Last Night's Viewing: Imagine, BBC1


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The Independent Culture

There have been episodes of Imagine when the question of whether Alan Yentob was the best qualified presenter available has hovered in the air. I'm guessing that it won't come up with last night's special edition, "The Fatwa: Salman's Story". And it wasn't just that Alan Yentob always moved on the same London dinner-party circuit as his subject. Or that he'd made an early Arena film about the writer after the success of Midnight's Children. He had an even better claim to authority than that. Because it was in Alan Yentob's car that Rushdie took refuge when he emerged from Bruce Chatwin's memorial to find a ruck of press photographers trying to get pictures of the world's most wanted man. Earlier that morning, Rushdie had woken to the news that the Ayatollah Khomeini had ordered all Muslims to kill him on sight. If this was his 9/11, then Yentob was in downtown Manhattan when the planes hit.

A few days later, Salman Rushdie became Joseph Anton – a literary pseudonym supplied by Conrad and Chekhov –and, as Martin Amis put it in a memorable phrase: "He disappeared into the headlines." At Chatwin's memorial service, Paul Theroux, sitting in the pew behind, had leaned forward and joked, "I suppose we'll be here for you next week." But it turned out that the threat couldn't be laughed off. The Imagine film about Rushdie's internal exile, hooked to the publication this week of his memoir about the affair found itself being screened as the violent sensitivity of some Muslims was again making headlines, and again taking lives. But even without that hot following wind – a simoom of unexpected topicality – it would have been worth watching.

Some people acquitted themselves well in that early collision between the values of free thought and the demands of an oppressive theocracy. Salman Rushdie's former agent Deborah Rogers offered him sanctuary, even though he'd recently dropped her in favour of Andrew Wylie. Their split had been sufficiently acrimonious, she explained, that her house would be the last place anyone would look for him. Rushdie's literary friends rallied round as well, and some of them – Ian McEwan and Hanif Kureishi – appeared here to recall the almost surreal nature of those early days. Other writers, including John le Carré and Hugh Trevor-Roper, sided with the devout, and did so in ways that look crassly self-indulgent now.

Rushdie himself behaved both badly and well, so reduced by the experience of being reviled and hunted that he briefly announced his conversion to Islam. "I don't think anyone blamed him," said Hanif Kureishi, but it sounds as if his sister did: "What is this about?" she said furiously when she heard. "Have you gone mad?" Before long, Rushdie recanted his recantation. "The question is, 'Is it worth dying for?'" he recalls thinking, and deciding that the ability to question and imagine even in the teeth of religious affront was, he came out fighting. Fortunately, he had some fighters with him – when no American publisher would take on the paperback of The Satanic Verses, his agent Andrew Wylie did it himself under the imprint the Consortium, which effectively roped them in anyway. And Rushdie's Norwegian publisher's response to being shot twice in the back was to extend the print run from his hospital bed.

Curiously, the only time Rushdie got emotional wasn't when he was recalling the terror of thinking his son might have been kidnapped, or talking of his own fear, but when he remembered the day of 9/11 in New York, as though that vast atrocity provided an outlet for less controllable feelings about his private ordeal. And speaking before the most recent paroxysms of righteous indignation, he was at pains to point out that his own qualified victory didn't mean the battle was over. "These attacks are happening elsewhere," he said. He certainly got that right.