Growing Up With Salman Rushdie And The Satanic Verses

The Salman Rushdie controversy had a particular resonance for me as a child growing up in a Muslim area of Burnley in the late 80s. Here's why I was so confused with it all...
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The Salman Rushdie controversy had a particular resonance for me as a child growing up in a Muslim area of Burnley in the late 80s. Here's why I was so confused with it all...

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Burnley, England, 1989. I’d never read The Satanic Verses but I knew we had to kill Salman Rushdie. He’d insulted Islam and should die for it, I didn’t know how but I wasn’t going to read the book to find out and anyway I didn’t need to, the mosque and the community said he had so he had and that was the end of the story as far as anyone was concerned. We met at the mosque and were told to take to the streets - I quite fancied that - I usually didn’t like going to the mosque but here was some excitement, some action.

The mosque was at the end of a street bordered with long blocks of Victorian terraced houses where the mill folk used to live but were now full of arranged marriages.  Some houses were converted into shops and general stores competed with each other selling fruit, veg and halal meat, others sold Indian clothes and jewellery which would come alive when there was a wedding on.  Some did everything selling plane tickets to Pakistan and Mecca, doing accounts and selling cheap phone cards all out of their front rooms and even became the Labour Party office at election time. It was Little Pakistan. Only Arthur stayed. The lone white shop owner on the street, he had a newsagents because the Muslims wouldn’t sell The Sun, The Star and The Sport as they had dirty pictures in them.  Nobody admitted buying them though they always sold out.  Young lads would go into Arthur’s and take a peek at the top shelf pretending they were reaching for comics and see white women smiling down at them with their breasts out.  They’d nudge each other in between laughing with embarrassment.  Older men would leave with dirty magazines wrapped in innocent newspapers.

Young lads would go into Arthur’s and take a peek at the top shelf pretending they were reaching for comics and see white women smiling down at them with their breasts out.

Mosque was no fun, we’d learn the Quran in Arabic but never what it meant, it was just rote learning.  It lasted for two hours after school during which time I’d miss Neighbours, white kids would talk about it the next day and I’d hate missing out.

Some boys had great memories and learnt the whole six hundred pages off by heart, they were called the Hafiz. We’d sit on the floor with Qurans on benches and rock forwards and backward reading loudly. When the Imam walked around with his cane we’d shout nice and loud, a Mexican wave of Arabic verse followed him around the mosque.  I’d be caught not reading the Quran and chatting to other boys about Joe Mangel and Bouncer and the Imam would call me to the front of the class - an overweight man from Pakistan who couldn’t speak English but knew I wasn’t speaking Arabic - to make an example of me.  “Murghi!” he’d shout which meant chicken and I’d bend over and thread my arms between my legs and grip my earlobes with my thumbs and forefingers and he’d smack my arse with the cane.  It would sting and the other kids would be screaming Arabic at this point.  As we caught each others eyes sometimes there was fear but sometimes we smiled at each other and even laughed.  We knew it would end and the fear was short lived. “Fuck you” we’d silently mouth at the Imam, he wouldn’t break us, we were Burnley Boys.

When the Imam walked around with his cane we’d shout nice and loud, a Mexican wave of Arabic verse followed him around the mosque.

I bored of it and skived from mosque, I’d get dressed and go and play cricket with other skivers. Wearing the traditional dress was good for cricket as it allowed lots of movement when bowling.  We’d talk about reporting the Imam, we were British, not Pakistanis we argued while we played in fields where the school buildings hid us from the taxi drivers who’d report us to our parents.  Then someone told Mrs Butterworth that the Imam hit us, she was an old woman who let me dunk biscuits in her tea and told me off for sharpening lollipop sticks into knives in the playground, she smelt of flowers and waved at me in the street and I’d tell my mum that that was Mrs Butterworth, my favourite teacher - Mum would wave back at her smiling.  Mrs Butterworth was shocked and organised a trip to the mosque with other teachers, it was funny seeing her in there with no shoes on smiling at us. The Imam said “Hello” and “Yes” a lot, the cane was hidden and nobody spoke the truth.  We smiled like good little boys but wished she could come to mosque all the time, she was braver than any of us that day.

Then the word spread about Salman Rushdie. Parents who couldn’t, like the Imam, speak English properly called him a “Bahstur.”  I went to the protest mainly because I thought it would be fun, I’d happily miss cricket for it. When I got to the mosque there was a huge crowd, I saw other skivers and laughed, the only time we’d enjoyed coming to mosque was when we weren’t going inside. An elder gave me a placard which read “What We Want, Ban The Book” and underneath “When We Want, Now.” I cringed, Mrs Butterworth would have given a 5/10 for that English.  The plan was pretty simple, we would march from the mosque to the Town Hall and then stand outside shouting until Salman Rushdie died or something. As we marched I realised it wasn’t just the placard maker who needed an education, a guy with a megaphone at the back of the parade shouted the words exactly as they were on my placard, except it was audience participation time.  After the question “What we want?” the crown shouted “Ban the Book” to which Mr Megaphone would ask “When we want?” and we’d shout “Now.” All us skivers laughed as our eyes met, we felt silly but free, we could shout stupid things as loud as we wanted.

The plan was pretty simple, we would march from the mosque to the Town Hall and then stand outside shouting until Salman Rushdie died or something.

An old man watching asked what the marching and shouting was about and I decided to play spokesperson, “We’re going to burn down WHSmith’s for selling The Satanic Verses” I said before an older lad dragged me off to one side and told me off, he told me this was a peaceful protest and there would be no burning of books or bookshops.  I’d gone too far.  We got to the Town Hall and the mayor came out onto the balcony and read out a prepared speech in which he said he didn't think Islam was a bad religion and that he would not tolerate any bad mouthing or blasphemy.  There was nothing about banning the book or killing Salman Rushdie.  The confused silence was broken as bored young kids told expectant old men that it was good news and then the crown cheered, a crowd of devout Muslims, skivers and non-believers hugged each other.  We skivers left quickly and got back to the cricket.

The author is currently reading The Satanic Verses

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