Source of book: I own this.
About 14 years ago, at a time when we had four small children under the age of seven, I had gotten into a bit of a rut. Although for most of my life, I had been an avid reader, I had gotten away from it, probably feeling a bit low on bandwidth due to the kids in addition to other factors.
My wife took note, and decided that I would be happier and healthier if I got back into reading. In light of this, she started bringing home books from the library for me, ones she thought would interest me, and, she hoped, kick start my love of books again.
The first of these books (if my memory serves) was The Satanic Verses. At the time, I hadn’t really read any Magical Realism, and it opened my eyes to a different kind of writing, a whole approach to literature that I hadn’t experienced before.
This was also at a time when the post 9-11 United States had shifted from national solidarity to an increasingly vicious anti-Islam bigotry. Instead of acknowledging the 3 million Muslims living here in peace, and seeking to understand the difference between Islam and Islamic Fundamentalism, we had calls to burn the Koran, and end immigration from majority-Muslim countries - the sort of asshattery that would later characterize Trump’s fascist rhetoric.
In that context, The Satanic Verses was a very appropriate book to read. As I pointed out, reading it was every bit as effective at hacking off the fundie mullahs as burning a Koran, but it had the added benefits of expanding one’s mind.
When I first read it, I found the technique of magical realism to be an intriguing way of exploring themes and ideas - of illuminating the psychology of the characters in a new way. I also enjoyed the sheer sprawling world Rushdie created, the crazy maelstrom of humanity across two continents and several centuries. I thought the way Rushdie blurred the lines between history, the present, and the minds of his characters was a thrilling experience.
But I also finished the book wondering what the hell caused the uproar.
This book was published in 1989 - that’s 34 years ago - and ended up causing incredible outrage in Iran (because of its theocratic leaders), the murder of a translator of the book and attempted murder of others, and a bounty on Rushdie’s head that caused him to go into hiding for several years.
And then, just last year, he was attacked at a lecture and stabbed by a man who wasn’t even born when the book came out. He lost an eye, and some use of one arm, and nearly died.
And all this because of what? What is actually in the book that caused Fundies to get their panties in a wad and stoke the murderous rage that filled their hearts?
There are two short passages that apparently were used as the ostensible reasons, although I think it is clear that the Mullahs never actually read the book - or probably even the “problematic” passages. Rather, it was the name of the book itself (which wasn’t even the original name Rushdie planned to use, apparently) which referred to a legend about Mohammed.
So, what are those passages? The first is referred to in the title. Remember, this is a Muslim legend, not something Rushdie made up - he just borrowed the incident for the book. Mohammed goes up the mountain to hear the Archangel Gabriel (aka Gibreel) dictate the Koran to him - much like a figure in another Abrahamic monotheistic religion.
As part of Mohammed’s difficulty in promulgating the new religion is how to synchronize it with the old. Allah is already worshiped, but as one of many gods. (Again, this happened in the origins of Judaism too!) So, in an early draft, Mohammed condones the veneration of three goddesses - Allāt, Al-Uzza, and Manāt - not as divine, but as having the same rank as archangels - like Gibreel.
In the legend, Mohammed later realizes that he mistook the voice of Satan for that of Gibreel - hence, these are the “Satanic Verses” which Mohammed later disavowed.
So what the hell is the big deal? I am pretty sure Rushdie himself was surprised about the furor.
As an ex-Fundie, though, I kind of get it. If your “faith” requires that your sacred book be infallible, inerrant, and perfect in every way, then the very idea that some part of it just might have been wrong is a threat to the foundations of your faith. This is one of the pillars of Fundamentalism, along with, of course, all the cultural baggage about gender and race and class.
The second incident is a scene late in the book, when one of the main characters, having had a complete break from reality, buys a trumpet and walks the streets of London trying to rally his followers to him. Or, perhaps, he really IS the reincarnation of the archangel - the line is, shall we say, blurry. The only followers who flock to him, however, are the prostitutes in a brothel. And those prostitutes just happen to share the names of Mohammed’s wives. So, kind of a mild insult, perhaps, in the vein of “your mother is a whore.” Again, anyone who wants to murder people over this has serious issues. The correct response is to either laugh or ignore it.
