Review: ‘The Convert’ by Deborah Baker

by Kim on May 17, 2011 · 23 comments

Post image for Review: ‘The Convert’ by Deborah Baker

In 1962, Margaret “Peggy” Marcus, an American Jew living in New York, picked up her life and moved to Lahore, Pakistan, a convert to one of the more political and extreme forms of Islam. She took the name Maryam Jameelah and went to live with the Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi, her mentor and man who helped lay the intellectual ground for radical Islam to take root.

In The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism, Deborah Baker attempts to reconstruct Maryam’s life through an extensive collection of letters, drawings, and political writing archived at the New York Public Library. In her explorations, Baker uncovers many unsettling truths about Maryam and her life, including an unhappy childhood, periods of mental illness, and her eventual fate as the second wife of a political extremist in Pakistan. Even more effective, Baker extensively quotes the letters, giving Maryam’s voice an immediacy and impact a straight biography would have missed.

I found this book very unsettling, both because of how foreign I found Maryam’s religious and political beliefs to be and because of the way Baker built this story much like a detective — slowly revealing details about Maryam’s mental heath and the motivations of those around her, shifting the portrait the book was painting dramatically as it progressed.

I initially started reading this book with an idea that reading Maryam’s story would somehow be able to explain the idea of jihad, of political Islam in its present form. That made the early stages of Maryam’s lonely childhood and the disclosure of her mental illness disturbing to me — as if, somehow, the book was making an equation between converting to Islam and a being a weird, anti-social, mentally unstable person. But as I read I realized the book doesn’t do that. It’s better to read it as simply one woman’s experience and leave broader judgments about political Islam to other books.

Even so, reading Maryam’s religious beliefs articulated in her own writing was difficult for me. I like to think I’ve always had a sort of laissez-faire attitude about political and religious beliefs — I have mine, you have yours, and we can both exist just fine if we leave each other alone. If you don’t have anything nice to say about a group of people, don’t say anything at all.

Yet the fundamental mindset of political Islam is entirely different from that (as is that of other extreme forms of most religions or political associations). In an early letter, Maryam wrote that her mission was to,

… devote my life to the struggle against materialistic philosophic-secularism and nationalism which are still so rampant in the world today and threaten not only the survival of Islam but the whole human race.

As articulated by Maryam and her mentor, the Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi, Islam and the West cannot exist in the same world as one another, and the only way for Islam to survive is by destroying all that is evil about the West. Mawdudi is one of the major figures responsible for articulating the idea of violent jihad. As Baker explains it,

Al-Jihad fil Islam has begun as a simple virus of an idea, a reading of the genetic code of an entire faith that, several decades on, had mutated into something far more virulent and less susceptible to negotiation. We were all not witnesses to the world-wide contagion. Mawdudi’s proposed jihad would not stop once the Indian subcontinent had rid itself of its British overlord or when Pakistan became a proper Islamic republic. “Islam requires the earth,” he proclaimed in 1939, “not just a portion, but the whole planet.”

It’s a fundamental position I have an impossibly hard time understanding, and one that reading about from a person who started out “like me” (female, living in the United States), is both fascinating and unsettling.

However, I also had some questions about Baker’s methodology and the way she inserted herself in the book. I believe she was trying to write Maryam’s story to reflect her experience researching — letting the reader go with one assumption and then dramatically shifting it later in the story as new facts came to light. This made the book even more unsettling; any assumption the reader started with almost inevitably shifted. I almost want to read the book over again knowing what we found out late in the story to see how it changes some of my impressions.

There was also a sense of betrayal in this approach, as if the rug got pulled out under my feet as I was reading in a way that I didn’t enjoy. This style opens up quite a bit for discussion, particularly the question of whether a nonfiction author, by articulating the fictions created by a person they are profiling, is writing nonfiction or just perpetuating a warped story. I’m not sure the answer to that one, but it’s curious.

As for a proper “review,” I’d recommend this book to anyone with a passing interest in the rise of political Islam or religious biographies. This isn’t a straight-forward narrative, and not one that should be read as any sort of definitive history of political Islam. It’s just one woman’s story, but through that character Baker has written an intriguing book, one that left me thinking and pondering after I finished it.

Luckily for me, I received a copy of this book from the publisher to read as part of BOOK CLUB, hosted by Jen (Devourer of Books) and Nicole (Linus’s Blanket). We’ll be discussing the book at Linus’s Blanket today, so I urge you to stop over and check out the discussion — I think the book provides many, many things to talk about and I can’t wait to consider it with other people.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Other Reviews: Devourer of Books |

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Helen Murdoch May 17, 2011 at 7:56 am

It’s so interesting the amount of books/articles/etc that are now out there about Islam. Unfortunately, I feel like in the US we really only get to hear about the extreme end of it all in books like this one. I am not denying that people like Maryam and her group in Pakistan exist, obviously they do and they scare me. However, I wish Americans (westerners?) could also read of regular Muslims who are just like us and I think it would reduce the “us and them” that currently exists. It reminds me of the Cold War when communists/Soviets were the big scary enemy. Ok, sorry to rant. I do think books like this are important, I just wish the publishing world had more of a balance :-)

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Kim May 17, 2011 at 8:20 pm

Helen: I think it’s very clear in the book that Maryam and her mentor are on the fringes of society. I do think there are books that look at more “regular” people living in Islamic society — I’m thinking of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana at the moment. I’d be curious for more recommendations if people can think of them because I’d like books like the one you suggest.

