who is Joseph Anton?

Stevie ModernNot his real name, ‘Joseph Anton’ only half-belonged to a man half-belonging among free people.

Salman Rushdie [Photo: David Shankbone]

Nevertheless, ‘Joseph Anton’, Rushdie’s secret service alias during his over-a-decade in forced hiding, is the fully fleshed pivotal character in the West’s mortal struggle over freedom of speech, and so its identity.

Like all heroes, the Anton we read in Rushdie’s compelling Joseph Anton: A Memoir is flawed and afraid. His struggle is to stay alive, but beyond, to write. To attach names and words to concepts concretely, even as his very identity is hidden, suppressed, changed.

Defence-less. Against a fatwa, no defence is possible. Defences are made against judgements handed down by a recognized court having “jurisdiction over him”. Rushdie writes of 1989 with tender vulnerability. A man afraid in his bed, huddled close to his wife on the fateful day from when “All Muslims” – the fatwa directed – were to “execute them wherever they find them”.

Despite the known death squads dispatched from Iran and Lebanon to London in the years that followed, (an international as well as personal violation) the memoir tells of Rushdie’s plight held too long in abeyance by diplomatic circles hoping to negotiate with the hostage-taking Iran. A particular shock comes when despite years and promises of diplomatic progress, Rushdie is face to face with Thatcher, the British prime minister, who offers wistfully that, “little can be done without a change of regime”. “That’s it?” his fiancée demands, receiving no response.

The new regime in Iran wasn’t making promising noises. A birthday message came from the new “moderate” president Khatami: “Salman Rushdie will die soon.”

Protests against novel ‘The Satanic Verses’ Jan. 1989. [Photo: Robert Croma]

The events to follow the fatwa; the threats, fatal shootings and stabbings of those involved – and in many cases not involved – in the distribution of The Satanic Verses (who did not share Rushdie’s protection) are documented with fervour. As are the bombings, book banning and burnings. Rushdie’s concern here is for that ignored broader issue, the importance the (unfairly) named ‘Rushdie Affair’ represented to freedom.

When the first blackbird comes down to roost on the climbing frame it seems individual, particular, specific… it’s just about him; …. Nobody feels inclined to draw any conclusions from it. It will be a dozen years and more before the story grows until it fills the sky, like the Archangel Gabriel standing upon the horizon, like a pair of planes flying into tall buildings, like the plague of murderous birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s great film.

Along with the blackbird, insults and blame fly in and roost. John Le Carre, Germaine Greer – pen in hands – write blood onto Rushdie’s. The Archbishop of Canterbury calls for ‘tolerance’ (not of Rushdie, of the mobs calling for his death), and Prince Charles, staggeringly, complains of the costs to the public purse for Rushdie’s protection.

Where only justified bitterness might be expected for censors, critics, apologists for the hate-mongers burning him in effigy, we find in Rushdie’s memoir a larger insight. There are surprising accounts of virtual imprisonment often patiently endured for the safety of family, publishers, airline passengers, audiences and foreign-held hostages. If the expected support of his government never materialises, (The Blair government sought to extend blasphemy laws) he shows gratitude for those literary and moral supporters that included Ian McEwan, Susan Sontag and Christopher Hitchens.

One hundred Arab and Muslim writers jointly published a book of essays, written in many languages and published in French, ‘Pour Rushdie’ [For Rushdie] , to defend freedom of speech…”We have the obligation to tell him that he personifies our solitude and that his story is our own.”

Where Rushdie brings literature, where he brings Rushdie in his memoir, are the complex layers of ‘Joseph Anton’ and his other self struggling beneath the bullet-proof surface. Hunched in getaway cars. Fitful sleeps turning him roughly in unfamiliar beds. Days away from the thing he loves most – writing stories – costing him at moments his sanity. Rushdie snatches from just above the surface of this suffocation and fear, rare and happy gulps of friendships and trust. These lighter moments cherished in peril never quite achieve normality, surrounded – even if gratefully – by armed guards.

joseph-anton-a-memoir-by-salman-rushdieIn fiction, Rushdie fused his earlier life experiences with the mixed-identity characters of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. Joseph Anton: A Memoir is instead the story of Rushdie’s struggle for unmixed realization. Beneath the subterfuge he senses another kind of extinguishment. Have the armed protectors succeeded where the fatwa has not? As the anxious Rushdie mixes deeper with ‘Anton’, we are suspended at numerous critical moments: Which ‘character’ will overcome the other? What boundaries of control will be drawn between Rushdie and ‘Anton’ in their unhappy truce between the will to happiness and the need to survive?

