Salman Rushdie’s epic novel, The Satanic Verses, is a literary treasure. Since its publication in 1988, the book has provoked violent debates over the nature of freedom of speech and expression, forcing readers (and quite a few non-readers) to ask the question: When does satire become blasphemy? The novel, a tale of two Indian actors who miraculously survive the explosion of a hijacked airplane, indeed pushes and tests this boundary with its parallel story arch of the prophet “Mahound”, whose monotheistic religion of “Submission” mirrors that of Mohammed and the revelation of the Quran and the rise of Islam in the seventh century. Critics called Rushdie’s play on Islam an attack and responded in kind with protests, bans, and a fatwa was issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran calling for Rushdie’s assassination. As interesting as this controversy is, I want to focus on a theme prevalent in most of Rushdie’s work and especially important in The Satanic Verses: The power of description.
A common theme found in Rushdie’s work is that of the place of the immigrant in his or her adopted community. In The Satanic Verses, many of the main characters are immigrants. Sufiyan and his family immigrated to London from Bangladesh; Chamcha is a naturalized British citizen, having left Bombay for a British education; Osman is a Muslim convert from Chatnapatna who came to Titlipur; Rosa Diamonds’s immigration to Argentina is met with confrontation with the jealous women of Las Pampas; Salman, the man who writes the recitations of Mahound, is originally from Persia; Alleluia’s father, Otto, immigrated to England after surviving the death camps during the Second World War; the Imam in the beginning of Gibreel’s dream sequence is living in London in exile; and of course, the exile (or hijra) of Mahound and his followers from Jahilia to Yathrib is yet another example. Through all of these examples, Rushdie examines the condition of inhabiting a place that is foreign to one’s origins and effectively discusses the state of being-but-not-from-here.
Looking closely at several examples from the text, we can better understand what this means. Hind, the short, stocky wife of Sufiyan can be seen as a typical immigrant success story. Having come to England as the mere wife of a humble schoolteacher from Bangladesh, her adroitness in cooking launches her into the position of matriarch and breadwinner of the family, enabling her to open up a restaurant and then own a bed and breakfast above that restaurant. From the outside, and in many ways, she’s in control. However, her “success” is not to her what it appears to others: Rushdie, after describing the family’s motives for moving (her desire to prevent her husband from engaging in political activism with the Communist Party, explores the costs incurred and borne by Hind. First, her husband has been brought down from the position of a teacher:
Why, when Sufyan, who had been deprived of vocation, pupils and respect, bounded about like a young lamb, and even began to put on weight, fattening up in proper London as he had never before done back home; why, when power had been removed from his hand and delivered into hers, did she act — as her husband put it — the ‘sad sack’, the ‘glum chum’ and the ‘mooch pooch’? Simple: not in spite of, but on account of. Everything she valued had been upset by the change; had in this process of translation, been lost.
Rushdie portrays immigration as a process of translation and, as in any effort to extract meaning from one language and portray the same in other, important things are lost. For Hind, these include not only seeing her husband lose his honorable vocation, but also losing her language, her connection to her village, and a growing tension between her customs and her daughters’ adaptation to British youth culture. While her economic success elevates her status in the eyes of those around her, what cannot be transmitted is the immense loss experienced when moving from one culture to another.
A second, though different, example would be Osman, the clown of Titlipur. A low caste untouchable by birth, Osman converts to Islam and moves from Chatnapatna to Titlipur. His move is in part influenced by his desire to escape the ostracization and discrimination he experiences as an untouchable and in part by his love for the beautiful toy maker, Ayesha. His conversion, however, does not bring him the equality he envisioned: When talking against the village’s decision to follow Ayesha on a pilgrimage first to the Arabian Sea and then to Mecca, he is shot down as an outsider. Even as a convert to a religion that preaches equality of its members, Osman’s foreigner status delegitimizes his opinions and silences him. The comment Rushdie makes here is that even when there are clear benefits in front of the immigrant, the costs of making this immigration are often unseen or out of the hands of the immigrant’s control. This sentiment is clearly expressed in the closing of the chapter, when Osman asks his bullock whether or not they should have “stayed untouchable,” noting that a “compulsory ocean” is worse than a “forbidden well.”
