Review: The Convert
Deborah Baker's The Convert is about Margaret Marcus, who was born in 1934, much before the western world began baulking at every skull-capped man and woman in a veil. Disenchanted with Zionism, she turned to Islam, a culture in which "all was good, true and beautiful".books Updated: Jun 21, 2011 07:56 IST
For the first time in my life I feel I have finally arrived at a place I can call home. Thats 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 theres nothing wrong with a person who chose to live according to her most deeply held beliefs.
As you go further in Deborah Bakers The Convert, a collection of Jameelahs condensed letters, interspersed with Bakers 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 Wests 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 Jameelahs and Mawdudis 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 couldnt save her from turning into a hopeless case of schizophrenia, shifting the readers 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 healths 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.
Its 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.