These two incidents, by the way, are really short - at most a combined total of 25 pages in a book that is 547 pages long.
On a related note, the book isn’t about Islam or Mohammed particularly. Islam is part of the background, the context, of the book. The characters are from India, and have Muslim backgrounds, so Islam is part of their characters in the same way that characters in a book set in Ireland is going to have Catholicism (and perhaps Catholic-Protestant conflict) as part of the necessary background.
Rather, the book is primarily about the experience of being a brown-skinned immigrant in Thatcher-Era London. The inability to be viewed as truly “English,” no matter how English one acts, talks, and lives.
Having read Languages of Truth last year - Rushdie’s essays from 2003 through 2020 - last year (they are excellent - highly recommended), I decided to read Midnight’s Children this year. However, the attack on Rushdie led to a renewed interest in The Satanic Verses, so it was nominated for our book club, and was voted to be our book for this month. I decided to make this my Rushdie book for the year, and will try to read Midnight’s Children next year.
It was interesting to re-read it. I think I saw a lot more in the book this time - and certainly different things. Just one major example: now that I have read One Hundred Years of Solitude, I was able to see a lot of references to it in The Satanic Verses, including the butterflies and the windstorm. Rushdie also said that he was inspired to write the book by The Master and Margarita, and I can definitely see some thematic links there.
The way the schedule worked out, we had only three weeks to read the book, and it is plenty long, so only three of us finished it. Which is actually more than I was expecting. As usual, we had an interesting discussion.
The plot - plots, really - are a bit all over the place. The main narrative is about two men: Gibreel Farishta, Bollywood star extraordinaire; and Saladin Chamcha, anglophile and voice actor.
The two of them miraculously survive the hijacking and explosion of a jumbo jet (remember the 1980s and Lockerbie?) over the English Channel, and wash up on shore. Then strange things start happening to them.
Gibreel grows a halo, and starts believing that he is the reincarnation of the archangel Gabriel. Saladin, on the other hand, starts turning into a devil, or maybe a satyr. In any case, he grows horns, a tail, and gets a much bigger dick.
But of course, things aren’t that simple. Neither is entirely good or bad, and appearances have nothing to do with reality. And also, the line between the normal world and the supernatural becomes blurred for both of them.
Farishta has come to England in pursuit of a mountain climber, Alleluia Cone, with whom he had a brief affair. He is obsessed with her, and seems to have developed a mental illness after a grave physical illness a few months before. This presents in two ways. First, he sees the ghost of his former mistress, who killed herself and her children when he abandoned her. Second, he begins to believe he is an archangel.
For Chamcha, however, everything seems to go wrong. He is arrested as a suspected undocumented immigrant, brutalized in police custody, and eventually hospitalized, before some of his friends are able to assist him. Meanwhile, his wife, believing he is dead (I mean, who can blame her?) starts an affair with one of Saladin’s friends.
Saladin becomes obsessed with the idea that it was Gibreel’s abandonment of him after their miraculous survival that has led to all of his problems, and swears revenge.
That is kind of the bare outline of the plot. But there are a lot more characters and subplots, from community organizing, inter-community drama, neo-Nazi asshats, a possible government conspiracy that is never really explained. (Because, well, nobody really knows what happened…)
There are extended sections giving the back stories on the two main characters, shorter ones giving the backstories on minor characters, and events and rabbit trails that are connected more by theme than plot.
And then there are the two major historical sequences, which may or may not exist only in Gibreel’s head. There is the series of events related to the rise of Islam, the writing of the Koran, and the satanic verses.
