The strangeness of Maryam Jameelah’s path to fundamentalist Islam is a major reason why many of her Muslim readers find her so attractive.
She left her comfortable Jewish New York upbringing for Pakistan in the 1960s, on the invitation of Abul Ala Mawdudi, a fiery Muslim thinker who made a deep impact on figures like Osama bin Laden and the Ayatollah Khomeini. Within years, Jameelah became a prominent voice within radical Islam herself.
That same strangeness is what drew the Pulitzer Prize-nominated biographer Deborah Baker to Jameelah’s story. In her lauded new biography, “The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism” (Graywolf Press), Baker describes the fascinating and often disturbing story of how a New York Jewish girl named Margaret Marcus became the radical Islamic writer Maryam Jameelah.
“What interested me was how she positioned herself as the voice of critique between Islam and the West,” Baker said over coffee, not far from the New York Public Library in Midtown. Baker’s book came about by a happenstance discovery of Jameelah’s letters, stashed in the library’s archives, which Baker was perusing as a fellow of the NYPL Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.
But Baker’s attraction to Jameelah precedes that discovery, too. Her previous book, “A Blue Hand: The Beats in India,” followed another middle-class Jewish New Yorker, Allen Ginsberg, who also rejected the soulless materialism of his youth for the exotic allure of the East. She said that Ginsberg’s life, while having taken a wildly different turn — towards counterculture and leftist politics, not radical Islam — was in some ways not so different from Jameelah’s.
“When [Ginsberg] told his father [that] he saw God,” Baker explained, “his father said, ‘You have to go back to your psychiatrist.’ That’s essentially what Margaret’s parents told her.”
Baker’s new biography goes into much greater detail about Jameelah’s mental state. Throughout the book Baker is ambivalent about whether Jameelah’s psychiatric condition — which both her father and later Mawdudi flat-out accepted, even putting her in mental hospitals — was a root cause of her conversion. But she underscores the fact that many other poets, artists and religious figures were also psychologically unstable, or at least perceived to be.
“I think they’re related,” Baker said of Jameelah’s religious feelings and mental instability. “I’m not sure all her issues were spiritual” — she writes, for instance, about Jameelah possibly being sexually molested as a child. But Baker is not willing to dismiss her religiosity as simply a symptom of a mental disorder. Of the many explanations Baker teases out, her Jewish upbringing is central.
Margaret Marcus was born in 1934, to Herbert and Myra Marcus, and she grew up in Westchester. The Marcuses were a fairly typical middle-class Jewish family: upwardly mobile, liberal, secular, but haunted by the Holocaust, and in turn, staunch Zionists.
For much of her childhood, Margaret embraced her parents’ views. She had gone to Hebrew school, been a member of a Zionist youth group, but, strangely for her age, Margaret followed news about the Holocaust. Even at a time when many American Jews, in the last days of the war, had only a nebulous understanding of the Nazi atrocities, Margaret would steal away whatever ghastly pictures of death camp victims she could find.
“I think the violence of the Holocaust, the photographs in magazines that her parents tried to hide from her — that was very traumatic for” Margaret, said Baker. She added that the Holocaust was an especially poignant impetus for Margaret’s support of Zionism. “She totally saw that [the Holocaust] was about the Jews and that they” — American Jews — “couldn’t be half-assed Jews anymore.”
But Margaret also had a lifelong fascination with Arabs. She read National Geographic incessantly, scouring the pages for exotic images of men in flowing white kalwar shameezes and women in jet-black burqas, an outfit she would later adopt. She had even thought of becoming an anthropologist, writing to Margaret Mead and briefly enrolling in a doctorate program at NYU.
Though she was firmly committed to a Jewish state in Palestine, she saw it as a romantic version of 12th-century multicultural Spain. “I am convinced that the Jews and Arabs will cooperate and together create a new golden age such as occurred in medieval Spain,” Margaret wrote in 1948, in a letter that Baker condensed and edited. Part of the book’s structure, which Baker decided on with considerable caution, is to juxtapose rewritten versions of Margaret’s letters with Baker’s own interpretation.
Ethan Nosowsky, Baker’s editor at Graywolf Press, which published “The Convert,” said he knew Baker’s decision to rewrite Jameelah’s letters was risky. “The question was how do we convey [Jameelah’s story] in a way that was fair,” Nosowsky said. But once he read an early manuscript, he felt Baker’s strategy worked. “But I think it’s important to note, as Deborah makes clear, that nothing is made up,” Nosowsky added.
Adina Hoffman, author of the recent book “Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza,” co-written with her husband Peter Cole, read drafts of Baker’s book. In an e-mail, Hoffman noted that concerns over Baker’s unconventional approach — not only rewriting Jameelah’s letters, but also including herself in the biography — were unwarranted. “All biographies are subjective at heart,” Hoffman wrote. “Baker is just making that fact more explicit than other writers.”
