Salman Rushdie attacked: ‘A man was thrusting towards him ... then we saw blood’

·6 min read
Author Salman Rushdie is helped in the moments after the attack - Charles Savenor/Via Reuters
Author Salman Rushdie is helped in the moments after the attack - Charles Savenor/Via Reuters

When the audience filed into the auditorium at the Chautauqua Institution on Friday morning, they were expecting to hear a lecture on how America became a sanctuary for exiled artists.

Few could speak better on the subject than Salman Rushdie, who moved to New York in the years after a bounty was placed on his head by the Supreme Leader of Iran.

And few places could seem to offer greater sanctuary than the Chautauqua Institution, a gated community for artists in a quiet, rural part of New York State.

Mr Rushdie, 75, took his seat on stage a little after 11am. Security was very lax for an audience mainly made up of retirees.

Seconds after he sat down, chaos broke out. A man in dark clothes and a black mask jumped on stage and attacked the author.

Police confirmed the detention of Hadi Matar, 24, of Fairview, New Jersey, who they believed was acting alone. Officers have not yet established a motive. The alleged assailant's name is common among Lebanese Shias.

“Within about 15 seconds, someone jumped on stage and began to pound Mr Rushdie,” audience member Charlie Savenor told the New York Times. “I saw the arm go up and down.” The assailant “did not say anything”.

“I could just see his fists sort of pounding on Salman,” said Bill Vasu, 72, another witness. It took a while for the audience to realise that the attacker was not punching Rushdie, but was armed with a knife.

An Associated Press reporter at the event said he believed the man stabbed Rushdie “10 to 15 times”. Police said Rushdie was stabbed at least once in the neck and once in the abdomen.

On Friday night, the author's agent told The New York Times that Rushdie was on a ventilator and may lose an eye. Andrew Wylie told the newspaper that the news was "not good," adding that Rushdie could not speak, while the nerves in his arm were severed in the attack and his liver was "stabbed and damaged".

Audience members could be heard on video screaming “Oh my God” as a dozen rushed to the stage to help Rushdie, who was bleeding on the ground. The braver among them wrestled the knife from the attacker, who was still clinging to the author.

An assigned state trooper with a gun in his holster could be seen in the second wave of people rushing to offer aid.

One attendee at the lecture, a retired nurse who gave her name only as Kathy, said: “This man was thrusting towards him [Rushdie], like he was punching him, but then we saw the blood. My husband told me to look away. We sat in our seats until the state trooper told us to get out. We were all just so terrified.”

Rita Landman walked on stage to offer assistance. She said Rushdie had multiple stab wounds, including one to the right side of his neck, and that there was a pool of blood under his body. “People were saying: ‘He has a pulse, he has a pulse, he has a pulse,’” she told The New York Times.

A photograph from the scene showed a community safety officer and others with their hands over Rushdie’s chest and holding his legs up in the air. He was later pictured being taken away on a stretcher, with an IV drip in his arm and blood covering his naked torso, hands and face.

The author was taken away by ambulance before being transferred by helicopter to a local hospital.

Salman Rushdie was transferred to hospital by helicopter
Salman Rushdie was transferred to hospital by helicopter

The attacker, meanwhile, was taken into custody. The Telegraph could not immediately confirm a picture shared online of the arrest of the alleged suspect, who appeared to be in his late 20s, with closely cut dark hair and a beard, wearing a dark jacket and green and grey camouflage T-shirt.

The Chautauqua Institution features arts and literary programming for nine weeks each summer. Each weekday, at 10.45am, many gather to hear a lecture at the vast amphitheatre.

Rushdie had returned to the institution for a special series event exploring the theme More than Shelter.

Co-hosted by the non-profit City of Asylum – the largest residency programme in the world for writers living in exile under threat of persecution – it was meant to be a reflective discussion of the US as an asylum for writers and other artists in exile and as a home for freedom of creative expression.

“You could never ever imagine something like this would happen here,” Kathy said. “Not in a million years.”

John Bulette, 85, added: “There was just a huge security lapse. That somebody could get that close without any intervention was frightening.”

An usher at the institute, Kyle Doershuk, 20, said security was lax and that there did not appear to be any additional measures in place for Rushdie’s visit. “It’s very open, it’s very accessible, it’s a very relaxed environment,” he said. “In my opinion, something like this was just waiting to happen.”

Just a few state troopers had been assigned to the festival, which usually garners little outside attention. Some questioned why, considering his high profile, Rushdie was not given more security.

He has lived much of his life under the threat of assassination for his work. His 1988 book The Satanic Verses, a Booker Prize finalist inspired by the life of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad was viewed as blasphemous by many Muslims. Often violent protests against Rushdie erupted around the world, including a riot in Mumbai in which 12 people died.

Iran’s late leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa or edict calling for Rushdie to be killed.

The death threats and bounty led him to go into hiding under a British government protection programme, including a round-the-clock armed guard. Rushdie emerged after nine years of seclusion and cautiously resumed more public appearances, maintaining his outspoken criticism of religious extremism.

Iran’s FARS news agency, which has close links to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Council, celebrated the attack on the “apostate” author on Friday, saying Britain had “failed” to protect him.

Rushdie moved to the US in the early 2000s. In 2019, he spoke at a private club in Manhattan to promote his novel, Quichotte. Security at the event was relaxed, and attendees recalled the author mingling with guests and dining with members of the club afterwards.

In an interview with the New York Times last year, he said: “Oh, I have to live my life” when asked about any fear he had over the long-standing threats to him.

After decades looking over his shoulder, few could have predicted such an attack in one of the sleepiest parts of America, a low-crime lake resort town not far from the Canadian border.

The attack has been felt deeply among both literary and press freedom groups.

“We cannot immediately think of any comparable incident of a public violent attack on a writer during a literary event here in the United States,” said Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive officer of PEN America, a non-profit literary organisation.

A statement from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression said: “Rushdie has long understood free speech’s necessity. He is among its strongest advocates. His voice will never be silenced.”