South African author Zainub Priya Dala was driving through the city of Durban last Wednesday, when three men tried to push her off the road.
When they finally managed to get her to stop on a busy interchange,Â the men drew a knife to her neck, and threw a series of obscenities atÂ her, before smashing her face with a brick. They took nothing, leftÂ her bleeding at the side of the road, and drove off in their vehicle.
Dala says the three men were not wearing masks. They were South African Indian males in their thirties. She canâ€™t be sure, but they were almost certainly Muslim. She says they attacked her forÂ praising Salman Rushdie at a writing workshop the day before.
â€œThey called me â€˜Rushdieâ€™s bitchâ€™,â€ Dala said.
As a guest at the recently concluded Time of the Writer literatureÂ festival in the city, Dala had travelled to Chatsworth, 30km outsideÂ Durban, as part of the festivalâ€™s outreach programme between authors andÂ local communities. It was at a community centre where she casuallyÂ mentioned admiring Rushdieâ€™s work.
â€œI was at a workshop with learners when I was asked which writers IÂ admired,â€ Dala told The Daily Vox.Â â€œWhen I said Arundhati Roy and then Salman Rushdie, some learners andÂ teachers got up and walked out the venue.â€
Later that afternoon and evening, Dala received SMSesÂ fromÂ strangers asking her, as a Muslim woman, to repent for praising theÂ author of The Satanic Verses. Rushdieâ€™s 1988 novel drew the ire ofÂ many Muslims across the globe when it was published, owing to hisÂ depiction of the Prophet Mohammed. In 1989 Iranâ€™sÂ Ayotullah Khomeni issuing a fatwa calling for Rushdieâ€™s death .
Dalaâ€™s first bookÂ â€œAbout Meeraâ€ was supposed to launch on South Africaâ€™s Human RightsÂ Day on Saturday, but the launch had to be postponed after the incident, which leftÂ her with a broken cheekbone and soft-tissue damage.
While the attack has been condemned by all segments of South AfricanÂ society, it has also set offÂ some soul-searching among SouthÂ Africanâ€™s Muslim community, which hasÂ been left perplexed by theÂ nature of the crime.
Dala spoke to The Daily Vox about the attack and her reaction to it.Â Listen to the Q&A here or read on for an abridged version of the interview.
The Daily Vox: You were attacked because you mentioned Salman Rushdie. HowÂ do you understand the rage you experienced as a result of mentioningÂ his name?
Zainub Priya Dala: Rage and violence is never an answer. It isÂ certainly not something that anyone should resort to, to anything,Â least of all, a writerâ€™s work. Â I have understood it on two levels. IÂ am trying to process it on a personal level by trying to heal, bothÂ mentally and physically. On a macro level, I am trying to understandÂ it in a way that does not makes me look at the entire community asÂ people who resort to violence. I can understand fully that itâ€™s justÂ a small, possibly ignorant group of people that have perpetrated thisÂ crime.
TDV: You say that you donâ€™t want to typecast the entire South AfricanÂ Muslim community because of the behavior of a few. How then do youÂ suggest that this conversation takes place without it becoming anÂ excuse to label and hate?
ZPD: I am very aware that Islamaphobia is very much in the news and inÂ the mainstream media. I think that such an incident that happened toÂ me, as tragic as it is, is something that does open up a dialogue, asÂ to the views of various segments of the Muslim community. By thisÂ incident, what should be sent out to the world at large is that thisÂ is a small section and it is a very small section that is not condonedÂ by the entire, large Muslim community, who are strongly opposed toÂ what happened. I hope that this dialogue that we open; we canÂ conscientise the rest of the world, about the peace of the religionÂ and about the peace of the people, largely.
TDV: Â Would you say that this conversation is actually taking place?
ZPD: One would hope so. I have not encountered any feedback from theÂ community. I do believe that the dialogue has opened, and theÂ conversation is taking place. On the other hand, I might add, is thatÂ it is taking place in a very secretive platform. Many people are stillÂ afraid. No matter how honourable their views are, they are stillÂ afraid to come out and state them. There are a few great souls thatÂ are doing so and, by their example, I am hoping that the largeÂ community follows by example. One must think about the fact that it isÂ largely the academics and the leaders who are talking. We really needÂ the people on the ground to talk. They are the ones that count theÂ most. Because they are ones that sometimes misconstrue and take theÂ wrong messages. It starts with the clerics and the academics and theÂ leaders. We have to find a way to get it to filter down.
TDV: Rushdieâ€™s novel, The Satanic Verses elicited a harshÂ response from many Muslims around the world. But did you expect thisÂ kind of reaction to merely mentioning his name?
ZPD:Â When the book came out, and the fatwa issued by the [Iranâ€™s Supreme leader] AyotullahÂ Khomeni, I was very young. When I became older, I read more and wantedÂ to know more. I would have that thought with so many years gone by andÂ other writers who have come out with controversial subjects as well,Â that such an issue wouldnâ€™t be as large as it still is today after soÂ many years. Perhaps it was naivety on my part to think that such an issue would not be reacted to so strongly. I do now find that it isÂ still foremost in a lot of peopleâ€™s minds. I didnâ€™t expect it, at all.
TDV: Â The book came out a long time ago. If the younger generations areÂ leaving workshops that merely mention of his name, arenâ€™t we goingÂ down a very dangerous path?
ZPD: A large part of the community is not aware of the contents of theÂ book and why it is so controversial. They just hear [the name] SalmanÂ Rushdie and that sets them off. I think that awareness and possiblyÂ dialogue with the community, about what is so inflammatory about this,Â must be brought out into the open, so people can be circumspect about it, instead of following like sheep: â€œWe hate Rushdie and thatâ€™sÂ finalâ€. Also, we have to acknowledge that Mr Rushdie has a large bodyÂ of very beautiful work. The Satanic Verses is not the only book thatÂ he has published. That needs to be pointed out to the community asÂ well: that he is a writer and he has a large body of work.
TDV: Â Will you stop writing, speaking about the books that you love, andÂ the writers that you admire?
ZPD: Everyone that knows me knows that I am someone who does not backÂ down from speaking about issues. My book itself [About Meera] is very muchÂ about secrets and the unspeakable. Initially when the incidentÂ happened, I did feel that maybe it would be best if I hid in a littleÂ hole and not say anything more. But as I am feeling a lot strong, IÂ know that I wonâ€™t be deterred from writing further books and fromÂ commenting about other wonderful writers that I admire. I also thinkÂ that itâ€™s my responsibility not to back down from words that I utteredÂ myself. That would be cowardly and it is not something I prefer toÂ do. I will continue â€¦ and hopefully not taking a brick to the face.