Baker paints Margaret’s transformation into Jameelah as a gradual one, though marked by certain pivotal events. For instance, as Israel developed, and Margaret herself became more alienated from her American social milieu and more attracted to Islam, her hopes for the Jewish state dimmed. An important rupture came in the 1956 war between Israel and Egypt. In a letter to her sister, Betty, written during the war, Margaret grows increasingly angry, chastising America for not putting more pressure on Israel, like restricting financial support, if Israel did not simply play defense, and instead decide to invade the Gaza Strip.
“Money is the only thing the Zionists understand,” Margaret writes. When she finds a story of an Israeli massacre of Arabs in a Gazan village, reported by the United Nations but buried in The New York Times, she throws a fit. She runs downstairs to her parents, who are eating breakfast in the kitchen, and plops the story on the table. “Look at that!” she shouts, “They are doing everything the Nazis did! I hope the Egyptians defeat every last one of them.”
Within five years of that letter, Margaret would convert to Islam, change her name to Maryam Jameelah, and begin a correspondence with Mawdudi, 31 years her elder. A year later, in 1962, the 28-year-old Jameelah moved in with Mawdudi’s family in Lahore, Pakistan, a sort of daughter to Mawdudi’s doting father.
Baker writes that Mawdudi — founder of Jameet-e-Islami, the radical Islamic group still operating in Pakistan — saw many endearing things in Jameelah, some less benign than others. Similar to Jameelah, in his youth Mawdudi also looked admirably upon the West, enamored by its scientific advances, its cultural influence and its military power. But he became disillusioned with America’s increased support of Israel, and its fickle support of the Arab and Muslim independence movements.
Baker writes that Mawdudi also saw in Jameelah a cunning ideological tool. He could use her writing to advance his own political ends — the comfortable American Jewish girl who voluntarily rejects the West and Israel, embracing Islam instead. When she arrived in Pakistan, Mawdudi helped her publish essays and polemical books in the Muslim world, most of them detailing her journey to Islam; some became best-sellers.
There were important differences between them, however. Baker said that Jameelah’s vehement anti-Zionism was not propelled by anti-Semitism — like Mawdudi’s almost certainly was. Baker noted that whenever Jameelah received books to review that were outright anti-Semitic, “she’d just throw them in the garbage.”
Baker was wary of labeling Jameelah a “self-hating Jew,” and instead attributed her anti-Zionism as an extension of her anti-imperialist views — a view shared by many Muslims today who see Israel as merely another manifestation of Western colonialism. “She saw [Israel] totally as part of the imperialist continuum,” Baker said.
Mawdudi had his own disappointments with Margaret, ones that had little to do with anti-Semitism. He and his followers “expected her to be whiter, blonder, blue-eyed, slimmer,” Baker said, “but instead she arrived more like them” — olive-skinned, dark eyes, darker hair. Jameelah was also terribly awkward, even psychologically disturbed.
Within a few years, Mawdudi expelled her from his house and had her committed to a Pakistani mental hospital. Later, she would move in with a younger Mawdudi acolyte whom she married, as the man’s second wife. Jameelah is still alive and living in Pakistan, though frail; for her research, Baker began a correspondence with Jameelah. Yet her responses did little to change Baker’s interpretation of her subject.
When Baker confronted Jameelah about her conspicuous silence following the 9/11 attacks, her failure to outright reject the killing of innocent civilians — to say nothing of her retrograde views of a woman’s role in society — she got only evasions or outright denials.
In her book, Baker highlights Jameelah’s published disquisitions extolling the virtues of violent jihad, written mainly during the Soviet-Afghanistan war. It was that war that made violence the preferred method of action for many more recent Islamic radicals, most notably Osama bin Laden.
Baker admits that Jameelah is not a likable figure. “She’s not a brave person,” she said. But she rejects simplistic portrayals of her subject, too — that she is simply insane, or self-hating, or traumatized. But Baker remains undecided about whether Jameelah can reform her own views, even in this late stage.
After Baker began her correspondence with her, Jameelah asked Baker to send her some copies of National Geographic, as well as other specific books. Instead, Baker sent her a copy of “Khirbet Khizeh,” written in 1949 by the revered Israeli novelist S. Yizhar. It tells the story of Arabs expelled from their villages during Israel’s war of independence. Baker had been given a copy by Hoffman and Cole, who also run a Hebrew-to-English translation imprint.
Baker admitted that she was not entirely sure why she sent “Khirbet Khizeh” to Jameelah. But she did hear back from Jameelah after she received it. “She liked the book much better than the ones she asked for,” Baker said. Then the biographer added, “but I doubt she’ll review it.”