September 10, 2001: an evening with Salman Rushdie
Everyone has one, and my 9–11 story begins the night before, on September 10th, an evening I spent with Salman Rushdie. I was then the director of the creative writing program at the University of Houston, and we had invited Rushdie to speak downtown as part of our annual writers series. Rushdie had been living mostly in hiding and under police protection since 1988, when he’d published “The Satanic Verses” and the Ayatollah Khomeini had condemned him and his publishers to death for their “offenses against Islam.” The fatwa hadn’t been lifted by 2001 — it never has been and was, in fact, “renewed,” in 2016 — but Rushdie had begun from time to time to emerge and make selected public appearances.
That September, Rushdie had a new novel out, and our event in Houston was a stop on his publicity tour. The book was entitled “Fury,” and it was the first of his work set entirely in New York, where, it was said, he had re-settled. The book was a savage depiction of the city, a combustible heap of avarice, greed, and lust, and the voice was fueled by a kind of narrative hate. On September 9th, the New York Times had reviewed — and condemned — it, saying that the anger had stymied whatever good was in it and that Rushdie’s brutal tone had come at “the expense of [writerly] flight.”
For days in advance of Rushdie’s visit, my office fax machine rang again and again, zipping out its own messages of hate. The local community — there was and is a large Muslim population in Houston — was irate, and they promised to protest . Some even threatened to do more. In a way that now I regret, I remember being shot through less with terror than intrigue, thrilled at the danger around the event. I was new on the job; I had been director less than a month, and the impending visit of a figure as large as Rushdie seemed to symbolize to me that, after years of languishing as an assistant professor at a different and smaller university program, at Houston, I had finally been granted employment of import, a position in the writing world where things that mattered were happening.
At twilight, at a spot that had been pre-appointed, I met Rushdie on campus, and from there a driver and bodyguard took us downtown to a restaurant that was just across from the auditorium where Rushdie would later speak. Dinner was convivial. I don’t remember everyone who attended, but some of my colleagues were there, and I was especially pleased that my husband had been invited. I remember exchanging knowing glances with him across the table from time to time that evening: this would be an experience, we seemed to be saying to one another, that we should savor, a once-in-a-lifetime moment we would always share.
By the time dinner was over and Rushdie and I emerged from the restaurant, the streets were filled with protestors. I hadn’t time to read the signs and placards they carried — they were a blur of English and Arabic. Instead, I found myself fixated on the presence of police — they were mounted, on horseback, and as Rushdie and I ducked quickly into the car, he in the front passenger seat by the driver, and I in the back, one of the horses reared back, its belly arcing into the air, its forelegs raised, its teeth bared.
The driver pressed the gas pedal, but the crowd surged forward. The policemen threatened the crowd with their batons, but the protestors broke nevertheless through the phalanx of men and horses, and they surrounded us. For a time we were trapped inside the car. There were hands on the hood, hands on the roof, hands pressed against all the windows, and we rocked back an forth until the police were somehow able to clear the way. Finally, we drove one short block to a dark and pre-planned entrance of the arena, arriving safely, the screams of the crowd behind us.
Like the signs in the street, most of that evening remains a blur of memory. I know only that the standing room only crowd inside was respectful. I know that I introduced Rushdie, although I don’t remember what I said before he came to the podium to speak and to read. I remember breathing a sigh of relief when it was finally over and my husband and I could get back to our three and a half year-old, who had been home with a sitter.
The next thing I remember is the phone ringing. It was morning, and my older sister was calling from Portland. Hers was a call like so calls that, precisely at the same moment, other people were making across the nation to their relatives and friends. “Turn on the t.v.,” she said. By then the second tower had already been hit. For a time, CNN played what seemed an endless loop of footage of the second plane’s surreal moment of impact, puctuated by images of smoke pluming in the air and helicopters circling the tops of both buildings, looking vainly for a place to land. Soon, out of the towers’ shattered windows people began to jump, and for a time — watched that, too.
My sister was weeping. While she knew no one in the buildings, we had a close cousin who had once worked there. But more to the point, the events of that morning touched a fresh and piercing loss in her— just months before she had lost her only child, a college-aged daughter, my niece Emma, in a drowning accident in Brazil. Her voice breaking, my sister told me, “I don’t want to live in this world anymore,” by which I was meant to understand that it was all too much, that what was happening now and what had happened earlier that summer, was more than she could bear. If being alive meant having to endure moments like this, then she wanted nothing to do with it, my sister was saying. Then the towers fell, and we watched that, too, each of us crying out, and it was then, at least for a moment, that I entertained the thought that perhaps now — as the buildings imploded and became one, and then another,, rising billow of ashes and bleached dust— I might finally grasp something more of what it meant for my sister to have lost a child.
