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Salman Rushdie on the 2022 attack that nearly took his life, and writing his new book "Knife"

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

Salman Rushdie has been a marked man for nearly half his life. In 1989 Iran's leader Ayatollah Khomeini declared his novel, "The Satanic Verses," blasphemous, an insult to Islam, and called for the Indian-born writer's assassination. Rushdie went into hiding with around the clock police protection for 10 years. He eventually moved to the U.S. and thought he was safe. But in August 2022, as he was about to speak at a literary festival in Chautauqua, New York, Salman Rushdie was attacked by a Muslim man with a knife. Rushdie, who is now 76, lost his right eye, and came close to dying. He's come to terms with the attempt on his life by writing a book about it… called, simply, "Knife"… which comes out Tuesday. This is his first television interview since the attack.

Anderson Cooper: You had had a dream two days, I think it was, before the attack. What was the dream?

Salman Rushdie: I kind of had a premonition. I mean, I had a dream of being attacked in an amphitheater. But it was a kind of Roman Empire dream, you know? As-- as-- as if I was in the Colosseum and it was just somebody with a spear stabbing downwards, and I was rolling around on the floor trying to get away from him. And I woke up and was quite shaken by it. And I had to go to Chautauqua, you know? And I said to my wife, Eliza, I said, "You know, I-- I don't want to go." 

Anderson Cooper: Because of the dream?

Salman Rushdie: Because of the dream. And then I thought, "Don't be silly. It's a dream."

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie 60 Minutes

Salman Rushdie… one of his generation's most acclaimed writers… had been invited to the town of Chautauqua, close to Lake Erie, to speak about a subject he knows all too well… the importance of protecting writers whose lives are under threat.

Anderson Cooper: Did you have any anxiety being in-- in such a public space?

Salman Rushdie: Not really, because in the, what, more than 20 years that I've been living in America I've done a lot of these things.

Anderson Cooper: You haven't had security around you or close protection--

Salman Rushdie: A long time--

Anderson Cooper: detail for a long time.

Salman Rushdie: Long time. But, you know, what happens in-- many places that you go and lecture is that-- that-- that they're used to having a certain degree of security, venue security. In this case, there wasn't any. 

Anderson Cooper: The irony, of course, is you were there to talk about writers in danger.

Salman Rushdie: Yeah, exactly. And the need for writers from other countries to have safe spaces in America, amongst other places. And then, yeah, it just turned out not to be a safe space for me.

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 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 clashes with police. The book's Japanese translator was murdered, and others associated with it were attacked. 

Anderson Cooper: Did you have any idea that it would cause violence?

Salman Rushdie: No. I had no idea. I thought probably some conservative religious people wouldn't like it. But they didn't like anything I wrote anyway. So, I thought, "Well, they don't have to read it."

Anderson Cooper: Were you naïve?

Salman Rushdie: Probably. You know, I mean, it's easy looking back to think-- but nothing like this had ever happened to anybody. And of course almost all the people who attacked the book did so without reading it. I was often told that I had intended to insult, offend people. And my view is -- if I need to insult you, I can do it really quickly. I don't need to spend five years of my life trying to write a 600-page book to insult you.

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie 60 Minutes

Rushdie was living in London when he went into hiding… and for the next 10 years the British government provided him with 24-hour police protection.

Anderson Cooper: Did people try to kill you?

Salman Rushdie: Yes. There were maybe as many as half a dozen serious assassination attempts-- which were not random people. They were state-sponsored terrorism professionals. 

After diplomatic negotiations, the Iranian state called off its assassins in 1998. Rushdie finally came out of the shadows. He moved to New York and for the next two decades lived openly… he was a man about town. He continued writing and became a celebrated advocate for freedom of expression. So, when he received the invitation to speak in Chautauqua in August 2022, he gladly accepted.

Salman Rushdie: I was seated at stage right. 

In his new book "Knife," he describes what happened next.

Salman Rushdie: 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. Black clothes, black face mask. He was coming in hard and low. A squat missile. I confess, I had sometimes imagined my assassin rising up in some public forum or other, and coming for me in just this way. So, my first thought when I saw this murderous shape rushing towards me was, "So it's you. Here you are."

Anderson Cooper: "So it's you. Here you are."

Salman Rushdie: Yeah.

Anderson Cooper: It's like you'd been th-- waiting for it.

Salman Rushdie: Yeah, that's what it felt like. It felt like something coming out of the distant past. And trying to drag me back in time, if you like, back into that distant past in order to kill me. And when he got to me. He basically hit me very hard here. And initially I thought I'd been punched. 

Anderson Cooper: You didn't actually see a knife?

Salman Rushdie: I didn't see the knife. And I didn't realize until I saw blood coming out that there had been a knife in his-- in his fist.

Anderson Cooper: So where was that stab?

Salman Rushdie: Here.

Anderson Cooper: In your neck?

Salman Rushdie: In my neck, yeah. then there were a lot more, the worst wounds was there was a big slash wound like this across my neck. And there was a s-- puncture, a stab wound here. And then of course there was the attack on my eye. 

Anderson Cooper: Do you remember being stabbed in the eye?

Salman Rushdie: No. I remember falling. Then I remember not knowing what had happened to my eye.

He was also stabbed in his hand, chest, abdomen, and thigh. Fifteen wounds in all.

Anderson Cooper: He was both stabbing--

Salman Rushdie: Stabbing and slashing--

Anderson Cooper: and also slashing.

Salman Rushdie: I think he was just wildly…

The attack lasted 27 seconds. To feel just how long that is…

Anderson Cooper: This is what 27 seconds is. 

Anderson Cooper: That's it. 

