This post is not about a boy. It’s about a book. My new colleague and friend, Professional Services Manager of SoLoMo Ilirijan Residovski, asked me last week why I majored in Middle East Studies in college. He laughed and asked, “it was a guy, wasn’t it?”
Ilirijan isn’t the only one to make this assumption and it’s not a wild one either. Here I’m am–a Caucasian girl with absolutely no ties to the Middle East or North Africa. So why would someone like me study the Middle East and the Arabic language in the 1990s? I’ll tell you why and it has nothing to do with a boy.
It’s about a book.
In 1988, Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, which sparked an international “discussion” around freedom of speech and even incited the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa calling on Muslims to kill Rushdie. I remember hearing about this on the news and wondering what all the fuss was about. I was curious; what could be in this novel that would inspire an assassination? I was a junior in high school in 1988 and coincidentally, my English teacher had assigned us to write a report on any book of our choice. “Perfect! I’ll read The Satanic Verses and write my report on this!” I thought.
I went to the only bookstore in small town Harrisonburg, Virginia – the B. Dalton in the mall. Not surprisingly, they didn’t have it on the shelf. And this was waaaay before Amazon.com. So I had to have B. Dalton special order it. A few days later, I received the call that my book was in, so I went to pick it up. This is where my story takes a turn.
“I’m here to pick up my book,” I explain. “Oh. Um…ok,” says a visibly nervous sales clerk. “It’s in the back, I’ll have to get it. Hold on.”
The sales clerk came back. The book was wrapped in a paper bag; it was not to be brought out. The transaction was carried out quickly, privately and nervously. I was given the paper bag with the seriousness of an arms deal. I laughed to myself about how silly the small town attitude was (Harrisonburg was a community of about 30,000 and I had just moved there from the culturally diverse and populous San Antonio, TX). By evening, I’d put the silliness behind me. Until…the next day.
The English teacher had to approve our book selection so I took Satanic Verses in to school. To my shock, I was written up for disciplinary action for bringing this book to school. The teacher sent me and Rushie’s tome to the principal’s office.
Let me put this in today’s terms. WTF!?? Did I time travel to book-burning days? Did I bring in porn? What did I do wrong? Lucky for me, the principal at HHS was new that year and also hailed from a big city. I’ll always remember that Paul Cogar was just as shocked as me and gave me special permission to read The Satanic Verses. He didn’t discipline me, but instead, set the stage for me to pursue an interest that made for an incredibly rich college/intellectual experience.
And yeah, there was a bit of rebellion in my academic choice from there on out. If someone tells me I can’t do something, you can bet your ass I’m more interested in it than ever.
And if you want to know what I thought of Rushdie’s novel. It’s been 20 years since I picked it up, but I remember thinking, “he is a shit writer. This book is stupid.” I’d tell you to see for yourself, but there a a lot more interesting novels out there to read from Arab writers, I still have some classics on my shelf from college and happy to recommend. Just email me and let me know.