Biographer Deborah Baker was “on the prowl” in the New York Public Library – not looking for anything in particular. But while “idly clicking” through library files, she glimpsed the name “Maryam Jameelah” – apparently a well-known figure in the Muslim world. Curious, Baker put in a request for the file.
Little did Baker know the kind of journey she was about to embark upon – one that would culminate in the profoundly disorienting biography that she calls The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism.
Maryam Jameelah, it turns out, was once Margaret Marcus, born in 1934 to a non-observant Jewish family living in a pleasant New York suburb. Her parents (who liked cruises and card games) and her sister, Betty (destined to become a New Jersey housewife), aspired simply to the comforts of postwar middle-class American life.
Margaret, however, from her very youth, seemed driven by deeper passions. Rejected by her girlfriends as a teenager, Margaret turned her considerable intellect and enthusiasm in an unlikely direction: She developed a fascination with Arab life.
As a young woman, Margaret renounced not only Judaism, but the whole of Western civilization. She finally converted to Islam, declaring that she would devote her life to the struggle against the “materialistic philosophic-secularism” of the West.
A voracious reader, Margaret dived deep into Muslim texts and entered into correspondence with any Islamists willing to answer her letters. One of these turned out to be Mawlana Mawdudi, an influential Pakistani journalist and theologian who was also founder of the Islamic revivalist party Jamaat-e-Islami.
Drawn to the brilliant young convert who revealed herself to him through her letters, Mawdudi eventually offered to liberate Margaret from the West by bringing her to Pakistan so she could live a proper Muslim life with his wife and daughters while he found her a pious Muslim husband.
And so in May 1962, Margaret Marcus left Brooklyn to travel to Lahore, Pakistan. There, under the protection of Mawdudi, she took the name Maryam Jameelah. She never returned to the United States but instead spent the rest of her life in Pakistan, writing blistering critiques of Western materialism and secularism. In Pakistan she is today revered as the author of more than 30 books on Islamic culture and history and a prominent Islamic pamphleteer and ideologue.
For more than 30 years – until her father died at the age of 101 – Jameelah wrote to her parents back in the US. It was her side of the correspondence that Baker found in the library that day.
Understandably, the unusual life story seemed to Baker one that must be pursued. And pursue it she did – all the way to Lahore where she finally met with Jameelah herself, now a widow and a grandmother.
But nothing – absolutely nothing – about Jameelah’s story turns out to be as it first appears.
For one thing, she spent two long periods in mental institutions, both in New York and Pakistan. She was tentatively diagnosed as a schizophrenic. At one point, Mawdudi – heavily burdened by her presence – may or may not have tried to have her killed.
Her writings urge the strictest form of Muslim marriage and motherhood upon all young women yet it would appear that such a lifestyle proved more or less unbearable to her.
Baker constantly tries to get her bearings as she reports this story – including in the face of a big surprise in the final pages – but at every turn her feet slip out from under her.
After a while, Jameelah’s entire story begins to seem like a creepy game of hide-and-seek. She and her parents concealed much from each other. She and Mawdudi also deceived each other in various ways – some intentionally, many unintentionally. And Jameelah’s many readers have been duped into accepting as reality her paeans to a strict Muslim style of life – a way of life that in truth does not seem to have suited her at all.
Along the way Baker’s story also raises interesting questions about mental institutions, the way society treats its misfits, and – most urgently – the tendency of Muslims and Westerners to believe the worst of one another, even if they must ignore the truth to do so.
Reading “The Convert” can be a frustrating experience. The narrative slips and slides, and I sometimes found myself longing for a more straightforward approach. Eventually, however, Baker’s evasions began to make sense. The story she is telling is like a hall of mirrors in a fun house – full of so many distortions that the truth can come only in glimpses.
The life story of Maryam Jameelah seems to have alternately fascinated, disturbed, and unsettled Deborah Baker. It is guaranteed to do the same to her readers.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s books editor.