Salman Rushdie 'on the road to recovery,' agent says

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FILE - Salman Rushdie attends the 68th National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner on Nov. 15, 2017, in New York. Rushdie is "on the road to recovery," his agent confirmed Sunday, Aug. 14, 2022, two days after the author of "The Satanic Verses" suffered serious injuries in a stabbing at a lecture in upstate New York. The announcement followed news that the lauded writer was removed from a ventilator Saturday and able to talk and joke. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)
Salman Rushdie attends an awards event in 2017. The author, now 75, suffered a damaged liver and severed nerves in an arm and an eye in an attack Friday at a lecture in upstate New York. (Evan Agostini / Invision/AP)

Salman Rushdie is “on the road to recovery,” his agent said Sunday, two days after the author of “The Satanic Verses” suffered serious injuries in a stabbing at a lecture in upstate New York.

The announcement followed news that the writer was removed from a ventilator Saturday and able to talk and joke. Literary agent Andrew Wylie cautioned that although Rushdie's “condition is headed in the right direction,” his recovery would be a long process. Rushdie, 75, suffered a damaged liver and severed nerves in an arm and an eye, Wylie had previously said, and was likely to lose the injured eye.

“Though his life changing injuries are severe, his usual feisty & defiant sense of humour remains intact,” Rushdie's son Zafar Rushdie said in a Sunday statement that stressed the author remained in critical condition. The statement on behalf of the family also expressed gratitude for the “audience members who bravely leapt to his defence," as well as police, doctors and “the outpouring of love and support from around the world.”

Hadi Matar, 24, of Fairview, N.J., pleaded not guilty Saturday to attempted murder and assault charges in what a prosecutor called “a targeted, unprovoked, preplanned attack” at the Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit education and retreat center.

The attack was met with global shock and outrage, along with praise for the man who, for more than three decades, has weathered death threats and a $3-million bounty on his head for “The Satanic Verses.” Rushdie spent nine years in hiding under a British government protection program.

“It’s an attack against his body, his life and against every value that he stood for,” Henry Reese, 73, told the Associated Press. The co-founder of Pittsburgh's City of Asylum was on stage with Rushdie and suffered a gash to his forehead, bruising and other minor injuries. They had planned to discuss the need for writers' safety and freedom of expression.

Authors, activists and government officials cited Rushdie's bravery and longtime championing of free speech in the face of intimidation. Writer and longtime friend Ian McEwan labeled Rushdie “an inspirational defender of persecuted writers and journalists” and actor-author Kal Penn called him a role model “for an entire generation of artists, especially many of us in the South Asian diaspora.”

“Salman Rushdie — with his insight into humanity, with his unmatched sense for story, with his refusal to be intimidated or silenced — stands for essential, universal ideals,” President Biden said in a Saturday statement. “Truth. Courage. Resilience. The ability to share ideas without fear.”

Rushdie, who was born in India to a Muslim family and has lived in Britain and the U.S., is known for his surreal and satirical prose, beginning with his Booker Prize-winning 1981 novel “Midnight's Children,” in which he sharply criticized then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Infused with magical realism, 1988's “The Satanic Verses” drew ire from some Muslims who regarded elements of the novel as blasphemy.

They believed Rushdie insulted the Prophet Muhammad by naming a character Mahound, a medieval corruption of “Muhammad.” The character was a prophet in a city called Jahilia, which in Arabic refers to the time before the advent of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula. Another sequence includes prostitutes who share names with some of Muhammad’s nine wives. The novel also implies that Muhammad, not Allah, may have been the Quran's real author.

The book had already been banned and burned in India, Pakistan and elsewhere when Iran's Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or edict, calling for Rushdie’s death in 1989. Khomeini died that same year, but the fatwa remains in effect — though Iran, in recent years, hadn’t focused on Rushdie.

Iran’s state-run newspaper, Iran Daily, praised the attack as an “implementation of divine decree” Sunday. Another hard-line newspaper, Kayhan, termed it “divine revenge” that would partially calm the anger of Muslims.

Investigators were trying to determine whether the suspect, born nearly a decade after the novel's publication, acted alone. A prosecutor alluded to the standing fatwa as a potential motive in arguing against bail.

“His resources don’t matter to me. We understand that the agenda that was carried out yesterday is something that was adopted and it’s sanctioned by larger groups and organizations well beyond the jurisdictional borders of Chautauqua County,” Dist. Atty. Jason Schmidt said.

Schmidt said Matar got an advance pass to the event where the author was speaking and arrived a day early bearing a fake ID. The judge ordered him held without bail.

Public defender Nathaniel Barone complained that authorities had taken too long to get Matar in front of a judge, leaving him “hooked up to a bench at the state police barracks,” and stressed that Matar had the right to presumed innocence.

Barone said after the hearing that Matar has been communicating openly with him and that he would try to learn whether his client has psychological or addiction issues.

Matar was born in the United States to parents who emigrated from Yaroun in southern Lebanon, village mayor Ali Tehfe told the AP. Flags of the Iran-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah, along with portraits of Hezbollah and Iranian leaders, were visible across Yaroun before journalists visiting Saturday were asked to leave.

Hezbollah spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment.

A state trooper and a county sheriff’s deputy were assigned to Rushdie’s lecture, and police said the trooper made the arrest. But afterward, some longtime visitors to the bucolic vacation colony questioned why there wasn’t tighter security given the history of threats against Rushdie.

News about the stabbing has led to renewed interest in “The Satanic Verses,” which topped bestseller lists after the fatwa was issued in 1989. As of Sunday morning, the novel ranked No. 11 on Amazon.com's list.

One of Rushdie's ex-wives, the author and television host Padma Lakshmi, tweeted Sunday that she was “relieved” by Rushdie's prognosis.

“Worried and wordless, can finally exhale," she wrote. "Now hoping for swift healing.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.