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I remember thinking I was dying: Salman Rushdie on knife attack

By Aditi Khanna
April 15, 2024 15:51 IST
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Mumbai-born Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie has spoken in gruesome detail about the moment he was attacked by a knifeman on stage in New York in 2022, and said he thought he was dying as his left eye hung down his face “like a soft-boiled egg”.

IMAGE: Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie. Photograph: Kind courtesy @CourtierRoyal/X

The 76-year-old British-American author was on stage in August 2022 when he was stabbed up to 12 times by accused Hadi Matar in prison for attempted murder.

In an interview with the BBC ahead of the release of his detailed account of the attack in Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder this week, the author admitted that losing an eye is something that "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,” said Rushdie, recalling the moment of the attack at the Chautauqua Institution.

“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.

Rushdie had spent several years in hiding after the 1988 publication of the controversial The Satanic Verses triggered threats against his life, with the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issuing a fatwa against him.

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 attack damaged Rushdie's liver and hands and severed nerves in his right eye.

He finds 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, which formally releases on Tuesday, is dedicated to "the men and women who saved my life".

In Knife, the author has an imaginary conversation with his attacker: "In America, many people pretend to be honest, but they wear masks and lie. And would that be a reason to kill them all?"

He 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.

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."

Since the attack, Rushdie has spoken out about the growing stresses on freedom of speech around the world, and in this week's interview reiterated his worries.

"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.

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Aditi Khanna
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