The other is a more modern story of a young girl, Ayesha, who has some sort of either a mental break or a spiritual epiphany (take your pick…), strips naked, becomes covered in butterflies, and leads a pilgrimage across India with the intent of reaching Mecca, and a belief that the Arabian Sea will part to allow them across. (Whether it actually does or not is also ambiguous.)
Also found in this book are narratives about Saladin’s troubled relationship with his father, his father’s eventual death, his two wives (in sequence, not at the same time) and a weird concubinage relationship he has with a servant.
As I said, there is a LOT in this book, which makes it a lot of fun, but also a bit frustrating to stay oriented in. I think I may have done better this time, having at least a bit of an idea about where it was going from the last time.
There are a number of themes that pervade the book. The idea of the mountain, or a high place in general, is there everywhere and on multiple levels. Alleluia Cone is also the name of the mountain Mohammed goes to, there are several suicides off of high buildings. It seems people are either trying to climb mountains (trying to find enlightenment), or throwing themselves off or down them - or having it happen to them. This includes the airplane bombing too, if you think about it. Height - or perhaps perspective - changes everyone.
The theme of alienation and belonging also pervades the book. Chamcha is kind of a stand-in for Rushdie himself. Born relatively wealthy, to a non-religious Muslim family (kind of like “culturally Jewish”), he was educated at Cambridge, and decided to remain in England. In many ways, Rushdie is like Saladin: almost more British than the Brits themselves. He and Saladin both had to come to terms with being perpetual outsiders in their chosen nations, while never fitting in in India either.
In 2000, he moved to the United States, eventually becoming a US citizen. So, a fairly cosmopolitan background, which comes across in his writing as well.
There are a lot of quotable lines in this book, and I figured I would share some of them. I hope to inspire others to read this book, and Rushdie in general - he has a unique storytelling style, and a perspective that is important in understanding our current cultural, political, and religious moment.
The first one is his account of Gibreel’s Bollywood career.
For over a decade and a half he had represented, to hundreds of millions of believes in that country in which, to this day, the human population outnumbers the divine by less than three to one, the most acceptable, and instantly recognizable, face of the Supreme. For many of his fans, the boundary separating the performer and his roles had long ago ceased to exist.
While on the aircraft, before the hijacking, Chamcha is accosted by one of those “christian” evangelist sorts - American, of course. He rails against Darwin and complains about his supposed mistreatment when his targets ignore his preaching. Chamcha eventually cannot help laughing at him, which finally shuts him up. Later, during the hijacking, he is as useless and self-entitled as you would expect. There is a great line about him:
It was a hard fate to be an American abroad, and not to suspect why you were so disliked.
In the first Mohammed sequence, the story is told of the (fictional) town of Jahilia (meaning “ignorance” - the state before Islam), and the legend of Hagar. Anyone familiar with the Abrahamic religions knows the story. Sarah, barren wife of Abraham, tells him to sleep with her servant, Hagar, who becomes pregnant. When the son, Ishmael, is born, Sarah gets pissy, and has Hagar and Ishmael sent off into the desert to die. An angel rescues them, Ishmael becomes the father of the Arabic peoples, and the rest is legend. Here is how Rushdie describes the incident.
In ancient time the patriarch Ibrahim came into this valley with Hagar and Ismail, their son. Here, in this waterless wilderness, he abandoned her. She asked him, can this be God’s will? He replied, it is. And left, the bastard. From the beginning men used God to justify the unjustifiable. He moves in mysterious ways: men say.
This is, shall we say, an ongoing problem. The amount of hate that people use God to justify is horrifying. (It is also a classic example of using the Lord’s name in vain.)
At the end of this narrative, there is a wonderful paragraph.
From the peak of Mount Cone, Gibreel watches the faithful escaping Jahilia, leaving the city of aridity for the place of cool palms and water, water, water. In small groups, almost empty-handed, they move across the empire of the sun, on this first day of the first year at the new beginning of Time, which has itself been born again, as the old dies behind them and the new waits ahead.
