Feature

The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism by Deborah Baker

Baker's biography relates the singular life of a Jewish American woman who converted to Islam, moved to Pakistan, took up jihad, and eventually became the second wife of a goatskin salesman.

(Graywolf, $23)

The subject of Deborah Baker’s new biography is a singularly enigmatic character, said Lorraine Adams in The New York Times. Margaret “Peggy” Marcus, born in 1934, grew up in a secular Jewish household in suburban New York. In the early 1960s, while still in her 20s, she converted to Islam and immigrated to Pakistan at the behest of Abul Ala Mawdudi, founder of the radical Jamaat-e-Islami party; she became Maryam Jameelah, the author of numerous best-selling polemics condemning the West. But Jameelah has been plagued by mental illness since youth, and her motivations have never been clear. Approaching this mysterious figure with a measure of empathy, Baker has created a “mesmerizing” account of one of the more curious encounters between West and East.

To this day, “Jameelah’s name means a great deal in the Islamic world,” said Emily Bobrow in Bookforum. “As an American woman who embraced the veil, and a former Jew who believed in jihad, her affirmation of Islam was nothing short of revolutionary.” Baker, who discovered Jameelah’s personal writings while sifting the archives at the New York Public Library, apparently expected to uncover deep insights into the differences between life in America and life in a Muslim country. What she found instead was a troubled woman. Once in Pakistan, Jameelah clashed almost instantly with Mawdudi, who soon committed her to an asylum. Exiled from Mawdudi’s inner circle, she eventually became the second wife of a goatskin salesman.

The deeper Baker probes, “the more the mystery of Jameelah’s story grows,” said Eric Banks in the Chicago Tribune. Baker concludes the book by making a pilgrimage to Lahore, where she meets a frail Jameelah, still alive but unable to shed much light on her perplexing life. Baker calls this book “a parable,” and it “does raise fascinating questions about the relations of the West and Islam, about religion, freedom, and choice.” But it’s ultimately also “a parable about the quixotic search for certainty, both by Baker, who realizes its futility,” and by Jameelah, who remains a true believer and thus beyond the author’s reach.

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