Last week's PEN Pinter prize awarded to Salman Rushdie and Syrian human rights activist Mazen Darwish began with a story about potatoes. Ian McEwan's introductory speech, read by the writer Blake Morrison because the novelist was ill, recalled a comment by one of Rushdie's secret service bodyguards during the near decade-long fatwa calling for the writer's death. The man complained that their group never sat down to a meal with "spuds". Between Rushdie and his protectors, there were profound cultural differences over carbs.
The ceremony reminded me of another dinner party I attended in the mid-1990s. That evening McEwan was present, along with Annalena McAfee, Martin Amis and Isabella Fonseca, among other guests. We were minutes away from Trafalgar Square in James Fenton and Darryl Pinckney's London flat, this time not for a literary event but for a home-cooked meal. As we waited for the guest of honour to arrive, James and I checked a large pot of rice in the kitchen. There was still time and Rushdie wasn't exactly late. For someone whose every activity was monitored and protected by an entourage, it was impossible to arrive seamlessly, without fanfare.
I was the neighbour from across the street and Darryl's college friend. Admittedly this was as close to the literary "great and good" as I was going to get. As a journalist who was becoming an editor, I was attempting to weld family memoir and Middle East politics in my own slowly written fiction. My interest from then until now lies in the culture of the region. That night I remember discussing water as a civil rights issue in Israel/Palestine with McAfee.
Ayatollah Khomeini's religious edict inflamed Muslim violence against Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses and marked a watershed moment in way the Middle East was perceived by the rest of the world. It is similar to how the 1972 Munich Olympics massacres coloured the Palestinian issue for that next decade. While the geo-politics was reported in the news, there was less of an impetus to report on ordinary Arab and Persian lives struggling under totalitarianism and dictatorship. After the so-called Arab Spring or Awakening, Arab and Western journalists alike have been looking for real voices - and many of them have been killed for their efforts. Through social media and the Internet Middle Easterners now speak for themselves.
At the dinner party the few words I exchanged with Rushdie were most likely about food. The poet James Fenton is a marvellous cook. That evening he prepared a selection of dishes from a cookbook by Rushdie's sister, which drew from their mother's recipes. During the period when his life was blighted by the Iranian fatwa, Rushdie was only allowed out when it was safe. Meetings with friends were understandably precious for him and people lent him their homes. During his lecture for the PEN Pinter Award on 9 October, Rushdie spoke about the meetings he had with his young son in Lady Antonia Fraser and Harold Pinter's living room. It was the English playwright who advocated for Rushdie's life and safety in the corridors of Whitehall. These days his appeals would have probably fallen foul of austerity and the country's public spending cuts.
During his lecture at the British Library, entitled 'The Writer and the Citizen', Rushdie criticised murderous "believers" of any faith for redefining religion 'as the capacity of religionists to commit earthly violence in the name of their unearthly sky god'. He distinguishes between that which is acceptable in novels but never in real life. The relationship between the book and its readers encourages many different interpretations. However, for the citizen, the lines between moral right and wrong are clear-cut. 'People are entitled to judge a book as kindly or as harshly as they choose,' he observed, 'but when they respond to it with violence or the threat of violence, the subject changes, and the question becomes "how do we face down such threats?"'
Since 2009, the PEN Pinter Prize is awarded to a writer who shares it with another writer of courage. Rushdie chose the Syrian lawyer, journalist and free speech advocate Mazen Darwish, presently held in Adra Prison in Damascus, where he has been tortured. The director and founder of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression and his colleagues, including his wife, the journalist Yara Badr, were arrested on 16 February 2012. Darwish has since been charged with 'publicising terrorists' acts', an activity that contravenes Syria's draconian anti-terrorist laws.
When the regime of Bashar al-Assad savagely attacked the nonviolent peaceful protests that started in March 2011, and foreign journalists were expelled or banned from the country, Darwish was one of the first people to break the news of massacres inside. With the human rights lawyer Razan Zeitunieh, kidnapped last year by Islamic extremists, he helped organise the country's citizen journalism movement, which since 2014 has posted over 300,000 short films and videos on the Internet. It has been a running documentation of a conflict that has left more than 200,000 killed - the homicidal ferocity of which has been captured in Ossama Mohammed's new film, Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait. Presently Darwish awaits a trial that has been postponed several times and is now scheduled for 5 November.
The night before the award ceremony, his acceptance letter was smuggled out of prison to London, and translated from the Arabic to English by Alice Guthrie. Darwish's words eloquently draw the causal link between Rushdie's fatwa and violence and religious intolerance raging in the region.
'We committed an unforgivable sin in the Arab world when we responded with indifference to the fatwas and calls for your death ... as if the whole thing had nothing to do with us ... What a shame this much blood has had to be spilled for us to realise, finally, that we are digging our own graves when we allow thought to be crushed by accusations of unbelief ... and ... countered with violence. The disastrous consequences of this are clearly evident today ... especially in Syria, my country, where the ugliest forms of fascism and the dirtiest kinds of barbarism are practised in the name of both patriotism and Islam in equal measure.'
Sharing an award is like breaking bread with a stranger. In the mid-1990s, my interests in literature and the Middle East crossed uneasily. Back then the region was considered somebody else's problem. One of the main impetuses behind my book with Zaher Omareen Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, which includes a contribution from Darwish, is to show common cause between those who fight for freedom in Syria and in the rest of the world. He appears above, in a photograph by Pablo Monteagudo, in an empty chair onstage at the book's launch in London, in June.
During that dinner party, Rushdie appeared relaxed among friends. When he finally left, surrounded by his handlers, the room was momentarily stilled. I watched from the window the unmarked cars slink off into the night, to destinations unknown. In many ways since then, the view from the window has darkened. The sharing of the PEN Pinter Prize between Salman Rushdie and Mazen Darwish is a potent reminder of the need to protect the rights and liberties of people threatened with death or imprisoned for what they write about or believe. At a time when violence in the Middle East is growing, indifference only nourishes brutality and hatred.