‘For the first time in my life I feel I have finally arrived at a place I can call home.’ That’s Margaret Marcus in May 1962 — just before reaching Pakistan from New York City, embracing Islam and becoming Maryam Jameelah — reassuring her parents that their friends fail to realise that there’s nothing “wrong with a person who chose to live according to her most deeply held beliefs”.
As you go further in Deborah Baker’s The Convert, a collection of Jameelah’s “condensed” letters, interspersed with Baker’s writing that is almost devoid of opinion, the ‘anamorphosis’ of Marcus into Jameelah may appear to be a case study of the gulf between Islam and ‘other’ cultures.
But, at best, it is a convenient distraction; a case of missing the individual for the big picture.
Marcus was born in 1934, much before the western world began baulking at every skull-capped man and woman in a veil. Disenchanted with Zionism and the typecasting of women in so-called ‘free’ western society, the pre-teen Judaic Marcus turned to Islam, a culture in which “all… was good, true and beautiful”.
By 28, the self-styled ‘misfit’ packed her bags and left her home, family and the West’s “afflictions” for good. Her destination was the abode of Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islamic party and a staunch propagator of Sheria-ruled Islamic State, in Pakistan, where she hoped to be among ‘people like her’.
The two had exchanged letters earlier and found an astounding similarity in their outlooks towards life and faith.
Everything goes as planned when, not too many pages farther, reality gets the better of Jameelah’s and Mawdudi’s romanticism. Soon, her exclamations like “I no longer consider myself Jew,” are replaced with realisations like “My life is at a complete standstill”, and Jameelah finds herself in a madhouse.
The childhood “treatment” couldn’t save her from turning into a “hopeless case” of schizophrenia, shifting the reader’s focus away from her ‘method’ and on the ‘madness’, and making him wonder if the pure society she sought and an ‘ideal’ Muslim that her adopter wished for were for real.
Towards the end, Baker narrates her meeting with Jameelah in Lahore, where she is today married to Jamaat-e-Islamic party member. Though her two sons signed up for the students’ wing of Jamaat for the Afghan jihad, Jameelah tells Baker that her books never “incited hatred for westerners as individuals”.
But, like Baker, readers may misunderstand her.
The fact that Jameelah feels “no responsibility” highlights the dichotomy of the situation and, by extension, of free will, marginalisation, radicalism, exile, physical health’s relationship with the intellect, the benchmarks of comparing cultures, and, above all, the ‘outsiders’’ perception of the Jameelahs of the world — to understand whose lives one has to, in the words of Salman Rushdie, “swallow the world”.
It’s difficult to leave them unnoticed, advisable to be uncritical of them and sensible to not misjudge them — something Baker does rather succinctly both as a biographer and a minor ‘character’ in this majestic book.