The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism

The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism

by Deborah Baker
The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism

The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism

by Deborah Baker



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*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.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555970284
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 05/10/2011
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: eBook
Pages: 224
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Deborah Baker is the author of In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, as well as A Blue Hand; The Beats in India. She divides her time between Calcutta, Goa, and Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt

The Convert

A Tale of Exile and Extremism

By Deborah Baker

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2011 Deborah Baker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-028-4


al-Hijrah — The Escape

5-A Zaildar Park

April 18, 1962

Dear Maryam Jameelah,

Asalaam-o-aleikum wa Rahmatullah!

I am glad to know you have accepted my counsel and are ready to come to Pakistan. I pray to Allah that He may guide you to what is right and in your best interest.

I think it is advisable to mention a few things. As you must already know, our way of life and social conditions are vastly different from those in America. We lack many facilities and amenities that Americans take for granted. Therefore, the first months here will certainly prove fatiguing and taxing upon your nerves. Unless you have patience and are resolutely determined to mold your life according to ours, to live Lahore spanand die among your Muslim brethren, you might find it extremely difficult to reconcile yourself to our ways. Although I will try my best to look after your needs and make things easier, your steadfast cooperation is essential.

Two of my daughters are near to you in age. One is studying for an MA in English and the other a BA in economics. I hope they will make friends with you, teach you Urdu, and, in exchange, learn from you the enthusiasm of a new convert. My wife does not know English. Initially, this may hinder your intimacy with her but I hope you will pick up enough Urdu within two or three months to enable you to communicate. After you have learned Urdu, it will be relatively easy for you to learn Arabic, because these languages share vocabularies. In due course, I will also try to arrange for an Arabic teacher.

As regards marriage, I will not pressure you, but should you decide to marry, I will try to help you choose a suitable life partner. Naturally you will want to be married to a youth who lives as a good Pakistani Muslim. If you choose not to marry, I am prepared to welcome you forever as a member of my family. I am inviting you to share my hospitality in the spirit with which the early Muslim inhabitants of Medina extended their invitation to their forlorn brethren outside of Medina and I wish you to respond with a similar spirit of migration, thinking that bonds of faith are firmer and stronger than relationships of flesh and blood.

There is still another reason why you should postpone any decision about marriage. When you arrive, my wife will train you in how a Pakistani Muslim wife runs her home and manages her household affairs. This knowledge will stand you in good stead when you are facing married life. For such a marital relationship to achieve success, it is essential to learn the social etiquette of Muslim families.

When you reach Lahore, daytime temperatures will average well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Our houses are not air-conditioned but we do use electric fans. Eventually you will become accustomed to our tropical seasons but you must be prepared to bear the first onslaught of this extreme climate.

I am writing a separate letter to your parents. I advise you to introduce me to them yourself and show them some of my letters so they may be able to grasp fully the background of my present letter to them.

Your brother in Islam,

Larchmont Acres Apartments, Apt 223-C
Mamaroneck, NY

May 2, 1962

Dear Mr. Mawdoodi,

I am grateful for your kind letter of April 18th, extending to my daughter, Margaret, an invitation to live in your home. My wife and I are deeply moved by your gracious offer of hospitality.

Since embracing Islam, particularly as an ardent convert, it seems that living in our society presents practical difficulties. Margaret is anxious to accept your invitation, and as her parents, we are amenable, although it means going to live in a distant land. Particularly in view of the enthusiasm she has evinced, we are hopeful it would give her the opportunity for a happy and meaningful existence.

[Going to] a country with a very different culture will surely require a degree of forbearance during a period of adjustment. With the sympathy and understanding indicated in your letters, combined with Margaret's ardor, I am confident that her entrance into your family life will be successful.

I was pleased to note in your letter to Margaret the advice regarding change of citizenship and marriage. It is my paternal wish that she take irrevocable steps only after a reasonable period of residence.

She goes to your country with our full consent and especially as [she is] a person of fine character we shall maintain a continuous interest in her welfare. Therefore, please feel at liberty to write me at any time.

Mrs. Marcus joins me in conveying to you, your wife and children our heartfelt gratitude.

Very sincerely,
Herbert S. Marcus

The Hellenic Torch

May 1962

After all our good-byes, after you, Mother, Betty, and Walter walked down the gangplank and drove off, I was overcome by a profound sense of dread. I stood at the deck rail for a long time completely stricken, the excitement of the weeks leading up to my departure gone. When the ship finally pulled away from the Brooklyn pier, the lights of the city began to dim and the engines seemed to echo the pounding of my heart. A black and fathomless ocean was slowly swallowing everything I had ever known. It took some time and many prayers before my fears began to subside.

