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ZP Dala on Being Attacked for Expressing Her Admiration for Salman Rushdie’s Work

ZP Dala

ZP Dala, a debut novelist and PEN South Africa member, was subjected to a severe physical assault and harassment after she expressed admiration for the work of Salman Rushdie, among others. Instead of celebrating the launch of her first novel at the Durban Time of the Writer Festival she was hospitalised.

Freedom of expression, freedom of thought is the foundational democratic right. PEN South Africa and the world PEN community stands in solidarity with Ms Dala. We are proud to publish her response to the intimidation and threats to which she was subjected.

My Writing Journey
by ZP Dala

What About MeeraThe week beginning 15 March 2015 was supposed to have been the highlight of my literary career. I was due to launch my debut novel What About Meera in a prestigious function on Saturday, 21 March and preceding this I was the featured author at one of South Africa’s most sought after literary festivals, The Time of the Writer. The theme of the 2015 Festival was “Writing For Our Lives” and in the wake of the atrocious Charlie Hebdo tragedy as well as the gagging of Bangladeshi writer, Tasleema Nasreen, who was forced into exile after being attacked, the group of African writers that assembled for the festival felt a deep sense of poignancy to speak out for freedom of expression.

I was no different. Here was my opportunity to have my voice heard! In a country like South Africa which had suffered the horrors of apartheid just a mere 20 years ago, all us writers felt a responsibility to speak our truths.

I was invited to speak at a literary event on Tuesday, 17 March, and in the spirit of openness my co-panelists and I spoke openly about a writer’s right to express. I was asked which writers I admired and I mentioned, among others, Sir Salman Rushdie, whose brilliant works far superseded the archaic fatwa that had been declared on him in the early ’80s after writing The Satanic Verses.

Immediately, as I mentioned Rushdie’s name, a large contingent of the audience stood up and walked out. I graciously ignored the walk-out and continued with my speech. I didn’t know then what sinister repercussions awaited me.

It was the following morning as I left my hotel that I was followed by a vehicle with three men in it who ran me off the road into a deserted area and as I had no choice but to pull over, one man got out of the car and advanced towards my car. Within seconds, he viciously reached into my car (my window was open, it was sunny Durban after all) and hit me with brute force on my face with a brick, and holding a knife to my throat he growled “Rushdie bitch”. Had another car not pulled up nearby, I know he would have stabbed me.

I suffered a severe concussion and a fractured cheekbone, and was hospitalised, but the injuries that were not so visible were the most malicious. In one day, my life changed. I was subjected to severe harassment by militant Islamists who were cowardly enough to never come out in the open, but began slandering my name and personal reputation in rampant anonymous emails to the media, and on social media.

I experienced social media bullying, my email was hacked into, many friends “jumped ship” and the bookstores that were carrying my novel were threatened by militant groups to pull the books off the shelves. All in a day, I was ostracised and ridiculed by many in the Islamic community, although there were those who supported me and helped my frightened young children.

The book launch was cancelled and my book sales suffered terribly. It seemed that the freedom of a writer still was under threat. Nothing much had changed. It was through the amazing support of PEN, the entire literary and journalistic community both in Africa and abroad, that I managed to keep my strength and fight to keep my books on the shelves. Rushdie, other fellow authors and PEN were my pillars of strength and encouraged me to forge forward and to heal my body and mind instead of retaliating with bitterness.

My young children (six and three years old) had to be watched at school at all times and unknown groups of men came to my home and bullied my husband into “silencing his woman”.

I was told by religious leaders to repent and recant my admiration of Rushdie’s writing and to publicly state my “Islamic leanings”. Being questioned about my religious beliefs was an infringement of my basic human right. But I held firm to my words and drew on the strengths of all the writers who reached out to me from all over the world.

In a strange twist of fate, after continuous harassment at my home, living in fear, I was convinced by some religious advisors and doctor colleagues to be taken to a psychiatric ward and be hospitalised there under the pretext of suffering from PTSD. Ostensibly, it would be a place that I could be left alone. Soon it became clear that I was being kept there for no reason at all. The post trauma counselling I was promised materialised into just two sessions and when I asked questions, all attempts were made to silence me. The nurses were told to keep me confined to my bed. I was drugged and ignored at the hospital, all the while having people from the anonymous “Islamic” groups continuing to bully my family. While lying in hospital I mourned for a book that I had begun when living in Dublin, writing in painstaking longhand while seated at the Trinity College cricket pitch.

