By HILLEL ITALIE and CAROLYN THOMPSON
MAYVILLE, N.Y. (AP) — Salman Rushdie is “on the road to recovery,” his agent confirmed 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 lauded 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, New Jersey, 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 even spent nine years in hiding under a British government protection program.
Authors, activists and government officials cited Rushdie’s bravery and longtime championing of free speech in the face of such 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,” U.S. President Joe 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 India’s then-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 has prostitutes that 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 hardline 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,” District Attorney 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 Matar held without bail.
Public defender Nathaniel Barone complained that authorities had taken too long to get Matar in front of a judge while 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 spend the coming weeks trying to learn about his client, including whether he 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 Associated Press. Flags of the Iran-backed Shia 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.
In Tehran, some Iranians interviewed by the AP praised the attack on an author they believe tarnished the Islamic faith, while others worried it would further isolate their country.
Event moderator Henry Reese, 73, suffered a facial injury and was released from a hospital, police said. He and Rushdie had planned to discuss the United States as a refuge for artists in exile.
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.
On Friday, an AP reporter witnessed the attacker stab or punch Rushdie about 10 or 15 times.
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.”
Italie reported from New York. Associated Press journalists Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran; Kareem Chehayeb in Beirut; Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.