The crossing thus far has not been without incident. At first, my fellow shipmates distracted me from my panic. There is an Indian boy on board named Jehangir Govind. He is returning home to Bombay after his studies in America. He snootily insists on being called Jack because he says I mispronounce his name. There was also a young man named Sherman accompanied by an older, alcoholic wife named Thelma. The Greek captain and his crew, along with several Greek deportees, completed the passenger list. After ten days at sea in close quarters with all of them, I ended up taking a number of meals alone in my room to spare myself their comments about my clothes.

Mother, you imagined that I was going to need my nice silk dress for dining and dancing on board, as if my passage had been booked on a cruise ship instead of a cheap Greek freighter! I was happy to leave that dress behind with Betty (along with my girdle and corset). And my high heels I gave to the colored lady who lived in the room next to mine at the Martha Washington Women's Residence. Dressed now in my hand-sewn, ankle-length dirndl skirt and high-necked long-sleeve blouse, I certainly can see that I cut an unlikely figure. Anyone might well ask: why would an otherwise attractive Western woman insist on dressing in such a manner? Honestly? I don't blame them.

The captain tells me that he has just returned from Turkey. Despite Mustapha Kemal Ataturk's best efforts to persecute Muslims by outlawing polygamy, the hajj, and the Arabic script, it seems that the captain found no dearth of religious fanatics. I asked him what he meant by religious fanatic.

Muslims who refuse to eat pork for fear of hell, he informed me. Muslims who avoid non-Muslims like the plague. He would be perfectly happy to see the Muslim religion eradicated, he said, because everyone knows Western civilization is superior. While Istanbul and Ankara are fairly Westernized and home to many Europeans, he assured us that the rest of Turkey is as backward and reactionary as ever. A young Greek sailor chimed in: You will see for yourself the filth and poverty of the Arabs when you get there.

This is the tenor of the nightly commentary on board.

My first thought was that I was sorry Turkey was not on the Hellenic Torch's itinerary. I am frankly surprised to learn that there are that many Turks who have resisted Ataturk's effort to turn them into modern Europeans. The secular and nationalist leaders of Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, Tunisia, and Morocco have all been desperately eager to put development before everything else, to Westernize and modernize away every last evidence of their traditional Islamic cultures in frantic pursuit of Western standards of urban living and dress. It's been a constant worry that the world I am looking for will be gone by the time I arrive. Would I arrive at my destination forty years, seventy years, a century too late?

Jehangir tells me that if I want to pray five times a day that is my own business, but he just doesn't see what possible difference it makes. He can't tell one religion from another. And it is a complete fairy tale, he insists, that God is everywhere watching to see whether I behave. Once he became a man he found he could dispense with such fantasies; he is now in the habit of being good. Jehangir reminded me of those young men at the Columbia University Muslim Students Association whose mission in life is to modernize Islam to death, gutting it of its essentials.

Thelma and Sherman disembarked at Crete with the Greeks. By the time they left, their conversation had become increasingly unpleasant. Thelma persisted in her drunken insistence that the Arabs live in filth and squalor. I wasn't surprised to find that when she invited me to her room to help her pack there was a surfeit of empty liquor bottles under the bed, cigarette stubs stuck in every dish and glass, and a carpet covered with stains. I held my tongue.

Five days later the sun rose on Alexandria. Watching from the captain's deck after my early-morning salat, I saw the coast come into focus. Dozens of feluccas manned by men in skullcaps and flowing white jellabiya skirted across the harbor out of the morning mist. It was a most incredible sight. Clearly recognizing me as a fellow Muslim, they called out "asalaam aleikum" and my heart practically lifted me off my feet. I was no longer traveling in the West. I had finally crossed over.

Soon after we docked, a dragoman arrived and offered to show me the sights of the city, pulling an official permit out of his pocket to alleviate my concern that I might be taken advantage of. Once I made it clear that I was a convert and only wanted to attend a prayer service, his distant manner gave way to warmth and he immediately hailed a taxi to take us both to the Old City.

All my life I have heard about the backwardness of the Arabs. I have read the accounts of Christian missionaries, Orientalists, and Zionists. You, Mother, and the Greek sailor gave me the same refrain, though after the war the polite word became under-developed. Indeed, in Egypt I saw poverty everywhere I looked. Horse-drawn carts plied cratered roads and the buildings looked on the verge of collapse. Some of the men I saw were indeed indescribably filthy. Children in rags played in the street with toys engineered from bits of wire and rubbish; hawkers sang out their wares in a sweet singsong fashion. The vast majority of men, women, and children wore traditional native dress, including one woman fully clad in a burqa carrying a crate of live chickens on her head.

In your eyes, this scene would look like something out of the Middle Ages. You would withdraw in disgust at the unsanitary conditions, cluck at the crude dwellings in which they live, quote me child mortality statistics. You couldn't get out of here fast enough. But I see something else. I see their dignity and gentleness, their exquisite manners and open-arm hospitality, their unquestioning faith. I envy them their lives, beyond the reach of "technical assistance" and the poisoned fruit of modernization. Pure sentiment, you would insist.