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Jen - Devourer of Books May 17, 2011 at 8:07 am

I definitely agree that Baker was presenting the book in a way that mirrored her research experience. While I think that can work quite well, I don’t think it worked particularly well in this case, because we didn’t have a good enough sense of the author. I felt like she had some very real connection – and therefore biases – to the subject matter, and I think they came through in her presentation, but not enough for me to make an informed decision about what she was writing. I would have preferred that she either make herself a bigger part of the story, or write a more straightforward, objective book.

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Kim May 17, 2011 at 8:23 pm

Jen: Yeah, I can see the book not settling into either tact quite well, but I thought the narrative risk was intriguing and I think, on reflecting more, I enjoyed it. It’s risky, but I think nonfiction should do that sometimes. I would have liked a bit more of the author in the book though, or at least some more clarity about the dual purposes or distinctions between her writing and Maryam’s.

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bermudaonion (Kathy) May 17, 2011 at 8:37 am

The subject matter interests me, but I’m not sure the format would. I’ll have to think about this one.

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Kim May 17, 2011 at 8:23 pm

Kathy: The format is different — different than I expected. But it was intriguing to me, and I think added to the book in some ways (but if you look at the discussion on Nicole’s blog, it seems lots of people disagree with that!).

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Kathleen May 17, 2011 at 1:14 pm

I’m completely intrigued by this one based on your review. I’ve been reading several books on terrorism related to 9-11 so this one would fit in the overall direction of my reading lately.

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Kim May 17, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Kathleen: This would add a very interesting direction to your reading — it’s a very different style of looking at the issues of political Islam and it’s relationship to the West. I wouldn’t read it as a definitive book, but certainly a supplement to other reading.

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Man of la Book May 17, 2011 at 1:25 pm

Very interesting book and excellent review.
Did Baker touch on what prompted Ms. Jameelah to pick a religion sect so extreme?

http://www.ManOfLaBook.com

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Kim May 17, 2011 at 8:28 pm

Man of la Book: She speculates a bit, but doesn’t really come to a conclusion. There’s talk about Maryam’s mental illness, her relationship with her family, her lack of social skills, or just her natural intelligence and finding Islam reading at her local library. There’s not really a good answer though, which is probably to be expected.

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Jenny May 17, 2011 at 6:25 pm

Sounds intriguing and disturbing, and I admit I am rather curious about the way Baker writes. It sounds possibly very irritating, or possibly very awesome. I like it when writers take narrative risks! (But sometimes they fail.)

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Anastasia May 17, 2011 at 8:24 pm

Basically Jenny just said everything I wanted to. :D I almost like the idea of a story that starts out as one kind of thing but ends as another– but maybe that works best in movie situations as opposed to literary ones?

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Kim May 17, 2011 at 8:29 pm

Jenny and Anastasia: That’s a good way of putting it — I think you’d either be intrigued by the switch, or really put-off by it, and I don’t think either reaction is wrong. I think nonfiction tends to be a place where narrative risks don’t get taken, so I did like to see it here even if it didn’t always work :)

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Trisha May 17, 2011 at 7:27 pm

The way an author reveals information can certainly change the tone of the book; and blur the line between narrative nonfiction and historical fiction….

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Kim May 17, 2011 at 8:30 pm

Trisha: Yes, most definitely. It’s fine, fine line to walk in many cases.

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Maphead May 17, 2011 at 7:40 pm

This book intrigues me to no end. Despite its flaws I might have to explore it.

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Kim May 17, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Maphead: You were one of the first bloggers I though of recommending the book to after I finished it. I think with your broader reading on Islam, you’d have a lot to bring to the story that I just wasn’t familiar with. I definitely think you should check it out.

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softdrink May 17, 2011 at 8:58 pm

My recommendation (and I mentioned this book over on Nicole’s blog) would be to read The Faith Club. My book group read it last month, and while most of us didn’t like the book (me included), the sections written by the Muslim author (unfortunately there were three authors and I can’t remember their names) were actually quite interesting, as she talks a lot about the misconceptions people have about her religion, especially due to political/religious extremists and 9/11.
The sections written by the Christian and Jew were MUCH less interesting…lots of whining and morality shining through in those parts. I’d say it’s worth skimming through to read Ranya’s chapters, though (hah! remembered her first name).
And everyone’s comments about The Convert were fascinating…I think I’d be pretty peeved at the author.

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Kim May 19, 2011 at 6:59 pm

softdrink: Thanks for the recommendation — I’m going to look for that book!

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Aarti May 18, 2011 at 10:11 pm

I generally skip books that tackle religious questions and conversions for some of the reasons you list above. One, I am just generally uncomfortable around people who believe so strongly in a religion and two, I’m really turned off by people who seem to think their religion is better than someone else’s. So I think I’d also have difficulty with Maryam’s words (especially if you consider that she’d include her parents and extended family among the hated people…)

That said, I think the author “cheating” would upset me even more.

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Kim May 19, 2011 at 7:00 pm

Aarti: That’s one of my discomforts too — I just can’t really understand a world view in which religion is used as an excuse to hate other people. That just doesn’t make sense to me, no matter how well-written it is. That made parts of this book hard for me to read.

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