On the 25th Anniversary of the Rushdie Affair

nerudaFebruary 1 is the 25th anniversary of the publication of  Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in the United States.  Two weeks after publication, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of Iran, issued a fatwa (a religious ruling), that declared it permissible for Muslims to assassinate  Rushdie because of the “blasphemous” subject of the book.

Cody’s was bombed on February 28, probably the first incident of Islamic terrorism in the United States.

There was a lot of talk then and I’m sure there will be much written today about the meaning of the Rushdie Affair. Of course, in the narrative of events, the independent bookstores were the heroes. — Well, actually Rushdie deserves some credit as well. — The big chain bookstores pulled Satanic Verses from their shelves after the fatwa. But most independent stores continued selling it. David and Goliath stories are always compelling, and this was no exception.

There was a lot of histrionics in the literary community about how people were willing to take a bullet to defend the First Amendment. But the bookstores were on the street and were particularly vulnerable.

Well, I’m not ashamed to say that I never put the book in the window. Actually, before the bombing, I learned while I was out of town that someone had made a window of the book at Cody’s. I told them to take it down immediately. I had no intention of having a Cody’s employee taking a bullet for the First Amendment or for any other reason.

Still we continued selling the book. The staff at Cody’s voted unanimously to keep carrying it  even after we were bombed.

The only artifact I have of the Rushdie Affair is a copy of The Sea and the Bells, a book of poetry by Pablo Neruda. We discovered an undetonated pipe bomb rolling around the poetry section the morning after a fire bomb had been thrown threw the window. It was too dangerous to remove the bomb, so it was detonated in the store.  As you can clearly see. the shrapnel did some damage to the book, but it didn’t destroy it, not even a single poem.

I can’t think of a better symbol of what the Rushdie Affair was about, of it’s true historical meaning, than the image of this book.

Below are my recollections:

Remembering the Rushdie Affair

On February 28, 1989 Cody’s was bombed. I remember being awakened by the police who informed me a fire bomb had been thrown through the window of Cody’s. The fire department had broken into the store  to put out the fire. The firemen’s efforts at containment did considerably more damage than the fire, itself. I came down to the store at about 2 AM and  waited around most of the night. I made some phone calls to the American Booksellers Association and, I believe, my mother and brother informing them of the incident.

We  assumed then the bombing was associated with the so-called Rushdie Affair, although we  never learned exactly who was responsible.

Let’s backtrack a little. In September 1988, Penguin Books published The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie in the UK. From the beginning it was considered a literary masterpiece and Rushdie’s most ambitious work. Sadly for him, it satirized some themes in Muslim history and theology. In February, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of the Iranian revolution, issued a fatwa, a decree under Muslim Sharia law, declaring the book blasphemous and offering a bounty for Rushdie’s murder.

Rushdie went into deep hiding, although someone said they saw him in Hyde Park in disguise. When asked what Rushdie looked like, the person responded that he looked like Salman  Rushdie with a fake mustache.

The publication unleashed a fire storm, literally and figuratively. There were book burnings all over the Muslim world and fire bombs thrown into book stores in the UK. In the book world there was a veritable frenzy of people issuing pronouncements about defending freedom of speech from terrorists and fanatics. There was a lot of talk about people sacrificing their lives, if necessary, to protect this freedom. Writers’ organizations started handing out buttons that became ubiquitous in publishing saying: “I am Salman Rushdie!.” Of course with the death threats flying around, certain wags started wearing buttons saying: “He is Salman Rushdie!.”

The book was published in the United States at the beginning of February. Several weeks later, America’s largest chains; B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, and Barnes & Noble; pulled Satanic Verses from their shelves nationwide. The writers’ organizations, led by PEN America and just about everyone else in publishing went ape-shit. PEN organized a public reading of Satanic Verses and a march to Dalton’s to picket the store. Susan Sontag was president of PEN. Norman Mailer was the past president. They were everywhere speaking about the outrage. There continued to be much breast beating  by writers and  public intellectuals  pronouncing their  willingness to give their lives for the cause.

I was watching all this with a lot more than detached interest. It was pretty easy for Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag to talk about risking their lives in support of an idea. After all they lived   fairly high up in New York apartment buildings. It was quite another thing to be a retailer featuring the book at street level. I had to make some really hard decisions about balancing our commitment to freedom of speech against the real threat to the lives of our employees. From  my vantage point, this was not such an easy decision.

Then Cody’s got bombed.  I spoke of the firebombing that occurred at 2 AM.  What came later was more alarming. The next morning, as we were cleaning up, an undetonated pipe bomb was found rolling around the floor  near the poetry section. Apparently it had been thrown through the window at the same time as the fire bomb. Had the pipe bomb exploded, it would have killed everyone in the store. The building was quickly evacuated. Lawrence Davidson, who discovered the bomb, ran upstairs to warn me to leave the building. If I haven’t told you before, Lawrence, thanks.

