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City of Banjul
Wednesday, January 27, 2021

On books and one Salman Rushdie

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There was the taciturn Aunty Sukai Mbye-Bojang (actually married to my uncle), the lovable medical scientist Ya Harr Njie-Njie and the dark-eyed houri of a sea pilot, poetess Rohey Samba-Jallow.  The hard-hitting politician Lamin Waa Juwara, once told the Daily Observer that Gambians should beware of women with double-bracketed names. I don’t’ think he was referring to these. I guess he had Fatoumata-Jahumpa Ceesay in mind!   

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Their unscripted tales of the loneliness of writing; of how their emotions spark their creativity and how the cathartic, even therapeutic it is; and their doggedness of spirit was as thrilling as it was inspirational. I was the impressionable little boy all over again; I wanted to be like Sukai, like Ya Harr, like Rohey, when I grow up!

I started this piece with the mention of writers, readers and lovers. I am a lover of books. I have always been from the time I remembered anything.  I have always been surrounded by books – my grandfather’s untouchable kamils, with their loud and strange hieroglyphics, the scores of Ladybird Series and Ocean Readers story books and so forth. I was so enthralled by books that in my fourth grade, I convinced the deputy headmistress, Dado Forster to give me the keys to the Brikama Primary School bookstore. There was no public library in Brikama then. It was a school of about 2,000 pupils. At weekends, I had the whole book rooms to myself. The following year I started collecting and building my private library. 

My love affair with books continued when I went to Gambia High School two years later. On my thirteenth birthday, my uncle, Abdoulie Bojang, a senior officer in the Customs & Excise, gifted me a set of the full volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica. It was not until eighteen months later that I picked up my next fairy tale story book when Emily Foon (now Sarr), my literature teacher who later became the muse of my early writings, introduced me to the Greek classics: The Titans, Zeus and the Olympians, the Odyssey, the Trojan War, the Labours of Heracles, Jason and the Argonauts;  stories of satyrs, centaurs, minotaurs and dragons. Since the day I made my escape into that world of derring-do, I have never returned and I never want to. For me, the magic realism of books is life itself, not a style of writing.

Books have offered me liberation from the age when I was still untrammeled by the views of my heritage, my town, my tribe, my country and my religion. Like Voltaire, I declared at a very early age that I will always dare to think for myself. Books are principally repositories of knowledge – all knowledge – including knowledge that will set you free even if your feet, hands and neck are manacled by the heavy irons of bullying, tyrannical and murderous individuals, societies and ideas.  I testified to the health of the written word and its salutary effect on diseased society. That is why I chose to be a journalist.

I try to read everything and especially those things that any Diablo of a censor would not want me to read. In fact all great books including from the Bible and the Qur’an to Maimonides The Guide of the Perplexed and Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses were banned by states and groups at points in history. 

I was looking at titles in my library yesterday morning and I easily spotted more than fifty great works that were suppressed: Areopatgitica by Milton, Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, Il Principe by Machiavelli for political reasons; Dialogue Concerning The Two Chief World Systems by Galileo, Infallible? By Kung, Lajja by Taslima Nasrim, On The Origin of Species by Darwin, Religion Within Limits of Reason by Alone by Kant on religious grounds; Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison, Candide by Voltaire, Fanny Hill by john Cleland, The Kama Sutra by Burton, Lolita by Nabuko, Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence, Madame Bovary by Flaubert and Ulysses by James Joyce on sexual grounds; The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, Cujo by Stephen King, Go Ask Alice by Anonymous and Of Mice and Men  by Steinbeck on social grounds. Even in The Gambia, there were attempts to suppress Berkeley Rice’s Enter Gambia and Our Grandmothers’ Drums by Mark Hudson on political and social grounds. The attempts failed.

But what succeeded was The Gambia’s ban of Salman Rushdie’s 1988 book The Satanic Verses.  When it came out, I was a little boy and I’d probably have not made sense of the bel espirit’s fury of thoughts and imagery just like I could not tell A from B on first reading Soyinka’s Interpreters at the ripe old age of 18. 

