The Convert—a Tale of Exile and Extremism

By Deborah Baker

Graywolf Press | 2012 | 246 pages | $23.00

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

I like stories told in a straight forward chronological fashion—sometimes I feel that authors and screenplay writers are being unnecessarily coy when they mess with a direct story line. Then there are stories that are told like the peeling of the layers of an onion—each new layer adds another layer of depth to our understanding.

Such is Deborah Baker’s The Convert, which is the true story of an American Jew, Margaret Marcus, born in 1939, a woman who because of her disaffection with life in the United States, converts to Islam, and moves to Pakistan at the invitation of a Muslim mentor, Mualana Sayyid Abul Ala Maudoodi, the leader of a fundamentalist political movement. Jamaat-e-Islami Mawdudi (alternate spelling) had read Margaret’s writings and felt they were in agreement with his own ideas, so he invites her to live with him and his family in Lahore and undertakes to become her guardian.

The story of Maryam Jameelah, as she was renamed, gives credence to the saying that the truth is often stranger than fiction. Its strangeness delighted me—in the battle between East and West, the lines are drawn. To strict Muslims in the East the West is corrupted by its decadence—its secularized society is godless—women’s liberation, gay rights, philosophy, and technology have only served to draw people from living upright lives as sanctioned in the Qur’an. To Westerners Muslims are barbaric terrorists without respect for human life. In The Convert neither side emerged triumphant though it was her Muslim family who continued to care for her.

Despite being a talented writer, Maryam is mentally unbalanced. This fact wasn’t immediately apparent, so when Ms. Baker described her incarceration in a mental hospital when she was still young and living in New York, I was astonished. Her fits and the difficulties her rather decent parents had in controlling her led them to this move.

When Mawdudi invited her to become a part of his family, her parents, Myra and Herbert Marcus, were probably relieved that she was being taken off their hands. Margaret was 23 when in 1963 she traveled alone to Lahore to join Mawdudi’s family. Mawdudi knew about her incarceration but assumed it was the result of a sensitive young woman being forced to endure Western society. She was a fairly gifted writer and her work gave no indication of her imbalance. They were in fact a powerful voice in favor of the same conservative values as he advocated for Jamaat-e-Islami.

To Maryam, Islam was the answer to the misgivings she had about living in the West. Every once in a while reincarnation plays a trick and births someone into a culture in which they are entirely misplaced; then they have to find their way to their rightful family. Maryam did not fit with the American, middleclass values embraced by her parents.

Soon after Maryam came to live with Mawdudi and his family, however, they found all was not well with her, that she was in fact insane. After she hit Mawdudi’s wife over the head with a frying pan, he took steps to remove her from his household and had her incarcerated in Paagal Khanaah, a Pakistani mental institution. He still provided for her needs, so she had her own room and several attendants. I found this development astounding.

Then came a third surprise. All along I supposed from what Ms. Baker had written that Maryam never wanted to marry. Even though Mawdudi urged her to do so, she found none of the suggested candidates acceptable. But when she was removed from the hospital to the home of Mohammad Yusuf Khan, an underling of Mawdudi’s, though already married with three or four children, offered to marry her. The offer proved to be her salvation, for it allowed her to live and be cared for in his home while she continued to write and his family looked after her needs. They were reimbursed by the income produced from the sales of her books and articles, which were popular with Pakistani youth.

I was further astonished to learn that crazy Maryam bore Mohammed five children, four of whom matured into adulthood. As late as 2009 Maryam was alive and still living in Lahore.

A great deal of correspondence accumulated over the years, letters between Maryam and Mawdudi, and between her and her parents. Much of this correspondence is now in the archives of the New York City Public Library. Ms. Baker has spent hours poring over these letters, some of which were adulterated to give a more positive view of certain events.

Ms. Baker traveled to Pakistan where she interviewed Mawdudi son, Haider Farooq, and Maryam herself: “I followed Maryam Jameelah up a narrow cement staircase to the second floor, my attention fixed on the hiss made by her cheap sandals every time her foot hit the stairs. She had the side-to-side gait of an arthritic. I had arrived at the house unannounced the day before to arrange an interview. Maryam immediately recalled all the personal details I had included in the letter I sent eight months before. She recited them to me.

“Maryam still lived with Mohammad Yusuf Khan in the old Hindu neighborhood of Sant Nagar. She shared the house with two stepsons, and their wives and children. Shafiqa had died in 1995, having raised nine children. Of Maryam’s own surviving children, her youngest son (named after Haider Farooq) now lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he owned a combination gas station and food mart. Her second son was in Pennsylvania. Her two daughters were still in Pakistan, but only one lived close enough to take her to the doctor. This was the only time Maryam left the house.”

I don’t know what possessed me to order this strange little book from Amazon but I’m glad I did.

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