You cannot pass by the title “Joseph Anton” between regular newly issued books in a Beirut bookstore without noticing it. Joseph – from Conrad, Anton – from Chekhov, is the name the British novelist Salman Rushdie used for himself during his years of hiding and has chosen as a title of his recently published memoir. While the book is now available in Beirut, its author is still banned in relation to his highly controversial novel The Satanic Verses.
On February 14, 1989, Salman Rushdie received a phone call from a BBC reporter informing him he was the subject of a death fatwa issued by Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khomeini. The protest provoked by an article published in India Today soon transformed into waves of outrage and violence in many Muslim countries and even in the west…Demonstrations in India, Pakistan, London and Paris called for killing the “Satan Rushdie”. The novelist had to spend years of his life hiding. These hiding years, the memories of childhood and early carrier are the subject of Joseph Anton – a memoir.
Beirut, with its southern neighborhood, the home of Iran-linked Hezbollah, was a stage of big demonstrations and violent messages soon after the fatwa. In August 1989, Mustafa Mazeh (by many experts a Hezbollah member) attempted to kill Salman Rushdie using a book bomb loaded with RDX explosives. Luckily for the novelist, the bomb prematurely exploded while being prepared and killed Mazeh. During the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten cartoons controversy in 2006, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah declared: “If there had been one Muslim to carry out Imam Khomeini’s fatwa against the renegade Salman Rushdie, this rabble who insult our Prophet Mohammed in Denmark, Norway and France would not have dared to do so.”
When it comes to religious hatred reason is voiceless. It is astonishing how religious bias and hatred classifies all the hated together, regardless of cause; it is astonishing to what extent people are ignorant of what they hate. In September, an article published in Beirut Observer attacking Iran claimed that Salman Rushdie is an Iranian agent Shiites are using to destroy Islam. On the other hand, a photo of Nadim Kouteich (from al-Mustaqbal – the Sunni political rival of Hezbollah) was circulated on facebook among Lebanese Shiite public, comparing the faces of Koteich to that of Salman Rushdie with a message “devils clone one another”. Both the article and the facebook post show how shallow is the religiously biased judgment and how absurd it is.
Even 23 years after the fatwa you cannot freely talk about Salman Rushdie in Beirut, especially if you are talking in his support. The name is deemed to be a subject of hate and rejection, though the great majority of the haters have never read the book. Reading Joseph Anton would be a good chance to know another side of the story, from the perspective of its hero. Let the author of The Satanic Verses speak for himself and his book.
Bookshops are aware that Joseph Anton is not an ordinary book. When I asked how many copies have been sold the bookshop administration refused to answer.