In 1962, Maryam Jameelah immigrated to Lahore, Pakistan, completing the renovation of her identity and forging her discomfited childhood into a spiritual and psychological paradox. Born in 1934 to Jewish American parents, by 28 she’d already rejected her given name, converted to Islam, and published an article in an international Islamic journal. In Pakistan, she intended to study under the tutelage of Abdul Ala Mawdudi, a well-known fundamentalist, and to write manifestos denouncing Western nations. Fortunately, the fervor that made her a zealot also made her a prolific writer: Mrs. Jameelah went on to author over 30 books, including Islam Versus the West and Westernization and Human Welfare. Today she is 77, a celebrated Muslim polemicist living in Punjab Province. Although she planned never to return to America, she had the foresight to bequeath her childhood papers to the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the New York Public Library, a collection she supplemented for decades after her departure.
In The Convert (Greywolf, $23), Deborah Baker uses these documents to reconstruct Maryam Jameelah’s early life as Margaret “Peggy” Marcus, sorting through letters, doodles, fragments, and interviews, eventually recycling these inconsistent materials into speculative nonfiction. The Convert—like its namesake ideologue—appears first as a paradox, a wobbly blend of biography and epistolary novel.
“I inhabit the lives of my subjects until I think like them,” Mrs. Baker writes. “Behind the doors of my study, I wear them like a suit of out-of-date clothes, telling their stories, interpreting their dreams, mimicking their voices as I type.” Mrs. Baker superimposes her consciousness over Maryam Jameelah’s, but allows her readers to know her methodology, and promises she made every effort to “retain Maryam’s distinctive voice, one that often came more easily to me than my own.” The result offers readers insight into an intelligent, inflexible woman who helped to ignite a global ideological debate, and also explains how that woman’s ideas influenced a generation of Muslims.
From the outset, Mrs. Baker organizes The Convert to replicate the East-West dichotomy that shaped Mrs. Jameelah’s philosophy, though she does not endorse her subject’s worldview. She investigates the life from which it developed, beginning with two men who become paragons of the West and East: Herbert Marcus and Mawlana Mawdudi. The initial exchange between these male guardians subtly undermines Mrs. Jameelah as an enlightened, independent woman, and prepares the reader for the eventual disintegration of her Orientalist fantasies. For example, the book deconstructs Mrs. Jameelah’s arrival in Pakistan by juxtaposing her idyllic account with an account from Haider Farooq Mawdudi, one of the Mawlana’s nine children. “My dear Haider Farooq,” Maryam calls the fifteen-year-old, insisting “the sweetness of this boy sets him apart.” She tells her parents: “On my arrival, Haider presented me with a silly ring with imitation diamonds, which I wore until all the stones fell out.” When Mrs. Baker finds Haider Farooq years later, though, and sits down to interview him, his memory of Maryam Jameelah is unforgiving: “My whole family was against her. They said she was a bad woman, and told my father to throw her out of the house, send her to the madhouse.”
In this way, The Convert functions as a complex spiral of disappointment and misunderstanding, cultural tension and miscommunication. At one point, in an effort to make him understand that she needs toiletries to shave her legs, Maryam Jameelah exposes her bare leg to Mawlana Mawdudi, contributing to his family’s furious bewilderment. Disillusionment also figures prominently in Mrs. Baker’s recounting, and an excellent example is the Mawlana himself, whom Mrs. Jameelah had imagined as a young man, perhaps a romantic interest even, a political dissident beaten by his rivals and tortured for insisting Pakistan form a government ruled by Sharia law. Instead, upon her arrival she discovered an old, disinterested academic with no time for her, a man who spent his days reading and chewing betel nuts that turned his mouth “an unnatural shade of red.”
Mrs. Jameelah’s disorientation and frustration never truly left her: toward the end of the book, she reacts with fierce astonishment to requests she receives to review books denying the Holocaust, or books filled with anti-Semitism. “I throw them in the garbage,” she tells Mrs. Baker, seemingly oblivious that for almost forty years her own anti-Western rhetoric has helped to propagate conspiracy theories among Muslims. Ultimately, despite her naïveté, Maryam Jameelah reveals herself to be surprising, sometimes contradictory, and sometimes ironic, but hardly an anomaly when compared to other fanatics. Likewise, Mrs. Baker’s biography reveals a thoughtful writer exploring a subject in the best way she knows how, and the result is a conscientious book—sometimes unorthodox in its ventriloquism—that teaches us about the consequences Maryam Jameelah faced when manufacturing public dogma from her personal, spiritual journey.