. When I joined the British Army, they said we were a force for good, that even in opposition we must do the right thing, often the hard thing. Back from Iraq, boys in my town said I’d been killing Muslims. The Muslim Brotherhood, the caliphate that was going to take over the world. I didn’t know if this was in the Qur’an, only that it was a sad fantasy. Your Muslim Brotherhood was the same one Saddam was in when he gassed Kurds and drank whisky, the one his sons were in when they tortured and raped, I told them, but then they’d say they weren’t proper Muslims or that it was propaganda from the Kufr. I told them their precious Brotherhood was the same one the Iranians and Iraqis were in when they killed each other over eight years, killed a million Muslims between them while we were growing up drinking free milk in English schools. I told them truths I’d seen, and they didn’t want to hear them. Muslims kill Muslims everyday and it only sticks in your throat when white men do it. Where’s your voice when they kill each other? They didn’t have the answers for me. This was the brotherhood they kept so sacred; it grew with ignorance and lies were its glue. The same brotherhood that kicked Indian Muslim women around in Kuwait, made them dig through skips for food, because rich Arabs were better than the second class Indians. And it was me who fed her that day so she didn’t need to dig through the skip, so she could still be human. I gave her British rations, and as she ate, I wanted your fantasy to smash away.
David says to Salman that there were people who hated you and wanted you dead. My shame here is complete. What was this thing we did? And why haven’t we said sorry? Do we still believe it was the right thing to do? Or are we just ashamed? Do the right thing. I want to tell him I’m sorry. Not to absolve myself of the crime or to separate myself from the march — no it was me, so lay that at my door forever, but I just want to say sorry, don’t want anything back, just want you, Salman, just want you to know that here’s at least one of those idiots and he’s sitting here listening to you with a dry mouth wishing you just knew that he didn’t mean it, that you’re not evil, that your words are beautiful, that, that you were right and I, we, were wrong, we were wrong and you were right, I just want you to know that, maybe it’ll help you rest, maybe it will do nothing after all these years after which the bark must have grown thick and our words scraped into it do nothing to you, because you grew through it anyway. But we did wrong you, didn’t we? Back in 1989. I remember it like clear cold water. David, why did you have to say it? Why did you say there were people who wanted Salman dead? I can feel my shame.
None of us had read the book and we were told never to. We’d been told he’d said things, evil things, and they had hurt more because his name was Salman and not the name of some Gorah, some whitey, but one of us, a Brother. And when brothers say you’re wrong, it cuts deep. His real first name is Ahmed, which means the highly praised, and Salman meant blessed, so who was this blessed and praised one who had dared insult us, this devil, this Satan, bloody Beelzebub himself, Bahstur! One of our own insulting us hurt more, because he knew us, had lived in our homes, knew our secrets, things we hid, things we did, knew our wounds, where we hurt. We could hurt others but not as much as we could hurt our own. He had hurt us and we were going to hurt him back. People were saying he had insulted Islam and should die for it, and we didn’t need to read the book to find out. The mosque said he had, so he had, and that was the end of the story. Eye for an eye, death for this book.
The only killing I’d seen was in Pakistan, on holiday. It was a big black thing, and it had a chain and a bell around its many necks, and the butcher walked it down a small street that was just wide enough for two people to hold hands and touch the walls. Down the street it heaved with a huge body on legs that should have broken. An old workers face it had. The skin was hairy and stretched over the spine. Clop clopping into the street, to its death. Not that it knew. I stroked it with curiosity and sorrow. Don’t worry, cow, it won’t hurt much. Big fat belly on the thing. I wanted to watch and the butcher told me not to. I told him I wanted to. We were richer than a butcher in Pakistan, not in England, but here in Pakistan I could tell a butcher I wanted to watch him and he’d have to let me. So he let me, five years before Salman wrote his book. It was a sacrifice called Qurbani for a holy festival and the meat would be given to the poor, he said. We had paid for it to be done, so he walked the cow to the street outside our house and the high walls gave that cow some shade before it died. He gave it water and said the animal had to be calm before he killed it, only then would it be pure for the poor.
Mum called me in, but I stayed with the butcher, and he let me hold the knife as it drank. He told me to keep the knife hidden from its big eyes on the side of its head. Its big eyes looking at me with question. I hid the knife behind my shalwar kameez. Don’t worry, cow. The butcher said we shouldn’t distress it. Did the cow know what a knife was? Had it seen a kill? He tied ropes around its feet and it started to struggle and moo and I felt sorry for it. I wanted him to stop, for us not to kill an animal today, but then I reminded myself to be a man and watch. The cow didn’t want to drink anymore. The butcher took the knife from me and started muttering in Arabic. He placed the knife on its hairy neck and sliced. The blade left a long red thin line that marked the start of the death of the cow. There was a neck opening, opening more as the cow groaned, mouth open, moving its full head out and up, and it bled a thick curtain of blood from its throat that pattered onto the floor of cobbles and dirt. Here was death in slow motion. The butcher kept cutting and the cow kept groaning, sliced it again and deeper but it couldn’t stop itself being heard. Throaty groans as the blood mixed with the dirt, bleeding its honor out here in a hot street making it red, in the last few lines of its life shouting — I was something too and here’s the end of my life, of a story you never read.
