When the Salman Rushdie affair broke, the first thing I thought of was the day we tried to buy a bookcase in Jeddah. Jeddah is Saudi Arabia’s most sophisticated, cosmopolitan city. Compared to the capital, Riyadh, it is liberal and lively. It is also of course very rich. Its shopping malls, with their icy airconditioning, are temples of marble and glass, of lush greenery and tinkling fountains. They are something like the Muslim vision of Paradise; only the houris are missing. You can buy a fox fur, if you like, or a portrait of King Fahd, or an American-style donut; a king-size sofa with a stereo built in, if that takes your fancy. But you couldn’t, in 1983, find a bookcase anywhere. No call for them.
When I first went to Jeddah I thought I had arrived in some ultimate abomination: the Bookless City. The supermarkets had racks of newspapers and magazines in various languages, and sometimes a little stack of doctor-nurse romances. There were things called bookshops, but they sold stationery. Of course, there was the book, the Holy Koran. The shelves that contained it had an untouched air, and the big volumes in the stiff cheap-looking bindings put me in mind of the sets of children’s encyclopedias once found in the homes of the aspiring classes. The censors were active, but it was images, not words, that they seemed concerned about. The newspapers from America and Europe came with sections blacked out with broad felt-tip pens. But it was the photographs and not columns of type that were mutilated. It was Joan Collins’s bosom, Zola Budd’s legs.
Saudi Arabia is a video culture. Housewives whose mothers sat in tents spend the days in their urban apartment blocks watching Egyptian soap-operas on TV. Students at the university would not buy books, their European teachers said: it was necessary for a department to buy enough copies of the standard texts, and place them in the library. My closest Muslim friend, a well-travelled and articulate woman, had a degree in English from a college in Pakistan. She mentioned one day that since her marriage, three years previously, she had read only one book.
During my four years in the Kingdom the supply of books began to improve. It was possible to buy a limited selection of paperbacks. People going out on vacation would be given a list of books to bring back – but they would have to get their purchases through the Saudi customs. Some governments publish lists of prohibited books, but if the Saudis had an Index I never saw it: it was only rumour that told you what had most recently given offence, and your fortunes might depend on how pious or touchy was the customs officer who turned out your cases. We believed that the customs men could not read English; that if they could, they wouldn’t; that a book would be judged by its cover. My copy of Robert Lacey’s monumental work The Kingdom travelled safely inside the dust-jacket of Vincent Cronin’s Louis and Antoinette. Perhaps it was not the wisest choice, since Saudi Arabia has a few things in common with the Ancien Régime: but I was confident that the customs men wouldn’t see the connection.
However, it soon became clear that the censorship was interested in words after all. The word ‘pork’, for instance. The censorship had its catering corps. It was someone’s duty to go through consignments of imported food and check out such items as dehydrated sauce mixes, in case they had recipes on the back; and then to strike out that dreadful word wherever it appeared. After a time I realised that far from being unimportant in this society, as I had thought at first, words were in fact the most important thing of all. You cannot abolish the concept of pork from the world, but if you are assiduous you can unsay the word; if your felt tips are busy enough, and numerous enough, you can take away its name and thus gradually take away its substance, leaving it a queasy, nameless concept washing around in the minds of unbelievers, a meat which will gradually lose its existence because there is no way to talk about it.
In the holy city of Qom, it is said, the Iranians have a Koran with pages two metres square, each vellum sheet illuminated by hand. The Saudis would despise such a display; they would think it a piece of showing-off, the kind of thing that Shi’tes go in for. They favour contests at which the Koran is recited, with much public fanfare and the award of large cash prizes. I learned that the Holy Koran had little to do with the book on the shelves of the stationery stores. It was a living book, and its very language was sacred. Its verses were charged with power; they could heal the sick. Each word was a little fighter in a daily war.
Okaz, Jeddah’s Arabic daily, carried in March 1986 a doom-laden, prescient column about the power of words. ‘The war of words,’ the writer said, ‘is more harmful than World War Two. Words are forcing the world to World War Three. Words – written in newspapers, magazines, books, uttered on radio and television – are tools to massacre the souls of people.’
The world conspiracy against Islam of which Tehran now speaks is not the fantasy of one elderly paranoiac: in the Kingdom it was a fantasy purveyed as fact to the whole nation. Talented young Arabs, the newspapers alleged, went to Europe to study, and by their abilities excited the envy of their hosts, who would quickly set about ruining them by addicting them to drugs and introducing them to prostitutes. In Marks and Spencer’s London stores, specially-trained agents of Zionism lurk, ready to pounce on Arab shoppers, accuse them of shoplifting, throw them into gaol and publicise their disgrace world-wide through Reuters and UPA.