I tried so hard to get Rushdie’s book at the time that I even volunteered for three months to water the home garden of a Peace Corps volunteer, Randy Martin, from Maine, US, living in our home, if he would order the book for me. He often indulged me, but on that occasion he told me to eff off.

It wasn’t until 18 years later when I went to study in London that I bought and read my copy of The Satanic Verses. I have since lent it to only one person, my fellow journalist Sainey Darboe, a young man clearly obsessed with everything Rushdie-c. It bothers me a little that he would want to read this book a third time.  

I read it once. And it was enough. Although I wouldn’t stop anyone from reading it, I believe it was depraved and too insulting. Probably you have not read it, just like the hundreds of millions of other infuriated Muslims who marched, burnt the book and wanted the man dead. Rushdie and his defenders claimed that people should have read his book first. Many read it and said it was filth and you do not have to wade through the length of a filthy drain pipe to know that it was filthy. Yahya Jammeh once said a similar thing of Gambian journalists: “You do not have to go in to a toilet to know that it stinks!” 

To cut a long story short: The novel opens 29000ft in the air as two men fall toward the sea from a hijacked plane blown over the English Channel. The two – both Indian actors – mysteriously survive the explosion and wash up on an English beach. Gibreel Farishta is a popular Indian film star, Saladin Chamcha is an urbane Anglophile working in broadcasting in London.

To their surprise, Gibreel and Saladin find after their fall from the sky that they have undergone a metamorphosis, acquiring characters alien to their own personalities. Gibreel the womaniser develops a halo assuming the appearance of archangel Gabriel while the mild mannered Saladin grows horns, hooves and tail in the image of Satan.

Then Gibreel had a dream telling the story of Mahound, a business man turned prophet of Jahilia, the city of sand, who receives revelations through angel Gabriel and founds a religion called Submission. Rushdie’s prophet then reveal verses claiming that the goddesses of the city were elevated to angelic status and should be worshipped.  

In another instance, Prophet Mahound’s scribe, Salman, changed the words dictated to him for inclusion in the prophet’s holy book and yet this gross addition was not noticed by the prophet leading to the scribe claiming he too could be a prophet and write a ‘revealed’ book. 

More provocatively, Gibreel dreams of cinematic fantasy about a brothel in Jahilia called The Curtain where business booms after 12 prostitutes assume the names and personalities of Mahound’s wives. A line of men awaiting their turns circle the innermost courtyard of the brothel, “rotating around its centrally positioned Fountain of Love…”

Anyone who knows a tad about the early history of Prophet Muhammad’s mission and its later reconstruction by Orientalists would be able to pick Rushdie’s gross inferences from a kilometer away. 

His lovers in the West hailed his book as “a masterpiece”, “truly original”, “an extraordinary novel” blah blah! However, all decent people know that being civilised is nothing but a voluntary acceptance of restraints. Anyone can hold whatever private opinions one may have about anything but no one has the absolute right to express just anything they want in public in the name of whatever freedom. 

Rushdie is a fine writer by all accounts, read Midnight’s Children and other books, but the Satanic Verses, thinly disguised as a piece of literature, is only an attempt to greatly distort Islamic history and paint in the worst possible colours the very characters of great prophets like Abraham and Muhammad and described Islamic creeds and rituals in the most foul of languages.

In fact, Rushdie was himself very alive to his mischief. He wrote in the book: “Here he is neither Mahomet nor Moehammered; has adopted, instead, the demon tag the farangis hung around his neck. To turn insults into strengths, whigs, tories, blacks all chose to wear with pride the names that they were given in scorn…” Don’t be fooled by his surreal and riotously inventive mixture of realism and fantasy.

Imam Khomeini saw through this when he stated: “Even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of our time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has, his life and his wealth, to send him to hell!”

I had often wondered what I would have done had I chanced upon Salman Rushdie in the back alley of London’s Southbank?  Hmmmm.  I’d propably have chippu’d him and suck my teeth in disgust!

 

By Sheriff Bojang

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