May 4, 2014 By Shameer Ks

Riddles of Maryam Jameelah’s Life

The-Convert-A-Tale-of-Exile-and-Extremism-Deborah-BakerReview of The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism by Deborah Baker

What is the foremost condition for writing a biography? If it is verifiability, should someone not writes it in close association with the subject or the subject’s trusted alter-ego? Most authentic biographies are written when the subjects nod to someone wielding the pen. Still, one needs only to be reminded of the controversy about Patrick French’s The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of VS Naipaul, the result of one of the most successful liaisons between a biographer and subject. A person is the owner of the past he lived. When someone else rakes around there, she needs to show the humility of being far inferior in knowledge to her subject. Or, a modicum of honesty demands that she should not impose her conception of the world on to the mindscape of her subject.

Read what Deborah Baker wanted to do, when she ‘unveiled’ Maryam Jameelah’s (the name Margret Marcus adopted after her reversion to Islam) life in her much-touted The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism:

“I inhabit the lives of my subjects until I think like them. Behind the doors of my study, I wear them like a suit of out-of-date clothes, telling their stories, interpreting their dreams, mimicking their voices as I type. I find myself most susceptible to those tuned to an impossible pitch, poets and wild-eyed visionaries who live their lives close to the bone. Haunting archives, reading letters composed in agony and journals thick with unspeakable thoughts, I sound the innermost chambers of unquiet souls; unearth dramas no one would ever think to make up.”

Deborah does all these, while admitting that ‘anonymity is her vocation’. Is anonymity not the best tactic ever to duck responsibility?

On Veiling

“I noticed that as Margaret Marcus grew older, the photographs became less forgiving. Awkwardness radiated from her. Trussed in fancy dresses, she stood apart from her respectable-looking parents and lipsticked sister, gamely smiling and looking as if she wanted to disappear. By her mid-twenties, she began wearing a scarf to cover her hair. Finally, a news photo taken soon after her arrival in Pakistan showed her in a burqa posed standing in front of a sunlit door, only her hands and feet visible.”

(The Convert, Read from Magisroll e-book reader, Page 7.28%)

“So Margaret, too, had managed to slip out of one life and into the clothes of another. Only for her it was a real life, not an imagined one.”(Ibid)

The very cover of the book has this photograph which ‘radiate awkwardness’ and frighteningly reminds us, the liberal readers, of the horrors of conversion. The cover tempts us to possess and read the book. There is Maryam Jameelah of 1962 veiled head to foot in burqa. And our readers who, breathing the air of liberation, want to see women unveiled if they are veiled and see them exposed if their private has not yet become public, would never miss the book. Neither did I. I don’t belittle the discourse of veiling as a construct of the patriarchal religion as long as women don’t have space and liberty to interpret texts in preference or defiance of her desire for attire. But conversely, don’t we impose our construct of veiling and liberation on her, when she veils as a choice of her own? What about the following argument of Mohja Kahf:

“One way to interpret this long historical presence of veiling is to believe that men have always tried to control women’s bodies. This may be true, and it is true that Islamic as well as Christian and Jewish authorities have asserted their own definitions of veiling, but it doesn’t tell half the story of the veil. Men have also tried to control women’s bodies through the institution of motherhood and continue to do so through laws governing reproduction but, as Adrienne Rich points out, this does not make motherhood conform to patriarchal prescriptions.

Rich distinguishes motherhood prescribed by male definitions from experiences of motherhood springing from women’s lives, and there is a similar distinction between institutions of veiling defined from above and women’s own multivalent practices of veiling.”

(From Her Royal Body the Robe Was Removed: The Blessings of the Veil and the Trauma of Forced Unveilings in the Middle East, Mohja Kahf, The veil : women writers on its history, lore, and politics / edited by Jennifer Heath, University of California Press)

The Anonymous Western Radical

Deborah Baker is not Patrick French. She is not subversive to her subject’s intentions and guiles. She has a clearly stated agenda and a political conviction which she has in contradistinction of her subject’s:

“Was the enmity between Islam and the West metaphysical or historical? Was it ironic or inevitable that the age of liberal democracy had also been the age of imperialism? What was the relationship between the principles enshrined in a constitution and a country’s culture and politics?”

(The Convert, Read from Magisroll e-book reader, page12.77%)

But though Deborah has clearly charted out the course that innocent Margret Marcus took to become fundamentalist Maryam Jameelah, there is no such painstaking effort from her part to know, either in the book or anywhere in the documents written by Deborah, as to how the age of liberal democracy ironically became the age of imperialism.

In the book she alludes to many names who are radically and intertextually implied in Maryam Jameelah’s converted life, Syed Qutub and Mawdoodi to cite two of them. But Deborah does not have even a single name to cite to prove the imperialist hubris of the west. Was she ignorant? Possibly, No. Was she making it anonymous? Possibly, yes. Anonymity is her vocation.

Perils of an Omniscient Narrator

‘The imperatives of each project are different, of course, and while I don’t necessarily think it was wrong of you to let Allen Ginsberg have an “invented” smoke every now and then—I imagine he’d be grateful—I would never have done that in a book about Palestinian history. I was incredibly—even rigidly—strict about only including details I could prove for sure.’

These words were told by Adina Hoffman, American essayist and biographer, to Deborah Baker during a conversation between the two ( But Adina does not see ‘it wrong of Deborah to let Allen Ginsberg have an “invented” smoke every now and then in her book ‘The Blue Hand: The Beats in India.” If Adina means that inventions are to be condemned only when the history of a country – not of people – is written, this throws our concept of omniscient narrator (The omniscient narrator has a full knowledge of the story’s events and of the motives and unspoken thoughts of the various characters. Hence she has the authority to speak on somebody else’s life). Can Omniscient narrator cook someone else’s life in her own oven, adding all ingredients and spices she has stored in the kitchen in advance to make the dish more spicy and piquant?

Intrusive Narrators

The second part of the Convert explores how Maryam Jameelah got locked inside a pagal khana (madhouse). Deborah seems to be making the point that the cure for the malaise of living in the West appeared in the form of Islam. Hence her conversion. Hence her being exile in Pakistan. But the cure of Islam for Maryam was very much like the cure of smoke for Allen Ginsberg. Imaginary. So she ended up for the real cure for her schizophrenia in the madhouse.

My issue with the narrative mode of the Convert is that Maryam Jameelah’s own account of her life through her letters is intruded by the interpretations of her life by Deborah and Mawdoodi. The latter suggests a way out of her schizophrenia (As regards marriage, I will not pressure you, but should you decide to marry, I will try to help you choose a suitable life partner. Naturally you will want to be married to a youth who lives as a good Pakistani Muslim)-Islam as a nationhood and marriage bureau. Deborah wants to argue, though surreptitiously, that Islam has never been cure for her schizophrenic mind which could not simply accept the freedom that the West offers (Perhaps Margaret’s embrace of Islam was simply a response to a culture that refused to rein in her desires or curb her ferocious temper, Deborah writes in her obituary.

In fact, whether it is Maryam Jameelah or the very Muhmmad Asad (whose Road to Makkah inspired the former when she was Margaret Marcus), Islam that is being lived and experienced today, is not at all the cure for the malaise which living while believing in the west may cause. The Road to real Mecca, the abode of justice, peace, diversity and fraternity, has long been closed.

Finally, Maryam Jameelah could find the cure she had long been searching for in the form of death on October 31, 2012. Now she is free from the riddles of life and the riddles of interpretations on her life (be it that of Deborah or of Mawdoodi). May God grant her the repose and peace she had been exploring all along her life.

Posted in: Person in Focus