A Tale of Exile and Extremism
By Deborah Baker
Gray Wolf Press
246 pp.Graywolf Press, 246 pp., $23
Even as a "stout and stubborn little girl" growing up in the 1940s, Margaret Marcus believed Western civilization was on the wrong track. Scorning her family's secular Judaism, she longed to be free of materialism and governed by sacred law.
In the public library near her home of Mamaroneck, N.Y., Margaret discovered "The Road to Mecca," a book by a Jewish convert to Islam, and read it dozens of times. By 1961, she was corresponding with the powerful religious leader Mawlana Abul Al Mawdudi who invited her, now Maryam Jameelah, to become a kind of foster daughter, and a member of his household. Twenty-seven years old, she set off alone for Lahore, Pakistan.
Deborah Baker tells this story in "The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism," a new biography as absorbing as an excellent detective story. She has no use for facile answers. Baker's earlier book, "In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding," focused on the 20th-century British poet and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Like Riding, Margaret/Maryam was not an easy person to like. A social misfit attracted to absolutes, Margaret was booted out of the University of Rochester and New York University. Here and in Pakistan, she suffered devastating mental breakdowns.
Yet Baker makes Maryam's search for a community that would "accommodate the idea of a soul" both stirring and heartbreaking. Using dozens of letters, as well as Maryam's widely circulated essays and tracts, Baker reconstructs her relationship with Mawdudi, who helped lay the intellectual foundations for militant Islam. The Pakistani-American who parked an explosive-packed van in Times Square last year cited his work.
Maryam went to Pakistan expecting to play a valued role, only to be treated as too outspoken and demanding. Yet her conviction that Islam was her home never wavered, even when she found herself another man's second wife and the mother of children she never wanted. In 2007, Baker visited her in Lahore and found a frail old woman "living alone in a room with little more than her faith and her library for comfort." She lives there still.
In this book, Baker poses urgent questions about how America and the world's Muslims sometimes become "each other's evil caricatures." She explores whether the current enmity is fueled more by history or metaphysics. Like Maryam, she believes that American self-interest in the Middle East contributed to corrupt governments and the rise of radicalism. Unlike Maryam, she deplores the fringe of Islam that judges a woman's success as fidelity to her husband, that condemns art and that celebrates suicide bombers.
Further twining her own life with her subject's, Baker received Maryam's consent to condense the letters. She retains their earnest, highly articulate voice, along with their undercurrent of emotional distress.
Cutting back and forth between Margaret/Maryam's two perplexing lives, Baker gives us a miserable, privileged woman whose argument with her home was so strong that hers became one of the most trenchant voices of Islam's argument with the West.
In this superb biography, Baker makes it an argument worth our attention.
Tricia Springstubb is an author in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.