The person who was next to author and activist Salman Rushdie when he was stabbed said Sunday that the attack, before a speaking engagement in western New York, “looked like a sort of bad prank.”
Henry Reese, who was preparing to host the Friday event with Rushdie at the amphitheater at the Chautauqua Institution, spoke to host Brian Stelter on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”
“It didn’t have any sense of reality, and then when there was blood behind him, it became real,” said Reese, co-founder of the Pittsburgh-based City of Asylum, a group that supports “freedom of creative expression.”
Rushdie, who was stabbed multiple times, remained in critical condition on Sunday morning, CNN reported. His condition was said to be improving. “We are extremely relieved that yesterday he was taken off the ventilator and additional oxygen, and he was able to say a few words,” Zafar Rushdie, his son, tweeted Sunday.
Reese was also injured and appeared on TV with a bandage above his eye.
A 24-year-old New Jersey man has been charged in the attack. It is not known whether the stabbing was related to the edict, known as a fatwa, issued in 1989 by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini calling for Rushdie’s death. Khomeini decreed that Rushdie had committed blasphemy against the Muslim faith in his novel “The Satanic Verses.”
Reese told Stelter that he first thought that the attack was some sort of a twisted joke related to the fatwa.
“I immediately thought it was someone making some kind of a bad reference to it, not that it was actually a real attack,” Reese said.
Rushdie was in hiding for years after the fatwa, but continued to write and subsequently returned to the public eye as an activist supporting freedom of expression for persecuted artists, which, as Reese noted, was to be the subject of their discussion on Friday.
“That is the grim sort of irony, or maybe intention — to not only assault his body, but to assault everything that he represented,” Reese said.
The Chautauqua Institution, which was established in 1874, is known for hosting speakers of various ideologies and denominations.
“Chautauqua is a community of people of all faiths and none,” the institution’s president, Michael E. Hill, said on Friday in response to the attack. “Our collective family is holding Mr. Rushdie and Mr. Reese, as well their families, close in prayer.”
He added: “What we experienced at Chautauqua today is unlike anything in our 150-year history. It was an act of violence, an act of hatred and a violation of one of the things we have always cherished most: the safety and tranquility of our grounds and our ability to convene the most important conversations, even if those conversations are difficult.”
For his part, Reese urged everyone to support free expression without reservation.
“As readers, we should all go out and buy a book by Salman Rushdie this week and read it,” he said.