As I walked outside, I was met with a phalanx of newsmen. Normally I was a shameless panderer for media publicity. But there and then, I had no desire to speak. And I knew reflexively that public pronouncements under the circumstances were probably imprudent.

We all assembled across the street facing the building, which had been cordoned  by yellow tape.   The police bomb squad entered  to see if they could diffuse the bomb. Apparently they judged it too dangerous to remove. They decided to pack it with sand bags and detonate it in the store. We heard the bomb blast and watched as the building shook. I remember thinking this was unreal. It can’t be happening. Then I started crying. Of course the media vultures loved this and stuck a camera in my face to record the tears rolling down  for the six o’clock media clips.

We all pulled ourselves together and returned to the store. I called a meeting in the café. Jesus, what do you say after you have just watched your store get bombed? It isn’t like we learned how to deal with this situation in ABA booksellers’ school. We had, after all, just witnessed the first act of international terrorism in the United States. And it had been directed against us!

When the staff had assembled, I told them we had a hard decision to make. We needed to decide whether to keep carrying Satanic Verses and risk our lives for what we believed in. Or alternatively,  take a more cautious approach and compromise our values.  So we took a vote. The staff voted unanimously to keep carrying the book. Tears still come to my eyes when I think of this.   It was the defining moment in my 35 years of bookselling. It was also the moment when I realized bookselling was a dangerous and subversive vocation; because, after all,  ideas are powerful weapons. I felt  just a tad anxious about carrying that book. I worried about the consequences. I didn’t particularly feel comfortable about being a hero and putting other people’s lives in danger. I didn’t know at that moment whether this was an act of courage or foolhardiness.

But with the clarity of hindsight, I would have to say it was the proudest day of my life.

Several years later, Salman, still undercover, came to the Bay Area. A secret dinner was arranged for him with numerous celebrities, politicians, and movie stars. Of course, the booksellers were honored guests. The next day, Rushdie insisted on paying a visit to Cody’s. We were told we could not announce the visit until 15 minutes before he arrived.  It was a very emotional meeting. Many tears were shed, and we were touched by his decision to visit us. We showed him the book case that had been charred by the fire bomb. We also showed him the hole in the sheetrock above the information desk that had been created when the pipe bomb was detonated. One of the Cody’s staff, with characteristic irreverence,  had written with a marker next to the damaged sheet rock: “Salman Rushdie Memorial Hole.” Salman shrugged his shoulders and said with his wonderful self-deprecating humor, “Well, you know some people get statues, —- and others get holes.”

 ***

After the bomb squad detonated the bomb in the store, I hung around for the rest of the day watching the FBI sort through the rubble in their investigation. My wife, Joyce Cole, contacted the media who had been filming all this and told them my life was in danger and they should block out my face. That night we watched the 6 o’clock news and saw the interview of me with my face looking like a  Picasso  painting from his Cubist Period. Like Rushdie’s fake mustache in Hyde Park, this wasn’t going to fool anyone.

The same day Peter Mayer, the publisher of Penguin Books, called us and offered the services of their security advisory agency. The Satanic Verses had been out of stock at the publisher for a week, and almost no one in the country had it. The chains probably did, but they had taken it off their shelves. Peter said because of our courage (or whatever  it was),  Penguin was going to overnight our shipment of the next printing, so we would be the only book store on the street  (and probably in the country) selling it. This was a touching expression of gratitude, but one not likely to help me sleep  more peacefully.

The security consultant provided to us by Penguin had a lot of experience protecting companies against union organizers, but  I doubt he understood any more about terrorist bombings than I did. On his advice my family left home and settled in at  my friend’s house  for a week. Although the Ayatollah had issued a fatwa against me, we felt it was the prudent thing to do.

The next day there was a picture of Cody’s on the front page of The  New York Times. I’d been waiting all my life for this moment. Unfortunately, the picture they decided to use was of a janitor from the cleaning service sweeping up. I thought that was the end of my fifteen minutes of fame.

I was advised by the security people to stay out of the news anyway. Though I ate bitter bile, I told the Cody’s folks to deal with all media queries by saying “Mr. Ross is unavailable for comment at this time.”That’s what they told  Dan Rather. That’s what they told The  New York Times. That’s what they told McNeill – Lehrer. For all I know, that’s what they  told the Pope.

