The Satanic Verses Affair
Graduate editor Josie Gill thinks here about Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses as a context for Smith's White Teeth; while Smith never pronounces on Rushdie's novel, its history and concerns animate the inquiry into identity staged in White Teeth.
About half way through White Teeth, Millat and his friends take the train from London to Bradford to attend a protest against a writer they refer to as a 'coconut' and a 'white man's puppet' who has written, in their opinion, a 'dirty book' (White Teeth, p. 233). Whilst never explicitly named, the writer about whom the boys are so incensed is Salman Rushdie and the book is his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. The date of Millat's trip, 14th January 1989, is the day when copies of The Satanic Verses were infamously burnt at a protest in Bradford. This protest formed part of the growing international demonstrations against the novel's publication, which culminated in a fatwa (a religious ruling or decree) being issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran, against Salman Rushdie on 14th February 1989 (see 'Ayatollah Khomeini', BBC, in Further Reading).
The Ayatollah is reported to have said 'I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of the Satanic Verses book which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death. I ask all the Muslims to execute them wherever they find them' (see 'Rushdie in Hiding'). The novel was considered by some, including the Ayatollah, to be blasphemous against Islam and Salman Rushdie was forced to seek police protection and go into hiding. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the fatwa and Rushdie continues to live in secret. Although it appeared that the fatwa might be relaxed in 1998, the death sentence was reasserted by the new Iranian Ayatollah in 2005. Rushdie has continued to write novels and in 1993 his novel Midnight's Children (1981) won the 'Booker of Bookers', an award for the best novel of all the novels which had won the Man Booker Prize in the preceding twenty-five years.
In White Teeth, Millat's and his friends' participation in the protest is narrated to great comic effect. The boys have not read the book they are going to protest about, and Smith plays on this farcical situation, comparing the protests against Rushdie to those which have often plagued writers in the past:
Millat knew nothing about the writer, nothing about the book; could not identify the book if it lay in a pile of other books; could not pick out the writer in a line-up of other writers (irresistible, this line-up of offending writers: Socrates, Protagoras, Ovid and Juvenal, Radclyffe Hall, Boris Pasternak, D.H. Lawrence, Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov, all holding up their numbers for the mug shot, squinting in the flashbulb). (White Teeth, p. 233)
Yet, from the beginning of the episode, the reason for the boys' anger, and their enthusiasm for the protest, is clear. In trying to buy a train ticket, albeit with the bravado which typifies his personality, Millat is confronted with the racism which pervades his everyday life when the ticket man says, 'You little bastards. Can't tell me in English? Have to talk your Paki language?' (White Teeth, p. 231). It is the stereotypes and prejudice with which young men like Millat and his crew are frequently confronted which, it is implied, have enabled the protests to gather such momentum. Millat 'knew that he, Millat, was a Paki no matter where he came from; that he smelt of curry; had no sexual identity; took other people's jobs; or had no job and bummed off the state' and therefore he 'recognized the anger' of the protestors' (White Teeth, pp. 233-234).
The furore surrounding the publication of The Satanic Verses meant that the novel came to be primarily known for its exploration of Islamic religious beliefs. However the novel is also notable for its examination of multicultural relations and the racism and alienation experienced by immigrants in 1980s Britain. In The Satanic Verses, the formation of culturally hybrid identities and the negotiation of competing cultural affiliations are central themes. It is therefore deeply ironic that Millat and his crew are described, as they travel to Bradford to protest against Rushdie, as 'Raggastanis' who 'spoke a strange mix of Jamaican patois, Bengali, Gujarati and English. Their ethos, their manifesto, if it could be called that, was equally a hybrid thing' (White Teeth, p. 231). The distinctive, culturally mixed identities which Millat and his contemporaries have created for themselves, and the discrimination they experience in London, are the very issues which Rushdie confronts in The Satanic Verses. Millat's participation in the demonstration against Rushdie's book is therefore a comic, yet poignant moment of misrecognition and confusion, one of many such moments which characterise White Teeth.
Millat is not the only character for whom the question of identity becomes connected to a literary text. Irie studies Shakespeare's sonnets at school and one episode in the novel features an instance of confusion comparable to the The Satanic Verses incident. What is the significance of Shakespeare in the passage? Is Irie's explanation just a case of straightforward misinterpretation? (If you have a comment you'd like to share, please leave a reply in the box at the bottom of the page.)
[It's rather a long passage so for copyright reasons we are unable to include it here. It starts with a quotation from Shakespeare's Sonnets, 'Thy black is fairest in my judgement's place...', and it ends ' "By William Shakespeare: ODE TO LETITIA AND ALL MY KINKY-HAIRED BIG-ASS BITCHEZ." '. It can be found in White Teeth, pp. 270-272.]
- Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (New York: Random House, 2008).
- Zadie Smith, White Teeth (London: Penguin, 2001).
- 'Ayatollah Khomeini, BBC 'Historical Figures' series, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/khomeini_ayatollah.shtml
- 'Rushdie in hiding after Ayatollah's death threat', The Guardian, 15 February 1989, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/1989/feb/15/salmanrushdie
- To read newspaper reports and critical commentary on the affair, click here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/rushdie-fatwa
- To watch a video of the events click here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/february/14/newsid_2541000/2541149.stm