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Salman Rushdie makes first post-attack public appearance at PEN America gala

"I accept this award, primarily on behalf of those who came to my rescue and saved my life. I was the target that day, but they were the heroes." - Salman Rushdie, who received PEN’s Centenary Courage Award.

Writer Salman Rushdie attends the PEN America gala in New York May 18. (Getty Images photo, courtesy of PEN America)

Novelist Salman Rushdie surprised the audience May 18 evening at PEN America’s annual gala at the American Natural History Museum in New York, making his first public appearance after he was brutally attacked last fall.

In an 8-minute speech before accepting PEN’s Centenary Courage Award, Rushdie displayed his trademark wry wit, remarking: “It's nice to be back as opposed to not being back, which was also an option. I'm pretty glad the dice rolled this way.”

In an interview before his appearance, Rushdie told reporters: “I’ve had such a long relationship with PEN. If there was an event to choose (to make my first appearance) it had to be this one.”

“It is a way of coming back to the world of books, of human rights: the world I have inhabited all my life. I’m happy to be back in it,” said Rushdie, who was named president of PEN America in 2004 and served in that role for two years.

Writer Salman Rushdie (center) with his wife Rachel Eliza Griffiths (right) and PEN America’s current president, playwright and novelist Ayad Akhtar. (Getty Images photo, courtesy of PEN America)

PEN America’s current president, playwright and novelist Ayad Akhtar introduced Rushdie and referenced Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has spoken about the reluctance of writers and publishers currently unwilling to risk social censure.

“Could The Satanic Verses be written today?” queried Akhtar. “The answer is yes, if that writer is Salman Rushdie.”

“He continues to stand for what this organization is fundamentally all about: freedom. Freedom to think, freedom to speak, freedom to inquire, freedom to make sense of reality without deference to dogma, irrespective of the consequences. He has enlarged the world’s imaginative capacities and at such great cost to himself,” said Akhtar.

Rushdie — who has had a $3.3 million bounty on his head for the past 33 years for his seminal novel, The Satanic Verses, published in 1988 and considered blasphemous by some Muslims — was attacked Aug. 12 morning at the Chautauqua Institution in Western New York. His alleged attacker, 24-year-old Hadi Matar, rushed onstage and stabbed the acclaimed writer at least 10 times, including once to the right side of his neck. Rushdie was transported by medical helicopter to the UPMC Hamot Hospital in Erie, Pennsylvania.

(video courtesy of Ethnic Media Services)

His agent Andrew Wylie said Aug. 12 evening: “The news is not good. Salman will likely lose one eye; the nerves in his arm were severed; and his liver was stabbed and damaged.” Rushdie has spent months in recovery, and still does not have use of one eye.

Matar has pleaded not guilty to the charges of 2nd degree attempted murder, and 2nd degree assault. In a jailhouse interview with the New York Post, the alleged assailant said he had never read Rushdie’s work but disliked him nonetheless. The case is expected to go to trial this fall.

In his speech, Rushdie praised Henry Reese, co-founder of City of Asylum Pittsburgh -- which hosts persecuted and exiled writers -- and others who immediately jumped on to the stage to fend of Matar.

“Henry, a man in his 70s, ran at my assailant, who was 24 years old with a knife, and tackled him to the ground. Immediately after that, a substantial number of people in the front of the audience ran up to help him and jumped on top of my assailant and held him down Pinned him to the ground.”

“And if it had not been for these people, I most certainly would not be standing here today. So I accept this award. Thank you very much. But I accept it primarily on behalf of those who came to my rescue and saved my life.”

“I was the target that day, but they were the heroes. The courage that day was all theirs,” said Rushdie.

“Victory City,” Rushdie’s latest novel, was released in February by Random House. The book is set in the fictional city of Bisnaga in South India, inspired by the 14th-16th century Empire of Vijayanagara which eventually fell to Deccan sultanates.