‘I can’t explain it’: Salman Rushdie says his survival in knife attack was a miracle

<span>Author Salman Rushdie, who was blinded in one eye during a knife attack in August 2022.</span><span>Photograph: Arne Dedert/AP</span>
Author Salman Rushdie, who was blinded in one eye during a knife attack in August 2022.Photograph: Arne Dedert/AP

Salman Rushdie has revealed an abiding sense that his survival after a brutal knife attack two years ago was a miracle, in spite of his lack of spiritual faith. “I do feel that something happened that was not supposed to happen and I have no explanation for it,” Rushdie said this weekend before the publication of Knife, his account of the incident.

“I certainly don’t feel that some hand reached down from the sky and guarded me,” but it still presents a contradiction, he admits, “for one who doesn’t believe.”

Reading from his new memoir during an American television interview for the 60 Minutes show, Rushdie, 76, describes his assailant as “a squat missile” coming in at him “hard and low” in black, “the last thing my right eye would ever see”.

In August 2022 the Indian-born author, who won the Booker prize in 1981 for his novel Midnight’s Children, was on stage ready to give a talk at the Chautauqua Institution in New York State when a knife-wielding man rushed from the audience and managed to quickly inflict several stab wounds. The assault came 33 years after a fatwa had called for Rushdie’s death. Issued by Iran’s then leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, it was a response to the publication of The Satanic Verses, a novel deemed blasphemous by many Muslims.

Sitting alongside Rushdie on the stage that day was Henry Reese, the co-founder of City of Asylum, a not-for-profit organisation that protects writers exiled as a result of their work. Reese, who was to be the moderator of the talk, was also injured and has spent much time since trying to understand what he witnessed.

“When something as terrible as this happens, the question of the importance of writing becomes very real. The violence that day reminded everybody just what it really means to be at risk because of your words,” Reese told the Observer from his home in Pittsburgh. “It’s very brave of him to be prepared to be exposed again and to write about something that happened that is at once so public and at the same time very private.”

Reese’s professional mission, he said, was to protect writers. He could not have had a more dramatic demonstration of the need for this work. “As it was happening I felt what I was witnessing was a very physical and real reminder. It was beyond metaphor. It made it very clear what some writers are dealing with, although perhaps it was even more vivid for those who were watching it than it was for me, who was beside it. I didn’t see most of it, after all.”

He is considering making his own response to the attack: “I’ve been thinking about writing, but it hasn’t got any coherence yet,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to see what Salman has to say.”

Reese does not compare his injuries to those suffered by Rushdie, who has lost movement in an arm and is unable to see in his right eye. But Reese was in the midst of the struggle and came out of it badly. He had been encouraged however, he said, to see that writers continue to tackle dangerous subjects.

In the aftermath Reese did detect fear among writers: “There was a moment when they felt in peril because of what had happened here in the USA; a time when people wondered, ‘Can you be safe anywhere?’ But it reverted to normal afterwards, leaving just a heightened awareness.”

What troubles Reese is the response of literary foundations and the publishing industry, as well as western governments.

“I would have hoped they would have stepped up,” he said. “Instead, I am not aware of any meaningful change. We can proudly sell a book from a writer who may be imprisoned or killed. But what are we doing to make them safe? It is not enough to protect a banned book. We need to protect endangered writers.”

Rushdie’s new memoir is subtitled Meditations After an Attempted Murder and sets out the events from the victim’s perspective for the first time. It also looks at the traumatic aftermath, including his 18 days in hospital and three weeks of rehabilitation.

The trial of the man arrested immediately after the attack, Hadi Matar, was due to start in January but was postponed because of the memoir. Matar has pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree attempted murder and second-degree assault.