I went to see Salman Rushdie delivering the first Freedom Lecture in Leiden to a cathedral full of Holland’s finest and brainiest. I went in the spirit of a teenager going to see her favourite pop idol in a concert for the first time.
Rushdie has been a hero of mine since “Midnight’s Children” - the book that broke so many boundaries in language and the way stories can be told, and which is on my personal shortlist of one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. He’s is also an unparalleled critic, reviewer and raconteur. And the guy I would most want to have at my dinner table…ok so these are the gushings of a diehard fan who has read pretty much every word he’s ever written.
But of course, to most people, he’s known simply as they fatwa guy – his “Satanic Verses” made him a household name even for those who never read books. And cost him a decade long fatwa on his life.
I’m in the tiny minority of people who actually read the thing, and personally, I think it’s his most unreadable work. And a lot of people agree – I mean the ones who declared the fatwa, and certainly the ones most keen to carry it out, usually confessed to never having read it.
Anyway, being forced into hiding for your life for years, can teach you a lot about freedom. And you don’t get eight honourary doctorates by being a dunce, so needless to say, the lecture was supremely erudite and witty.
He had a lot of crowd pleasears - including the theory that if the madrassa fodder who grow into suicide bombers simply had more sex they probably could be diverted from their deadly intentions. In other words, if instead of dying to meet those virgins in heaven, the (mainly virginal) boys here were allowed to get more sex they’d have a stronger tie to this life instead of longing for the next.
“I don’t need everyone to agree with me,”
He said at one point to a question about how to change the opinion of the hardliners who disagree with his view that all censorship of art is essentially wrong.
“In fact, disagreement is probably more at the heart of a democracy than agreement.”
He went onto add, that understandably, he just didn’t agree that people should kill each other over disagreements.
“There are going to be people who want nothing to do with me, and that’s fine, because I want nothing to do with them.”
One woman stood up to say that after the rightwing hardliner Geert Wilders named his political party (that preaches intolerance of deviation from the “Dutch way of life”) the Freedom Party she has a hard time using the word “freedom”.
“Use it six times a day” urged Rushdie. “Use it as much as you can, and continue using that word.”
He’s got me inspired enough to do it – let’s re-claim the word back from the intolerant, the bigoted, the mind trapped.
And let’s in the words of Rushdie quoting Saul Bellow – be thankful to the artists and writers, who try day after day, to increase the sum quality of our experience of the universe. “It’s a hard job” finished Rushdie, “but according to me, it’s the only job worth doing.”