The narrative returns to London - or, as the chapter title calls it: Ellowen Deeowen. Saladin is greeted by good old English xenophobia.
It turned out that somebody had reported a suspicious person on the beach, remember when they used to come in fishing-boats, the illegals, and thanks to that single anonymous telephone call there were now fifty-seven uniformed constables combing the beach, their flashlights swinging crazily in the dark…
Later, in custody, Saladin is confronted with a whole zoo’s worth of half-human creatures. This magical realism sequence contains a pithy idea about the meaning of being “other” in a culture. One of the creatures explains that they are monsters because the dominant culture sees them that way.
“They describe us. That’s all. They have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they construct.”
Something to think about when it comes to all of the “others” in our society: racial minorities, immigrants, sexual minorities, women.
The panoply of immigrants in the London community can be confusing at times, but some of the descriptions are excellent.
Muhammad Sufyan was a burly, thick-forearmed fellow with a belly on him, as godly and as unfanatic a believer as you could meet.
That is the sort of religious person we need more of: godly and unfanatic.
One of the rabbit trails that doesn’t really lead anywhere, but gives a bit of color to the culture, is the story of a fanatical Imam, who broadcasts from London. He says out loud what has always been at the core of Fundamentalism of all sorts - the same thing driving today’s fascists and theofascists and their scorched-earth culture wars against those different from them.
“We will make a revolution that is a revolt not only against a tyrant, but against history.” For there is an enemy beyond Ayesha, and it is History herself. History is the blood-wine that must no longer be drunk. History the intoxicant, the creation and possession of the Devil, of the great Shaitan, the greatest of the lies - progress, science, rights - against which the Imam has set his face. History is a deviation from the Path, knowledge is a delusion, because the sum of knowledge was complete on the day Al-Lah finished his revelation to Mahound.
This is the exact same thing the Fundies I grew up with believe. Just say “God” in English rather than Arabic, and you have the exact same idea. All knowledge was given to men of the past, and anything that looks like progress - particularly science and the idea of human rights - is of the devil. Thus, the way of God is to return to the past, particularly its injustices and hierarchies and abuse of the powerless.
There is an interesting conversation later between Sufyan and Saladin, who is bemoaning his physical transformation. Sufyan, in a misguided attempt to give comfort, drops some literary references. Citing Ovid favorably over Lucretius, he tells Saladin that his soul remains the same, regardless of his “presently varying form.”
“This is pretty cold comfort,” Chamcha managed a trace of his old dryness. “Either I accept Lucretius and conclude that some demonic and irreversible mutation is taking place in my inmost depths, or I go with Ovid and concede that everything now emerging is no more than a manifestation of what was already there.”
As he grows larger and more demonic, Chamcha despairs of ever returning to normalcy. The only person who seems to find him attractive in his state is the young woman who is the daughter of the Indian restaurant owners. In one of the most hilarious lines in the book, she tells him, “Hold your horses, we’ll work something out.” Not that even she has an idea what to do.
Eventually, it is his hatred of Farishta that ends up returning Chamcha to his ordinary state. Speaking of Farishta, he and Alleluia do end up together in what is a thoroughly dysfunctional relationship. Her mother isn’t entirely helping either (the whole family is a dysfunction), and makes a comment that is intended to avoid looking like a racial or religious slur, but which clearly is. After a blowup over this, as Alleluia storms out, the mother can be heard to say loudly, “Grand passion. The gift of tongues; means a girl can babble out any blasted thing.”
Farishta, unfortunately, continues to unravel mentally. He becomes insanely jealous (something Chamcha later uses against him), and rather abusive to Alleluia.
The worst thing about him, she tentatively concluded, was his genius for thinking himself slighted, belittled, under attack. It became almost impossible to mention anything to him, no matter how reasonable, no matter how gently put.
Pretty classic narcissist behavior, actually. I have personal and professional experience of this phenomenon.
