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Salman Rushdie on the attack that nearly killed him and his new book "Knife"

Salman Rushdie: The 2024 60 Minutes Interview
Salman Rushdie: The 2024 60 Minutes Interview 13:29

Prolific author Salman Rushdie doesn't like to think about the man who almost stabbed him to death at a literary festival in Chautauqua, New York in August 2022.

In less than half a minute, Rushdie was stabbed and slashed in the face, neck, chest, abdomen, thigh and hand. He lost an eye in the attack and is still adjusting to the change. Rushdie doesn't use his attacker's name and it doesn't appear in his newest book, "Knife," hitting bookshelves Tuesday.

"He and I had 27 seconds together, you know? That's it," Rushdie, now 76, told 60 Minutes correspondent Anderson Cooper. "I don't need to give him any more of my time."

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie 60 Minutes

"Knife," Rushdie's 22nd book, is one he initially did not want to write. The book, however, felt unavoidable, and it became an opportunity for Rushdie to come to terms with the attack. 

"I need to focus on, you know, to use the cliché, the elephant in the room," Rushdie said. "And the moment I thought that, kinda something changed in my head. And it then became a book I really very much wanted to write."

Rushdie's previous brushes with death

For years, no place was safe for Salman Rushdie, whose sprawling 600-page novel "The Satanic Verses" offended some Muslims for its depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. Iran's then-Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa—a religious decree— calling for Rushdie's death in 1989. There were worldwide protests from London to Lahore. "The Satanic Verses" was burned and 12 people died in violent clashes with police. The book's Japanese translator was murdered, and others associated with the tome were attacked.

Rushdie had no idea then that his book would lead to such a violent backlash. 

"I thought probably some conservative religious people wouldn't like it. But they didn't like anything I wrote anyway," he said. "So I thought, 'Well, they don't have to read it.'"

Rushdie, who was born in India, was living in London when he went into hiding to evade the assassins sent to kill him. The British government provided him with 24-hour police protection for 10 years. Over that period, Rushdie said there were as many as half a dozen serious assassination attempts from state-sponsored terrorism professionals.

The Iranian state called off its assassins in 1998 after diplomatic negotiations, but the bounty on his head remained.

What happened during the attack

Rushdie moved to New York in the early 2000s and for the next two decades lived openly. He continued writing and publishing books and became a celebrated advocate for freedom of expression. 

In 2022, Rushdie was invited to speak at a literary festival in Chautauqua, New York about a subject he knows all too well: the importance of protecting writers whose lives are under threat. 

Two days before the event, Rushdie had a dream in which he was being attacked, what he calls "a premonition."

"And it was just somebody with a spear stabbing downwards, and I was rolling around on the floor trying to get away from him," Rushdie said. "And I woke up and was quite shaken by it."

Anderson Cooper and Salman Rushdie
Anderson Cooper and Salman Rushdie 60 Minutes

Rushdie almost pulled out of going to Chautauqua, but brushed off his concerns as he'd presented at many events in his years living in America. Rushdie hadn't had security detail in a long time, but the venues he spoke at usually had venue security. In this case, he said, there wasn't any.

Rushdie was seated at stage right before the attack, and writes about what happened next in his book "Knife."

"Then, in the corner of my right eye — the last thing my right eye would ever see — I saw the man in black running towards me down the right-hand side of the seating area," Rushdie writes. 

He describes his attacker as a "squat missile" wearing black clothes and a black mask.

"I confess, I had sometimes imagined my assassin rising up in some public forum or other, and coming for me in just this way." Rushdie writes. "So my first thought when I saw this murderous shape rushing towards me was, 'So it's you. Here you are.'"

Rushdie didn't see the knife and thought, at first, that he'd just been punched. Then he saw the blood. 

"I think he was just wildly, you know, flailing around," Rushdie said about his attacker. 

Rushdie doesn't remember being stabbed in the eye. 

"I remember falling. Then I remember not knowing what had happened to my eye," Rushdie said. 

The attack lasted 27 seconds.

"That's quite a long time," Rushdie said. "That's the extraordinary half-minute of intimacy, you know, in which life meets death."

Rushdie's attacker was a 24-year-old Muslim man from New Jersey who lived in his mother's basement. He's believed to be a lone wolf. He has pleaded not guilty to attempted murder and is awaiting trial.

In an interview, he told the "New York Post" he'd only read a couple of pages of "The Satanic Verses" and seen some clips of Rushdie on YouTube. He said he "didn't like him very much" because Rushdie had "attacked Islam." 

His motive remains something of a mystery to Rushdie, who feels that if he'd written a character who knew so little about his proposed victim, his publishers would tell him the character was "under-motivated."

Aftermath of the attack on Rushdie

Audience members pulled the attacker off Rushdie while others desperately tried to stem the flow of his blood.

"I remember thinking that I was probably dying. And it was interesting because it was quite matter of fact…It wasn't, it wasn't like I was terrified of it or whatever," Rushdie said.

Rushdie's near-death experience hasn't left him with any revelations about what comes after death, "except that there's no revelation to be had."

Salman Rushdie and Eliza Griffiths speak with Anderson Cooper
Salman Rushdie and Eliza Griffiths speak with Anderson Cooper 60 Minutes

Paramedics flew Rushdie to a hospital in Erie, Pennsylvania, 40 miles away, where a team of doctors battled for eight hours to save his life. When he finally came out of surgery, his wife Eliza Griffiths, a poet and novelist, was waiting.

"He was a different color. He was cold," she said. "His face was stapled. Just staples holding his face together."

Rushdie was on a ventilator, unable to speak. After 18 days in the hospital and three weeks in rehab, Rushdie was discharged. One of the surgeons told Rushdie he was both really unlucky and really lucky. 

"I said, 'What's the lucky part?' And he said, 'Well, the lucky part is that the man who attacked you had no idea how to kill a man with a knife," Rushdie said.

Have brushes with death changed Rushdie?

After "The Satanic Verses" was published, Rushdie felt the only thing people knew about him was the death threat against him and he doesn't want the 2022 attack to be yet another defining incident.

For Rushdie, the worst part of the attack two years ago beyond the physical wounds, was the feeling of being dragged into the past.  

"That sense of time warp, you know, of being dragged into a narrative that I thought had concluded," he said, "and then it turned out had not."

While Rushdie was attacked with a physical knife, he fought back with one that's more metaphorical: his writing. Rushdie thought he could use his book to take charge of what happened to him. 

"I mean, language is a way of breaking open the world," Rushdie said. "I don't have any other weapons."

He says he feels the presence of death more than he did before.

"I think that shadow is just there," Rushdie said. "And some days it's dark and some days it's not."

Almost 25 years ago, Rushdie, addressing the fatwa, said that he wanted to find an "and to this story. It is the one story I must find an end to." He thought he had found that ending until he was attacked in 2022.

"I'm hoping this is just a last twitch of that story," he said. "I don't know. I'll let you know."

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