For the next 2 days and nights, I sat at my desk designing a security plan for Cody’s to be implemented when we reopened after the FBI went home. When it was completed, it was a pretty impressive document. But  I knew then, as I know now, it was something of a formality to make the employees feel more at ease. It was going to cost a lot of money and be a big hassle and wasn’t likely to deter a serious or even a casual terrorist. The plan included specific procedures for dealing with “suspicious ” people, evacuation procedures, inspections at the front door, managing the media, and metal detectors in the shipping room.

The first scare we had was when we found a letter addressed to me. The bells and whistles went off when we scanned it with the metal detector. We evacuated the building. The police courageously told me to open it myself. It turned out it was a  cutesy note from Melissa Mytinger, the events manager, with a little smiley face metal foil sticker inside.

We did see a lot of customers with sort of  sinister Middle Eastern looks to them and shifty eyes.  It turns out there were a number Muslim individuals who came into the store looking to buy the book. The shifty eyes may have had to do with the fact they were doing something naughty. But I don’t know.

One of the most poignant  encounters I had was with a group of Muslim students at UC Berkeley who wanted to express their compassion for Cody’s and to tell me they were ashamed of all this. As you can imagine, any Muslim in America was getting a raw deal with the hysteria that was going on. I told them I wanted to apologize to them for what they must be suffering. I realized something important during this encounter.

We still kept getting calls from the media  who wanted six o’clock news clips of the security measures. For some reason, they all wanted to ask me if we were going to put the book in the window, as if I would risk getting by ass blown to smithereens so they could have a sound bite. I think what they really wanted was for me to get up on a soap box in front of the store facing a thousand cameras  and say: “Ayatollah Khomeini, Read…..My….Lips!”

Eventually things settled down. We slowly and in stages phased out the security plan. There was a lot of debate about eliminating each measure. The gist of the conversation at each step was something like: “What do you care more about? Human life or money?” But we moved on. We sold over 700 copies of  The Satanic Verses the week after we re-opened. I think it was more an act of solidarity than a desire to read the book. Some people wanted me to autograph it. I think I demurred. What did they want me to inscribe anyway? “I am Salman Rushdie!”

A few months later, I was called by the National Association of Newspaper Editors and asked if I would be on a panel at their convention to talk about my experiences. I told them I had been trying to avoid the media. They told me not to worry. It was going to be quite discrete. I can’t imagine how I believed  a speech in front of every major editor of every newspaper in the country could ever be discrete. I was on a panel with Larry McMurtry and Robin Wright, a distinguished journalist covering Iran. I should have known there was nothing discrete about the meeting when I saw the prime minister of Israel who was giving the presentation before  us, followed later by the Palestinian representative to the UN.

I got on the podium  and saw the whole show was being broadcast on C-SPAN. I told them my “Ayatollah, read my lips” line and got a lot of laughs. Then I went home and watched myself on national TV. As you can see, I lived to tell about it.

The following summer Susan Sontag was invited to give a speech about the whole affair at the American Booksellers Association  Convention. I went there hoping at last she would acknowledge Cody’s did something special. In the course of her talk, she was extremely critical of almost everyone in the book business who refused to stand up and be counted or who didn’t allow their names to be used in full page ads in The  New York Times. But she did want to acknowledge the commitment shown by independent bookstores. And she wanted especially to single out  one in Berkeley, California:….. Black Oak Books.

I guess this just shows that in real life stories don’t always end the way you would like.

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7 Responses to “On the 25th Anniversary of the Rushdie Affair”

  1. mitchmars Says:

    Yes I recently read of the Rushdie affair in your book, and as a resident of the Bay Area for years, and having shopped many times in Codys, & personally having been at the ‘Peoples Park’ riots, and as a writer very close to concluding a fine book, I need to know how to contact the ‘Agent’ Andy Ross to see if there may be a fit- not a conniption fit I assure. Arthur Mitchell Date: Tue, 14 Jan 2014 22:52:56 +0000 To: planet_kiss@hotmail.com

  2. Andrew Says:

    Incredible post, Andy. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and for your efforts during this troubling time. As you say, “David and Goliath” stories are always compelling, especially when they involve the challenging of fundamental rights. I became quite interested in the Rushdie Affair a couple of years ago. There is a book by Daniel Pipes and two documentaries available on YouTube that cover the story quite well. Of course, nothing tops Salman Rushdie’s own memoir, Joseph Anton. I read it last fall and wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone interested in this event.

  3. Nora Lester Murad Says:

    A wonderful, inspiring post, and a refreshing change from most blogs from agents, which tend to focus on query dos-and-don’ts. Thanks for keeping it real and reminding us why we read and why we write.

  4. mrs fringe Says:

    Thank you for this post.

  5. Patricia V. Davis Says:

    A remarkable post, one which I’ve forwarded to a number of people. Thank you for reminding us of what bookstores do for us.

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