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

Anderson Cooper: What stopped it from being longer?

Salman Rushdie: The audience pulling him off me.

Anderson Cooper: Strangers to you.

Salman Rushdie: Total s-- I don't-- to this day, I don't know their names.

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

Some of those strangers restrained the attacker while others desperately tried to stem the flow of Rushdie's blood.

Salman Rushdie: There was really a lot of blood. 

Anderson Cooper: You were actually watching your blood--

Salman Rushdie: I was actually watching it spread. And then I remember thinking that I was probably dying. And it was interesting because it was quite matter-of-fact, it wasn't like I was terrified of it or whatever. And yeah, there was nothing. No heavenly choirs. No pearly gates. I mean, I'm not-- a supernatural person, you know? I believe that death comes as the end. There was nothing that happened that made me change my mind about that. 

Anderson Cooper: You have not had a revelation.

Salman Rushdie: I have not had any revelation, except that there's no revelation to be had.

His attacker… the man in black… was hustled off the stage.

Anderson Cooper: In the book, you do not use the attacker's name.

Salman Rushdie: Yeah. I thought, you know, I don't want his name in my book. And I don't use it in conversation, either.

Anderson Cooper: That is important to you, not to give him space in your brain.

Salman Rushdie: Yeah. He and I had 27 seconds together, you know? That's it. I don't need to give him any more of my time.

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, a poet and novelist, was waiting.

Eliza Griffiths: And he wasn't moving. And he was just laid out.

Anderson Cooper: He looked half dead to you?

Eliza Griffiths: Yes. He did. He was a different color. He was cold. I mean, his-- his face was stapled. Just staples holding his face together.

Rushdie was on a ventilator, unable to speak. Eliza and the doctors had no idea whether the knife that had penetrated his eye had damaged his brain. 

Eliza Griffiths: Someone from the staff said that we would use this system of wiggling the toes.

Anderson Cooper: To communicate?

Eliza Griffiths: To communicate.

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

Anderson Cooper: Do you remember the first question you asked to-- to get a wiggle? Or...

Eliza Griffiths: I think I said, "Salman, it's Eliza. Can you hear me?" And there was-- there was a wiggle. And asked him, I think, "can you - do you know where you are?" And wiggled. And it was-- it was a very basic, simple questions.

Salman Rushdie: 'Cause you can't express yourself with any subtlety with your toes. (laugh)

Eliza Griffiths: Which is your favorite thing. (laughter)

After 18 days in the hospital… and three weeks in rehab… Rushdie was discharged. 

Salman Rushdie: One of the surgeons who had saved my life-- said to me "first you were really unlucky, and then you were 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."

Anderson Cooper: You're not a believer in miracles. But the fact that you survived, you write in the book, is a miracle.

Salman Rushdie: This is a contradiction. (laugh) How does somebody who doesn't believe in the supernatural account for the fact that something has happened which feels like a miracle? And I certainly don't feel that some hand reached down from the skies and guarded me. But I do think something happened which wasn't supposed to happen. And I have no explanation for it.

His attacker was a 24-year-old from New Jersey who lived in his mother's basement. He is 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 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." 

Anderson Cooper: Does it matter to you what his motive was?

Salman Rushdie: I mean, it's interesting to me because it's a mystery. if I had written a character who knew so little about his proposed victim, and yet was willing to commit the crime of murder, my publishers might well say to me that that's under-motivated. 

Anderson Cooper: You need to develop that character better--

Salman Rushdie: Yeah, not enough of a reason, you know? Not convincing. But yet that's what he did.

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie 60 Minutes

Rushdie's "Knife"... his 22nd book… is one he initially did not want to write. 

Salman Rushdie: That was the last thing I wanted to do.

Anderson Cooper: Because, you didn't want this to yet again define you?

Salman Rushdie: Yeah. It was very difficult for me, after The Satanic Verses was published, that the only thing anybody knew about me was this death threat.

Salman Rushdie: But it became clear to me that I couldn't write anything else.

Anderson Cooper: You had to write this first, before--

Salman Rushdie: I had to write this first. I just thought, you know - I need to focus on, you know, to use the cliché, the elephant in the room, 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.

Anderson Cooper: You say the "language was my knife. If I had unexpectedly been caught in an unwanted knife fight, maybe this was the knife I could use to fight back. To take charge of what had happened to me, to own it, make it mine."

Salman Rushdie: Yeah. I mean, language is-- a way of breaking open the world. I don't have any other weapons, but I'd been using this particular tool for quite a long time. So, I thought this was my way of dealing with it. 

It's been almost two years since the attack, and Rushdie is back home now in New York… slowly getting used to navigating the world with one eye. 

Anderson Cooper: How much time did it take to kind of readjust.

Salman Rushdie: I'm still doing it.

Anderson Cooper: You still are?

Salman Rushdie: Yeah.

Anderson Cooper: Do you feel like you are a different person after the attack?

Salman Rushdie: I don't feel I'm very different, but I do feel that it has left-- a shadow. I think that shadow is just there. You know, and some days it's dark and some days it's not.

Anderson Cooper: You feel less than you were before?

Salman Rushdie: No, I just feel more the presence of death.

Anderson Cooper: In an interview almost 25 years ago you said of-- of the fatwa, "I wanna find an end to this story. It is the one story I must find an end to." Have you found that ending and an ending to this story as well--

Salman Rushdie: Well, I thought I had, and then it turned out I hadn't. I'm hoping this is just a last twitch of that story. I don't know. I'll let you know.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the location of Chautauqua in New York. The story has been updated.

Produced by Michael H. Gavshon and Nadim Roberts. Broadcast associate, Grace Conley. Edited by Warren Lustig.

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