By Deborah Baker
Conversion narratives have been a staple of American writing since the Puritans arrived in New England. But if the form that stories of spiritual rebirth take is familiar to us, some journeys are longer and more fantastic than others. Surely the tale of Margaret Marcus is among the more extreme. A convert to Islam late in her twenties, Marcus changed her name to Maryam Jameelah and left the United States for Pakistan in 1962, where she would write a series of sweeping, fiercely polemical books denouncing the decadence of the West and extolling the virtues of life under fundamentalist Islam. With titles like "Western Materialism Menaces Muslims" and "Western Civilization Condemned by Itself," Jameelah became a best-selling author throughout the Muslim world and, as an ex-pat who freely abandoned the prosperity of postwar America for the fundamentalist vision of life in Lahore, Pakistan, a critical authority on the purported superiority of the devout and the dangers of the ungodly.
"In The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism," Deborah Baker attempts to piece together the enigmatic transformation of "Peggy," a middle-class Jewish kid from Larchmont, New York, to Maryam, a self-exiled firebrand whose invitation to move to Pakistan grew out of her correspondence with Maulana Abul Ala Maududi, the radical political leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party and theorist of the theocratic state. How did a shy, sullen suburbanite become a true believer in Sharia justice and a zealous advocate of fundamentalist Islam, "someone who could only be herself beneath a pitch-black burqa?" How did Islam become her panacea, a remedy to all the ills she saw affecting the postwar West?
Baker, the author of a Pulitzer-nominated biography of Laura Riding and a history of the Beats in India, discovered Jameelah when she happened across her papers in the archives of the New York Public Library. Fascinated by her story, she was particularly mesmerized by Jameelah's letters to her parents reconstructing her pilgrimage. The first 24 of them document her departure from New York, on a Greek freighter bound for the Middle East, and resettlement in Pakistan. It's not surprising that Baker was hooked: the earliest missives are riveting, yet their tone is nothing like what one might expect from a budding zealot - they read like letters home from a confident exchange student as Jameelah dilates on daily life in the Maududi compound and the exciting, if challenging, adjustment to Lahore - the chore of learning Urdu, the exotic food, the heat ("far too hot for my cotton stockings and the bulky black sweaters I got at Gimbels bargain basement"). Soon, though, these letters take an odd detour; their return address is a remote Pakistani village, then an insane asylum outside Lahore, and finally, in a development that Baker calls as "surprising and impenetrable as nearly every twist and turn of her fate that preceded it," Jameelah writes her mother of her marriage to an impoverished goat-skin salesman and minor Jamaat party member who already has a wife and family.
What had happened to Jameelah in those short eighteen months? How did Maududi, who had sympathized with his New York correspondent and urged her to come to Pakistan, where the life she yearned to lead as a pious Muslim would be possible and she could join in the battle for Islamicist hearts, so rapidly banish her to an asylum? The answers are elusive. As Baker delves deeper into Jameelah's archives and her "Quest for the Truth: Memoirs of Childhood and Youth in America (1945–1962): The Story of One Western Convert," she finds a narrative that provides clues to what led Jameelah to cross continents, what went wrong once she had done so, and why she chose to stay and to produce volume after volume of bilious prose fulminating against all things "Western."
Liberally quoting the letters that comprise that book, Baker creates a complex portrait of the young Peggy. She is a sensitive, mostly friendless child who bristles at her family's lack of spirituality, develops an abiding sense of moral absolutism, and becomes fascinated, then obsessed, with Arab culture, particularly the fate of the Palestinians following Israeli statehood and the Suez Canal crisis. But she also finds a querulous and tempestuous Peggy, whose growing estrangement and angry tirades end in a nervous breakdown during her first year in college, an eventual diagnosis of schizophrenia, and commitment to a ghoulish string of appalling psychiatric wards. The solution she sought in Islam wasn't only spiritual.
But these are only clues. The deeper Baker probes, the more the mystery of Jameelah's story grows. In her letters, her subject is a provocative narrator of her own life, setting forth in remarkable clarity her experiences and the reasons she made the choices that she did. That Jameelah's also a reliably unreliable narrator leads Baker to present-day Pakistan to meet her - a confrontation that fails to answer the questions raised by her story, much less by her jeremiads. Baker has subtitled her book "a parable," and it does raise fascinating questions about the relations of the West and Islam, about religion, freedom, and choice, but it's a parable as well about the quixotic search for certainty, both by Baker, who realizes its futility, and by Jameelah, who finally remains a true believer. Or so it seems.
Mindful of the cul-de-sacs she's navigating, Baker has constructed "The Convert" in a roundabout way, with a reflexive narrative that keeps undermining itself in the process of its unfolding. This isn't a donut biography à la Stacy Shiff's "Cleopatra," where chunks of historical and cultural minutiae are mastered to conjure up its subject, who, thanks to the lack of first-hand material, necessarily remains a hole in the middle. "The Convert" is more like a bialy, with thickets of Jameelah's own writing supplying the texture. For all its inside-out structure, Baker's book remarkably mirrors Jameelah's vexing life.
Eric Banks is a writer and former editor of Bookforum.