Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses earned him a spot on the short list for the Booker Prize and, more famously, a death sentence from Iran’s then-supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who decided it was blasphemous. Rushdie was forced into hiding; the Japanese translator of the book was murdered; and more than 30 Turkish intellectuals burned to death when Islamist arsonists attacked a hotel in Sivas where a Turkish writer who had translated the text was attending a cultural festival.
For a young Iranian hoping to thumb his nose at Iran’s Islamic government, and at radical Muslims in general, translating and promoting Rushdie’s novel must be among the most inflammatory actions one could undertake. But Barmak Behdad, an Iranian Kurd who earlier this year translated The Satanic Verses into Kurdish, was motivated as much by art as by politics. “I love this book,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s. “This is one of the best works of literature ever written.”
Behdad left Iran in 2001 and now lives in the Kurdish north of Iraq, where he works as a journalist and translator. This February, he published a translation of the first chapter of The Satanic Verses in the magazine Khalak, with plans to print following chapters in subsequent issues of the magazine. Reaction in Iraqi Kurdistan—usually among the most secular areas in Iraq, if not the entire Muslim Middle East—was harsh and swift. Behdad says police removed copies of Khalak from stores, and the magazine soon ceased publishing altogether. Mullahs in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah verbally assailed Khalak’s editor, Sardasht Hama Saleh, who survived an assassination attempt by shooting in March.
In Iran, Behdad’s translation was condemned by several blogs and news websites, including Tabnak.ir, which is believed to be associated with former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezai. Behdad says he twice received threatening phone calls from members of the Iranian consulate in Erbil. On April 7, unknown men carrying knives confronted him and warned that unless he went on television and apologized, he would be killed.
Behdad now keeps a low profile and moves frequently. He worries for his safety and is hoping to leave Iraq and find asylum in Europe or North America. But has no regrets about translating The Satanic Verses. “Why should I regret it? This was my right as a journalist and a translator to write freely about my ideas and opinions,” he says. “I wanted to break the taboo, which unfortunately many translators have not dared break. Why should one of the best works of literature in the world not be translated into Kurdish because of the fatwa of Khomeini, who knew nothing about literature?”