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Deborah Baker’s ‘The Convert’ is the true story of a Jewish girl who converted to Islam

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The story of Maryam Jameelah is an extraordinary but painfully confused true tale of a young American woman whose search for moral absolutes and emotional security led her to abandon a middle-class Jewish upbringing in suburban New York in the 1960s for a vastly different existence as an exile and convert to Islam in Pakistan, where she experienced both great intellectual productivity and deep personal conflict. Deborah Baker, who based her account of Jameelah’s life largely on troves of correspondence (which Jameelah gave her permission to use), calls her story a parable of Islam and America. But it is hard to find a clear lesson in a life whose multiple twisted strands have included bouts with mental illness, family conflicts, irreconcilable loyalties to rival faiths and versions of history, and ultimate disillusionment in a search for impossible certainties about life and death.

There is much to admire in Jameelah, especially her determination and idealistic belief in justice and a better world, which inspired her writings and drove her relentlessly — sometimes violently — to denounce what she saw as evil. At age 11, a bookworm with heroic fantasies, she wrote that she planned to become a “missionary to the Arabs. Not to convert them, but to make sure they stay just as they are.” At 14, she dreamed of a “new golden age” where Arabs and Jews would live in harmony, as they had in medieval Spain.

Her tortured relationship with Judaism, Christianity and the West was a jumble of adolescent rebellion, liberal guilt and a desperate search for elusive moral verities. She was first shocked by photographs of Nazi concentration camps, then by the “Zionist propaganda” and the abuses of Palestinians that followed the creation of Israel. “I no longer consider myself a Jew,” she wrote with cold fury in 1949. Tempestuous and drawn to extremes, she suffered nervous breakdowns and was sent to psychiatric institutions several times.

By age 27, she had left behind her religion, her country, her family and even her given name, Margaret Marcus. From then on, as an adult convert to Islam, her rejection of modern Judeo-Christian culture as materialistic and immoral became the central theme of prodigious writings — pamphlets, essays and books with titles such as “Western Civilization Condemned by Itself” — that earned her fame throughout the Muslim world.

Yet the second half of Jameelah’s story is fraught with contradiction, emotional turmoil and disillusionment. Having romanticized Islam from afar and imagined it as a secure, all-embracing escape from human foibles and fears, she instead found herself clashing with the cultural expectations, personal conflicts and political feuds of an alien society that viewed her with a mixture of suspicion and awe.

Here a second character, the late Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi, emerges as equally important to the story. In fact, Baker’s detailed account of his personality and vision is far more relevant to understanding the struggles of contemporary Islam than anything Jameelah experienced or produced. Mawdudi, a leading Sunni scholar and the founder of Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami party, adopted Jameelah as his daughter after a lengthy correspondence. In 1962, the intrepid new convert crossed the Atlantic by freighter and went to live with his family in the city of Lahore.

At first she eagerly embraced the strictures of her adopted faith, including the total seclusion of women. “I feel I have finally arrived at a place I can call home,” she wrote her father. Yet Jameelah never really adjusted to her new world or fit in with her mentor’s plans. She was far too outspoken for a radical sect that truly rejected Western values and sought to build a utopian Islamic society based on sharia and jihad. She was still psychologically volatile, and at one point Mawdudi had her committed to a state mental hospital, where the filthy and emaciated patients reminded her of Jewish concentration camp victims. Later she agreed to marry one of his associates and bore three children, but according to Baker she was not stable enough to care for them.

Jameelah, who never left Pakistan, continued publishing diatribes against the West for years, yet privately she became increasingly estranged from Mawdudi’s harsh vision of Islam, and her critique was undermined by the eruption of Islamic terrorism. When Baker visited her in Lahore several years after the attacks of 9/11, she found “an old woman, filled with fears, living alone in a room” full of books — as much a misfit as the impassioned but troubled Jewish teenager she had been in America, half a century before.

Pamela Constable , a Washington Post staff writer, has reported frequently from Pakistan since 1998.

THE CONVERT A Tale of Exile and Extremism By Deborah Baker Graywolf. 246 pp. $23

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