While in the psychiatric ward an occupational therapist, whose face I barely saw as she donned a tight headscarf, began taking photographs of me lying in a drugged and dishevelled state, pointing and giggling as she persisted in asking loudly for all the ward to hear: “Hey, you’re that writer who’s in all the papers.”

This agitated the patients in my ward, who never left me alone afterwards, constantly haranguing me as to why I was in the papers.

The pictures surfaced on social media with the awful caption “Mad Writer”. This is a title I still carry like a millstone around my neck. I’ve subsequently had a friend find and delete most of these pictures.

All my husband’s and family’s attempts to contact the doctor who admitted me were in vain. He had apparently gone away, leaving a locum who didn’t know my case for follow-up care. This locum arrived at the ward, spoke to me for what seemed like two minutes, and she then added further psychiatric drugs and blood thinning medication to my daily doses. What on earth were blood thinners for, most especially for a patient who had suffered a head injury and could easily have bled into her brain on blood thinners?

But I was too numb then, too far gone to question. Swallowing all those strange pills, I knew something was very wrong. My husband and family did not know of my deterioration by drugging as they were too busy trying to keep the children safe and I told them it’s best not to visit me and to concentrate on normality at home.

In desperation and a rare moment of lucidity I reached out to PEN for help. It was PEN’s statement, calling for my immediate release that had me bundled out of the hospital in the middle of a Sunday night and literally tossed out with my bags into the parking lot. My doctor never spoke to me again, nor did he leave any instructions for managing the awful medication withdrawal I had to go through.

The effects of a massive cocktail of strong psychotropic drugs had taken their toll, and it seemed that the intentions of the “unknown group” to destroy me were coming to fruition. The sudden withdrawal from the 12 pills I was being fed daily affected a brain that was still recovering from a concussion and a mind that was fearful and fractured. I have yet to receive a follow-up call from the psychiatrist who had diagnosed me and prescribed all those drugs. He seems to have forgotten me. There are some within my local community who have surmised that since he was a Muslim doctor, he was keeping away from me on purpose. I choose not to look at it in that way. To me, he was simply a doctor and his religious affiliation did not matter. Perhaps I am wrong.

I suffered strong ostracisation within my own people, my novel was criticised even before it was read, my credibility as a writer was severely compromised and even my very sanity was questioned. I was invited to events only to be made the butt of jokes. I attended the book launch of a stalwart of the Muslim community, and I was ridiculed in a public speech as well as the grand old lady inscribing in my purchased copy of her travelogue “I can sell books without a brick”.

I withdrew into seclusion, afraid of what people were saying, and even worse … what people could do. Again, PEN members, Rushdie and many other fellow writers reached out to me when I desperately emailed them, asking for guidance.

It is now about five months since this awful experience. I have physical scars on my face, but the emotional upheaval caused me to question my place as a writer. I was offered asylum via various international embassies but I refused to run away, uproot my young family and to accept defeat.

I am still fighting many demons. Now, I finally have found the courage to come out in public and have begun to speak widely and openly about my experience and the writer’s right to freedom of expression. I am not afraid of the bullies, the militants, the hooligans hiding behind skull caps, the doctors and their drugs or the people that point at me in the supermarket line. I also remain fighting for a debut novel that did not deserve the birth it was given.

I will never forget what Rushdie said to me when he reached out to me after he heard of the assault and harassment. He told me my life as I know it will never be the same again. And he was right. Yes, I continue to write creatively and it sustains my soul. But now my passion lies in speaking out for all artists who have suffered at the hands of ignorance, violence and gagging. Perhaps that little spark that was born on the greens of Trinity College has ignited a worthy fire.

ZP Dala will be at this year’s Open Book Festival in Cape Town in September

(Image courtesy of The Daily Vox)

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