2011, Graywolf Press
|C4 Ratings...out of||10|
Deborah Baker’s The Convert is billed as a biography of Margaret Marcus, an American Jewish woman who became an influential voice in the radicalization of Islam and fueled the modern understanding of Jihad. Baker builds Convert on extensive (but not quite exhaustive) research, primary source material, and interviews with living key players.
Even so, it’s a stretch to suggest that Convert reads like a typical biography. Excluding notes and acknowledgement, the book checks in at a relatively slim 223 pages. Those pages are packed tight with information about Marcus and her new Pakistani environment. But in the end, those pages don’t possess a firm sense of the truth. Nor does it feel like the truth is entirely unknowable. In many ways, the absence of such a conclusion could make a biography feel hasty, as if the writer had simply given up on knowing her subject. In this case, The Convert takes an interesting turn: it becomes a clever and well-written meditation on the relationship between a writer and her subject.
Margaret Marcus was a bit of an oddball. She had a homely appearance, few if any friends, and an oversized obsession with the Arab world. She spent countless hours in the library researching Islam. After reaching the conclusion that her beliefs were more aligned what she had been reading than with her nearly faithless upbringing, she converted to Islam, and changed her name to Maryam Jameelah.
Among the many writers she encountered in the library was Manwala Abul Ala Mawdudi, a strict thinker who believe in Sharia Law. Maryam found commonalities between her notions and Mawdudi’s words, and initiated a correspondence. When she expressed her belief that she couldn’t live happily in the West as a practicing Muslim, Mawdudi invited her into his Pakistani home and adopted her as part of his family.
If the story above piques your interest, The Convert would be worth picking up. But don’t expect an easy read. The book is as much about Deborah Baker’s discovery of Maryam as it is about Maryam’s conversion and life in Pakistan. In a typical biography, the writer starts as an authority on her subject. But Baker begins The Convert as merely an intrigued researcher. As Baker’s research goes on, Maryam’s story become more complicated, and the truth more convoluted.
The emotional crux of The Convert lies in the lifespan of Baker’s infatuation for her subject. That infatuation is sown, buds, blossoms, withers, and dies throughout the course of the book. It is a compliment to Baker that, as readers, we experience that lifespan similarly.
As Baker’s relationship with Maryam unfolds, the book intersperses Maryam’s letters and writings with historical context and narrative analysis from Baker. The strength of Convert lies in that analysis. Take for instance Baker’s description of Maryam’s decision to emigrate:
To achieve something noteworthy and enduring with the few gifts God had provided her was her keenest desire. Only then would God realize that she had not squandered her life, dishonored her limited time on earth by meaningless pursuits or sinful behavior. She planned to give a good account of herself.
Not only is this great analysis of Maryam’s motivation, it foreshadows the discoveries Baker will make about Maryam’s letters.
In many ways, The Convert is not a complete or thorough biography. But I, for one, am glad it isn’t. There’s a lot of power in the ambiguity of Maryam Jameelah’s words. At the same time, there’s a distinct separation between the real Maryam Jameelah and the persona she presented in her writing. That separation was a maddening discovery for the biographer, and as a reader, I have to admit that it was jarring for me as well.
Yet, on numerous occasions since I’ve finished reading The Convert, I’ve found myself thinking about the strange life of Maryam Jameelah. Any admiration I might have had for Maryam is gone, as is most of my curiosity about her. Yet her words, words rooted in a conjured, false self-image, helped lay the foundation for many extremist attacks on the Western world I’m trying to decide what that means, and how it affects the world we’ve lived in over the last ten years.
The Covnert isn’t the best book I’ve read, but it’s important, and I have a sneaking suspicion that Maryam Jameelah will continue to invade my thoughts often.
Similar reads: This is really unlike anything I have ever read, but the historical aspects made me think a little (for a nanosecond) about Steve Coll’s books. I haven’t read the book, but the movie Cobb leads me to believe that Al Stump’s biography of the same name contains a similarly tumultious relationship between writer and subject. For a more traditional Biography try Berg’s Max Perkins, Editor of Genius.