Freedom of Speech: Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

On the surface, Haroun and the Sea of Stories tells the simple story of an adolescent boy who seeks to restore his father’s gift of storytelling. To do so, he must save the magical Sea of Stories (the sea of inspiration from which all stories are derived), which is being poisoned by the evil Khattam-Shud (the “Foe of Speech”). The allegory of preserving Freedom of Speech is clearly overt and unmistakable.

Perhaps the most astonishing and jaw-dropping aspect to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, however, isn’t even about the book itself – it’s the background and prior two years preceding its publication. Let me explain:

One Book Ignites a Cultural War

In September 1988, Salman Rushdie’s fourth novel was published: The Satanic Verses. The book contains sections that rewrite, satirize, and even deride the life of the Prophet Muhammad and other aspects of Islam. While the book was critically acclaimed and well-received (it won the 1988 Whitbread Award for novel of the year and was a 1988 Booker Prize finalist), it quickly ignited major controversy and launched a cultural war as some members of the Islamic community found it blasphemous and accused Rushdie of misusing Freedom of Speech and deliberately mocking their faith.

In October the book was banned in India. In November it was also banned in Bangladesh, Sudan, and South Africa. Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Egypt would soon follow. Yet more countries would ban the book in the ensuing months. Book stores, including Barnes and Noble, stopped selling the book. Public demonstrations and book-burning protests took place in England (in Bolton and the City of Bradford). In February 1989, a demonstration against The Satanic Verses in Islamabad, Pakistan descended into violence as some protesters attacked the American Cultural Center – several were killed and many more were injured.

The backlash against The Satanic Verses culminated on February 14th, 1989, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then the Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to execute Rushdie and his editors and publishers. Iranian officials placed a $6 million bounty on Rushdie, which forced him into hiding with armed guards under the British government’s protection. The Japanese translator of the book (Hitoshi Igarashi) was stabbed to death, the Italian translator (Ettore Capriolo) was knifed, the Norwegian publisher of the book (William Nygaard) was shot three times in the back, and the Turkish translator (Aziz Nesin) was attacked by a mob.

Historians can now look back and see that the fatwa issued by Ruhollah Khomeini was just a smokescreen – an opportune distraction that shielded his efforts to revise the constitution of his Islamic Republic and allowed him to ensure his devoted follower, Ali Khamenei, would succeed him. But for those involved with The Satanic Verses, to say it was a very dangerous time is an absolute understatement. The book is still a mainstay in the debate about the exact meaning, extent, and true nature of Freedom of Speech, and what it means to live in a multicultural world.

And Now for Something Completely Different

This was the incredible backdrop to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which was published in September 1990. Salman Rushdie had been living in secrecy in Britain for about a year and a half. He took this time to write a “children’s book” for his son, Zafar – then about ten years old.

The book is instantly charming – featuring the likable hero Haroun. It also has exciting and imaginative elements of fantasy, recognizable symbolism, and numerous allusions. In many ways, it was a cathartic exercise for Rushdie, who attests that the story “very much came out of the experience that I had just gone through.”

Early on in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Haroun asks his father, “What’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” It’s a poignant question, not only in the story but for modern society as well. Rushdie answers this question, and you’re reading his answer: it’s the whole plot of Haroun and the Sea of Stories. This book was Rushdie’s way of making sense of the fatwa. Of explaining to others his stance that stories are just stories, and that the right to Freedom of Speech, and the broader Freedom of Expression, is a universal human right. It must be steadfastly protected and preserved.

The Ocean of the Streams of Story

Haroun and the Sea of Stories features one of the most beautiful and memorable descriptions in all of literature. On the fictional moon of earth, named Kahani, stories are held in liquid form: a story is a current within the larger Sea of Stories. These story currents have different colors, and weave in and out of one another like a “liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity.” And because the stories are fluid, they retain the ability to change – to “become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories.”

In my opinion, this is an enduring and extraordinary image of storytelling and how authors create stories. The idea that stories continually flow and feed off one another, and that throughout time these stories keep changing slightly. Stories become different and new, yet familiar too. It’s a remarkably lovely image.

In a 2015 interview, Rushdie even wonders if J. K. Rowling borrowed one of his story currents for her first Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. In that Harry Potter story there is a flashlight-like object called the Deluminator, which can remove light from or restore light to its light source. In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, in order to see in the perpetual darkness that exists in the land of Chup, people use use the opposite of flashlights – devices that emit beams of darkness instead. J. K. Rowling hasn’t commented on this, but it’s an intriguing illustration that story ideas can be borrowed and expanded upon to create something new.

Magic Kingdom for Sale

Haroun and the Sea of Stories makes several allusions and references to other prominent literary works, including The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth, One Thousand and One Nights, Rapunzel, and The Walrus and the Carpenter.

One novel that I have not seen Haroun and the Sea of Stories compared to, however, is the 1986 “children’s book” Magic Kingdom for Sale by Terry Brooks. And to me this is kind of shocking, because Haroun and the Sea of Stories is almost an exact retelling of Magic Kingdom for Sale. They both take place place in the “real world” and in mysterious fantasy lands (Kahani vs. Landover). They both feature reluctant protagonists (Haroun vs. Ben) who strive to fix problems in their respective fantasy lands. Both stories start on a similarly tragic note – Haroun’s mother leaving his father for another man vs. the untimely tragic death of Ben’s pregnant wife Annie. They both feature notable comedic figures (the water genie Iff vs. the court magician Questor Thews). They both feature mysterious beings that help the protagonists (Mudra vs. the Paladin). And they both feature forces of evil (Khattam-Shud vs. the Iron Mark). Ben even wants to remove The Tarnish that is damaging Sterling Silver, his castle – remarkably similar to Haroun wanting to remove the poison from the Sea of Stories.

I do not mean to imply that anything was purposefully plagiarized. However, Magic Kingdom for Sale was published four years before Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and could very well have been a source of inspiration for Rushdie. It might have been a story current that Rushdie borrowed and expanded upon as he sought to write a “children’s book” of his own!

Have you read Haroun and the Sea of Stories? Were you inspired by Salman Rushdie’s story? Let me know in the comments below!

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