Author: Deborah Baker
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):
“What drives a young woman raised in a postwar New York City suburb to convert to Islam, abandon her country and Jewish faith, and embrace a life of exile in Pakistan? The Convert tells the story of how Margaret Marcus of Larchmont became Maryam Jameelah of Lahore, one of the most trenchant and celebrated voices of Islam’s argument with the West.
A cache of Maryam’s letters to her parents in the archives of the New York Public Library sends the acclaimed biographer Deborah Baker on her own odyssey into the labyrinthine heart of twentieth-century Islam. Casting a shadow over these letters is the mysterious figure of Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi, both Maryam’s adoptive father and the man who laid the intellectual foundations for militant Islam.
As she assembles the pieces of a singularly perplexing life, Baker finds herself captive to questions raised by Maryam’s journey. Is her story just another bleak chapter in a so-called clash of civilizations? Or does it signify something else entirely? And then there’s this: Is the life depicted in Maryam’s letters home and in her books an honest reflection of the one she lived?”
Thoughts: The subject matter of The Convert is absolutely fascinating. What causes someone to convert to Islam? Better yet, what causes a young woman to convert to Islam and then move to Pakistan? Unfortunately, Deborah Baker never truly answers these questions, and the execution of the subject matter falls flat.
While Ms. Baker uses Maryam’s own correspondence, she admits to rewriting it or changing it to help the flow of her story. This, to me, fictionalizes the story and makes the entire concept more difficult to accept. Maryam never fully explains why she converted or why she felt compelled to become one of the most vitriolic, outspoken anti-American correspondents. Yet she admitted to withholding the truth in letters to her parents. Combine that with the alterations by Ms. Baker, and the reader quickly loses the sense of authenticity and truth that symbolizes a quality biography.
Ms. Baker does her best to make Maryam as sympathetic a person as possible, but here too she fails in her attempts. Maryam is utterly unsympathetic in her demeanor and righteousness. Her inability to even consider a world where the two cultures (Muslim versus any other) could coexist is simply unfathomable and rather scary. With her stints in various mental hospitals, one gets the impression that Maryam was a very miserable woman, and she put the blame for her existence on the United States. It is a difficult attitude to comprehend, but the fact that Ms. Baker is unable to truly explain it makes it worse.
While I was anxious to read The Convert, get a better understanding of the Muslim culture and understand what would prompt a woman to convert, I was ultimately left with as many questions with which I started. Maryam’s words, not matter how altered, left a bitter aftertaste, and I was horrified at her inflexibility and intractability. She justified her behavior and attitudes with a sense of morality that was uncompromising and harsh. The Convert is the type of novel that removes any sense of hope that the two cultures will ever be able to get along, which, given the unending nature of the conflicts in the Middle East, is not the right message for this day and age.
Thank you to Graywolf Press for my reading copy.