When a book leaves its author’s desk it changes. Even before anyone has read it, before eyes other than its creator’s have looked upon a single phrase, it is irretrievably altered. It has become a book that can be read, that no longer belongs to its maker. It has acquired in a sense, free will.

Like his novel The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s name “disappeared into the front pages”. It disappeared into the epithets and ‘Satan Rushdy’ avatars of clerics burning for his murder. A name no longer his, free will becomes no longer an option the Secret Service is able or at times willing to accommodate.

Literary criticism of Joseph Anton has centred on Rushdie’s use of third person, the ‘he’, ‘his’, ‘him’ of Anton rather than the ‘I’, ‘my’, ‘me’ of Rushdie. Even as the author gives deeply personal unvarnished accounts of Joseph Anton’s – that is his –  troubled love life, of raising a family in a climate of fear and death, the device remains strange and discomfiting.

Critics have brittly marked this disconnection in the memoir and yet ignored how this device offers firsthand Rushdie’s dissociation from the ‘fully free society’ where he only half-existed. Rushdie has spent the period of this story negotiating anguished boundaries of identity, and the brilliance of the device preserves for the reader his unwilling masks and fugitive feet.

Ambiguous, ‘Joseph Anton’ dramatises a man not enough free to use his name. It’s a disconcerting parable for a free-society not enough brave to articulate what that freedom means. By dissociating from its principles and one of its prized authors, that society endeavoured to remain ‘free’ to avert moral combat with the broader threat brought down by Khomeini’s fatwa.

The fundamentalist seeks to bring down a great deal more than buildings. Such people are against, to offer just a brief list: freedom of speech, a multi-party political system, universal adult suffrage, accountable government, Jews, homosexuals, women’s rights, pluralism, secularism, short skirts, dancing, beardlessness, evolution theory, sex…

Where Rushdie could be forgiven for his focus on a situation never more vivid and personal than saving one’s own life, he demonstrates Olympian regard of the larger picture. His struggle is to stay alive, but beyond, to write. To attach names and words to concepts concretely, even as his identity is hidden, suppressed, changed.

The fundamentalist believes that we believe in nothing…We must agree on what matters: kissing in public places, bacon sandwiches, disagreement, cutting-edge fashion, literature, generosity, water, a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources, movies, music, freedom of thought, beauty, love… Not by making war, but by the unafraid way we choose to live shall we defeat them. How to defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorised. Don’t let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared.

Rushdie, S. The Satanic Verses

Rushdie, S. The Satanic Verses

Forgotten in the events following its publication were The Satanic Verses’ satiric and literary qualities. Incidental as they may be to principles of free speech, they are not to its gains. Open its cover and a hijacked jet-liner makes a post-explosion dive above the city of London, and among the flying debris of plummeting seats and trolleys, transformative incarnation in cloud-filled descent takes hold of two of its passengers. It would be hard to nominate a more pyrotechnic beginning to a tale spanning centuries and continents. The language is modern, jarring, electric, magic-real. Deep in its pages, an angel Gibreel messages an ancient prophet Mahound in mad vision, “tilting” and “panning” its locus like a futuristic camera. Just as explosively, arguments over the story’s literary quality were superseded as London (and the world) plummeted into the ensuing controversy and real life terrorism that almost forced the novel from print.

Sandakat Kadri writes that Arabic lore, which The Satanic Verses made novel use of, details a period “several Qur’anic scholars of great standing have accepted as the truth.” Legend tells at Islam’s birth of Mohammed’s acceptance of other idols. Such a story would contradict notions of Mohammed’s ‘perfection’ and an unchangeable Qur’an. Kadri observes that,

Those offended were never very likely to read them. Rushdie’s book raised hackles for reasons other than its contents, however. Its title echoed a legend known in Arabic…when the Prophet briefly faltered in his mission… [His] supposed revelations were not divine. They were the whisperings of a demon (shaitan): satanic verses.