Before taking me to the mosque, the dragoman invited me to his home to meet his family. We found his wife preparing the noon meal in a soot-covered kitchen over a kerosene stove, chickens and roosters quick-stepping around her, as if impatient to be fed. His older daughter held a severely malnourished baby. His fourteen-year-old son looked more like a ten-year-old, but read from the Qur'an fluently. After lunch my guide took me on a tour of saints' tombs in his neighborhood. We entered a schoolroom filled with boys studying the Qur'an. When I was introduced, they were all astonished to meet an American woman who chose to be a Muslim and live in a Muslim country. Under their reverent gaze, I felt something like a saint myself.

Our last stop was for the midday prayer. At the mosque, I was the only woman among fifteen men, kneeling on reed mats under rafters filled with sparrows. The prayer service was exactly the same in Alexandria as it had been in my little storefront mosque in Brooklyn. Afterward the imam invited me back to his office and offered to answer any questions I had about Islam. I told him I was traveling to Pakistan at the invitation of Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi. I was going to live with his family as his adopted daughter. He said that Mawlana Mawdudi was the holiest man in Pakistan.

One of the men from the mosque asked me how it was I came to embrace Islam. Daddy, whenever your friends asked me this, I always knew they were secretly looking for a complicated psychological explanation. While there is no use crying over spilt milk, I deeply regret all my lost years in America, struggling to find my way. Like your friends, you believed there had to be something wrong with a person who chose to live according to her most deeply held beliefs. Such a thought would never occur to the men who had prayed with me.

"Allah guides to the Truth whomsoever He pleases," I answered, and every man in the room nodded in understanding. Wandering the streets of Alexandria, my first experience of a real Muslim country outside of books and National Geographic, I never once felt I was in a foreign place. Though I have yet another month at sea before I reach Pakistan, I will post this letter here. I wanted to reassure you that for the first time in my life I feel I have finally arrived at a place I can call home.

* * *

Anonymity is my vocation. I inhabit the lives of my subjects until I think like them. 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. I find myself most susceptible to those tuned to an impossible pitch, poets and wild-eyed visionaries who live their lives close to the bone. Haunting archives, reading letters composed in agony and journals thick with unspeakable thoughts, I sound the innermost chambers of unquiet souls; unearth dramas no one would ever think to make up.

The reading room of the Manuscripts and Archives Division is located in the very heart of the marble library, which is itself sited in the heart of the city where I live. There are long tables with elegant brass lamps that take a few minutes to warm up, shining their brightening eyes on the rare volumes and papers of our illustrious forebears. Scholars hunch over them, bathed in their reflected glow, like medieval scribes. You need special permission to enter the reading room where all the manuscript collections are held, but the catalog itself is available online from anywhere, even in the reading room itself.

One morning in the library I was idly clicking through the listing of the papers on deposit. I wasn't looking for anything in particular. I was on the prowl. The Henry Kittredge Norton Papers (b. 1884; 4 boxes) first snagged my attention. From the archivist's cover note, I learned that Norton had spent his entire life dedicated to the proposition that the future of urban mass transportation lay in aerial transit. This man, I imagined, was haunted by dreams of flying. I once wrote a book about a woman who spent fifty years trying to provide a single meaning for every word in the dictionary. She dreamed of words as numbers. Once her book was completed, she expected that it would make lying impossible and humankind would finally learn to speak the truth. Another subject of mine dreamed of heaven. He traveled to Mexican jungles and the farthest reaches of the Himalayas, convinced he would eventually find a teacher who would show him the way there.

In a vast, exquisitely maintained law library in a former colonial outpost, I once stumbled upon a casebook. Inside this casebook, like a small pulsing heart, lay a warm knot of baby mice nesting in a hollow of shredded legal citations. The fragility of the lives represented by the rarely opened boxes in special collections and archives held for me a similarly subversive and hidden promise. In these boxes I searched for secret or alternate histories, an overlooked rebel whose life work might overturn commonplace understandings.

Many of the less familiar names in the library's archives are bygone titans of the social register, well-heeled library patrons whose achievements in finance, real estate, and charitable works are entombed in thousands of anonymous gray boxes like the bones of obscure saints. But that morning it was the dissonance of a lone Muslim name, among the commonplace Jewish and Christian ones, that waylaid me. That name, wedged between a nineteenth-century nun and a twenty-first-century animal rights activist, was Maryam Jameelah. From the finding aid's descriptive overview of her life and work, it was evident Maryam Jameelah was a well-known figure in the Islamic world.


Excerpted from The Convert by Deborah Baker. Copyright © 2011 Deborah Baker. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. al-Hijrah —The Escape,
2. The Mawlana,
3. Doubt,
4. The Misfit,
5. Paagal Khanaah,
6. The Convert,
7. The Renegade,
8. A War Between and Within,
9. The Lifted Veil,
A Note on Methodology,

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