December 25, 1989 12:00 PM

Like bad opium dreams, hallucinations already filled Salman Rushdie’s novels—and even dogged I his nights. Once, an evil Martian in a Mercedes-Benz made him wake up screaming. But in 1989 he really stepped in Dada by offending the Ayatollah Khomeini. In an unprecedented act of transnational terrorism, Khomeini put a contract out on Rushdie, and British Intelligence had to step in to protect his life, not just his freedom of speech. Since Feb. 14 Rushdie has been in hiding, darting from one safe house to another. His marriage to writer Marianne Wiggins has now shattered under the strain.

The Bombay-born novelist, 42, well knew the fire and rigor of Islam when he wrote The Satanic Verses; he was raised an upper-middle-class Muslim before being sent off to England in his teens. And he has picked fights before: In 1984 Indira Gandhi sued him for slander. But did he intend Verses’ portrayal of Mohammed as a liar to so infuriate the faithful? Nobody knows. From hiding he issued a statement of “profound regret.” The rest is silence.

Bomb-fearing bookstores refused to stock Rushdie’s book until publicity changed their minds. Yet the controversy pushed sales of The Satanic Verses to more than 1 million—thousands more, presumably, than would have been sold had Khomeini kept his mouth shut. Not that many people actually completed the difficult book. Even the Ayatollah, who died in June, reportedly never read it.

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