Past, present UND faculty remember Salman Rushdie's 2008 visit to Grand Forks

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Aug. 19—GRAND FORKS — Rebecca Weaver-Hightower fondly remembers author Salman Rushdie's visit to Grand Forks for the 39th Annual UND Writers Conference. She was an English professor at UND at the time, taught a class on his books and was chosen to moderate a discussion with Rushdie at the event.

"Interviewing him was one of the highlights of my career and that class was one of my favorite classes that I've ever taught," she said. "It was really great to read everything a person had written and then be able to meet them and ask them questions about it."

On Aug. 12, Rushdie was stabbed several times before a lecture in Chautauqua, New York. In a statement on Twitter on Aug. 14, Rushdie's son, Zafar Rushdie, said his father suffered severe injuries, but has been taken off a ventilator and has been able to say a few words.

"I think we're all horrified that this happened, and shocked, so I'm just glad he's going to be OK," said Weaver-Hightower.

Rushdie's 1988 book "The Satanic Verses" sparked controversy, with some accusing it of being blasphemous against Islam. In 1989, a fatwa, or religious order, calling for his assassination was issued by Iranian leader Ruhollah Khomeini, forcing Rushdie into hiding. In 1998, the Iranian government issued a statement that it would "neither support nor hinder assassination operations on Rushdie," but the order has not been formally withdrawn.

In a televised news statement on Aug. 15, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani denied any connections between the stabbing and Iran.

The theme of the Writers Conference in 2008 was "Revolutions." Rushdie read excerpts from his 2008 book "The Enchantress of Florence" and answered questions about his work. He also participated in a panel discussion on the second day of the event.

"He was kind of shy to be someone who's so high profile," she said. "He seemed to be pretty modest and not really full of himself."

Rushdie's talk was held in a very full Chester Fritz Auditorium — standing room only, said Weaver-Hightower.

"It looked like it was absolutely packed," she said.

Neither Weaver-Hightower nor Crystal Alberts, UND English professor and current director of the Writers Conference, remember any extra security measures in place for the event. Alberts, who had started working at UND around that time, says the crowd was one of the largest in the Writers Conference's history, with around 2,100 in attendance.

"What struck me the most as a newcomer was in a room with that many people, there weren't any security measures that I recall," said Alberts.

Rushdie's contract with UND for the 2008 Writers Conference was a standard speaking contract with no extra details or conditions related to security, she said.

On March 7, 2008, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published a story ahead of Rushdie's visit to Grand Forks, noting the author's controversial writing. A UND spokesman told the Star Tribune that UND would be "taking all the proper steps for security" while Rushdie was there.

"I'm sure the university took every precaution it thought was necessary," said Weaver-Hightower. "I just don't think anyone would have thought it was necessary at that point."