Blood and terror: witnesses tell of attack on Salman Rushdie at literary festival

Arts event interrupted by screams as people rushed to render aid to the novelist and subdue his assailant

The Chautauqua summer arts festival in upstate New York is normally a calm and pleasant affair, drawing thousands of literary-minded people eager to commune with their favorite writers.

That changed dramatically on Friday, when the famed novelist Salman Rushdie, who had just walked on to a stage to give a lecture, was stabbed by a man wielding a knife – transforming the faculty-lounge atmosphere into a blood-spattered scene.

The shocking events unfolded in seconds and stunned onlookers.

Rushdie, who has been targeted for death over accusations that his prize-winning 1988 novel The Satanic Verses is blasphemous, was sitting in a chair on the stage as a panelist introduced him and his work. A man dressed in black rushed the stage and attacked Rushdie.

“I could just see his fists sort of pounding on Salman,” a witness, Bill Vasu, told the New York Times.

As members of the audience screamed, people ran to tackle the attacker and render aid to Rushdie, who had been apparently stabbed several times, including in the neck. Rushdie lay face up on the floor, as someone elevated his legs. He was “covered with blood and there was blood running down on to the floor” as people crouched over him saying, “He has a pulse, he has a pulse,” two other witnesses told the Times.

A state police officer at the event immediately arrested the man, who was identified later by authorities as Hadi Matar, a 24-year-old from New Jersey.

Salman Rushdie is loaded into a MedEvac helicopter after he was attacked while on stage at an event in Chautauqua, New York.
Salman Rushdie is loaded into a medevac helicopter after he was attacked while on stage at an event in Chautauqua, New York. Photograph: @HoratioGates3/EPA

Later, six people bore Rushdie by stretcher across a grassy lawn to a waiting medevac helicopter, which flew him to a nearby hospital. His agent, Andrew Wylie, has said Rushdie was was put on a ventilator and had suffered significant injuries: “The news is not good. Salman will likely lose one eye; the nerves in his arm were severed; and his liver was stabbed and damaged.”

According to the festival’s itinerary, Rushdie was planning to discuss the US’s role as an “asylum for writers and other artists in exile and as a home for freedom of creative expression”.

He was accompanied on the stage by Henry Reese, the co-founder of a residency program for writers living in exile under threat of persecution. Reese reportedly suffered a minor head injury.

A member of the Chautauqua staff asked the audience to calmly evacuate the 4,000-person auditorium. Shortly thereafter the festival canceled all events for the day.

In 1989, the then supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, declared that Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses – which included speculative sequences about the early life of the prophet Muhammad – was blasphemous, and called for Rushdie’s death. The book was banned in many countries.

Rushdie, who was born in Mumbai and then worked in Britain, was forced into hiding. He lived for a time under an assumed name and police protection. Several assassination attempts were made against people associated with the publication of the book. In 1991, a man stabbed Rushdie’s Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, to death in Tokyo.

Rushdie moved to New York in 2000.


J Oliver Conroy

The GuardianTramp

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