Such a beautiful, royal, and dignified thing wasting with its feet tied, groaning, trying to write its pride onto the street in red. Time can confuse and I’ve never been able to remember how long things lasted. I knew how long things were in the army, because timings were sacred, but I was a little boy and the butcher said the cow would die instantly. It didn’t. Not by my reckoning, not with the way Mrs Butterworth taught math. This wasn’t instant, not with my eyes and measure. I went inside and said the cow’s been killed, and my family told me to stay away, but I went out and in and out again and that cow was still groaning, rasping, and looking at us, with a why in its eyes, leaning against the wall trying to stay up on its tied legs. I’m sorry. Just lie down now, cow, are you trying to keep out of the bath of blood? Blood everywhere, it was a big thing and it could bleed. The butcher’s legs were covered, the thick veins on his brown feet could just be seen under the red. The knife shined in the sun as it drip shed its blood coat. The cow looked at him, knew what he’d done, looked at me, knew what I’d done, too. Thanks for stroking me on the way in, liar. It wasn’t like that, cow, I stroked you because I was sorry for you, I’m at little school back in England, I don’t know what this is, I just wanted to see. See me die? You’re right I should have left your dignity a thing between you and the butcher.
It fell. Fell in itself, fell inside, fell through, fell on a dirty street, fell a mess of black hairy skin with bones inside trying to stay up, but blood pouring out of it meant it fell, lost its dignity, its honor, its strength, its all, fell on its side because he’d tied its feet. A mess of skin and bones and blood when only an hour ago it was a queen. I went in and out again. Why is it still groaning, still accusing? He said it would be dead instantly. That butcher’s a liar. That cow lived through all its killing. Must have felt the warm blood run its chest. I went in again for longer and went out again and he was chopping that cow up, its guts on the floor, big thick white guts, and the stomach was split with grass poking through, and it smelt like warm guts and warm grass. The poor would eat and they would be happy, said the butcher. He was taking a cut for himself. The cow’s eyes were still and open. I wanted to close them, let it rest. The blood was still running and the butcher was still cutting, his feet in the blood and his hands in the cow. Is it dead yet? The cow shook a little with every chop. We killed a cow to show how wealthy we were and fed the poor to show how generous we were. That was the first thing I ever saw killed. A sorry cow that left its mark in me.
And now it was Rushdie’s turn. Let’s take to the streets, they said, and I fancied that. I didn’t like going to mosque but here was some excitement, the thought of confrontation, and an audience excited me because I was a little boy. I didn’t think about Salman, didn’t know him or what would happen. He was a human being, not a cow, but I only saw that too late. The mosque was at the end of a long street of Victorian terraced houses that used to be full of families working at the mills next to the canal but were now full of arranged marriages. Most white people left when we came, houses were converted into shops competing with each other selling groceries and Halal meat. I didn’t know who killed the cows in England. Some would sell plane tickets to Mecca, do accounts, sell phone cards, and become the Labour Party election office all out of their front rooms. It was Little Pakistan. We came, people left, and the area died deaths.
Only Arthur stayed. The only white shop owner on the street with a newsagents, because Muslims wouldn’t sell the tabloids with their dirty pictures. He always sold out of them, though, as men left the shop with them wrapped up in Urdu newspapers, taking them home to fight the devil. Boys would go in and peek at the top shelf, pretending they were reaching for comics, and see white women smiling down at them with their breasts out. Old men with long beards sitting next to others, passing time between each other would say, Go towards God. They’d say that to read the Qur’an would guarantee a place in Heaven, that to pray would make lives better. They’d say this even though everybody on the street was sick and poor, sick of being poor and poor and sick and poor and sick, and it didn’t end until they did and time turned its wheel a little more over those who found honor in chains.
But God doesn’t give you a job or money or good health or anything you need to live. What does He give us then? He gives us hope and He gives us Heaven, they’d say. Look at that sky. How does it sit there? See the mountains and the sea? Do you not see His greatness? It was hard to find that hope and that greatness in terraced houses with damp walls and rotting troughs. Life was harder when we had to pray five times a day, fast, go to mosque for two hours every night after school, but then they’d say we had to suffer in this world to be rewarded in the next. Suffering was made into a good warm thing, because the majority of people, us poor, suffered. They’d twist logic: those with cancer were blessed, those old men would say, they’ll get more of Heaven, none of your silly science you learn at school is going to help on Judgement Day. On that day the angels who sat on your shoulders recording your deeds, good and bad, would show their accounts and you’d go down into the devil’s house or up to a garden in the sky.
