Peace Prize for Salman Rushdie: a fantasy made from an opium pipe

Salman Rushdie was awarded the German Book Trade Peace Prize. In his speech he defended freedom of expression in all directions.

Applause for Salman Rushdie upon his arrival at the Paulskirche in Frankfurt Photo: Arne Dedert/dpa

To all those who would like to be there live in Frankfurt’s Paulskirche: forget it. It’s like football, stadium atmosphere or not, you see next to nothing, you really get more out of the television broadcast. In addition, from the press seats you can only see the speakers at the lectern behind palm fronds in the lush floral arrangement. But that’s only on the sidelines.

At such events, the reactions of those present are more important than the speeches themselves. There is often a lot of clapping when everyone agrees. And in his acceptance speech, Salman Rushdie unequivocally calls on everyone to fiercely defend freedom of expression. He expressly addresses publishers as the “most important guardians of freedom of expression”.

An uplifting moment in his speech, especially in a place where censorship was once abolished, as Frankfurt Mayor Mike Josef noted in his welcome. Rushdie adds that this also applies if what is said offends us. There is significantly less applause for this postscript than before, which reflects the tough discussions during the fair surrounding Slavoj Žižek’s statements at the opening and the postponed award ceremony to the Palestinian author Adania Shibli.

The ceremony in the Paulskirche also includes ZDF clips that show the award winner in the front row the knife attack on him in August last year, which can be found insensitive. Rushdie barely survived the attack and has been blind in one eye ever since. His portrait with a darkened lens became the symbol of this 75th Frankfurt Book Fair. Next to the half-blind winner, the words “narrative foresight” are emblazoned on advertising media. Unintentional humor, the kind that might appeal to Rushdie. Everyone who knows him and/or his work knows that he has the mischief on his back.

Peaceful in name

The name Salman, which everyone in Paul’s Church hears that it is emphasized on the second “a”, is rooted in the noun salamat, which means peace. His name means “peaceful,” says Salman Rushdie at the award ceremony for the German Book Trade Peace Prize. In fact, he added, he was a very quiet, well-behaved, hard-working boy, peaceful by name, peaceful by nature.

He does not say that this award comes 34 years too late for him and that it would have been a courageous statement in 1989, when Khomeini sentenced him to death with a fatwa. Of course he doesn’t say that, he’s a polite person, and maybe Rushdie’s prize will come in time. Because he, born in Bombay in 1947, has grown old, appears battered and not fully recovered.

The evening before, he made his only public appearance at a literary gala in the fair’s Congress Center. A must, it seems. Rushdie answers pointedly, but also a little dutifully. After a short while, he routinely waves away the audience’s cheering applause. He does a similar thing in St. Paul’s Church the next day. The world’s most famous writer no longer needs applause, although at the end of his speech he thanked him very seriously and warmly for the solidarity shown to him after the attack last year. This is something that one would have wished for him 34 years ago.

Literary traditions

In his speech, Rushdie names literary traditions that are important to him, such as the fables of the Panchatantra, and dreams of a fabulous peace prize: “By the way, I like the idea that peace itself is the prize, that the jury can do magical things, even fantastic things – a jury wise benefactor, so infinitely powerful that she is allowed to reward a single person with peace for a whole year once a year and never more often.”

He has previously admitted that given the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, peace seems like “a pipe dream sprung from the smoke of an opium pipe.” He didn’t believe that he would have to experience times like these, he says later and relates this to freedom of expression, freedom of speech.

He doesn’t allow himself to be pulled into any cart, denounces cancel culture on all sides and also criticizes people who advocate a “new type of bien pensant censorship”. A censorship that gives itself the appearance of being virtuous. In his opinion, freedom is coming under pressure from both the left and the right, from the young and the old. This has never happened before and is becoming even more complicated with new forms of communication such as the Internet, as well-made web pages and their malicious lies are right next to the truth, which is why many people find it difficult to distinguish one from the other.

Beforehand, his friend and laudator Daniel Kehlmann praises him about the clover and also beautifully speaks of Rushdie’s magnificent all-round education, which doesn’t care about the boundaries of the educated middle class. Rushdie knows everything about everything, be it history or gossip, politics or table tennis, and beyond that the Stones and U2, Netflix, Star Wars and Barbie. He just knows what’s going on.

Not discussed 34 years ago

It is also Kehlmann who points out in his amusing eulogy that after the call for murder 34 years ago, Rushdie was not as well-liked in this country as everyone would like now. He is reminiscent, for example, of the “Literary Quartet”, which at the time refrained from discussing “The Satanic Verses” because it was suspected that it was more of a political than a literary matter. Kehlmann assures us that there is nothing to add to Ian McEwan’s statement. He said at the time that official England would have reacted completely differently if the fatwa had been declared against Dame Iris Murdoch, for example.

Elsewhere, Kehlmann calls the honoree a “veritable Rushdie novel character,” and he really does look a bit like that now. For his laudator, he is “indisputably one of the great narrators of literary history and perhaps the most important defender of the freedom of art and speech in our time.” Above all, however, he is a wise, curious, cheerful and kind person and therefore the most worthy recipient that could have ever been given for this award, which as a peace prize expressly recognizes not only artistic but also humanistic greatness.

Rushdie receives the Peace Prize from the head of the German book trade, Karin Schmidt-Friderichs, “for his indomitability, his affirmation of life and for enriching the world with his joy of storytelling,” as the text of the certificate says. Rushdie makes it clear in his acceptance speech that he did not choose his fight for freedom of speech himself. Fate in the form of Islamist fundamentalists forced this role on him. He himself would have wished for a more peaceful life. And we him too.

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