A Tale of Exile and Extremism
*A 2011 National Book Award Finalist*
A spellbinding story of renunciation, conversion, and radicalism from Pulitzer Prize-finalist biographer Deborah Baker
What drives a woman raised in a postwar New York City suburb to convert to Islam, abandon her country and Jewish faith, and embrace a life of permanent exile in Pakistan? The Convert, a finalist for the National Book Award and a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2011, tells the gripping story of how Margaret Marcus of Larchmont became Maryam Jameelah of Lahore.
Praise For The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism…
“[Deborah] Baker's captivating account conveys the instability, faith, politics, and improbable cultural migration that make [Maryam] Jameelah's life story so difficult to sum up yet impossible to dismiss.” —The New York Times Book Review
“[A] stellar biography that doubles as a mediation on the fraught relationship between America and the Muslim world . . . [The Convert] is a cogent, thought-provoking look at a radical life and its rippling consequences.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“[The Convert] is more than a biography; it gets at the heart of the ongoing conflict between Islam and the West.” —Marie Claire
“[A] profoundly disorienting biography . . . The story [Baker] is telling is like a hall of mirrors in a fun house--full of so many distortions that the truth can come only in glimpses. The life story of Maryam Jameelah seems to have alternately fascinated, disturbed, and unsettled Deborah Baker. It is guaranteed to do the same to her readers.” —Christian Science Monitor
“[Baker] opens the door to the vital questions of how radical Islam has impacted the world, and what part converts such as [Maryam] Jameelah have played . . . An important, searing, highly readable and timely narrative.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Spellbinding . . . Baker's investigation of [Maryam] Jameelah yields mysteries and surprises galore. A significant contemporary figure in Islamic-Western relations becomes human, with all the foibles and angst that word implies.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“[The Convert is] a new biography as absorbing as an excellent detective story . . . Cutting back and forth between Margaret/Maryam's two perplexing lives, Baker gives us a miserable, privileged woman whose argument with her home was so strong that hers became one of the most trenchant voices of Islam's argument with the West. In this superb biography, Baker makes it an argument worth our attention.” —Plain Dealer (Cleveland)
“By unpacking the boxes and piecing together [Maryam] Jameelah's complicated life, Baker untangled a nonfiction narrative as surreal as any fairy tale . . . Engrossing.” —Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
“Baker is a remarkable writer. The Convert, despite the implications of the subject matter, finds the irony, the humor and the greatly perplexing disunity in the struggles of the key players. Baker also finds a way to present this story so that it is a readable, page-turning parallel to her own journey of amazing discovery. The book is valuable for its historical insights, its timeliness, its portraits of human beings torn by passion and intellect, and for its model of splendid writing and reporting.” —Rae Francoeur, GateHouse News Service
“This book is a beautiful illustration of a profoundly unique person, Maryam Jameelah. If you like a biography with a twist, The Convert is for you.” —Jewcy
“With remarkable even-handedness, Deborah Baker reveals the terrible costs of belonging exacted by two very different, battling cultures. Sweeping books on the big wars can't do what this focused gaze on a single misfit so vividly accomplishes.” —Kiran Desai, author of The Inheritance of Loss
“In this unusual, sometimes funny and sometimes frightening biography Deborah Baker deftly explores the urgency and lunacy of conversion, Pakistan--and America's--romance with fundamentalism, and the necessity for a less blinkered vision of Islam.” —Fatima Bhutto
“Deborah Baker's astonishing book reads like a detective story but is also a work of enormous beauty and understanding. She has explored the most difficult of subjects in an evocative and original way, powerfully conjuring a bygone, albeit simpler era when an argument between Islam and the West first arose fifty years ago. The Convert is the most brilliant and moving book written about Islam and the West since 9/11.” —Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban and Descent into Chaos
Graywolf Press, 9781555976279, 272pp.
Publication Date: September 4, 2012
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
- Did you find Maryam Jameelah to be a sympathetic or admirable figure? Why or why not? Were there any parts of Jameelah’s tale that you found you could personally relate to?
- What do you think drew Deborah Baker to Jameelah as a biographical subject? Despite their very different lives, do you think Baker and Jameelah share any value systems or life experiences that make them particularly well matched as biographer and subject? Why do you think Baker chose to bring her own voice and point of view into the narrative of Jameelah’s story? How does this differ from other biographical or nonfiction works you’ve read?
- Baker points out how mental illness was treated and viewed in the 1950s and 1960s. How do you think Jameelah’s life might have unfolded differently if she were a teenager today? How did the revelation of her illness impact your reading of her letters?
- Did you find any paradox between the relative freedoms Jameelah enjoyed as a religious leader and renowned ideologue, compared to the more traditional roles assigned to women via the teachings of Mawlana Mawdudi?
- Most of Jameelah’s letters in The Convert are addressed to her parents. Why do you think she continued to maintain this connection, which seemed so vital to her existence, despite having renounced her parents’ country, culture, and religious beliefs?
- Baker conducted the majority of her research for The Convert at the New York Public Library, where Jameelah’s letters are archived. Why do you think Jameelah chose to not only make her letters available to the public, but to entrust them to a Western institution? Why not send her archives to an institution in Pakistan?
- At the end of The Convert, Baker writes, “In her most recent letter to me, Maryam asked that I send her two copies of a National Geographic book of photographs. I’m still trying to decide what books I will send.” What books would you send to Maryam Jameelah, and why?
- Baker opens The Convert with the following epigraphs: “If a man passes a door which has no curtain and is not shut and looks in, he has committed no sin.”—Muhammed ibn ‘Abd Allah Kahtip al-Tibrizi, Mishkat al-Masabih“Whoever undertakes to write a biography binds himself to lying, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to flummery. . . . Truth is not accessible.”—Sigmund FreudWhy do you think Baker chose these epigraphs? Did the revelation that she had rewritten and condensed many of Jameelah’s letters change your reading of The Convert as a work of nonfiction up until that point? Is there ever such a thing as “pure” nonfiction when it comes to biography and memoir?
- What do you think motivated Mawlana Mawdudi to take Jameelah into his home?
- What do you think Jameelah would make of The Convert? Do you think she would find it to be a fair portrait? Does it matter?