In November 1986 the Saudi Gazette reported a pronouncement by ‘the General Presidency of the Departments of Religious Researchers, Ruling, Call and Guidance’, warning against certain Italian floor tiles that had been imported into the Kingdom. These tiles were aimed at ‘purposefully offending the sentiments of Muslims’. Hidden away in their swirl of pattern – not obvious at a casual glance, but evident on close inspection – were the words ‘Allah’ and ‘Mohammed’. Or so the authorities said. The eye of faith is formidably sharp. If a floor tile can offend Islam, what chance has a novel?
The Saudi response to The Satanic Verses has been low-key; the Ayatollah, who refers contemptuously to their faith as ‘American Islam’, has stolen their thunder. But it is not difficult to imagine the depth of outrage. The first popular reaction in the West to the death threat was, I think, amazement, tinged by what came near to a disbelieving hilarity: ‘But it’s only a novel.’ We could not believe that people would riot about a story.
Novelists have various tricks for concealing what they are about. If they want to use a real person as a character they can, if competent, cover their tracks well enough to avoid being sued for libel. If critics call their work ‘brutal’ or ‘offensive’ they can smirk and say that they were spinning a metaphor, forging a conceit, creating an allegory. They can, like Salman Rushdie, allow their characters to dream. Writers no longer talk about their muse, but they are willing to talk about how their characters take over, about how the author himself is a minor part of the process, carried along on some irresistible creative tide. It is all part of the mystique; authors enjoy it. In the West, it does not matter whether they slide away from the implications of their work in this way.
Elsewhere, of course – in the Eastern bloc or in South Africa – a novel is taken perfectly seriously as a vehicle for ideas. Its writer is forced to stand behind the points he makes, and is given no particular privilege. The censor will peel the novel’s defences away and say, so this is what you really meant; and penalise and punish the author accordingly. But elsewhere the censor may not bother to strip away the conventions; he may not even recognise that they exist. Art for art’s sake will mean nothing to him. The Satanic Verses may be a great work of art, the pattern on the floor tiles may have been aesthetically pleasing: but both are political acts. The defences of merit and of good intention that we are accustomed to erect around a persecuted work of art cannot help Rushdie’s book, in countries where they are not recognised as defences. In Tehran, malice is understood. It is taken for granted. There is a world-wide conspiracy against Islam, and Rushdie is its ‘mercenary’.
If his defence cannot be made in artistic terms, it must be made in political terms, but it is hard to feel pleased with the politicians. When the British Government says that it understands that Muslims are offended by the book, it means it understands that offence has been taken. It is not near to understanding the nature of the offence. The Prime Minister says that great religions should be strong enough to withstand criticism, and her remark is alarming because it is so wide of the point. Unlike modern Christianity, Islam does not make a virtue of tolerance. In theory it accommodates the faith of Christians and Jews, the ‘people of the book’, but the Kingdom, at least, does not permit any form of worship other than the Islamic; projecting their own intolerance on the outside world, the faithful in Jeddah found it hard to imagine that in Britain their co-religionists could go freely to a mosque, and they only half-believed it. If you are in Britain, Islam appears an inward-looking and self-protective faith, but when you are in the East it appears vital, active and proselytising. Not long ago, the same could be said of Christianity. Unless we are prepared to think about our own history, enter into it a little, we cannot know what the Muslim writer is talking about when he speaks of ‘spiritual torment and torture’. The silly and the secular do not understand the God-driven. Fundamentalists look at our cheerful modern notion of live-and-let-live, and find it immoral and incomprehensible.
In the first few days after Iran issued the death threat, the support for Salman Rushdie was heartening and unanimous. But we are so used to intellectual consensus and compromise that when we meet an intransigent opponent, with whom no meeting of minds seems possible, we immediately doubt our own case and our own values: politeness may be the ruin of the West. The backtracking has been an unpleasant spectacle. It was unpleasant to hear a young Tory MP say recently that ‘two or three’ of his friends had told him that the book was ‘very second-rate’, and announce that since Rushdie had made so much money he should pay for his own police guard: we do not expect our legislators to be able to read, but we do expect them to be able to distinguish between a private man’s private difficulty and a matter of vital public interest. And just as unpleasant is the defection of those who now cast doubt on Rushdie’s integrity, or urge withdrawal of the book. Perhaps it is understandable that the authors of children’s books and light social comedies should decline to defend The Satanic Verses. Their freedom of expression is not at issue.
Back in Jeddah, the same woman who had read only one book since her marriage explained one day with great eloquence the consolations of living among believers, in a solidly Muslim society – the feeling of security for the faithful, the freedom from the constant bombardment by alien values. Muslims in Britain live under such bombardment, and they have to accept it and survive as best they can. But their faith still has its consolations, and some good would come of this sorry business if the spokesmen of the Muslim community, and the enlightened and educated Muslims who must be offended by Iran’s decrees, could explain to a sceptical and ignorant Britain what these consolations are.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.