Mosque was no fun. We learned the Qur’an in Arabic but not what the Arabic meant. There were boys called the Hafiz with great memories, and they’d learn the whole six hundred pages off by heart. I was never going to become a Hafiz — I didn’t want to. We’d kneel with a Qur’an on a small bench and rock forwards and backwards reading. When the Imam walked around with his cane, we’d shout it loud when he was behind us and a wave of Arabic followed him around the mosque. I’d get caught not reading the Qur’an, chatting to other boys, and the Imam would call me to the front of the class. He was an overweight man from Pakistan who lived in a house near the mosque that was paid for by Muslims in the local area. Everything he needed was provided for. He couldn’t speak English but knew I wasn’t speaking Arabic, so he’d tell me to get to the front where he’d make an example of me. “Murghi!” he’d shout, which meant chicken, and I’d bend over and thread my arms in between my legs and grip my earlobes with my thumbs and forefingers, and he’d smack my bottom with bamboo. I’d hear it slice through air. Whoosh crack! Only an hour left, I’d think, bent over being smacked, this isn’t England is it? This isn’t freedom.
It would sting and he’d shout at me and the other kids would be screaming the Qur’an. With every whip the boys got louder, and as we caught each others’ eyes sometimes there was fear but sometimes we smiled through tears and even laughed, because I’d been caught and not them. We knew it would end. Screw you, we’d think, you won’t break us, we’re Burnley Boys. Some days we’d get to the mosque and be taking our shoes off, and we’d decide to not go in. We had to be careful, because other men would report us to our parents if they saw us, so we’d go into the ablutions area and hide in the toilets until they’d all gone into the mosque. We’d listen as the devout washed themselves and wait until the taps stopped running and then sneak out. Sometimes we’d steal shoes so they’d have nothing to wear when they left. That’ll teach you for going to mosque. We’d go and play cricket instead. The game could take as long as two hours, and we’d go home and pretend we’d been praying. Wearing the traditional dress was good for cricket, as it allowed lots of movement, especially when bowling. We’d lay on green fields, wanting to stay, to just please stay.
We’d talk about reporting the Imam to the police for hitting us, but nobody ever did. We weren’t in Pakistan, we’d argue, this is Burnley. Then somebody told Mrs Butterworth. An old woman who let me dunk biscuits in her tea and told me off for sharpening lollipop sticks into knives in the playground, she smelt of flowers and waved at me in the street. Mum asked me who she was, and I told her that that was Mrs Butterworth, my favorite teacher. Mum would wave back and make me take presents for her. Nobody found out who told her, but she asked us about mosque and we said we didn’t like it. Do you get hit, she asked? We didn’t tell her but we didn’t need to. She organized a trip with the other teachers. It was funny seeing them in the mosque with no shoes on, and she smiled at us. The Imam said “Hello” and “Yes” a lot, and none of the boys spoke about the beatings. We just read the Qur’an and the Imam told us to read it gently and not so loud, and why were we shouting? The cane was hidden and the teachers got a tour and nobody spoke the truth. We smiled like good little boys, knowing it would hurt after they left if we said anything. We wished she could always come to the mosque — she was braver than any of us that day. Stay Miss, help me.
But we stayed silent, because we knew she couldn’t come everyday, and we knew the beatings would go on in between the trips she might have made, so we told each other to never, never tell her again. If she asked, we’d say we were having a great time at the mosque. She left and the Imam got back to what he thought teaching was, which was beating, and we shouted the Qur’an again. Then the word spread about Salman Rushdie. Parents who, like the Imam, couldn’t speak English well called him a “Bahstur.” There were people on the news burning effigies, placards of his face with devil horns. I went to the mosque for the protest, because I thought it would be fun. An elder gave me a placard that read, “What We Want, Ban The Book,” and underneath, “When We Want, Now.” Terrible English. What would Mrs Butterworth say? The plan was simple — march from the mosque to the Town Hall and stand outside shouting until Salman Rushdie died or something. The police let us march on the road and it felt odd. I’d never been anywhere apart from the mosque and my own area in Pakistani dress. I felt embarrassed walking on the road into town. People looked at us, and we acted our part out for them, angry faces, red with embarrassment, confused without knowledge, loud without reason. With hands made into fists punching air and other hands grasping placards that didn’t make sense. Some laughed at us, others kept quiet. Mrs Butterworth wouldn’t have kept quiet. She’d have pulled me from that crowd. Back to class, you need to learn more.