But of course I couldn’t have known. I hadn’t lost one myself. Mine was already at pre-school school that morning. I had dropped her off just a short time before and had watched her bob off with a bow in her hair and her lunchbox in hand. Was she safe now? Should I go and get her? Houston was a world away from New York, but news was emerging about an attack on the Pentagon and a second plane lost somewhere in Pennsylvania. There were concerns about the White House. Would there terrorist activity on the West coast as well? Nationwide? No one knew yet. I decided I’d get my daughter from school, and I called into work to cancel my afternoon classes.
The phone rang again. It was a colleague of mine from the University, one who had been at the dinner the evening before. Rushdie, he said breathlessly, had already checked out of The Four Seasons that morning; he had been staying there under an assumed name. But when his plane had been grounded and he’d returned to check back in the hotel management, terrified of having him on the premises, refused to give him a room. Rushdie was stranded in the lobby. My colleague said he’d take him to his own house and hide him there until we knew what next to do.
For a week, as it would turn out, Rushdie would have to stay with with my colleague, holed up behind drawn shades. I chose not to visit, in part because I feared that my presence would signal to someone that Rushdie was being kept there there but in part, too, because I felt I must return to work to comfort the students, who were shaken and needed an adult presence. During that week, I conducted classes during which my students talked mostly about the news and what it might mean for them as writers. One particularly cynical student maintained that the horror of the World Trade Center bombing would simply and quickly be absorbed by the next news cycle, becoming just one more event in time, but most of the students understood that the bombing had forever altered not only the world they lived in but the voices with which they would chose to chronicle it.
Indeed, nothing was the same. Not in the classroom. Not anywhere. At home, my husband and I avoided putting on the television when our daughter was around, and we spoke in whispers of the news, hiding the newspaper, with its thousands of faces and its thousands of obituaries. At work. another of my colleagues, a visiting professor, rushed desperately back to New York because her ex-husband, the father of her daughter, was still missing. He had worked at a finance firm high in one of the towers.
Yet another colleague had chosen to go back to New York to comfort friends. She said she couldn’t imagine not being there at a time like this. And meanwhile, Rushdie was still hiding in somewhere in Houston. Finally, when planes took to the air again, so did he, and his publisher sent a private jet for him did he make his way to wherever it was he needed to go — though most likely not to New York and most likely not to where he had planned on going when he had first set out on book tour.
I never spoke Salman Rushdie again. But I am haunted by a with him the night before, an exchange that we had while in the car as we were trapped in the car on the street, the crowd, surrounding us. When at last we had broken free of the protesters, in that brief silence we shared, I had reached forward and put my hand on Rushdie’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry,” I said, not so much as if I were responsible for what was happening as I wished to express to him my sympathies for what it was he had to endure.
Rushdie shrugged, turned to me, slightly, and in the softest voice said, “Oh, I’m used to it.” Then he turned forward again. I was feeling not at all encouraged by his remark. Instead, I found myself embarrassed by what I had said in the first place. The melee outsdide the car was of a piece with the life he had been living for over a decade by then. It was a world in which his own words — in his novel, “The Satanic Verses” — had thrust him. And it was a world that had spurned him as well. His, like my sister’s world, had been rent. But, unlike my sister herself, Rushdie was inured to the fact that his life would be shattered for the rest of his days.
I often think back to that moment of that evening when Rushdie turned to me in the car. In retrospect it seems a moment of innocence, a kind of paradise lost. The next morning, after all, most of the people I knew and I, as well, would live our lives looking over our shoulders, the shadow of a different kind of fatwa over our heads. But it was different for Rushdie. Or was it? Was September 11th just one more horrid event to be shrugged at and accepted? Was it merely a part of a continuum for Rusdhie — a story in the violent news cycle of his of a man who lived under a death sentence, something to be absorbed like everything else that had befallen him, metabolized the way the rocking of the car had been the night before? What was it like for him that morning when he woke? As it was for me when I had heard my sister’s grief on the phone that day — failing in the end to be able to understand — the answer to the question I am asking is one I, even these many years later, will never be able to know.