Rushdie steps out as a free man

(if this is what you call freedom)

YESTERDAY WAS the first day in nearly 10 years that Salman Rushdie did not face a state-sponsored death threat. A great day and we, the press, wanted the details. What were your first thoughts, Salman, on your first day of freedom? His great hooded eyes gave nothing away."Well," he said, "when I woke up this morning, I thought, it's only half past five!"

OK, then, what about his second thought? But the novelist, normally so eloquent, was not doing the schmaltz thing. His second thought, he said, was to switch on the television to make sure that the deal between Iran and Britain had not fallen through. He did and it had not and so the event that he called the Final Press Conference of the Rushdie Case had gone ahead.

But only after a fashion. Rushdie may be free but there is still fear and loathing out there. The campaign had tried, for instance, to book a larger room for the press conference but safety fears had nixed the plan. In the end, scores of journalists, cameras and Special Branch types had squeezed into the offices of the anti-censorship group Article 19 in Islington, north London.

It was a crush-bar atmosphere with everyone buzzing, standing on tiptoe, trying to see round microphones that were so furry that they may have been alive. But where was Salman? The temperature rose to Death Valley levels, as did our expectations.

He arrived, beaming, in taupe suit and salmon shirt. He spoke first, and sadly, of the dead and injured (his Japanese translator, for instance) and others hurt in demonstrations. The campaign had not been about one man's safety, he said, but about something much greater - our freedoms of speech and of the imagination. The resolution gave him "serious and grave" satisfaction. Everyone, from Special Branch to the Government to his family, were heaped with thanks.

As befitted the man, and the event, there was no self- censorship. Was he a Muslim today? "I'm happy to say that I am not," he said. In fact, one of his few regrets was when he pretended to find religion. "I am not a religious person." So did he feel free to walk through the streets of Bradford? "Bradford! I've never walked the streets of Bradford. Are they attractive?"

No, he did not regret publishing The Satanic Verses. "There is not a chance in hell of the book being withdrawn. We have not fought this battle to give in at the last moment." He would not apologise, nor was he asking for an apology. "I'm saying this is a moment for a fresh start. We just need to turn the page, we don't have to scratch the scab. What I'm saying is end of story, time for another story."

Not so fast, though, because now Rushdie knows how this story ends he says he will finally write about it. "It's a hot story and most of you don't know it!" First, he was looking forward to getting back to the "simple thing" that is normality.

For good measure, he thanked us, the media, for our support. But we wanted something else: a piece of schmaltz for the road. What will you be doing on your first weekend of freedom, Salman? "Talking to journalists," he said. Can this be normal?

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