Salman Rushdie, Aziz Nesin and our Lingering Fatwas

22 August, 2022
In 1993, jour­nal­ist Gün­ter Wall­raff (cen­ter) invit­ed Salman Rushdie and the Turk­ish writer Aziz Nesin (left) to Cologne (pho­to Gün­ter Zint).


Sahand Sahebdivani


It was about a decade ago when a friend took me to the Aziz Nesin Cul­tur­al Cen­ter in Istan­bul for a cup of tea. He was a fast walk­er, a the­ater mak­er and an intel­lec­tu­al with all the prop­er left­ist cre­den­tials. We were just pass­ing Istik­lal street when a few young guys stopped him to sell him a local com­mu­nist paper, which he bought after a short discussion.

So you’re an Iran­ian refugee. Now tell me, are you a lib­er­al or a communist?

“They’re idiots, ten euros! I told them no artists or any­one from the work­ing class can afford their paper.”

I knew he was speak­ing about him­self. In the pre­vi­ous days he had shown me the art of eat­ing deli­cious but sim­ple meals for very lit­tle mon­ey, going to Istanbul’s lit­tle hid­den eateries.

“You bought it though, why?”

“Because they still have their ideals, I don’t want them to lose hope.”

Aziz Nesin (1915 – 1995) was a Turk­ish writer and humorist, as well as a polit­i­cal activist and crit­ic of Islam. An edi­tor and pub­lish­er, he was the author of more than 100 books.

In the cul­tur­al cen­ter he ordered two fin­cans of tea and intro­duced me to the wait­er as an artist who had fled Iran as a young kid. The stern wait­er nev­er smiled, but had a ques­tion ready for me:

“So you’re an Iran­ian refugee. Now tell me, are you a lib­er­al or a communist?”

“My father was a com­mu­nist!” I told the guy. “That’s how we escaped, with his Kur­dish com­mu­nist con­tacts smug­gling us over the moun­tains, from Iran to Turkey.”

“He’s a tricky one,” the wait­er told my friend. “I asked him if he’s a com­mu­nist, and he deflects by talk­ing about his father!”

I wasn’t ashamed at not being able to answer his ques­tion, but I did feel like a fraud sit­ting in the Aziz Nesin Cen­ter with­out hav­ing read his work. A few years before, I had tried to find his books in the cen­tral library of Ams­ter­dam. The com­put­er told me they were avail­able in Turk­ish, Per­sian and, curi­ous­ly, in Por­tuguese. Not find­ing his work in a lan­guage I was com­fort­able read­ing, I had post­poned being intro­duced to the works of a writer my father had often talked about when I was grow­ing up.

Sad­ly, it seems the fat­was of reli­gious fanat­ics live on after their deaths…

Last Fri­day it was clos­ing time at Mezrab, the cul­tur­al cen­ter I cofound­ed in Ams­ter­dam. The place was almost emp­ty. Two young Turk­ish men were hav­ing a beer with me at the bar. I asked them if they had heard the news. They looked at me quizzically.

“Salman Rushdie being attacked and almost killed on stage in New York.”

The guys were young left­ists, like the ones who would sell papers on Istik­lal street or serve strong cups of tea in cul­tur­al cen­ters. But they were too young to remem­ber Rushdie’s Satan­ic Vers­es or the fat­wa the Iran­ian Aya­tol­lah Khome­i­ni had spo­ken over him in the last year of his life.

Sahand Saheb­di­vani telling a sto­ry at Mezrab, House of Sto­ries, Ams­ter­dam (pho­to Alborz Sahebdivani).

Then I asked them if they knew who Aziz Nesin was and how he was almost killed. Of course! they replied, our most impor­tant writer. Hat­ed for being a com­mu­nist, an intel­lec­tu­al, an athe­ist, an Ale­vi. It was in 1993 when a fren­zied crowd left the mosque in the city of Sivas, in cen­tral Turkey, to go to the hotel in which Aziz Nesin and oth­er artists, most­ly Ale­vi, had gath­ered for an event. The mob attacked the hotel for eight hours with­out the police inter­ven­ing, final­ly man­ag­ing to burn it. As many as 37 peo­ple died in the fire. Aziz Nesin, by then an old man, escaped by climb­ing down a lad­der, but even when he did so the fire­men who were sup­posed to help him rec­og­nized him and attacked him.

All this was true, but there was some con­text the young men didn’t know. The final cause of the anger of the reli­gious mob towards Aziz Nesin, who after all was an intel­lec­tu­al and athe­ist, had been his wish to trans­late and pub­lish Rushdie’s The Satan­ic Vers­es in Turkish.

Aziz Nesin sur­vived the attack, even if 37 oth­ers died. Rushdie hope­ful­ly will sur­vive the bar­barous attack of August 12th, even if thou­sands of oth­er intel­lec­tu­als in my native Iran did get killed by the same Aya­tol­lah who issued a fat­wa against him. And when one day, hope­ful­ly years from now, Rushdie dies, his com­plex and irrev­er­ent lit­er­a­ture will live on, just as the sub­tle poet­ry of Nesin does today. Sad­ly, it seems the fat­was of reli­gious fanat­ics live on after their deaths, too.


This col­umn first appeared in Raseef22, an inde­pen­dent Ara­bic lan­guage media plat­form stand­ing at the inter­sec­tion of iden­ti­ty, democ­ra­cy and social jus­tice, and is pub­lished here by spe­cial arrange­ment with the author.

Ayatollah KhomeiniAziz Nesinfatwafreedom of expressionintoleranceIranreligious extremismSalman Rushdie

Sahand Sahebdivani was born in Iran in 1980 and fled the country with his parents at the age of three. He was raised in the Netherlands where he studied storytelling, screenplay writing and music. He has operated the Mezrab Cultural Center in Amsterdam, a renowned site for storytelling and other arts, since 2004. He’s worked both in Dutch and Persian language media as a writer and programmer on a variety of cultural, social and political issues. When he’s not in Amsterdam he’s touring the world with his band, his story shows and/or his storytelling workshops. 


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