Rushdie Affair: A fatwa on the family
18 Jan, 2007
Zafar Rushdie, 27, was nine when Ayatollah Khomeini declared a fatwa against his father over The Satanic Verses. They talk to John Follain about their relationship and Salman Rushdie's years in hiding.
ZAFAR: My parents broke up when I was five. One of my earliest memories of them living apart is that when I went to Dad's house, he started telling me a story each night when I went to bed. He continued it every time I went there. The story stopped when Dad went into hiding.
The fatwa was fun for me at first.
I was nine and I came home one day to find police in the house. It was really cool to be around these big guys with guns. One was a former rugby player and he took me to buy rugby boots. I had a normal Joe Bloggs lifestyle with Mum, and then I'd go to see Dad, who was always in the papers and who had these policemen around him. I got used to it surprisingly quickly. But I soon found there was a big deal going on, and it wasn't good. I had an au pair who was under strict instructions not to let me watch too much on television or read the papers too much. But in the early days, I'd answer the phone and this voice would say: "We've got your number. We know where you are and were going to come and kill you." No one ever did turn up.
I lost my childhood innocence early, and I grew a large amount of cynicism through it all. I was living with my mother. I didn't see Dad much the first year, but not long after that he said to me, "Here's our book", and he gave me a manuscript. I had no idea what it was. But he'd finished the story he'd told me at bedtime and turned it into Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Haroun is my middle name. It's still one of my favourite books.
So there was a silver lining to the fatwa.
Dad and I have something in common that very few people have been through. Now I'm older, he's told me what really happened, things he didn't tell me at the time because it would have been scary. And now I understand better the fact that he didn't cower in a corner but stood up for himself and for other people in the world with similar problems.
Dad's always been very supportive. He helped me when I was 15 and Mum was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She was given the all-clear after five years, then it came back very viciously and she died three weeks later. That was really hard. But Dad was there. The question I'm asked more than any other is: "Isn't it hard being your dad's son?" Of course I admire him for what he has achieved, but there's also a kind of intimidation. That's probably why I haven't gone down a similar route to his. Quite quickly after leaving school, I got into the PR and events business.
I'm not the intellectual of the family; I leave that to him. But we're both sociable. We do bicker and fight, and when we fight we have big fights, because we're both stubborn. He's generally right, though, and I don't like to admitthat.
I wish I had his gift for attracting girls at parties. Most people who go to a party with their parents try to run away from them. Not me. If I want to meet girls, I just stand near him. All the beautiful women want to talk to Dad, so I stand close and bask in the sunlight. Beauty loves brains. I don't consult him on my girlfriends. He doesn't like the fact that my relationships don't last long. But I'm not convinced he's necessarily the best person to give relationship advice.
I sometimes go over to New York to see Dad and he comes over regularly to London. It's great that he lives over there because I can just go across the pond and have somewhere to stay. If that's where he enjoys living, that's fine by me. I don't need him to live in London.
SALMAN: The thing I was most proud of about Zafar growing up was he was a very gentle child, a quality that isn't usual in boys.
Clarissa (Luard) and I stayed very good friends after we separated and collaborated closely in his upbringing. In fact, we were very close up to the time she died. That day, Zafar and I were both at her bedside.
One of the things I made clear at the start of the fatwa was that I had to find a way of seeing my child. We put up a quite elaborate smokescreen: we decided it would be better if people believed I couldn't see my family. But in fact I did see them. It was very, very complicated; I couldn't go to Clarissa's house, and for a long time Zafar didn't know where I lived.
His home was still his home, his school was still his school, he had the same routine. But suddenly the relationship with me wasn't a daily thing. It was hard because it was kind of fake, an unnatural situation in which to keep a relationship going with a child. But after the first year and a half, contrary to public perception, I led quite a settled life. I was in one house and he'd come and go, though he'd be brought there by the police. The police have these sports facilities around London and we'd play ping-pong or throw a rugby ball around.
Of course I feared for Zafar. I treated him in quite a grown-up way and I tried to phone him each day, to tell him what was happening. I worry about the effect all this had on him. It was a rapid growing-up experience. Zafar's always been reserved -- his mother was like that -- but having to keep lots of things to himself, things like where his Dad lived, left him with an exaggerated inwardness. A lot of him is locked away. At the same time, I'm reassured that he's amazingly level-headed. The fatwa period could have created a very neurotic young man.
The good thing is it brought us closer together. I was very conscious that my father and I had a bumpy relationship because of our characters and because he had a serious drink problem. So I really wanted to do better than that.
One thing that really mattered to me during the fatwa was the fact I wrote this book for him. I think he really loved it, but he was also a very good critic of it. When I'd written the first couple of chapters, I showed it to him. I said: "What do you think?" He was 10 then and he had a wonderful reply: "Some people might be bored." I went away and I sped it up. I showed it to him afterwards and he liked it. It was the best piece of editorial advice I was ever given.
I'm pleased Zafar has found his own territory, in which I'm incompetent. And he loves sailing: he skippers racing yachts. Of course I want him to excel in life but more important is happiness.
Zafar's never been remotely interested in my views on his girlfriends. But every time I see a picture of him in the paper, he has four girls around him, so I think he's not doing badly. He's absurdly charming: lethally, disgustingly charming. He has it like a weapon.
Zafar's always been a London clubland kid, which I've never been. I used to think: "Why do you spend so much time doing that?" But in the end it's given him employment. Whenever his passions are aroused, he's unstoppable. Otherwise he's inert. Fortunately, he seems to have understood what direction to go in. All I can do as a parent is feel that my child is on his way. Then I just sit back, watch and clap.
December 23, 2006