(Continued from last week’s post.)
“Now that I have settled myself here, I would like to explain how I came to be a part of the Mawlana Mawdudi’s family. It seems I have spent my entire life trying to get to this moment, to explain myself in terms that make sense to you. I’m not sure I ever will. But if I don’t try then we will never be able to put the difficulties of the last ten years behind us.”
This is Maryam Jameelah, the former Margaret Marcus, writing to her Jewish parents in New York in July 1962, from her new home in Lahore, Pakistan.
Or is it? The letters from Margaret/Maryam, which are the backbone of Deborah Baker’s attempt at a biography of this extraordinary, tormented woman, are open to suspicion on at least two levels. But we’ll come back to that.
“After a few anxious days”–this is Maryam, or allegedly Maryam, writing a week or two later–“I am now completely at home in the Mawdudi household. Language is my principal difficulty. Everyone seems more interested in practicing English than in teaching me Urdu.”
There follows a fond description of the Mawdudi home (“somewhat dingy and primitive, at least by the materialist standards of Americans”), the Mawlana and his wife and their nine children. The youngest is “my favorite, fifteen-year-old Haider Farooq. I think of all the children, the sweetness of this boy sets him apart.”
Haider had a tender love for animals, Maryam wrote her parents, and promised to take her to the Lahore zoo. On her arrival to the household, “Haider presented me with a silly ring with imitation diamonds, which I wore until all the stones fell out. Even though he speaks little English he still manages to make me laugh, relieving me of some of my loneliness.”
Forty-five years later, in 2007, Deborah Baker will visit Lahore and interview this same Haider Farooq, now 60. His memories of the young American woman who came to join his family in 1962 will not exude the “sweetness” Maryam described. He will be bitter, angry, condemning.
“Haven’t you met her yet? … Isn’t it clear there was something wrong with her?! Even the most anti-Western Islamists would see why the West got rid of her!” And Haider’s son, translating for Baker, will explain that from Maryam’s eyes “you could guess, from her eyes you could tell, she was crazy.”
“My whole family was against her,” Haider will say. “They said she was a bad woman, and told my father to throw her out of the house, send her to the madhouse.”
“Completely at home in the Mawdudi household”? How much she must have needed to believe that!
Evidently at Mawdudi’s instigation, just under a year after her arrival in Pakistan, Maryam was indeed sent to the madhouse. She had previously moved out of the Mawdudi home and gone to live with an older couple, whom she fondly referred to in her letters as “Baijan” and “Appa.” No explanation was given of why her patron and guardian–whom she now suspected to planning to kill her–had her committed to a Lahore mental hospital.
Only in 2007 will Deborah Baker ask her about that and be told, “I hit Appa over the head with a frying pan.”
I try to imagine the “loneliness” that Maryam spoke of, her pain and isolation. The vulnerability of a young woman, dependent and helpless as a child, in a land she’d determined to make her own through sharing its faith. I think of the 16-year-old child I was when I visited Israel in the summer of 1964, dependent like Maryam on the kindness of strangers. I didn’t hit anybody over the head with a frying pan. But I was a visitor in that foreign land. I had a home and an identity to go back to when the summer ended. I hadn’t burned my bridges as Maryam had.
Expecting to find … what?
“I began to describe my idea of what an Islamic utopia would be like,” Margaret Marcus wrote her sister Betty in 1956, describing a therapeutic session that had apparently taken place three years earlier, after a nervous breakdown forced her to drop out of college. “First off, I said, Arabic would be the official language. I wouldn’t make the mistake of outlawing Western dress, I told Dr. Harper, but no one would want to wear it. Instead men would don the traditional dress of Saudi Arabia and women would be completely veiled. The sexes would be strictly segregated, attending separate schools. There would be no courtship, only arranged marriages.
” … There would be no machines or factories, just small shops where traditional craftsmen made everything. In large extended families, the very old, the mentally afflicted, and the handicapped would be lovingly looked after. There would be no need for mental hospitals or old age homes. … In such a society everyone would be compassionate and just rather than wholly focused on the accumulation of riches and material comforts. There would be no race prejudice. I told Dr. Harper that I would like to devote the rest of my life to making this dream come true.
“This wasn’t the kind of dream Dr. Harper wanted to hear about, because he broke his own rule to interrupt me. Why are you avoiding confronting your root problem, your fear of men? … Why at the age of nineteen are you still a virgin? You live like a nun, he said in a tone of accusation. If I had had a gun at that moment, Betty, I’m sure I would have shot him.
“Instead I took off my shoe and shattered the glass-fronted bookshelves … pulled out his issues of the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association and tore them in half. Only when he shouted at me did I return to my senses and of course I apologized. He was really rather nice about it.”
And I’m left wondering: can this dramatic scene really have happened?
Would a psychiatrist in 1953 really have been astonished that an unmarried 19-year-old woman from a respectable family was a virgin? (He might have thought it healthier for her to be sexually active, but he can’t have labeled it pathological if she wasn’t.) What exactly was Harper doing while his patient was trashing his property? Tearing a journal in half is not exactly like ripping up a postcard; to tear up multiple issues must have taken some time and difficulty, even if Margaret Marcus was a good deal stronger than I am. How can Harper not have stopped the rampage?
And–“If I had a gun at that moment, Betty“???? In my experience, when you’re writing a letter you don’t interrupt the flow of your words to remind the recipient who she is. It was about at this point in Deborah Baker’s book that I began wondering: did Margaret/Maryam really write the letters that are printed there in her name?
Then I read the afterword to the book and I had my answer: she didn’t write the letters.
Deborah Baker wrote them.
by David Halperin
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