What drives a young Jewish woman to leave New York City, convert to Islam, and embrace life in a foreign country? At the age of nineteen, a young Margaret Marcus was introduced to Islam and, by age 24 would become Maryam Jameelah and moved to Pakistan. Deborah Baker’s, The Convert (Graywolf Press) traces the life of Maryam mainly through letter correspondence, and also tracks the internal experience of the author as she confronts these texts. “Self-taught, untraveled, and unlearned in any foreign language, Margaret Marcus had sacrificed the supposed freedoms and privileges of a Western lifestyle to live in upright exile in Pakistan,” Deborah Baker writes.
When reading the actual writings of Maryam Jameelah, one can easily start to covet her passion, devotion, and certainty in her faith. On the boat en route to Pakistan, she writes, “The sun rose on Alexandria. Watching from the captain’s deck after my early-morning salat, I saw the coast come into focus, then dozens of feluccas manned by men in skullcaps and flowing while jellabeyas 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.”
The Convert alternates between a letter correspondence and the author’s personal journey. While I personally found the latter less captivating, it is still interesting to see how a proud Jewish American (in this case, me) encounters Maryam’s writings about the inferiority of the West.
Deborah Baker acts as a detective of sorts, following each letter correspondence with further questions about it’s implications and meanings, giving the reader something to think about but also very little to do. Though I enjoy Baker’s take on the letters, I would have enjoyed reading them on their own, with the author’s commentary later in the book.
Maryam’s personal letters are beautifully written, engaging, and follow her through almost two decades. Illustrating her arrival in Pakistan, her stay with Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi, a man who laid the intellectual foundations for militant Islam, and her admittance to a madhouse.
All in all, I’d say this book is a beautiful illustration of a profoundly unique person, Maryam Jameelah. If you like a biography with a twist, The Convert is for you.