May 23 2011

The Convert by Deborah Baker

Emily Bobrow

web exclusive

The Convert:

A Tale of Exile and Extremism

by Deborah Baker

Graywolf Press

$23.00 List Price

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It's not unusual for a biographer to grow unnervingly attached to her subject. But it is rare for one to appear impatient—and even somewhat disappointed—with what she unearths. Such is the case with The Convert, Deborah Baker's portrait of Maryam Jameelah, a woman who rejected life in America to embrace Islam in Pakistan in the 1960s. Baker begins her book apparently hoping Jameelah's unique story might shed light on the toxic, complex relationship between Islam and the West. The story of Jameelah—an articulate, educated woman who fled America to embrace Allah—would seem to vibrate with timely insights. But Baker comes away with more questions than answers, along with the story of a seemingly troubled woman.

An accomplished biographer whose books include In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding, Baker stumbles on Maryam Jameelah's archived papers at the New York Public Library, where she was "on the prowl" for someone to write about. The sight of a lone Muslim name in the stacks piqued her interest. Baker sifts through her papers and finds a tasty subject. Born Margaret Marcus, or “Peggy,” to Jewish parents in Mamaroneck, New York, Jameelah was an intellectual misfit with little use for dating and fashion. As an adolescent she brimmed with precocious questions about religion ("Even if there is a God, what sense did it make for Him to restrict His truth to a single people?" she apparently wrote in a letter at age 11). The young Peggy found romance in the stories of Arabs and was appalled by the violent rise of Zionism—all to the dismay of her rather ordinary parents.

As her papers show, Jameelah eventually sought fulfillment in the rigid spiritualism of the Muslim world. As a frustrated and misunderstood 28-year-old, she struck up a correspondence with a Pakistani man named Abul Ala Mawdudi, an important Islamic thinker who dedicated his life to the revival of Islam and the creation of a pan-Islamic state. Mawdudi, impressed that a girl raised in a Jewish American home could reach the same conclusions he had about Islam, invited Margaret to live as his adopted daughter in Pakistan. This is where she stays—marrying a local, giving birth to a number of children and becoming an influential writer about Islamic ideals. Upon first setting foot in a Muslim country, she writes in a letter to her parents, “I feel I have finally arrived at a place I can all home.”

Though relatively unknown in the West, Maryam Jameelah's name means a great deal in the Islamic world. According to Vali Nasr, an authority on political Islam, her writings are "broadly responsible for cementing the global cultural divide between Islam and the West." With strident, humorless titles like The Resurgence of Islam and Our Liberation from the Colonial Yoke and Modern Technology and the Dehumanization of Man, her bestselling works mainly extol the superiority of Islam and criticize the materialism of the West. As an American woman who embraced the veil, and a former Jew who believed in jihad, her affirmation of Islam was nothing short of revolutionary. (“Since we are all destined to die anyhow, is it not better to die as a Shahid or martyr,” she once wrote.) All of which leads Baker to wonder: Who was this woman? How did she come to reject America and all it stood for? And why was Islam her solution? "Had Maryam grasped something about America that I had missed?" Living at a time when such condemnation of America seems portentous—and sometimes valid—Baker approaches Jameelah's story in the hopes it might explain the wider clash of cultures.

Yet Jameelah's narrative has several layers, and it becomes Baker's job to distinguish between reality and her subject's self-mythology (the records in the library were donated by Jameelah, after all). The fundamental mysteriousness of this woman lies at the center of this tricky biography. Baker pieces together a story about an awkward, lonely, and possibly psychologically disturbed person who was incapable of leading a conventional life in America. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, she was forced to drop out of college and couldn't support herself. Consigned to live in a sanatorium, she somehow grew to believe that all "that was good, true, and beautiful" was in Islam alone. When Mawdudi finally invites Margaret to Pakistan, she swiftly empties her bank account, buys a portable Smith Corona and travels there by freighter, eager to wear a burqa. But it isn't long before she ends up in a madhouse in Pakistan.

So did Jameelah's life reflect a heightened understanding of Islam's value, or the desperate floundering of a troubled young woman? Are her insights indispensable or confused? How much impact did this strange bird have on Muslim views of the West? In a roundabout way, Baker pursues a fascinating line of inquiry, and she lends insight into the evolution of contemporary Islamic thought. But this book feels unfocused, and Baker seems to lose steam two-thirds of the way through. Jameelah's letters are republished generously throughout, but Baker waits until the afterword to explain that they have been "rewritten and greatly condensed" (an odd move for a book about the subjectivity of biography, described here as “fundamentally a work of nonfiction”). Near the end, Baker reveals that Jameelah is in fact still alive, and she travels to Lahore to meet her face-to-face. But what promises to be the dramatic pinnacle of the book is conveyed with irritation and drained of life.

Ultimately it isn't clear what Baker hopes readers take away from this "parable of Islam and America." In Maryam Jameelah she has found a fascinating subject and a unique lens for considering the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. But for all of the bold, ambitious questions that litter The Convert, Baker seems reluctant to draw any conclusions. Perhaps inevitably, the result is a story as murky as the material it aspires to clarify.

Emily Bobrow is the culture editor for The Economist online and the editor of More Intelligent Life.