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The Frontier in Rushdie’s Step Across This Line

 The Frontier in Rushdie’s Step Across This Line

Rushdie’s novels are filled with references to physical and metaphorical frontiers. In Shame, Rushdie mentions that the three sisters which give birth to Omar Khayyam (the novel's main character) live in “the remote border town of Q” (11); in Satanic Verses there is the pilgrimage of Ayesha and her followers to Mecca, praying that God will part the waters separating them from the Arabian Peninsula as he did for Moses with the Red Sea; in Haroun and the Sea of Stories Haroun crosses into the parallel world of Kahani; and then there is the story of Chekhov and Sulu in East, West who take on names of characters from Star Trek, whose mission is to “boldy go where no man has gone before”.       


What I aim to do in this article of three parts is to examine Rushdie’s belief that the frontier, is the defining image of our age, by looking at the different frontiers faced by the world which Rushdie conceives of in his essay, Step Across This Line; specifically, the physical frontier of the border, the frontiers of human imagination and, from that, the frontiers of art and free expression. With the essay being written in 2002, I hope to look at what Rushdie says about frontiers particularly in light of the attacks of September 11th 2001.


Borders - The Physical Frontier


In his essay Frontiers and Thresholds in Rushdie’s Writings Amara points out that “Despite the discursive inflation and the tremendous quantities of texts on de-territorialisation, frontiers, borders and margins are still relevant across the globe.” (1) And, in accordance with this, Rushdie begins by focusing upon the physical frontier of the border. He implies that even the most open of societies are now starting to close in on themselves, becoming less tolerant towards outsiders, saying “This is how we are thinking now, because these are fearful days.” (413) He takes a specific look at a photograph of the wall between the US, often dubbed “the nation of immigrants”, and Mexico taken by Sebastiao Salgado, which Rushdie describes as “part Great Wall of China, part gulag.” (413) Rushdie notes that the man in the picture is running back towards the wall rather than away from it, the border police forcing him to, as Rushdie puts it, “unmake his bid for freedom.” (413) With this photo then, Rushdie shows the physical frontier to be a subject of hypocrisy for the countries of the West, saying in parody that “freedom is now to be defended against those too poor to deserve its benefits by the edifices and procedures of totalitarianism.” (413) For Rushdie, it illustrates how the notion of the free and open frontier has become considered a threat, since it is also something through which planes can fly and hit tall buildings. 


Frontiers of the Imagination


This allusion to terror also seeps heavily into Rushdie’s discussion around the metaphysical frontiers of imagination in the essay. We are used to Rushdie proclaiming the virtues of the human imagination, particularly in relation to how it enabled him to overcome his “physical alienation from India” and create his own India for the novel Midnight’s Children (Imaginary Homelands 10). However, in Step Across This Line relates the concept of the frontier to the destructive imagination of terrorists, saying, “The attack on the world trade centre was essentially a monstrous act of the imagination […] to shape our own imaginings of the future.” (436) Rushdie even goes as far to state that “It was an iconoclastic act… Murder was not the point. The creation of a meaning was the point.” Describing the nineteen members of Al-Queda who carried out the attacks as “brilliantly transgressive, performance artists” (436). 


Image: By PEN American Center [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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