As an ultimate consequence of focusing on immigration, Rushdie’s narrative style takes on the power of description. This manifests itself in many forms: The use of the Arabic phrase “Kan ma Kan, fii qaddim azzaman,” the transformation of Saladdin into a beast, or even the obvious lies told by the police about police brutality and the dishonesty of the TV crews in covering the riots. The power of description is key to understanding the place of immigrants (or even other marginalized groups – often viewed as being alien or foreign) in their “host” societies. It is the power to control the narrative that is told, the power to describe the immigrant and her actions or interactions with others, that Rushdie questions throughout the text.
To take the first example, the use of the phrase “Kan ma kan, fii qaddim azzaman” (roughly translated to: “It was so, it was not, in a time long forgot”) comes directly from a common way of beginning Arabic fairy tales. Although akin to the English “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away,” the contradiction of “it was so” with “it was not” primes the reader that what follows might not be entirely true. Used throughout the novel, the phrase seems to say “maybe this is true, maybe it isn’t” and the verity of the following content is for the reader, not the narrator, to decide. The novel’s stories are all fantastical – Rushdie does not attempt to make the events seem rational or logical (two men fall from an exploded plane and survive, one becomes angelic, the other transforms into a satyr; a woman becomes a prophetess and survives on a diet of butterflies; ghosts seem to appear in every chapter) – and the reader finds it difficult to decide what is true or not. Through this phrase, Rushdie opens the reader to multiple interpretations: He or she can believe or disbelieve, the stories told may or may not be true.
Following this vein, we can see more clearly Rushdie’s view on this subject in the transformation of Saladdin Chamcha. Upon returning to his home country (Britain) from his country of origin (India), Chamcha undergoes a “wild” transformation: he grows a pair of horns on the top of his head, his feet turn into hairy hooves, a tail spurts from his backside, his breath becomes rancid, he poops tiny pellets, and not even his genitals are spared from change. He is ridiculed by the police, who arrest him and treat him like an animal, mocking and abusing him in the back of their van. When their jokes go too far and Saladdin passes out from illness and pain after convincing the police officers to find him in the citizen registry (and to their shock, they do find him as a registered British citizen), the police fret over what the official story will be. How will they account for the fact that they have wrongly arrested and tortured their own citizen? Their answer comes easily enough: who would believe Saladdin? He doesn’t even look human! Who would believe the outsider over the guardians of law and order? The immigrant, as an outsider, is at a disadvantage because others will determine what has or has not befallen him or her.
In the hospital, Saladdin encounters other similar humanoid creatures, one of which gives him an understanding of how this has happened. “They describe us, that’s all. They have the power of description, and we succumb to the images they construct.” This further drives the point that immigrant is powerless in the face of his or her adopted community: perhaps Saladdin’s transformation is a result of some dehumanizing witchcraft conjured by the immigration officers? In viewing him as something less than human, he has become something less than human. The immigrant’s ability to self-determination is replaced by the officer’s view of understanding the immigrant.
In the later part of the book, Dr. Uhuru Simbala, an outspoken and controversial civil rights activist, dies while in prison. Again, the “official” story is given by the police, though the overtly fantastical nature of the story makes it hard to believe. The police claim that in the middle of the night, Dr. Uhuru screamed in a nightmare, alerting the on duty police who found Dr. Uhuru, asleep but elevated in his cell. After arriving, the large man crashed to the floor and snapped his neck, dying instantly. The official story is immediately rejected by the wider community because it is simply ridiculous and communal riots begin. This segment of the novel is covered from the point of view of a TV news camera: Rushdie “cuts” between segments showing the arrests, the vandalism, the chief of police justifying their actions. Outside of the lens, Rushdie also describes what is really happening, as the scenes continue, he adds that the camera is inferior to the human eye and the microphone inferior to the human ear. This emphasizes the fact that what the TV viewers see is not a holistic vision of reality, only snippets of it from one perspective that tell an entirely different story. Thus, the power to control the narrative on TV is immensely important in shaping people’s opinions. If the immigrant (non-White) communities are seen on the TV as being violent, disobedient, wild masses, and conversely, that the police are simply “doing their job,” then the wider public will come to believe it.
Why do we care about this? For obvious reasons, Salman Rushdie’s novel has remained relevant since its initial publication over two decades ago. The influx of “Others” into the “West” is not a recent phenomenon, but rather a characteristic of our time. How we incorporate immigrant communities into our own, whether through integration or assimilation, and how well we do this is wholly dependent on how well we are able to listen to their perspectives. Dictating others’ truths or taking away one’s ability to define oneself creates distrust and resentment, leading to confrontation. In making room for people to tell their own narratives we may arrive at a better understanding of one another and avoid the violent manifestations seen in The Satanic Verses and in real life.