We marched and a guy with a megaphone at the front shouted the words on the placard, except it was audience participation time. After the question, “What we want?” the crowd shouted, “Ban the Book,” to which Mr Megaphone would ask, “When we want?” and we’d shout, “Now.” Wow, it was so loud and he wasn’t ashamed of himself in shalwar kameez with a megaphone walking on a road in Burnley. Boys laughed as our eyes met. We felt silly but free. We could shout stupid things as loud as we wanted. We shouted, “Kill Rushdie!” and “Burn the book!” At the Town Hall the mayor stood on the balcony and said he didn’t think Islam was a bad religion, that he wouldn’t tolerate any blasphemy in Burnley. There was no mention of banning the book or killing Rushdie. There was a confused silence as bored young kids told expectant old men that it was good news, then the crown cheered, a crowd of devout Muslims, non-believers and taxi drivers who prayed at the mosque and then spent nights cruising the town for prostitutes. They hugged each other. On the way home I went into a bookshop, the boy working there looked nervous as I asked for the book. We don’t have it, he said. I wanted to see it, touch it. A book had gotten the world angry and I wanted to read some of it, feel its power. I felt wrong wanting it, but I did want it, its forbidden fruits.
David, I’m sorry, you’re right to put it as bluntly as you did. There were men who wanted Salman dead. But please believe me, it wasn’t me, Salman, I didn’t want you dead, I’d never have wanted to see a knife on your neck, I was just a boy who didn’t know what he was doing, I never hated you, didn’t know you, didn’t want that cow to die, haven’t hated you, never wanted you dead. Even in Iraq, I never wanted a thing dead. And it’s taken me all this time, but I’ve just read your book and it gave me a kick in the head. David says he’s going to open it up to questions, and my heart quickens and my mouth is drier. I know I’m going to do something, to say something at least — I may never meet this man again. The blood in my legs turns to mercury but I have to. After the first question David goes to the heart of it again. He says that there were people on television on English streets saying Salman should be killed — killed. I have to stand. I have to say something even if the words won’t come. What should I say? Just say sorry? Right, don’t worry about what you’re going to say, just stand up and say it. I stand. Because his words fed me.
I’ve got the book in my hand and raise it and say I protested against the book in 1989. His sister, his sons, now two of them, Zafar and Milan, and friends are seated on the front row. There’s no panic. People must know I’m no threat, my voice gives me away. I confess I was ignorant. I say I’ve read the book and it spoke to me and that’s why I have to stand here today. I have no questions for him, I have an apology — I tell him I’m sorry. And sit down. Anything could happen. There’s a space here, the bit before something happens and anything could. There’s no immediate connection just because we’re both brown. That doesn’t make us close. He’s not my brother. He’s the posh kid who went to Cambridge and won the Booker; I’m the poor kid who joined the army and got a medal. He’s the man who wrote a book that was fiction but true; I’m the boy who said to kill him but my words were a fiction. He’s the one sat on the stage being listened to by five hundred people; I’m down here in the seats looking up saying sorry — we are worlds apart. All I’ve done is said sorry, but it feels like I’m going to fly.
I stood in the hope that it will do a little for him and hoping I’m not told to leave. Here’s my apology. He takes it. A warm wave ripples softly through me. David nods. Salman says thank you. Thank me? It is the very least I could do for you. A journalist asks me for an interview and I refuse. I didn’t do it for you. I did it for him. I meet him afterwards. He signs my book, writes my name under his signature. He writes my name, for me, in his book. Salman Rushdie writes my name in his book. My name. He holds his hand out and we shake hands. He’s got his hand in mine. What’s this feeling? It’s euphoria. I was wrong and I said it and it was alright. I don’t want to leave him. I don’t want to leave. I’ve said sorry and he’s said it’s okay and we stop shaking hands. The snake of fans waiting for signatures are coiling around the side of the theatre. I’m happy he’s got so many fans, glad I’m one, now. And it’s nearly time for us to finish our time together. I just wanted to tell you about the time I stood up for Salman Rushdie. The clock’s ticking and I’ve got to get going, got to put my shoulder to something else. I leave the theatre, well I left that theatre over a year ago now. There’s time doing funny things again. It made me realize nearly a year ago that I didn’t know who I was at eleven. I still don’t know who or what I am.
In the book the narrator asks what kind of idea are you, what kind of idea are you when you’re strong and what kind when you’re weak? Was that Salman at his strongest or his weakest? I’m glad we met. Every generation must decide its own future, and with every action and decision they write it. We’re all the authors of tomorrow’s history books. Growing up we made enemies that were never there. Old men, wise old men used to tell us things and we’d listen, but why, when it’s the young who have the new ideas? Those old men believed that we’d repeat our lives in the sky and that Salman should die. I don’t want to be that old man. I want to be the new. Look, here it is, our page today that will become history. If we’ve made mistakes, turn it over and start again, you’re allowed to, and on it let’s write something new. Sorry, Salman.