Salman Rushdie, the acclaimed author who was hospitalised on Friday with serious injuries after being repeatedly stabbed at a public appearance in New York state, is off a ventilator and his condition is improving, his agent and a son said on Sunday.
“He’s off the ventilator, so the road to recovery has begun,” his agent, Andrew Wylie, wrote in an email to Reuters. “It will be long; the injuries are severe, but his condition is headed in the right direction.”
Mr Rushdie (75) was set to deliver a lecture on artistic freedom at Chautauqua Institution in western New York when police say a 24-year-old man rushed the stage and stabbed the Indian-born writer, who has lived with a bounty on his head since his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses prompted Iran to urge Muslims to kill him.
The suspect, Hadi Matar of Fairview, New Jersey, pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder and assault at a court appearance on Saturday, his court-appointed lawyer, Nathaniel Barone, told Reuters.
Following hours of surgery, Rushdie had been put on a ventilator and was unable to speak as of Friday evening, Mr Wylie said in a prior update on the novelist’s condition, adding that he would likely lose an eye and had nerve damage in his arm and wounds to his liver.
One of Mr Rushdie’s sons said his father remained in critical condition but was able to say a few words after getting off the ventilator.
“Though his life changing injuries are severe, his usual feisty & defiant sense of humour remains intact,” Zafar Rushdie wrote on Twitter.
The stabbing was condemned by writers and politicians around the world as an assault on freedom of expression. In a statement on Saturday, US president Joe Biden commended the “universal ideals” of truth, courage and resilience embodied by Mr Rushdie and his work.
“These are the building blocks of any free and open society,” Mr Biden said.
Neither local nor federal authorities have offered any additional details on the investigation, including a possible motive.
An initial law enforcement review of Mr Matar’s social media accounts showed he was sympathetic to Shi’ite extremism and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), although no definitive links had been found, according to NBC New York.
The IRGC is a powerful faction that controls a business empire as well as elite armed and intelligence forces that Washington accuses of carrying out a global extremist campaign.
Authorities in Iran have made no public comment about the attack, although hardline state media outlets have celebrated it with headlines including “Satan has been blinded” and some Iranians voiced support online for the stabbing.
Many other Iranians expressed their sympathies for Mr Rushdie, however, posting on social media about their anger at the Islamic Republic’s clerical rulers for issuing the 1989 fatwa, or religious edict, that told Muslims to kill the author.
Mr Rushdie, who was born into a Muslim Kashmiri family in Bombay, now Mumbai, before moving to Britain, has long faced death threats for The Satanic Verses, viewed by some Muslims as containing blasphemous passages. The book was banned in many countries with large Muslim populations.
Iranian organisations, some linked to the government, have raised a bounty worth millions of dollars for Rushdie’s murder. The fatwa was issued 33 years ago by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Iran’s supreme leader. His successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said as recently as 2019 that the decree remained “irrevocable.”
Mr Matar was born in California and recently moved to New Jersey, the NBC New York report said, adding that he had a fake driver’s license on him.
Witnesses said he did not speak as he attacked the author. He was arrested at the scene by a state trooper after being wrestled to the ground by audience members.
Rushdie was stabbed 10 times, prosecutors said during Matar’s arraignment, according to the New York Times.
Prosecutors said in court that Matar travelled by bus to the Chautauqua Institution, an educational retreat about 19km from the shores of Lake Erie, and bought a pass that admitted him to Mr Rushdie’s lecture, the Times reported. Attendees said there were no obvious security checks.
Mr Matar was the son of a man from Yaroun in southern Lebanon, according to Ali Tehfe, the town’s mayor. Matar’s parents emigrated to the United States, where he was born and raised, the mayor told Reuters, adding he had no information on their political views.
The Iran-backed armed group Hezbollah holds significant sway in Yaroun, where posters of Khomeini and slain IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by a US drone strike in 2020, adorned walls at the weekend.
A Hezbollah official told Reuters on Saturday that the group had no additional information on the attack on Mr Rushdie.
Meanwhile Irish writer Colum McCann, who is a friend of Mr Rushdie RTE’s This Week on Sunday: “Obviously like everyone I was so shocked. We heard very, very shortly after the attack happened from a number of people. We share friends, we share literary agents. It was one of those things that come along and stuns you. The solar plexus. It had immediate reverberations and I think it will have long term effects in many different ways.”
The writer said he is “so glad” that Salman “is doing so much better”.
“He’s talking and exuding his sense of humour still in the hospital. What will happen is he will recover and I think he will have something even more profound to say to the world than he has said over the last few years. Salman is an extraordinary literary and cultural figure.”
He emphasised that Salman had lived a “very open life” even with death threats going back several decades hanging over his head following the publication of The Satanic Verses.
“I have been in his house. I have travelled with him — even on the New York city subway. And he has lived a very open life for the last couple of decades. It seemed to everybody that this (threat) had finished.
“He was very generous with his time. He travelled places. He didn’t go out with security or anything like that. Obviously that is going to have to change for him,” he said.
“But he is an extraordinary person in that he embraces the world. He is very interested in other people. It is not so much about himself He doesn’t shrink in to his own little world.”
Mr McCann added that Mr Rushie will no doubt open up a chain of discussion and healing about what had occurred.
“I believe that while there will be increased security there will be a Salman that will come out and say something to us that maybe will help us heal. Because we are living in incredibly divided times. Not just in the world but here in the United States as well.” — Additional reporting Reuters