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Salman Rushdie details the 27 seconds of the knife attack that nearly ended his life

Acclaimed author Salman Rushdie was attacked on a New York stage in August 2022 and suffered life-changing injuries. He spoke to CBC's The Current about his new book, in which he details the stabbing, imagines a conversation with the alleged attacker and shares how he beat the odds to survive.

Acclaimed author feels he has 'second chance' at life after violent stabbing in 2022

Salman Rushdie

Acclaimed author Salman Rushdie credits a series of "man-made miracles" for surviving the terrible wounds he suffered in a knife attack over a year and a half ago.

"There was a slash right the way across my neck here, but it didn't seem to cut the artery … there's three stab wounds down the centre of my torso, but they missed the heart," said Rushdie.

"That's what we call good luck."

Rushdie was stabbed in the face, neck, arm and abdomen as he was about to give a lecture in Chautauqua, western New York on Aug. 12, 2022. His alleged assailant, a New Jersey man called Hadi Matar, was arrested at the scene and charged with attempted murder and assault. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges and is awaiting trial.

The trauma surgeons who treated Rushdie's injuries have said they initially didn't think he would survive. The 76-year-old author suffered 14 stab wounds and lost his right eye.

"The worst thing was the knife in my eye … it went as deep as the optic nerve, which is why there's no possibility of saving the vision," he said. "But as you know, the optic nerve is what connects the eye to the brain."

WATCH | Salman Rushdie discusses the 'man-made miracles' that saved his life:

Why Salman Rushdie thinks he was ‘lucky’ to survive knife attack

6 hours ago

Duration 2:02

Acclaimed author Salman Rushdie was attacked with a knife on stage in August 2022 and ultimately lost his eye. He tells CBC Radio’s Matt Galloway about how close he came to death — and the ‘man-made miracles’ that saved him.

Had the knife plunged one millimetre further, it would have sliced past the optic nerve and caused brain damage, Rushdie told CBC Radio's The Current.

"I was lucky, and then I was saved by my medical science," he said.

"That's the miracle, it seems to me."

Rushdie has written about the attack in his new book, Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder, published Tuesday. He said he didn't want to write about the incident for a long time, but it became something he had to do because he "couldn't really focus on anything else."

"I think the hardest part was writing the first chapter, which is the chapter which describes the attack," he said. "Once I got through that hard core moment, the rest of it kind of began to flow."

As the attack unfolded, Rushdie said he felt "quite clearly" that he was about to die.

"I wasn't afraid of it … but there was a sadness involved in it because of dying far from home in a strange land, you know, in the company of strangers, far away from everybody I cared about."

27 seconds of violence

Rushdie remembers a man running onto the stage in Chautauqua that day. He remembers falling, and the man with knife coming down on top of him.

The stabbing lasted 27 seconds, but for Rushdie "time seemed to just stop."

"I have this image of myself on the ground … with a spreading pool of blood around me," he said.

WATCH | Attack on Salman Rushdie 'got so real, so fast,' witness says:

Salman Rushdie attack 'got so real, so fast,' witness says

2 years ago

Duration 1:03

Witnesses to the attack on Salman Rushdie Friday in western New York recount how a man approached the stage at the Chautauqua Institution where the author was about to give a lecture, attacked him and was later pinned down by people from the audience.

Henry Reese, the event's moderator, also suffered injuries in the attack. He and Rushdie were set to discuss protections for writers in exile and freedom of expression. Rushdie has dedicated Knife to the people in the audience that day who rushed on stage to tackle the assailant.

"There was a moment where I became aware of … somewhere over to my side, a sort of heaving pile of bodies on top of the attacker, trying to hold him down," he said.

Rushdie remembers being airlifted to hospital, where he was placed on a ventilator. He spent several weeks in hospital, and underwent months of rehabilitation.

Uninformed attacks on literature

The alleged attacker, Matar, told the New York Post that he had only read a couple of pages of Rushdie's writing, but he believed that the author had attacked Islam.

In 1989, Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie's assassination, calling his novel The Satanic Verses an insult to Islam.

Several people died in violent demonstrations in the months that followed; the book's Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was murdered in 1991.

Iran has denied any involvement in the 2022 attack.

A man with glasses and a bald spot on top of his head and a white, short beard, holds a book up in his left hand. The book has an orange border and the title "The Satanic Verses Salman Rushdie."

Rushdie lived in hiding, under police protection, for more than a decade. The fatwa was never lifted, but in 2000 the author made the decision to move to the U.S. and return to public life.

He told The Current that he used to get upset that authors would face public condemnation from people who had not read their books, but now he understands that's almost always the case.

"I think that the people who called James Joyce a pornographer had obviously not read Ulysses because, I mean, he's a great writer, but I don't think he arouses sexual interest," Rushdie said.

"Maybe that's how it has to be … if you actually inform yourself, it's harder to take up that kind of extreme polemical position."

Rushdie does not name Matar in the book. He said that at one point he wanted to meet with him — but his wife, poet and novelist Eliza Griffiths, talked him out of it. Instead, he wrote a chapter in the book that imagines that conversation.

"I thought, maybe I can do better by imagining myself into his head than I would if I actually had the chance to talk to him, because I don't think he'd be that forthcoming," he told The Current.

In the book, Rushdie writes that he is "not looking for an apology. I do wonder how he feels, now that he has had time to think things over."

WATCH | Salman Rushdie on appreciating the 'ridiculous' in life:

Salman Rushdie on living beyond his brush with death

6 hours ago

Duration 2:02

After a violent knife attack in 2022, author Salman Rushdie says learning to live with ‘that shadow’ of death has helped him to appreciate the ridiculous things in life.

Seizing second chances

During the years he lived in hiding, Rushdie said all he wanted was to get back to being a writer — judged on the artistic merits of his books. He published 16 books since The Satanic Verses, and believed the fatwa had faded in the conversations about his work.

"This attack has pulled me back into that other guy, the guy who got attacked, and I don't want to be there," he said.

"What I got into the business to do was to make things up, was to write fictions and to tell stories … writing about myself was never the plan."

He hopes that Knife, his 22nd book and second memoir, will allow him to get back to "making things up again," and close the chapter on the attack.

"I have this fantasy of sitting under a tree by a river with a notepad, writing and not giving a damn about anything else," he said.

Salman Rushdie and Matt Galloway

While Rushdie hasn't fully recovered his physical strength, he does feel that he's "bucked the odds" and been given a second chance at life.

"The biggest [thing] about the second chance is it gives you an instruction not to waste your time," he said.

"Don't mess around. Use the time you got."

Audio produced by Julie Crysler

Radio One

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