2011 National Book Award non-fiction nominee: Deborah Baker, The Convert
November 15, 2011 § Leave a comment
According to the Mawlana, among every people in every period of history there have been the good and the righteous and, whatever creed they professed, they are the true Muslims. He saw these qualities in me. There were even true Muslims before the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him), a period traditionally held to be a time of total pagan ignorance, or jahiliyya. The Mawlana believes that Western values exported to the Muslim world by colonialism created only the most recent manifestation of this sorry state, and, like me, he went through a period of ignorance and upheaval before alighting on the Right Path. In Arabic they call this path the Sunnah, meaning the Way of the Prophet.
On the advice of the jailed Islamic leader Sayyid Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, over a year ago I sent the Mawlana Mawdudi some of my writings on Islam as a way of introducing myself. He responded with an invitation to share the coming Ramadan holiday with his family in Pakistan. “When I was reading your articles,” Mawdudi wrote me, “I felt as if I were reading my own mind.” He was certain I’d feel the same when I read his work and of course I did. He was impressed but only midly surprised that a girl born and brought up in America could come to hold the exact same views he had been preaching for the past thirty years of his life. Naturally, Mawlana Mawdudi wanted to know how a young American girl, from a Jewish family, no less, could arrive at a clear and genuine conception of Islam all by herself. He asked if I might find the time to write a brief story of my mental evolution and send it to him.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to order my thoughts on Deborah Baker’s biography of the former Margaret Marcus, a native New Yorker of Jewish ancestry, who converted to Islam in 1961 and changed her name to Maryam Jameelah. It is a fascinating story, one that promises a look at that hardest of creatures to pin down in writing, the possibly crazed/inspired fanatic, but yet there are some troubling aspects to Baker’s book that made The Convert a disappointing read.
Baker traces Margaret/Maryam’s journey from a possibly mentally ill young woman (she spent two years in voluntary commitment at a New York psychiatric hospital in the late 1950s) to one of the more prominent voices in a radical Islamist movement in Pakistan, the Jamaat-e-Islami, the forerunner to the current jihadist movements and an important influence on both the Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama bin-Laden. The main source for The Convert are a series of letters that Margaret/Maryam wrote to her parents and whose copies she later donated to the New York Public Library over a period from 1961 to 2005.
Baker quotes extensively from these letters, using them as a framework to analyze Maryam’s theological development from a secular Jew to a radical Islamist. She explores Maryam’s childhood, her troubled relationship with her Jewish heritage, her growing fascination with Islam, and how from an early age she displayed an “all or nothing” approach (one that caused her all sorts of problems in both New York and Pakistan). Maryam’s letters, as presented, are fascinating in that there is this growing sense that she is not quite in touch with reality, a point that Baker insinuates but rarely directly discusses in The Convert. Baker divides her chapters by broad chronology, with some emphasis given to certain thematic points in her letters during these span of years. Much of the writing is devoted to Maryam’s early years as a convert and her explanations to her parents back in New York what she is doing in Lahore, Pakistan.
Valuable as primary sources can be in constructing biographies and other histories, they can also be notoriously unreliable. It is enough to know early on that Maryam is not stating every thing that is happening, but there are also times in which there is a sense that Baker herself is editing out information that would challenge the picture she presents of Maryam as a talented and yet troubled activist. For many, and I am one of this group, such manipulation of the source material (the reader doesn’t learn until late in the book that Baker rewrote most of Maryam’s letters to make them more concise and less rambling) makes it very difficult to trust what truth is being presented. Ranke’s maxim of Wie es eigentlich gewesen (What truly happened) certainly is violated here.
In the end, The Convert is not as much of a non-fiction as it uses non-fictional materials to construct a portrait of its subject that may or may not be accurate in the general features as in its particulars. It tries to capture the complexities of its subject, but due to the mistrust engendered by the author’s admission that she rewrote several of the quoted letters, not to mention Baker’s reluctance to spend much time on how Maryam’s writings became influential in jihadist circles, it is impossible for me to view The Convert as a terribly flawed work that raises more mysteries about its subject than it answers over the course of its pages. Certainly it is by far the weakest of the shortlisted books for the National Book Award for Non-Fiction.