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Rushdie a fugitive — again

Attacks prompt him to halt book tour, go home

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Almost everyone has heard of Salmon Rushdie.

He's the acclaimed author who grew up in Bombay and moved to England as a teenager. He has written seven well-received novels, but he got into serious trouble in 1989 when the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran's late spiritual leader, issued a fatwa, a religious edict that called on faithful Muslims to execute Rushdie for the disrespect he allegedly demonstrated against Islam in his book "The Satanic Verses."

In a short time, Rushdie was a household name all over the world.

But he outlived the ayatollah, and during the past three years has emerged from hiding to live in New York and discover what America is like. Though it has been assumed that Iran no longer practices state-supported terrorism, it still holds a $3 million price tag on his head.

Recently, Rushdie's newest novel, "Fury," an account of a British refugee's experiences in America, was published by Random House. Accordingly, the publisher scheduled a full-blown book tour for the formerly invisible man, starting in New York on Sept. 5, sweeping across the country, and ending, once again, in New York on Sept. 24.

I read his book with great interest and arranged to interview him by phone while he was in Minneapolis on Sept. 11, a day now infamous for the tragic terrorism against the World Trade Center's twin towers in Manhattan. My interview was scheduled for 2 p.m., Mountain Time, about six hours after the towers were hit.

Under the circumstances, it was obvious Rushdie might be reluctant to do interviews now, but I hadn't heard from the publicist, so I called Rushdie at the appointed time and asked for his undercover name at the Grand Hotel — Dr. Shane Mauls. I was told he had not checked in. So I called his publicist in New York, but she was home watching television, as were all other Random House employees (and most of the country). (And, of course, New York's mayor had encouraged everyone to evacuate Manhattan.)

She returned my call from home and said Rushdie had not reached Minneapolis from Houston, but I would be able to talk to him in a few days.

Meanwhile, the West coast publicist from the same company told me his tour was canceled. But the New York publicist insisted that was not true. "Don't worry, you'll get your interview," she said.

So I retained hope. A few days later, the publicist called again and said she could re-schedule me to talk with Rushdie if I would promise not to ask him any questions about the terrorist attacks on America.

I agreed. After all, I wanted to talk to him about his book. Who could guess that terrorism was about to become the No. 1 issue of the day?

But the next day she called and said, "I'm really sorry about this. I can't schedule an interview for you with Mr. Rushdie at this time. He is on his way back to London, and he fears for his life. I'm sure you understand."

So much for Rushdie's re-emergence. In the September issue of Pages magazine, Rushdie was quoted as saying he was no longer a fugitive, "and I can't tell you how good it feels."

It is ironic that the publication of his new book coincided almost exactly with the re-emergence of terrorism, which has all of us, Rushdie included, very uneasy.

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com