Not helping, of course, is Farishta’s ongoing mental illness. The question never resolved in the book is where the delusions leave off and supernatural reality begins. There is a fascinating inner dialogue where Farishta concludes that the whole story of Eden got it wrong, and that it was never the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that Adam and Eve ate from - that was a lie the devil told them. It was a different tree, perhaps a tree of death or something. And around and around it goes, as Farishta becomes more and more convinced that he is on a mission to save the world.
Also, he concludes that the English’s “moral fuzziness” is the fault of their cold weather. Without the black and white contrasts of day and night, hot and cold, dry and wet, no wonder they cannot see life in a fundamentalist way.
As the story of Muhammed continues to unfold in Gibreel’s head, the fate of the poor poet who once pushed back against religion becomes dire. He is reduced to hiding out in a brothel, disguised as a eunuch. I wanted to mention a perceptive line in that narrative.
Once he had been affluent, but that was a quarter of a century ago. Now there was no demand for satires - the general fear of Mahound had destroyed the market for insults and wit.
One defining characteristic of fundamentalism is its lack of a sense of humor. Replacing it is the “humor” of insult, of degrading those “below” you - making mean, bullying fun of other people. (Exhibit A: Rush Limbaugh) The art of satire - which is punching up, poking fun of the powerful - cannot exist when the powerful cannot laugh at themselves.
As Islam descends into fundamentalism, some of the true believers become disillusioned with it. This is a feeling I know all too well from my own experiences. As one such follower puts it, “The closer you are to a conjurer, the easier to spot the trick.”
Along with this always comes more and more rules. That is the nature of fundamentalism (which Christ pushed back against): placing ever increasing burdens on people.
Amid the palm-trees of the oasis Gibreel appeared to the Prophet and found himself spouting rules, rules, rules, until the faithful could scarcely bear the prospect of any more revelation.
Another line in this episode was interesting to me:
Where there is no belief, there is no blasphemy.
In another line that rings so true today, the men hiding out from Muhammed have noticed that new revelations seem to happen whenever he wants to do something, whether taking more wives, or straight up “God’s own permission to fuck as many women as he liked.” Not too different from how Brigham Young operated - or how modern preachers justify their wealth and sexual peccadilloes.
“Your God certainly jumps to it when you need him to fix things up for you.”
Again, the narrative returns to the present, and we get some insight into the imploding marriage between Saladin and his British wife Pamela, who is a liberal community organizer. After an argument where Saladin keeps harping on the right wing position, she observes, “You actually do think in cheap debating points.”
Wow, that one hit home. I have increasingly had this experience in trying to communicate with the right wingers in my own life. Family included. It was about five years ago that I realized that my parents among others have ceased to be able to debate using current facts and realities. It was just cheap talking point after cheap talking point after slogan after slogan. Just today, I saw another one, in an ill-argued op-ed a friend posted about water issues in California. And, as one could easily predict, it was just a bunch of talking points strung together, with no engagement with the reality of the situation. “Environment over farmers” (even if we ran the Sacramento delta dry, there wouldn’t be enough water during drought years) “Why aren’t we building more dams?” (Where should we be building them? Yosemite Valley? That is never actually answered by any right winger I have met.) “We are wasting all this water by letting it run into the ocean” (Yes, because the lake is full, and the water is going over the spillway - what do you propose we do with it?) And this goes for every single issue. Talking points, talking points, talking points.
Shifting back again to the Ayesha episode, there is a lot of dark humor going on. To understand this one, it helps to know the supernatural characters. Azraeel is the avenging angel, the sword of punishment. So, this old lady sees a vision, and asks the angel if he is Gibreel, the archangel.
“No,” the apparition replied.” It’s I, Azraeel, the one with the lousy job. Excuse the disappointment.”
Poor Osman, formerly in love with Ayesha, before her spiritual epiphany, tries to get her to call off the march before everyone gets killed. She replies that she is just the messenger. Osman’s response is something that I have wondered many a time.
“Then tell me why your God is so anxious to destroy the innocent. What’s he afraid of? Is he so unconfident that he needs us to die to prove our love?”
