For all artists who have suffered at the hands of ignorance, violence and gagging

At PEN South Africa, ZP Dala has written a gut-wrenching account of her persecution for the horrific crime of saying she admires the work of Salman Rushdie.

The week beginning 15 March 2015 was supposed to have been the highlight of my literary career. I was due to launch my debut novel What About Meera in a prestigious function on Saturday, 21 March and preceding this I was the featured author at one of South Africa’s most sought after literary festivals, The Time of the Writer. The theme of the 2015 Festival was “Writing For Our Lives” and in the wake of the atrocious Charlie Hebdo tragedy as well as the gagging of Bangladeshi writer, Tasleema Nasreen who was forced into exile after being attacked, the group of African writers that assembled for the festival felt a deep sense of poignancy to speak out for freedom of expression.

That was before the new wave of machete-attacks on atheist writers in Bangladesh started. What an appalling year it’s been.

I was invited to speak at a literary event on Tuesday, 17 March and in the spirit of openness my co-panelists and I spoke openly about a writer’s right to express. I was asked which writers I admired and I mentioned, amongst others, Sir Salman Rushdie, whose brilliant works far superseded the archaic fatwa that had been declared on him in the early eighties after writing The Satanic Verses.

Immediately, as I mentioned Rushdie’s name, a large contingent of the audience stood up and walked out. I graciously ignored the walk-out and continued with my speech. I didn’t know then what sinister repercussions awaited me.

What awaited her? The next morning, being forced off the road by a car with three men in it.

…as I had no choice but to pull over, one man got out of the car and advanced towards my car. Within seconds, he viciously reached into my car (my window was open, it was sunny Durban after all) and hit me with brute force on my face with a brick, and holding a knife to my throat he growled “Rushdie bitch”. Had another car not pulled up nearby, I know he would have stabbed me.

I suffered a severe concussion and a fractured cheekbone, and was hospitalised, but the injuries that were not so visible were the most malicious. In one day, my life changed. I was subjected to severe harassment by militant Islamists who were cowardly enough to never come out in the open, but began slandering my name and personal reputation in rampant anonymous emails to the media, and on social media.

Because she said she admired Salman Rushdie.

I experienced social media bullying, my email was hacked into, many friends “jumped ship” and the bookstores that were carrying my novel were threatened by militant groups to pull the books off the shelves. All in a day, I was ostracised and ridiculed by many in the Islamic community, although there were those who supported me and helped my frightened young children.

The book launch was cancelled and my book sales suffered terribly. It seemed that the freedom of a writer still was under threat. Nothing much had changed. It was through the amazing support of PEN, the entire literary and journalistic community both in Africa and abroad, that I managed to keep my strength and fight to keep my books on the shelves. Rushdie, other fellow authors and PEN were my pillars of strength and encouraged me to forge forward and to heal my body and mind instead of retaliating with bitterness.

I did what I could to be one of those people. I’m proud to consider ZP Dala a friend.

Men turned up at her house to tell her husband to “silence his woman.”

I was told by religious leaders to repent and recant my admiration of Rushdie’s writing and to publicly state my “Islamic leanings”. Being questioned about my religious beliefs was an infringement of my basic human right. But I held firm to my words and drew on the strengths of all the writers who reached out to me from all over the world.

Being questioned about our religious beliefs is indeed an infringement of our basic human rights. Theocracy is an infringement of our basic human rights, and people who try to force others – yes, including their children – to submit to a religion and its laws are theocrats and rights-infringers. ZP Dala gets to choose her own beliefs, as we all do.

Then there was the terrible hospitalization and captivity. PEN called for her immediate release and she was tossed out in the middle of the night. It took her a long time to recover.

I suffered strong ostracisation within my own people, my novel was criticised even before it was read, my credibility as a writer was severely compromised and even my very sanity was questioned. I was invited to events only to be made the butt of jokes. I attended the book launch of a stalwart of the Muslim community, and I was ridiculed in a public speech as well as the grand old lady inscribing in my purchased copy of her travelogue “I can sell books without a brick”.

I withdrew into seclusion, afraid of what people were saying, and even worse…what people could do. Again, PEN members, Rushdie and many other fellow writers reached out to me when I desperately emailed them, asking for guidance.

I was one. I told her I’d be happy to publish anything she wanted to write on the subject, or to share anything she wrote for PEN or any other outlet. This is that. I’m glad she decided to write it for PEN – my place would have been a safer choice, and PEN is a more public choice. Now we all have to stand by her.

It is now about five months since this awful experience. I have physical scars on my face, but the emotional upheaval caused me to question my place as a writer. I was offered asylum via various international embassies but I refused to run away, uproot my young family and to accept defeat.

I am still fighting many demons. Now, I finally have found the courage to come out in public and have begun to speak widely and openly about my experience and the writer’s right to freedom of expression. I am not afraid of the bullies, the militants, the hooligans hiding behind skull caps, the doctors and their drugs or the people that point at me in the supermarket line. I also remain fighting for a debut novel that did not deserve the birth it was given.

I will never forget what Rushdie said to me when he reached out to me after he heard of the assault and harassment. He told me my life as I know it will never be the same again. And he was right. Yes, I continue to write creatively and it sustains my soul. But now my passion lies in speaking out for all artists who have suffered at the hands of ignorance, violence and gagging. Perhaps that little spark that was born on the greens of Trinity College has ignited a worthy fire.

Strength to you, ZP.


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