(Continued from last week’s post.)
Here’s what Deborah Baker writes in the afterword to her book The Convert, on Maryam Jameelah who was once Margaret Marcus–the Jewish girl from New York who converted to Islam, moved to Pakistan, and became an eloquent spokesperson for traditional Islam’s case against the West.
This is a book, mind you, that’s structured around what purport to be the young woman’s letters, mostly to her family.
“[U]nless her words are accompanied by quotation marks and a specific citation, the real and imaginary letters of Maryam Jameelah do not appear here as she wrote them. As I make clear at the close of the book, I have rewritten and greatly condensed these letters. I have also moved an anecdote or thought from one letter to another, or taken an anecdote or thought from an essay or put it into a letter. Throughout these reconstituted letters, I have tried to retain Maryam’s distinctive voice, one that often came more easily to me than my own. I do not ascribe to her feelings or thoughts that she did not have. I do not make anything up. Some readers might find this simply unorthodox, others may well feel misled.”
NOW she tells us???!!!
“Feel misled”? Well, golly gee, that does about sum it up.
Yes, I know. There’s no such thing as objective truth, the truth “out there,” Truth with a capital T. I can’t even know myself with any confidence, much less the Other. This is the post-modern world we live in, and Deborah Baker is a citizen of it. She’s painfully, or perhaps joyfully, aware of how what we think of as the Other is really the projected construct of our own storytelling faculty. When, in 2007, she finally begins to meet the people described in Maryam’s 45-year-old letters, “my sense of certainty was thrown entirely off; 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. … From a series of letters, I had conjured an entire being. I imagined I knew Maryam Jameelah” (page 189).
So can’t I just trust her when she says that in her “reconstituted,” tidied-up and improved versions of Maryam’s letters, she never ascribes to Maryam feelings or thoughts that she didn’t have?
I never really made it into post-modernity. I still do believe in Truth “out there,” always ambiguous and elusive, graspable only through the clumsy gloves of our thoughts and words. (I think this image is Louis D. Rubin’s.) Baker points out some real problems with Maryam Jameelah’s letters, even before she herself got around to tampering with them. These letters, or purported letters, veil as much as they reveal the toothsore reality behind them. For Baker to have added one more veil of her own manufacture, I would call a disastrously bad decision.
Take the letter “quoted” on pages 103-106, supposedly to Maryam/Margaret’s older sister Betty. (Twice in the letter the writer interrupts a sentence to address “Betty” by name, which gave me an uneasy feel as I read it. Generally when I write a letter to somebody, I don’t have to keep reminding that person who she is.) The date is given as “November 1949.” Later it becomes clear why Baker chose, at this point, to suppress the full date.
The letter describes, with great indignation, how “[l]ast night Eleanor Roosevelt, a member of the Commission on Human Rights and chief delegate of the United States to the United Nations, came to Mamaroneck High School to give an address to commemorate the first anniversary of Human Rights Day. I went with Mother and was shocked when Mrs. Roosevelt spent nearly all her time extolling all that was going on in Israel. … She contrasted the corruption of the Arabs with the idealism and vigor of the Jews.”
(Margaret Marcus was one of the few Americans of her time who let herself be aware that the heroic miracle of the birth of the State of Israel–so a Zionist like me perceives it–came at the price of doing a great wrong to another people. It was this sensitivity, it seems, that helped propel her conversion to Islam. Or so she portrayed it.)
It isn’t for another hundred pages that we discover that this letter, printed originally in a 1989 book of Jameelah’s called Quest for the Truth, is dated, weirdly, “November 31, 1949.” It turns out, moreover–and we need to credit Baker’s detective work for this discovery–that it wasn’t until the following February that Eleanor Roosevelt gave her speech in praise of Israel.
So the “letter,” then, was never really a letter, never really addressed to Betty? Jameelah fabricated it in retrospect? But why the bizarre date? Maryam must have known as well as anyone else that thirty days hath November. Freud says somewhere that it’s almost impossible to lie. The unconscious, yearning to speak the truth, find every way possible to betray itself. And to lie in a book called Quest for the Truth? Surely Jameelah must have had an overwhelming impulse to reveal her falsehood even as she perpetrated it.
In this same pseudo-letter–concocted 40 years after the fact–Jameelah writes this revealing paragraph. (Or maybe she didn’t write it, but Baker wrote it for her, reassuring herself that “I do not ascribe to her feelings or thoughts that she did not have”?)
“I had once imagined that with the founding of the state of Israel the Jews would rediscover their faith and reconnect with their Semitic roots in the land of Abraham. I even attended a meeting of the Zionist youth group Mizrachi Hatzair. … I got into a terrible argument and soon realized that Israel would not mean a return to the golden age of the tenth-century caliphate of al-Andalus. It would be something else entirely. Still, when the hostilities broke out between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, I was devastated.”
So for Margaret Marcus, Islam seemed a path back to a pristine “Semitic,” “Abrahamic” Judaism, truer and more solid than the shallow Americanized version she’d encountered in the New York suburbs? Maybe the rabbi who “reassured” Margaret’s mother that her daughter’s conversion to Islam wasn’t so bad because “Islam was a close kin to Judaism,” spoke truer than he knew. Maybe it was really Judaism that Margaret felt herself converting to.
Jameelah complains about those who try to psychologize her choice of Islam, implicitly treating it as a sort of pathology. Who can blame her? Yet her own explanation of her conversion, “Allah guides to the truth whomsoever He pleases” (page 10), also leaves something to be desired. It’s hard not to connect her dizzyingly courageous leap into a foreign faith and culture with her resentment and perhaps fear of the courting rituals she was expected to engage in as a young American girl. (“The sexes would be strictly segregated” in her “Islamic utopia,” the 19-year-old Margaret told a skeptical therapist. “There would be no courtship, only arranged marriages.”) A photo taken about that time (above) reveals a perfectly attractive young woman. Yet she seems to have felt that the odds of the dating game were stacked against her.
(If so, I can feel for her. I had some of the same resentments and fears when I went to Israel in the summer of 1964, hoping vainly that life in a Jewish country would turn out to be different and “better” than what I knew as an awkward US teenager.)
Why should we care about all this? A plausible but shallow answer, perhaps hinted at in the subtitle of Baker’s book (A Tale of Exile and Extremism), would be that Margaret Marcus’s rejection of her own culture, for one that by most American standards was bound to seem archaic and repressive, foreshadows the choice of those Western-educated young people who flock to Syria to fight for ISIS. But any such comparison is superficial. Margaret/Maryam’s idealism was that of a thinker and a writer. She never showed the smallest appetite for violence. Beheading, crucifying, burning the infidel would have had no appeal for her. It was a different era, one in which a rabbi could look benignly on Islam as an exotic yet intimate cousin to Judaism. Perhaps we’ve regressed since then.
Mercifully, Maryam Jameelah didn’t live long enough to see the rise of ISIS. But she did see 9/11, which she condemned in her conversation with Baker, though in somewhat equivocal terms. “[I]f the building had been empty, if nobody had been in the World Trade Center at the time … its destruction would have been justified as a symbol of American finance. Because it was the center of Western civilization and so was the Pentagon” (pages 204-205).
No–let’s set aside any such parallels. The mystery of Margaret-Marcus-become-Maryam-Jameelah is important purely as itself: a specimen of the mystery of the human soul, the believing soul, the yearning soul. (These last two, and perhaps all three, may turn out to be the same.) Which is to say, the mystery of you and me.
by David Halperin
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