The Man on Stage with Salman Rushdie

The man who was about to interview Salman Rushdie at the Chautauqua Institution last Friday when a would-be murderer ran onto the stage with a knife is a 73-year-old former telemarketing contractor from Pittsburgh named Henry Reese. He wears bow ties and speaks in a quiet, raspy voice and avoids attention. But Reese and his wife, Diane Samuels, are two of the most remarkable ordinary people in America. They have transformed a dilapidated street in Pittsburgh into a haven for persecuted writers and artists from around the world. It’s called City of Asylum, and it’s a physical manifestation of the universal value of freedom of expression. This feat has something to do with what happened on Friday, two and a half hours north of Reese’s territory.

Settlement Chautauqua is an idyllic lakeside community, with a front door and quaint Victorian-lined streets, where paying visitors — many of whom are Midwestern retirees, more middle-class than hobbyists of coastal culture – stay for about a week in summer, attending shows and conferences on art, music, literature, ideas and religion. The institution was founded in 1874 on a tolerant, self-improving strain of American Protestantism that then flourished and is now rare. I spoke about this scene six weeks ago, and Chautauqua seemed a world apart, rarefied, a bit dreamlike and fragile. Of course, there was almost no security – the violence in this setting was unimaginable.

Hadi Matar, the man accused of wielding the knife (and who has pleaded not guilty to all charges), may have believed he was applying eternal laws from an ancient book. In fact, he came from the contemporary world outside the gates of Chautauqua – a place of irrational hatred and online threats, where ideas are not so much aired and debated as stifled by self-censorship, snuffed out by the pressure of crowd, silenced by government decree or put on probation. killed by gun and knife.

Reese and I spoke two days after the attack. What was he doing, I wanted to know, on stage with Salman Rushdie? Their paths first crossed in 1997, when Reese and Samuels, he a businessman and she an artist, attended a talk in Pittsburgh given by Rushdie, who had been invited by his then friend Christopher Hitchens. member of the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh. . The interview was part of Rushdie’s gradual re-emergence into public life after Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1989 death sentence. After the fatwa, still under imminent threat, Rushdie had helped found an organization called the International Parliament of Writers to bring solidarity and protection to writers at risk around the world, especially those from Algeria. The organization has inspired cities across Europe to offer asylum to persecuted writers. When Rushdie mentioned these asylum towns in his Pittsburgh speech, Reese and Samuels were struck by the idea of ​​starting one in their hometown – a grassroots, grassroots project.

In 2004, they founded City of Asylum on the north side of Pittsburgh, on an abandoned street near a nuisance bar and porn theater. They bought adjacent townhouses, five in all, and began offering safety, shelter and support to persecuted writers and artists from Ethiopia, Syria, Venezuela, Vietnam, El Salvador, Cuba and the United States. ‘Algeria. One by one, the tenants of Sampsonia Way brought the shabby block to life in colour, covering the facades with Chinese calligraphy, Burmese murals, Bengali prose, jazz art and a mosaic based on a passage from the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka. the street itself a kind of library. Later, Reese and Samuels added a garden and a bookstore. City of Asylum did not provide a temporary refuge but a sustainable community. (I spoke there in 2009 and serve on the advisory board.)

“Openness in writing is, in fact, social justice,” Reese told me. “The values ​​of openness and protection are what allow a society to build justice. It’s a dialogue, not uniform, always in negotiation, and that’s really what Rushdie and this whole idea of ​​cities of asylum evolved into. In 2005, Reese invited Rushdie to address a fundraiser in Pittsburgh, and then the novelist and entrepreneur stayed in touch. Last week, they met again in Chautauqua and planned their public conversation the night before at dinner. Rushdie wanted to talk about American writers from other countries and cultures who were “in fact redefining what it meant to write American literature,” Reese told me. The larger theme was to be the origin and purpose of the Cities of Asylum – what freedom of expression means, beyond mere “abstract language”. Rereading Rushdie’s work, Reese had noticed the recurring imagery of flight and the weight of gravity: “I was really struck by phrases relating to being grounded or not, and what that really meant. for someone who was himself a migrant.” The epigraph of satanic versesthe novel that inspired the fatwa, comes from the novel by Daniel Defoe The Political History of the Devil and describes the “wandering, wandering, unstable condition of Satan…for though he has, in consequence of his angelic nature, some kind of empire in the liquid wastes or in the air, it is certainly part of his punishment, that he is… home, place or space allowed him to rest the sole of his foot. The whole point of cities of asylum is to give the free spirit of art a solid and safe place to rest.

The assailant struck before Reese or Rushdie said a word.

Reese didn’t want to discuss the attack with me; he preferred to talk about the values ​​that had brought him closer to Rushdie in Pittsburgh and then in Chautauqua. But it became clear why Rushdie is alive. Reese is at home in Pittsburgh recovering from a fairly superficial stab wound to his eyelid, which he sustained while holding down the legs of the man who stabbed the novelist. At the same time, onlookers took to the stage and overpowered the assailant as the knife still delivered savage blows. Judging from the videos, these rescuers were white-haired men in shorts, the kind of people you normally see in Chautauqua. A retired Pittsburgh doctor who supports City of Asylum attended Rushdie on stage. Running into chaos took courage.

All kinds of people show bravery in a crisis, and maybe Rushdie would have been saved anywhere. But he was saved last Friday by members of two communities with similar values, one dedicated to the open exchange of ideas, the other to protection from persecution. “This is a very bold attack on the core values ​​of freedom and ways to resolve differences without violence, with art, literature, journalism,” Reese said. He experienced the assault as an intense embodiment of the kind of persecution that brings writers to City of Asylum. “It gave a very visceral and momentary connection to me personally, and certainly to Salman, it probably never went away in his mind, but now it’s taken permanently, in a physical way.”

Freedom of expression – “the whole thing, the whole ballgame,” Rushdie once called it – is a universal value that must be enshrined in law to have any force. But it cannot survive as an abstraction. It depends on public opinion. “If a large number of people are interested in free speech, there will be free speech, even if the law forbids it,” Orwell wrote; “if public opinion is sluggish, troublesome minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.” Freedom of expression needs a ground to stand on. It needs a community with enough tolerance and trust that people refrain from killing each other for ideas. It needs a people ready to defend the right, the life— of someone who says things he doesn’t want to hear.

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