Marianne Wiggins, an American writer living in Britain, published a collection of short stories late last month—the type of occasion that normally would involve her in a round of receptions and public appearances. But Wiggins, the wife of novelist Salman Rushdie, spent last week as she had the previous six months: in hiding. Ever since Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sentenced Rushdie to death on Feb. 14 for allegedly blaspheming Islam in his book The Satanic Verses, Rushdie and Wiggins have endured a type of isolation that amounts to near-captivity. Cut off from friends and family, and moving constantly among various so-called safe houses operated by British security services, the two writers are restricted in ways that their supporters have even compared to the plight of Western hostages in Lebanon. Rushdie, says playwright Harold Pinter, a longtime friend,“is effectively in prison.”
Despite the passage of time, and Khomeini’s death on June 3, there is no end in sight to Rushdie’s ordeal—nor to the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses. In fact, last month, Iranian officials cited the Rushdie affair as a major stumbling block to the return of normal relations with Western countries. In Britain, there have been violent clashes between police and Moslem demonstrators demanding that The Satanic Verses be withdrawn from bookstores. And last week, police were investigating an explosion in a London hotel on Aug. 3 that killed one man and appeared to be linked to the affair. An Islamic group in Lebanon announced that the man, an Arab, had been planning to attack Rushdie or his publish-
ers, and warned ominously that “our hand is long and will reach them all.”
Because of such threats, Rushdie’s publishers refuse to disclose where he or Wiggins is. However, friends of the couple describe their life as one of almost complete isolation. For the first few weeks after Khomeini’s threat, they tried to maintain a semblance of the social life they had led as bright stars of London’s literary community—and they even dined with Labour Party Leader Neil Kinnock at the home of a
mutual friend. But security -
officials discouraged such outings. Now the couple is constantly under armed guard, receives phone messages and mail only through police channels, cannot meet friends or even go shopping, and is moved frequently to avoid detection. In the only interview Wiggins has given since going into hiding, she recently told London’s Sunday Telegraph that she and Rushdie had slept in 56 different beds in four months.
Despite the disruptive lifestyle, the pair has been productive. Wiggins, 41, who grew up in Pennsylvania and moved to London in 1985, added several new pieces to a 1987 collection of short stories—Herself in Love, which was reissued in July—and is working on a new book.
Rushdie, 42, an Indian-born Moslem who has lived in London for the past 20 years, has written book reviews for British papers and is working on a children’s book. The two writers, who each have a child from previous marriages, met four years ago and were married in 1988—one week after Rushdie completed The Satanic Verses. Wiggins told the Telegraph that she and Rushdie are reading 18th-century writers, including Jean Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Paine, who championed freedom of thought. “The act of sentencing a religious doubter to death,” she said in her interview, “inevitably calls up historical precedents.” Rushdie himself has kept silent, except for issuing a brief statement in mid-July in which he expressed hope for reconciliation with his fellow Moslems. Said Wiggins: “Salman has refused to enter into a debate because there is no debate to be had.” She added, “A death threat is an ultimatum, not an argument.” Wiggins’s own life has been severely disrupted. On the evening before she and Rushdie went into hiding, she attended a reception in London marking the publication of her latest novel, John Dollar. Khomeini’s death threat against her husband forced Wiggins to cancel promotional tours at the moment when she seemed poised on the brink of major success. But Wiggins said that she had no doubts about what to do. “I am married to him,” she said, “and that meant I had to go into invisibility, too.” But, while Rushdie and Wiggins are almost invisible, the controversy that his book sparked continues to rage. The passionate campaign by British Moslems against The Satanic Verses has set off renewed debate among Britons about how tolerant their country should be of ethnic and religious minorities. Left-wing opinion, traditionally most sympathetic to minority groups, has been bitterly divided. Although Kinnock has voiced strong support for Rushdie,
_ some other Labour MPS have
argued that the party must be more sensitive to Moslem concerns. Kinnock’s deputy, Roy Hattersley, wrote in Britain’s daily The Independent recently that Labour should reject the “racist” idea that Moslems are welcome in Britain only if they give up their traditions—and he recommended that Rushdie voluntarily stop the planned publication of a paperback edition of The Satanic Verses. Such divisions between political allies indicate that, whatever the fate of Rushdie and Wiggins, the controversy raging around them will clearly shape opinions for years to come.
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