As with The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s camera widens beyond seventh century myth. In Joseph Anton, stories are to him as they were his father’s who freely mixed in bedtime stories to the young Salman. Stories belong to everyone, but were also “his, all his… to alter and renew and discard and pick up again… to laugh at and rejoice in and live in and with and by”. 

Sacred or profane, they were ‘untrue’ but an access to other truths. These are the accounts of a Rushdie before the Anton ‘subterfuge’, before British clerics feigned promises of withdrawing the fatwa’s threat, before an anxious ‘Joseph Anton’ is pressured to sign a repudiation of his beliefs and art. It was a moment in Joseph Anton, alone, too keen to be understood, and “loved”, that Rushdie labels his “great Mistake”.

Rushdie emerged from Anton a name to renew and pick up again. Joseph Anton‘s story, if not fiction, should be ours to live in, and with, and by. Shortly after the fatwa, New Yorkers began to wear ‘I am Salman Rushdie’ badges in public solidarity. “I wished I could’ve worn one of those,” Rushdie writes. Now, with Joseph Anton: A Memoir, he does ♦


1984: george orwell

George Orwell, 1984

In a speech entitled ‘Literature as Freedom’ Susan Sontag defines a writer as “someone who pays attention to the world”. Writing entails, “trying to understand, take in, connect with, what wickedness human beings are capable of”. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, this insight into ‘wickedness’ – so thoroughly explored – continues to connect so many readers with the struggle for freedom.  Winston Smith, the novel’s hero speaks to the anguish of those under totalitarian control when he asks,

For whom, it suddenly occurred to him to wonder, was he writing this diary? For the future, for the unborn…How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature, impossible. Either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to him; or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless.

George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (1949)

The future did listen however to the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Published in 1949, the novel appeared at a point in history following a world war that claimed the attention and lives of millions, when capabilities for human ‘wickedness’ seemed at no point more unfathomable.  In doing so, it connected through iron curtains the unmistakable message of individual freedom. Perhaps no novel communicates more our Literature’s potential to recognize the universal in humanity, separated by ‘mind-forged manacles’ and real world boundaries.

Set in ‘Oceania’, a future socialist dystopia, the individual citizens of a former England are subordinated by ‘Big Brother’, a vast government machine whose technology of surveillance controls its subjects’ thoughts and actions.

1984‘s hero Winston Smith cannot repress his memory of history, even as he toils in the ‘Ministry of Truth’. He works as a propagandist, under orders to alter facts according to the official ruling party’s allegiances. Smith comes to see ‘2+2=4’, if no longer a ‘fact’,  as a personal and self-controlled connection to reality, the expression of freedom itself. He contrives to commit the ‘thoughtcrime’ of privacy, writing – at great risk-  to a diary.

Translated into 65 languages, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a psychological thriller, a story whose individuals live in constant fear. The novel’s airtight atmosphere surrounds the reader through a minimal use of dialogue.

What makes 1984 such an important historical fiction work, is – like Winston Smith’s diary – that the novel was at risk of never being read. The book was banned in Eastern Europe, and, like the shifting alliances in the story, almost banned in England while the country remained an official ally of Stalin after WWII. Yet Nineteen Eighty-Four helped in smuggled form (samizdat) to forment dissent throughout eastern bloc states. Through Orwell’s characteristically simple, direct style, the novel’s insightful, complex themes were shown to be well suited to translation in many languages

This ability for art to cross borders was in fact, two-way. In Russian author Ayn Rand’s Anthem (published in Britain, 1938) the characters live in a world where only ‘we’–  not ‘I’ – is ever spoken. Language is used as a symbol of the repression of individual thought itself. In this respect both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Anthem must acknowledge a literary debt to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, the 1920 Russian satire of a post-revolution police state. The exchange of works across the East-West divide, writes Hitchens, “kindled a spark in the Siberias of the world, warming the hearts of shivering Poles and Ukrainians, and helped melt the permafrost of Stalinism”.

