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 Behind the doors of my study, I wear them like a suit of out-of-date clothes, telling their stories, interpreting their dreams, mimicking their voices as I type.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 thing to make up. – from The Convert, page 10-11 –
Margaret Marcus grew up in a suburb of New York City called Larchmont. Raised by Jewish parents, she came of age during the turbulent years of WWII and watched with a sort of fascinated horror at the persecution and extermination of Jews in Europe. As a very young child she drew pictures of Arab culture, was enthralled with world politics and looked to religion as the way to live a moral existence.
Only by embracing the notion of a powerful and all-seeing God, nurturing a constant awareness of His gaze, would she be kept in line. Here was her moral guidance. – from The Convert, page 132 –
By all accounts, Margaret was odd, a strange child who was prone to anger and spent time in a mental hospital. So perhaps it was not that surprising when in the early-60s, she packed her bags and moved far from her American roots to become a convert to Islam in Pakistan. There she became the adopted daughter of Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi, a man who embraced militant political Islam and founded the radical Jamaat-e-Islami (a movement dedicated to the idea of an Islamic rebirth and the establishment of a pan-Islamic state). In Pakistan, Margaret took the name Maryam Jameelah of Lahore. Maryam’s numerous writings – including books and articles – reveal a woman obsessed with Islam and highly critical of America.
She was a fierce critic of American foreign policy, its unfettered support of Israel, its meddling in the affairs of Muslim countries, and its headlong and blind belief in the notion of “progress.” – from The Convert, page 25 –
Deborah Baker discovered Maryam’s story in the dusty archives of the New York Public Library. She was drawn to understand how a young woman raised Jewish would so completely convert to Islam and embrace of a life of exile in Pakistan. But as Baker began reading the many letters written by Maryam, the story became more shadowy, the questions more difficult to answer, and the “truth” of Maryam’s story began to feel unreliable.
[…] I felt like a carpenter who, while he is dutifully milling old boards, sees his saw bite on a hidden nail, sending splinters flying in all directions. Only then did it occur to me that I had made the same mistake his father had made. From a series of letters, I had conjured an entire being. I imagined I knew Maryam Jameelah. – from The Convert, page 189 –
The Convert is a biography which is turned on its head because although it portends to tell the story of Maryam Jameelah, it is also the story of the author’s quest for truth in the aftermath of 9/11, and how digging for history in archives made up largely of letters may not be a reliable measure of what actually happened. While Baker seeks truth, her imagination gradually infiltrates the story. When, in the end, she finds herself in Pakistan uncovering that which was hidden within the archives, the truth becomes a thing of disappointment and disillusionment.
The Convert takes a big look at Maryam’s adoptive father and the roots of radical Islam, and it explores the idea if Jihad. All of this wraps around the story of Maryam who becomes less believable as the book unfolds. Many times I found myself struggling to understand all that happened and becoming weighed down in the stories within stories. Like Deborah Baker, I began to find myself disillusioned with the story of Maryam Jameelah, my disappointment slipping into anger. I couldn’t help but wonder what was, exactly, the point of this book. Were we to find answers of Maryam’s conversion, or were we supposed to be left wondering if the whole idea of radicalism and terrorism is simply an exercise in mental illness and illusion? It was this confusion that kept me unbalanced and feeling let down when I turned the final page.
Readers who are looking to read a biography will be dissatisfied with The Convert – but, if you are intrigued with the role of a researcher and want to travel through dim and elusive archives in the search for truth, you might find the book an interesting read. On the plus side, this is a book which is sure to stimulate plenty of discussion. What should the role of a researcher be when trying to uncover the life of her subject? Is it okay for writers to insert their own interpretations and imaginations into a book sold as non fiction? And finally, what drives individuals to embrace the values of violent political organizations?
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FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review on my blog.