Deborah Baker. The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2011.
How many years has it been since I first heard of Maryam Jameelah, the former Margaret (“Peggy”) Marcus? At least 15 or 20, I think.
Sometime in the 90s, I was in a library paging through an issue of Muslim World when I came upon her remarkable story. For reasons I can’t quite remember, it felt like a story belonging to a past era. I would have been stunned even then to discover she was still alive.
In fact Maryam Jameelah lived until October 2012, eleven years after the 9/11 event that put the world on notice that Islam’s struggle against the West, of which this Jewish girl from New York was an early and articulate standard-bearer, was no longer a matter of books and pamphlets and newspaper articles. Deborah Baker, the author of the intriguing, annoying, frustrating book called The Convert, wrote her obituary for an English-language newspaper in Pakistan, which became Jameelah’s adopted country soon after Islam had become her adopted religion.
The Convert begins in the New York Public Library, with Baker caught up in the enigmas of a 9-box collection of documents called the “Maryam Jameelah Papers.” It ends in Lahore, Pakistan, where Baker discovers that Jameelah is not only alive but willing, nay eager to be interviewed. Like me, Baker seems to have been surprised by the discovery. Surely, Baker must have reasoned, an author so widely read and translated throughout the Muslim world couldn’t have vanished so totally from public discourse unless she had died.
“She had the side-to-side gait of an arthritic,” Baker describes Jameelah, who was 73 years old when Baker met her in 2007. “ … Her voice was strangely high pitched and keening. … As she talked, she rocked her upper body, she flapped her hands; she couldn’t sit still. … Her brows were arrowed steeply over her eyes, like a cartoon of anger. She wore a cheap acrylic sweater over layers of clothes against the cold.”
What did Maryam look like in her younger days? It’s an irrelevant question unless you believe that words deceive as well as reveal, and that facial expressions and posture can often speak more truthfully. The photo published in Maryam’s books shows her swathed in black, face veiled, nothing of her visible but her hands and the toes of her sandaled feet. But Baker’s obituary in the Pakistani Friday Times gives glimpses of her in 1942, at age 8, with her older sister Betty; in 1953, in what I gather was her high school yearbook. These snaps show a bright, lively, good-natured child grown into a lively, keenly intelligent young woman, with thick eyebrows (not “arrowed” in the slightest) and uncommonly bold, expressive eyes. In her passport photo of 1962, the anger has begun to creep in.
Margaret converted to Islam and became Maryam sometime around 1960, although Baker doesn’t give the exact date. In May 1962 she boarded a boat for Pakistan, there to live among her Muslim brethren as a guest of the family of Mawlana Mawdudi, the great Islamic revivalist and forceful advocate for a theocratic Pakistan. Mawdudi had corresponded with Maryam before her departure from America, and, impressed by her, extended his invitation.
The elder Marcuses, Herbert and Myra, were secular Jews who found their way into a Unitarian church—as I did many years later, though perhaps for different reasons—but who maintained a strong commitment to Zionism and Israel. Margaret’s mother, “despairing at the news of her daughter’s conversion to Islam,” went to a rabbi, who “reassured Myra that Islam was a close kin to Judaism. Consoled, Myra told her daughter, who now called herself Maryam, ‘You will always be Peggy to me.’” (It was a different world—how many rabbis would offer such “reassurance” today?) Her father, on the eve of his daughter’s departure for Pakistan, wrote Mawdudi a letter which in its grace, nobility and selfless love practically glows on the pages of Baker’s book.
“Since embracing Islam, particularly as an ardent convert, it seems that living in our society presents practical difficulties. Margaret is anxious to accept your invitation, and as her parents, we are amenable. … Particularly in view of the enthusiasm she has evinced, we are hopeful it would give her the opportunity for a happy and meaningful existence. … She goes to your country with our full consent and especially as [she is] a person of fine character we shall maintain a continuous interest in her welfare. … Mrs. Marcus joins me in conveying to you, your wife and children our heartfelt gratitude.”
This was 1962. Two years afterward, in the summer of 1964, I went to Israel for the first time. Looking back, I can’t help comparing my first experience of the Jewish country with Maryam’s in the lands of her new faith. There were enormous differences. I was 16, twelve years younger than Maryam at the time of her great journey. I had gone not to settle but for an eight-week visit, paid for by a Bible contest in which I had won first prize. I wasn’t a convert to anything; my commitment and risk were incomparably less than hers.
I was fantastically naïve, though perhaps not much less than Maryam was at age 28. I didn’t expect to find in Israel a “kingdom of priests and a holy people” exactly, but at least some sort of living testimonial not only to the language of the Bible but also to the Biblical social and moral teachings. These, to me, were the essence of Jewishness—I’d begun having serious doubts about God—which stood over against the shallowness of postwar American suburbia, rebuking it through contrast.
Substitute “Qur’anic” for “Biblical,” and Maryam seems to have expected much the same.
Of course what I found was utterly different. Israel in 1964 was a boisterous, rough-edged Mediterranean society, its people no better and no worse than anywhere else, except endowed with a warmth, generosity and joie de vivre that went beyond what I’d experienced in the US. Too inexperienced to recognize these as the considerable virtues they were, I came home disappointed.
So, I gather, was Maryam in Pakistan. Only she gambled vastly more than I did on her expectations, and her loss was vastly greater.
I’ll talk more about the gamble and the loss in my next post.
by David Halperin
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