Author Czeslaw Milosz, who worked under communism in the Polish Ministry of Culture, testifies the banned Orwell “fascinated [communist officials] through his insight into details they knew well, and through his use of Swiftian satire. Such a form of writing is forbidden because allegory; by nature manifold in meaning, would trespass beyond the prescriptions of socialist realism and the demands of the censor”. (qtd in Hitchens, 2002,p.54)

This insight is further captured fictionally in Nineteen Eighty-Four , and is shown by character Big Brother‘s orders to reduce language to basic ‘Newspeak’ terms; “The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect”. The citizens of ‘Oceania’ are so removed from private abstractions and imagination, they even work to a 24hr clock, lest ‘8 o’clock’ share two abstract meanings.

Nineteen Eighty-Four remains utterly relevant today, reminding us of the powerful manipulative role language can play in the shifting contest over History: “He who controls the Past, controls the Present.” It also gives powerful testament to why those living under tyranny place themselves at such evident risk to their own life fighting against it.

He was already dead, he reflected. It seemed to him that it was only now when he began to formulate his thoughts that he had taken the decisive step. The consequences of every act are included in the act itself. He wrote, “Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime IS death.” Now that he recognised himself as a dead man it became important to stay alive as long as possible.

“To die hating them, that was freedom,” thinks Orwell’s hero. Life must have meaning and sanctity. In the real world, the oppressed began living again, committing the unpardonable act of opening secret copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four and beginning to read. ♦

a ‘Net’ benefit? evgeny morosov

Morosov, E. (2011) The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World

A “delusion” is forming as social networks Twitter and Facebook increase awareness of protests throughout the world. When TIME nominates ‘The Protester’ as its 2011 ‘Person of the Year’ it might appear we’ve reached a point in history where technical solutions answer political problems.

“Through Twitter and other forms of social networking,” New York Times columnist Roger Cohen gleefully writes, “[Iran’s] citizen journalists have tweet-transformed the American image of their country…globalized a protest movement…and have thereby amassed an ineffaceable global indictment of the [Iranian election] usurpers of June 12″. Out from this delusion Evgeny Morosov’s The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate the World  warns against euphoria and urges we maintain our perspective: there are no easy effective pave-by-mouse-click paths to democratic change. Regarding the Iran protests, Morosov writes,

Internet users [were] gorging on as many videos, photos, and tweets as they could stomach. Such virtual proximity to events in Tehran, abetted by access to highly emotional photos and videos shot by protestors themselves, led to unprecedented levels of global empathy with [their] cause…But in doing so, such networked intimacy may have also greatly inflated popular expectations of what it could actually achieve.

According to Morosov, the online shift poses a real danger to activists in countries like Egypt and Iran. That danger lies in the very architecture of the Net itself. It would be a mistake to assume that if protestors can aggregate online, oppressive governments can’t likewise follow the links to the activists’ door. Activists’ online shift also empowers oppressive regimes with cheaper, more efficient methods of surveillance. Digital bugs are easy to conceal and search terms make scanning for relevant data more efficient. Regimes throttle the information bottle-necks and choke it with censorship and shut-down.

In the West’s excited export of ‘democratizing’ online sharing tools, it overlooks its own guilty role in the export of technologies for greater oppression. Morosov speaks from bitter experience. He and other democratic activists from his own country of Belarus encountered a more sophisticated enemy; a state equipped with the means to censor and survey their activity. This forms a serious issue where undemocratic governments adapt the lessons of filtration adopted, or proposed, by countries like Australia. As Morosov warns from a recent forum;

Censorship in western countries give additional legitimacy, and so we must be very careful here in the West. It may be more worthwhile to pressure Western governments about these repercussions.

Regimes such as Belarus are “definitely listening”, he says.

In this atmosphere, Morosov is derisive of the belief that the mere availability of search engines like Google act like a terra-forming device, spreading seeds pre-determined to fertilise democracy.

