I received this book for free from publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Convert by Deborah Baker
Published by Graywolf Press on May 10th 2011
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Islamic Studies, Religious, Social Science
*A 2011 National Book Award Finalist* A spellbinding story of renunciation, conversion, and radicalism from Pulitzer Prize-finalist biographer Deborah Baker What drives a young woman raised in a postwar New York City suburb to convert to Islam, abandon her country and Jewish faith, and embrace a life of exile in Pakistan? The Convert tells the story of how Margaret Marcus of Larchmont became Maryam Jameelah of Lahore, one of the most trenchant and celebrated voices of Islam’s argument with the West. A cache of Maryam’s letters to her parents in the archives of the New York Public Library sends the acclaimed biographer Deborah Baker on her own odyssey into the labyrinthine heart of twentieth-century Islam. Casting a shadow over these letters is the mysterious figure of Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi, both Maryam’s adoptive father and the man who laid the intellectual foundations for militant Islam. As she assembles the pieces of a singularly perplexing life, Baker finds herself captive to questions raised by Maryam’s journey. Is her story just another bleak chapter in a so-called clash of civilizations? Or does it signify something else entirely? And then there’s this: Is the life depicted in Maryam’s letters home and in her books an honest reflection of the one she lived? Like many compelling and true tales, The Convert is stranger than fiction. It is a gripping account of a life lived on the radical edge and a profound meditation on the cultural conflicts that frustrate mutual understanding.
This is a tale of Margret Marcus a Jewish girl growing up in the shadows of War World Two. While she hears about the horrors going on in Europe, her fascination is with the Arabs. She gets upset at the formation of Israel and decides to convert to Islam. She has also spent time in mental wards.
Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi a man known for his staunch support of political Islam became her guardian when so moved to Pakistan. While in Pakistan Margret Marcus who became Maryam jamaleh upon her conversion to Islam, wrote a number of book supporting militant Islam and condemning the West. She was very influential in some circles in Lahore.
However it was not all smiles and writing in Pakistan. Before she had left the United States she had spent time in a mental hospital with Schizophrenia. She states in her letter that her decision to come to Islam is one of the sanest she has made in her life but one wonders. Then she ends up in a notorious madhouse in Lahore.
One gets the sense of reading this of how much of her thinking is muddled by her mental state and how much she really believes. Then again she was probably freer in Pakistan than she would have been in the US. In Pakistan she was able to marry and have kids and have her sister wife take care of her kids leaving her to write and so what ever else she wanted. while if she had stayed in the US she would probably ended up a ward of the state in a hospital somewhere.
Ever since 9/11 it has been a zero sum game for Islam and the West. If one wins the other loses. It was fascinating to trace back this ideology on the Muslim side to a specific political group and how they in a way took Maryam in and used her to showcase just how degraded the West really was.
Here was a perfect example of how when one followed the west your parents could kick you out, get rid of you or drop you off at the local state hospital while you traveled the world. While in Islam once you had a child you are responsible for it forever. That was the thinking anyway. It seemed it was to their own best advantage to use her to their political ends.
I found this book fascinating. The whole thing seemed unreal. Even the author admits all this was hard to imagine until she went to Lahore. First when she read the letters in New York public Libary it seemed that Maryam had finally found a place she could call home. That it was not rife with the strife that afflicted her with her parents in the US. However when the author went to Lahore she found something unsettling. From her old foster family saying that what she wrote home to her parents is not exactly what transpired in Pakistan. That she was guilty of a multitude of sins. When the author finally reached her for an interview she found a woman who acted complete different than what her letters portrayed. I felt that the author was being a little harsh in her judgment of Maryam. But who am I to say? I wasn’t there. Where the author gets to this point in the book I felt that it starts to fall apart. It as if the author let her emptions color what she wrote and we only get a nuanced version of the “real” Maryam. With sayings such as “I could not wait to leave the room” we are getting the author’s emotions instead of what the story was supposed to be focused on.
The rest of the book is tightly written and a fascinating look at Maryam life as a political Islamist. Pick this book up if you want to know why someone would trade a middle class existence to a Life under a veil in poverty struck Pakistan.