Salman Rushdie has been taken off a ventilator and was able to talk on Saturday, his agent has confirmed, as the US president hailed the writer’s courage and voiced horror at the attack on him.
The Indian-born British novelist remains hospitalised with serious injuries, but fellow author Aatish Taseer tweeted on Saturday evening that he was “off the ventilator and talking (and joking)”. Rushdie’s agent, Andrew Wylie, confirmed that information without offering further details.
Earlier on Saturday, Hadi Matar, the man suspected in Friday’s attack at a literary festival in upstate New York, pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder and assault at a brief court appearance where he was denied bail.
Joe Biden, the US president, praised Rushdie for “his refusal to be intimidated or silenced” and said the author stood for the essential ideals of truth, courage and resilience. “These are the building blocks of any free and open society. And today, we reaffirm our commitment to those deeply American values in solidarity with Rushdie and all those who stand for freedom of expression,” the president said in a statement. Biden also said he was “shocked and saddened to learn of the vicious attack”.
Rushdie lived in hiding and under police protection for years after late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini put out a fatwa in 1989 calling for his death in retribution for Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses. Many Muslims interpreted the author’s book as blasphemous because it included a character they found insulting to the prophet Muhammad.
Rushdie, 75, was at the Chautauqua Institution to speak about the importance of America’s giving asylum to exiled writers when he was attacked, and said recently that he believed his life was “very normal again”.
On Saturday, district attorney Jason Schmidt alleged that Rushdie’s alleged attacker took steps to purposely put himself in position to harm Rushdie, getting an advance pass to the event where the author was speaking and arriving a day early bearing a fake ID. “This was a targeted, unprovoked, preplanned attack on Mr Rushdie,” Schmidt alleged.
Public defender Nathaniel Barone complained that authorities had taken too long to get Matar in front of a judge while leaving him “hooked up to a bench at the state police barracks”. “He has that constitutional right of presumed innocence,” Barone said.
Matar allegedly rushed on stage and stabbed Rushdie repeatedly before being tackled by spectators, institution staffers and two local law enforcement officers providing security.
Rushdie suffered a damaged liver and severed nerves in an arm and an eye, Wylie said on Friday evening. He was likely to lose the injured eye.
The attack was met with shock and outrage from much of the world, along with tributes and praise for the award-winning author who for more than 30 years has faced death threats for The Satanic Verses.
Authors, activists and government officials cited Rushdie’s courage and longtime advocacy of free speech despite the risks to his own safety. Writer and longtime friend Ian McEwan called Rushdie “an inspirational defender of persecuted writers and journalists across the world”, and actor-author Kal Penn cited him as a role model “for an entire generation of artists, especially many of us in the South Asian diaspora toward whom he’s shown incredible warmth”.
A motive for the attack appears to be unclear. The suspect was born a decade after The Satanic Verses was published.
Barone, the public defender, said after Saturday’s hearing that Matar, from Fairview, New Jersey, had been communicating openly with him and that he would spend the coming weeks trying to learn about his client, including whether he has psychological or addiction issues.
Matar was born in the United States to parents who emigrated from Yaroun in southern Lebanon, the mayor of the village, Ali Tehfe, told the Associated Press.
Flags of the Iran-backed Shia militant group Hezbollah are visible across the village, along with portraits of leader Hassan Nasrallah, Khamenei, Khomeini and slain Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.
Journalists visiting Yaroun on Saturday were asked to leave. Hezbollah spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment.
Iran’s theocratic government and its state-run media assigned no motive for the attack. In Tehran, some Iranians praised the attack on an author they believe tarnished the Islamic faith, while others worried it would further isolate their country.
News about the stabbing has led to renewed interest in The Satanic Verses, which topped bestseller lists after the fatwa was issued in 1989. As of Saturday afternoon, the novel ranked No 13 on Amazon.com.