Morosov is also critical of self-regulation by the Internet search market to safeguard against censorship and surveillance. The Global Network Initiative (GNI)  is a self-regulation framework for net companies to conduct business ethically in oppressive regimes. The initiative “promotes collective action to uphold the rule of law and the adoption of public policies protecting freedom of expression and privacy on the global network.” Microsoft however, a key signatory, recently partnered with Google.cn’s chief rival Baidu in the Chinese search market. Baidu, a popular Chinese search engine, has no results for search terms like ‘Tiananmen Massacre’, and according to Baidu’s own annual financial statement, the company retains information on its users’ activity and provides it to government minders.

Google states that for its part, it is complying to “local law, regulation, or policy,”  citing the German precedent blocking holocaust-denial content and in France blocking ‘hate speech’. In China, Google defends that its practices are more responsible than other search engines companies entering or already situated in China’s lucrative search market. Morosov notes that;

To its credit, a few weeks after Google discovered that someone was trying to break into the email accounts of Chinese human rights dissidents, it began alerting users if someone else was also accessing their account from a different computer at that time. Few other email providers followed Google’s lead.

Morosov suggests that companies may simply be paying its $250K membership fee to the GNI as a profitable venture in good publicity. Both Microsoft and Google were originally lauded in 2009 for signing up to the initiative.

There is a disturbing lack of will in political terms to address what are political problems. The US Global Online Freedom Act of 2007 – which did not pass into law – would have forbade US company compliance with repressive regimes’ censorship and surveillance of users. It  may even have created a level playing field between technology giants such as Google and Microsoft, without the ethical conflicts of entering the Chinese market.

As it stands, liberators as well as oppressors are both making use of a new technology. Who controls that technology will depend very much on political activism, and not just of the kind ‘delusionally’ conducted at the click of a mouse.

For there to be any modern ‘Net benefit’ to global freedom the example of censorship or online ‘filtering’ by western countries, including the Australian government’s, must be fought against. Given how societies are being transformed by the spread of information, could there be a more political important issue right now? ♦

[Photo attributed and sourced from Flickr Creative Commons]

and the [BANNED] played on: deeyah

She sheds her burka – one moment completely concealed in black robes – to standing at the edge of a swimming pool wearing heels and a bikini…

For young music artist Deeyah, born of Afghan and Pakistani parents, it may have seemed a provocative act to perform in a music video. For audiences made cynically accustomed to hearing about censorship in the Muslim world, such expression would seem an unsurprising and obvious target for censors. Yet Deeyah, born in supposedly liberal modern Norway, has faced censorship in her own country since she was 7 years old.

Before 2006, when censorship forced her retreat from the concert stage, Deeyah was a chart success both in Norway and in Britain, a classically-trained musician in the traditions of Pakistan and North India, while threading her unique bell-like vocals into modern pop and contemporary song. This multicultural background has lead to rare musical distinctions, the only female ever to be trained by classical maestros like Ustad Sultan Khan while pop-sampled by music stars including Janet Jackson.

For Deeyah however, her talents and her troubles began from childhood, the moment she started to perform. While her father keenly encouraged her to play music, many Muslims who had left their home countries for Norway expressed displeasure that a girl should be making public performances. From albums like the critically acclaimed Deepika, she caused uproar by dancing with men in videos, finding herself the target of death threats, abuse, pepper spray at concerts and an attempted abduction. It was a violent non-government censorship that followed subsequent career moves to Britain, continuing to dog her concert career.

The ‘burka-to-bikini scene’ from song  “What Will it Be’ lead to censorship in Britain, banned by UK station network B4U because of threats of violence. Deeyah has not been silenced however. 

Though no longer able to perform, she has turned her talented ear to producing the culturally rich, Listen to the Banned, a collection of modern and traditional songs from artists censored by religion, cultural and political persecution. Artists are sourced from countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Artists like Farhad Darya, banned by Afghan Taliban against music of all kinds, or Ferhat Tunç, imprisoned in Turkey for singing songs about the plight of Kurdish people.

In addition, Deeyah has produced projects for the free expression of music, while founding MEMINI to highlight the many women to have dissappeared through violent honour killings. From personal struggles, Deeyah has banded together the banned- ready  to be heard. ♦

A beautiful intro to Listen to the Banned can be heard here or ordered through listentothebanned.com and Amnesty International Shop.