FAIRVIEW, N.J. — Hadi Matar had resented being pushed to pursue schoolwork. At 24, he worked a low-level job at a discount store, made clumsy attempts at boxing and became increasingly focused on religion. Now, accused of trying to kill a preeminent figure of free expression, Matar has lost even the support of his mother.
“I’m done with him,” Silvana Fardos said in a brief interview, disavowing Matar, who is accused of repeatedly stabbing author Salman Rushdie in a brazen daytime attack at an intellectual retreat in western New York.
This week, a portrait of Matar as a troubled recluse began to emerge. Fardos said that she had not talked to him since he was charged with attempting to kill Rushdie on Friday. The writer has lived in and out of hiding since Iran’s supreme leader in 1989 issued an edict calling for his death after he published “The Satanic Verses,” which provoked outrage among some Muslims.
Rushdie, who was stabbed roughly 10 times, was hospitalized with what relatives have described as life-altering injuries. His agent has said he was likely to lose an eye.
The FBI, which is leading the investigation, has disclosed no clear motive for the attack. Iran’s Foreign Ministry this week blamed the prizewinning author himself, and denied any role.
But as national and international news crews continued to hover outside Fardos’ northern New Jersey house Tuesday, she confirmed that her son returned from a 2018 trip to the Middle East a changed man — reclusive and increasingly focused on his role as a follower of Islam.
“I have nothing to say to him,” Fardos said Monday as she walked quickly toward the two-story brick home in Fairview, asking for privacy, her face shielded by a mask, glasses and hat.
Onlookers at the Chautauqua Institution near Buffalo, New York, who came to listen to Rushdie, 75, deliver a speech, subdued Matar before he was taken into custody.
Matar, whose lawyer, Nathaniel L. Barone II, has entered a not guilty plea on his behalf, remains jailed. Barone, a public defender, said he expected a grand jury to consider formal charges against his client in the next several days.
“In these situations where emotions run high, feelings run high, it’s important that the criminal justice system is still at its best,” Barone said Tuesday. “This is the opportunity for Mr. Matar to receive every benefit from our Constitution — a presumption of innocence, due process, a fair trial.”
Matar’s family came to America from Lebanon, settling first in California before his parents’ marriage dissolved. Matar’s father returned to the village of Yaroun. In New Jersey, where Fardos and her three children had lived for several years after moving from California, opinions about Matar were formed well before last week.
Acquaintances and relatives described a man who preferred to remain at the fringes of daily life.
“He’s the cliche of the loner,” said Desmond Boyle, who owns a small garage-style gym where Matar was learning to box.
Matar had worked at a Marshalls clothing store before his arrest, a company official said. His mother told The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, in an interview that she confirmed Tuesday, that he went months without speaking to her or his siblings. He blamed her for encouraging him to focus on academics rather than religious studies.
Jorge Diaz said he often attended the same 6:30 p.m. class as Matar at State of Fitness Boxing Club, a gym in North Bergen, New Jersey, about 2 miles from Matar’s house.
“Always, like, isolated,” Diaz, 34, said. “Always by himself — very quiet.”
Unlike most beginning students, he had arrived in April prepared to register immediately, without first taking a sample class as most students do, said the club’s manager, Rosaria Calabrese.
Polite and reserved, he kept almost entirely to himself, rarely speaking above a whisper, several students and instructors said.
Boyle said that he had pulled Matar aside at least twice to engage him, an effort that fell flat. Boyle, a firefighter, said decades as a recovering alcoholic had made him especially attuned to “working with those who need help.”
“It looked like the saddest day of his life,” Boyle said, “but he came in looking like that every day.”
“You can tell he grew up quiet,” he added. “Maybe a little bit on the outside. Never really fitting in.”
Matar had little boxing experience — “two left feet,” Boyle said — and made limited progress during the 27 sessions he attended in the brick-lined workout space filled with punching bags that hang from the ceiling.
Three days before the attack he had canceled his monthly membership to State of Fitness — a $158 package that permitted unlimited classes and practice time, Calabrese said.
“He was saying, ‘I can’t come back right now,’” she said.
People who witnessed the stabbing at Chautauqua described the assailant’s raw strength. At the gym, the man photographed after the attack in handcuffs appeared to have little in common with the thin, awkward student they remembered.
“He didn’t seem aggressive, because he didn’t know how to fight,” said Diaz, an amateur boxer who has been competing for about three years and tried to offer Matar friendly tips.
“There was a couple times where I actually was: ‘This is how you throw a punch. This is how you do it.’ That’s the type of guy he was.”
A childhood friend from California recalled a similar lack of aggression. “It is completely out of character for him to do what he is being accused of doing,” said Uriel Alberdin, 26.
Alberdin was 10 when he met Matar, then 8. The two became close friends during regular visits the younger boy made to see his father, who lived in Bell, California, a town near Los Angeles, after separating from Matar’s mother, Alberdin said.
“It doesn’t sound like him,” said Alberdin, an architecture student who described playing video games with Matar and sharing a love for the comic heroes Spider-Man and Superman.
“He was like a best friend to me,” Alberdin said.
The two communicated about twice a year, mainly on social media, after Matar’s family moved to the East Coast.
“The conversation never got deep, it never got weird,” Alberdin said. “It was your basic — checking on your friend to see how he was doing.”
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But the email Matar sent suddenly asking that his gym membership be canceled suggested that he had indeed become interested in the politics of a nation the United States has designated a state sponsor of terrorism.
Calabrese said she noticed the avatar on the email only after Matar’s arrest: Just to the left of his name is a circular image of a bearded cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s 83-year-old current supreme leader, a copy of the correspondence viewed by The New York Times shows.
It was Khamenei’s predecessor, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who issued the fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie, who quickly became a worldwide symbol of free speech. The edict led the Indian-born writer who was reared in Britain to live in and out of hiding before eventually moving to the United States, where he has maintained an increasingly public life despite past death threats.
He had been scheduled to talk Friday about the United States as a safe haven for exiled writers. Prosecutors said Matar had ridden a bus to the Chautauqua Institution’s bucolic 750-acre gated compound, a center founded on the idea of earnest inquiry and discourse.
And just after Rushdie sat down, Matar rushed the stage, prosecutors said, and began furiously jabbing his fists at a man three times his age.
Witnesses realized moments later that the assailant was holding a knife.
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