City of Asylum

An interesting thing happened on our way out of Pittsburgh the weekend of the Billy Joel concert. I have a cousin who lives in Pittsburgh and I asked him for a bookstore recommendation. He suggested City of Asylum bookstore near where we were staying. So on Saturday morning after we checked out of the hotel, I googled the address of City of Asylum bookstore and placed the address in my map app. The app led us to an alley where we found the address but no place to park. We drove further down the alley until we could turn right onto a street and we parked there. Walking back down the alley we wondered what we had come upon. There was a row of unique houses with interesting, creative, and some very colorful exteriors. Some houses had words painted on them in different languages and some had beautifully painted murals. Between two houses we saw this:

Dialogue According To A Dictator written in 1930 by Venezuelan poet Rafael Cadenas

ORIGINAL VERSION: When I engage in dialogue I don’t want to be interrupted

SECOND VERSION: I’ll engage in dialogue, but I warn you I won’t give up my position.

THIRD VERSION: In a dialogue, those who contradict me should recognize their mistake ahead of time.

FOURTH VERSION: Having thought about it, I humbly opine that dialogue is unnecessary.

We eventually reached the address my app said was the bookstore. It looked like just another house. I rang the doorbell and we waited for awhile but there was no answer so we started to walk away when a woman cautiously opened the door, slightly, just enough for me to say that we were looking for the City of Asylum bookstore. I guess we looked pretty safe because she then opened the door further and came outside. She said she and her husband were the co-founders and owners of the bookstore but that it was a couple of blocks away on a different street. She wondered aloud why my app would’ve brought us there and then said that they used to hold events and meetings there so maybe that was reason. It didn’t sound like it had happened before.

She then told us that they had been at the Chautauqua Institution ( in New York the day before and were with Salman Rushdie when he was attacked. In fact, her husband, Henry Reese, had been stabbed above his eye trying to take down the attacker. She said that he had been released from the hospital the night before and was upstairs recuperating but that Rushdie was in critical condition. She seemed to be telling us this rather matter-of-factly. I wondered to myself if she may still be in a bit of shock. She told us her name was Diane Samuels and then told us more about their program and the alley.

“The City of Asylum Exiled Writer and Artist Residency Program is a long-term residency for literary writers and other artists who are in exile from their home countries and under threat of persecution because of their work.” They are provided with a home on the alley where we stood. (For more info on the program: cityofasylum.) This explained the interesting houses.

Several of the writers went along with them to Chautauqua and saw Rushdie stabbed. Diane voiced concern that they will now be traumatized and fearful to write. On the other hand, she said that rather than the attack deterring them, that she and her husband are more determined than ever to continue their fight for freedom of speech and civil discourse.

I pondered, “I wonder why we were led here instead of the bookstore?” Being a psychotherapist, I thought maybe it had to do with her still being in a bit of shock and needing to talk more about what happened. She didn’t really respond to that thought but wondered if it was for us to see the alley and learn about the work they’re doing. None of us can know for sure but it did feel serendipitous. She told us how to walk to the bookstore from there and we said our good-byes. We walked to the bookstore and to our chagrin, it was closed. So we walked back to our car via the alley and examined all the houses and signs more closely.

The next morning on the CBS Sunday Morning Show, there was a segment on the events that weekend with Salman Rushdie getting stabbed multiple times. Henry Reese was interviewed. His eye was swollen with many shades of purple and there was a large bandage covering the stab wound. It looked like he was lucky to still have his eye intact.

We’re still not sure why we were led there that day. It certainly has initiated some good conversations. I continue to follow the story closely in the news. Maybe we’ll get more involved at some point. For now, I wanted to at least share our story.

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