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Knife is dedicated to those who saved my life, says Rushdie

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BRITISH-AMERICAN author Salman Rushdie releases his memoir Knife on Tuesday, recounting the harrowing experience of being stabbed at a public event in 2022 and how he overcame the near-fatal ordeal.

Rushdie lost sight in one eye after the attack by a knife-wielding assailant, who jumped on stage at an arts gathering at the Chautauqua Institution in New York State.

The Indian-born author, a naturalized American based in New York, has faced death threats since his 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” was declared blasphemous by Iran’s supreme leader.

In an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” program, clips of which were released ahead of its Sunday broadcast, Rushdie recounted how one of the surgeons who saved his life had said: “First you were really unlucky and then you were really lucky.”

“I said, ‘What’s the lucky part?’ and he said, ‘Well, the lucky part is that the man who attacked you had no idea how to kill a man with a knife,’” Rushdie said in one excerpt.

In an interview with the BBC, the author admitted that losing an eye “upsets me every day” and that the memoir was his way of fighting back against what happened.

“I actually thought he punched me very hard. I didn’t realise it was a knife in his hand, and then I saw the blood, and I realised there was a weapon,” Rushdie told the BBC.

“I think he was just slashing wildly at everything. So, there was a very big slash across my neck and stab wounds down by the middle of my torso and two to the side, and then there was the wound in my eye, which was quite deep. It looked terrible. I mean, it was very distended, swollen, and it was kind of hanging out of my face, sitting on my cheek like a soft-boiled egg, and I am blind,” he recalls.

“I remember thinking I was dying. Fortunately, I was wrong,” he said.

Rushdie recounted how his attacker came “sprinting up the stairs” and stabbed him 12 times in an attack lasting 27 seconds. “I couldn’t have fought him. I couldn’t have run away from him,” he told the BBC.

He fell to the floor, where he lay with “a spectacular quantity of blood” all around him before he was rushed to a hospital by helicopter and spent six weeks recovering there.

The attack damaged Rushdie’s liver and hands and severed nerves in his right eye. He has to take greater care when walking down the stairs, crossing a road, or even pouring water into a glass.

But he considers himself lucky to have avoided brain damage. “It meant I was actually still able to be myself,” he shared, adding that his new book recounting the horror is dedicated to “the men and women who saved my life”.

The New York-based novelist, knighted by the late Queen Elizabeth II for services to literature, admitted he had thought someone might “jump out of an audience” one day.

“Clearly, it would’ve been absurd for it not to cross my mind,” he admitted.

The knife attack “was a pretty harsh and sharp reminder” of the fatwa issued against him, he said in October 2023 at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s biggest publishing trade event.

Rushdie, 76, added the attack was “somewhat surprising” as “the temperature had cooled off.”

“I’m just happy to still be here to say so. It was a close thing.”

The award-winning author was stabbed in the neck and abdomen before attendees and guards subdued the assailant.

He recalls how, when he was lying in a pool of blood, he found himself “idiotically thinking” about his personal belongings, including that his Ralph Lauren suit was getting ruined and that his house keys and credit cards might fall out of his pocket.

“At the time, of course, it’s ludicrous. But in retrospect, what it says to me, is there was some bit of me that was not intending to die. There was some bit of me that was saying, ‘I’m going to need those house keys, and I’m going to need those credit cards’.”

He added that it was a “survival instinct” that was saying to him: “You’re going to live. Live. Live.”

His attacker, an American in his 20s with roots in Lebanon, told the New York Post newspaper that he had only read two pages of Rushdie’s novel but believed he had “attacked Islam.”

Rushdie has never met the accused but is likely to come face-to-face with him in court when the trial gets underway later this year.

Over the years, Rushdie received a multitude of death threats that made him a global symbol of freedom of speech.

“A lot of people, including a lot of young people, I’m sorry to say, have formed the opinion that restrictions on freedom of speech are often a good idea. Whereas, of course, the whole point of freedom of speech is that you have to permit speech you don’t agree with,” he said.

‘Absurd to write something else’

Asked in Frankfurt about his memoir, Rushdie said it seemed “impossible to write anything else.”

“It would seem kind of absurd to write something else until I had dealt with this subject.”

Suzanne Nossel, chief executive of free speech advocacy group PEN America, said that “since that dreadful day in August in 2022 we have awaited the story of how Salman’s would-be assassins finally caught up with him.”

“A master storyteller, Salman has held this narrative close until now, leaving us to marvel from a distance at his courage and resilience,” she said.

Rushdie, who was born in Mumbai but moved to England as a boy, was propelled into the spotlight with his second novel “Midnight’s Children” in 1981.

The book won Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize for its portrayal of post-independence India.

But the “The Satanic Verses” brought him far greater, mostly unwelcome, attention.

The atheist author, whose parents were non-practicing Muslims, was forced to go underground.

He was granted police protection in Britain, following the murder or attempted murder of his translators and publishers.

During his time in hiding, he moved houses repeatedly and was unable to tell his children where he lived.

He only began to emerge from his life on the run in the late 1990s after Iran in 1998 said it would not support his assassination.

He became a fixture on the international party circuit, even appearing in films such as “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and US television sitcom “Seinfeld.”

He has been married five times and has two children.

As an advocate of free speech, he launched a strong defence of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo after its staff were gunned down by Islamists in Paris in 2015.

The magazine had published drawings of Mohammed that drew furious reactions from Muslims worldwide. (Agencies)

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