And this goes for things less than death too. Is God really so fragile that he needs humans to harm themselves psychologically to prove their love? To harm others? To do violence to their own inner selves?
Also trying to stop the march is Mirza Saaed, whose terminally ill wife has become Ayesha’s lead follower. Near the end, he tells stories to the pilgrims, some of which listen and abandon the question. He tells of Circe, and her enchantment, and the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Ayesha calls these the Devil’s verses, spoken in the Devil’s tongue.
But he fails to convince his wife. She accuses him of being angry all the time. His response is perceptive.
“This isn’t anger. This is anxiety, unhappiness, wretchedness, injury, pain.”
I feel this very deeply. As males in our culture, we have been socialized to bury all those other feelings. The only acceptable emotion for men is anger - and that is how fundies can make the claim that women are too emotional, while men don’t have emotions. Once you define anger as “not an emotion,” there you go. I know for me I have often expressed myself in anger, because those other feelings: anxiety, unhappiness, hurt, wretchedness, injury, and pain are not recognized. Looking back, I have tried to express hurt and injury, but they have been brushed off more often than not. Only anger gets results, and that is a problem. (One of the things that I love about my wife is that she encourages expression of the other emotions, and listens when I express them.)
I want to end with a couple of lines from near the end, when Chamcha returns to India to say goodbye to his dying father. He runs into the stuttering Bollywood producer, S. S. “Whisky” Sisodia, and the two of them bemoan the sectarian violence that is wracking India. As Sisodia puts it, in a sentiment I very much resonate with:
“Fact is, religious fafaith, which encodes the highest ass ass aspirations of human race, is now, in our cocountry, the servant of lowest instincts, and gogo God is the creature of evil.”
This could as easily be spoken about religion in the United States today. It is frustrating and horrifying to me to see what can be the vehicle for all that is noble in humankind be debased to petty tribalism and hatred.
The final line comes as Chamcha prepares to see his father. I have to believe that Rushdie put something of himself into this scene - perhaps his own difficult relationship with his father. Given my own difficult relationship with my parents, and our current estrangement, I have some similar dread of how things will go at the end.
Saladin’s father has always been overdramatic and punitive, so he worries about more drama.
Anyone in the vicinity of a dying man was utterly at his mercy. Punches delivered from a deathbed left bruises that never faded.
This is the problem, isn’t it. Death gives an advantage to the dying in a way. There is the expectation of a reconciliation, which, given the wasted years before, feels cheap and fake to me. If reconciliation is what you want, do it while you are healthy. Don’t wait until the end.
But I see why this is attractive. The advantage of waiting until death to “reconcile” is that it is now too late to make restitution. There is no making things right on a deathbed, just a gun to the head of “you had better forgive me now, because you’ll regret it if I die without being forgiven.”
In the book, Saladin finds that things go better than he expected. But the reality remains: his father is dead, and they were estranged for decades, largely because of his father’s need for control and dominance. Those years will never come back.
And still, this is a better ending than the tragic one of Gibreel and everyone close to him.
It’s a crazy book, to be sure, and one that goes so many places. You could call it “unfocused” perhaps, but it is also of its time. In the second half of the 20th Century, giant books were all the rage, it appears - you can find them in thrift stores everywhere. Tom Clancy and Leon Uris were on my father’s shelves back in the day, and other people had Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie. And so many others.
These days, you find larger narratives broken up into multiple smaller books. Perhaps to be less intimidating, or perhaps to better monetize literature - it is likely we are more willing to buy three $20 books than one $60 book. So don’t blame Rushdie too much for writing in the style of his times.
I personally love this book. I find its very sprawling to be a giant picture of humanity in a particular place and time. The blurring of reality, magic, and interior life is part of its meaning; and the blending of symbolism and character makes it worth a re-read just to catch more of the connections.
I would love to hear from readers who also enjoyed this book - I only know a few who have read it.