“There was some bit of me that was not intending to die”, recalls Salman Rushdie about the knife attack

One of the legends of world literature, 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.

Salman Rushdie
Celebrated author Salman Rushdie reposted this photo on February 7, 2023, after the loss of one eye in the August 2022 knife attack. Photo courtesy: X/@SalmanRushdie

Rushdie, whose X cover image is the word ‘KNIFE’ (from the cover of his latest book), said that he thought he was dying as his left eye hung down his face “like a soft-boiled egg”.

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, who is 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 was something that “upsets me every day”, and that the memoir was his way of fighting back against what happened.

Salman Rushdie’s life had been at risk for years because of the fatwa issued against him (and his book publisher) by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran over the 1988 book The Satanic Verses. It was only after the fatwa was lifted in 1998 that Rushdie began making public appearances again.

However, as the August 2022 murder attempt proved, the celebrated author still was not safe.

Recalling the moment of the knife attack at the Chautauqua Institution, Rushdie said in the BBC interview, “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.”

“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 recalled.

“I remember thinking I was dying. Fortunately, I was wrong,” said Rushdie.

He 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.

Rushdie 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.

The novelist, who had to spend several years in hiding after the fatwa issued by Khomeini, admitted that 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 said.

Knighted by the late Queen Elizabeth II for services to literature, the New York-based novelist suffered knife damage to his liver and hands, and has lost 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,” shared Rushdie, 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.

Rushdie 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.’”

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.