31 May 2011

The Convert by Deborah Baker

A conversation with Deborah
Open magazine sent me this book to read, saying: “Since both of you write biographies, I thought you might connect!”
I read and enjoyed it very much, finding it an excellent combination of information and entertainment. While I read, I thought about how I might have gone about a similar task, and how I would feel now I held the book in my hands. I had a very interesting interaction with Deborah Baker and here's what I wrote for Open:

Deborah Baker is a biographer and columnist. Her first book, In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding was shortlisted for the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in Biography and her second, A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, also won critical acclaim. Like the other two, this book is also about an unusual person who lived on the fringe and proceeded to make a considerable impact on the world around her: Maryam Jameelah, who was born Margaret Marcus in 1934 to a family of Reformed Jews, converted to Islam, and went to live in Pakistan when she was 28 years old.
Starting with the fragmented records she found in nine boxes in the Manuscripts and Archives Division of The New York Public Library, Deborah Baker has established chronologies and, “teasing the colour of emotion from taciturn documents,” painted a vivid picture of this woman, the life she led, and the impact her writing had.
The Convert begins with a series of letters between Maryam and her host in Pakistan, Mawlana Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdudi. Promising adventure and excitement, they set the tone for what follows. Maryam arrives in Pakistan and settles down. However, less than fifty pages later, she is writing her letters from the Paagal Khanaah on Jail Road in central Lahore. I turned the pages agog, urgent questions arising in my mind – only to find each one answered in good time, as the book unfolded.
I had begun with a certain weariness about having to read a sneering treatise against someone’s personal choices, a feeling inspired by blurbs on the book jacket which spoke of “misfit” and “lunacy of conversion”. However, Deborah Baker was detached and objective in describing Maryam Jameelah as well as her own journey of discovery of Maryam’s life. This made me curious to know how she felt about having these judgemental phrases offered out of context to readers even before they started reading.
She explained,
Maryam referred to herself as a misfit on numerous occasions. Perhaps the quote you are referring to says more about Fatima Bhutto than Maryam Jameelah. Anyway, readers will undoubtedly have their own ideas. There are many different forms of lunacy in the book, the war in Iraq providing an excellent example.
True enough, there were other disturbing elements here unrelated to conversion. In December 1956, struggling to make sense of her life, Margaret Marcus complained of discrimination by her male rightwing professors at New York University – while her psychiatrist, Dr Harper, “only wants to talk about my virginity”. Her passion for the wronged Palestinians had her flinging a newspaper on the breakfast table where her parents sat drinking coffee, scattering silverware to the floor and shouting, “The Israelis are no better than the Nazis. They are doing everything the Nazis did! I hope the Egyptians defeat every last one of them.”
Then, the book touches on descriptions of psychiatric treatment in the US in the early 1960s: strapping the patient tightly in icy bandages for hours at a time on a table; insulin and electro shock therapies, lobotomy, tube feeding; psychiatrists who would not look patients in the eye; and hospital staff who survived the Third Reich only to be following the very practices they escaped from.
I asked Deborah Baker why these sensational matters had been tucked away and lay silent inside the pages of the book and she replied,
I constructed the book in such a way so that these developments would come as revelations. But while these were certainly painful and dramatic moments in Margaret Marcus' young life, I don't see them as sensational. The 1950s were a time when the pressure to conform, at least in America, was enormous; those who refused often found themselves in institutions. Allen Ginsberg, the subject of my last book, was institutionalized and endlessly psychoanalyzed. His mother had been lobotomized, his friends had had insulin shock therapies, or they medicated or drank themselves into stupors to evade the pain of their failure to find a recognizable place in a very rigid society.
My own work as low-profile historian and biographer has shown that the piecing together of facts is a long process during which one tends to move along by filling gaps with conjecture while proceeding to seek validation. So I asked Deborah Baker whether she had done this here, and she said,
Initially, all I had were Maryam's letters to her parents. These letters told the story of her journey to Pakistan, her arrival in Mawdudi's household, the warm welcome that his family provided her and her introduction to the work of the Jama'at I Islami. I found these letters completely absorbing and, as is often the case at the outset of a project, I didn't think to question their reliability. When I got to the letter that called into question everything Maryam had led me to believe I was stunned and rather impressed that I had been led so far down the garden path. I wanted to duplicate that experience for the reader. I wanted the reader to be carried along and come upon the same precipice. I didn't want to get to the end of my research, having answered all the major questions about Maryam Jameelah, write up the story from that all-knowing perspective and hand the reader a tidy package of facts. Hence the use of conjecture throughout the book.
Did Deborah Baker always have the qualities of the detective and writer of suspense thrillers – or was it Maryam’s story and the way it unfolded before her that had brought them out? Even the fact that Margaret had been on Compazine, an antipsychotic and tranquilizer, comes as a shock, discovered long after the Paagal Khanaah letters appear.
She told me,
It was partly in the way her story was revealed to me, the removal of one veil after another, but it was also the challenge of making the reader aware of his or her own expectations---those assumptions and stereotypes we all carry in our heads, whether hawked by Islamic ideologues about "The West" or Western ideologues about “Islam." I wanted to unsettle the reader's bearings on these grandiose subjects, just as Maryam has unsettled mine.
After spending years thinking about Maryam Jameelah and researching her life what were her feelings about her now? She had written that Maryam’s letters were “wildly chatty,” and that, “Perusing them, puzzling over them day after day, I soon began to think of Margaret Marcus, with both fondness and slight condescension, as Peggy.” Later, when she finally met Maryam, in the most dramatic moment of this book (which sadly can no longer be enjoyed as such by anyone who has read this article), she experienced a chilly detachment and wanted to be done with the whole thing. “In the course of writing the book, I had many mixed feelings about Maryam Jameelah,” she agreed, “and only now, with the book finished, are they beginning to settle down.”

An interesting aspect of my interaction with Deborah Baker was her initial reaction to my questions. She mistook them to reflect hostility and scepticism about the entire undertaking, and she replied in a surly and increasingly exasperated tone. I was taken aback at first, but it struck me that I was probably not as good as a communicator as I fancied myself. The truth was, even Deborah Baker had experienced a major transformation in her perception of her subject in the course of this project. After all, the ability to respond without emotion and refrain from jumping to conclusions is an essential skill of the historian.
In any case, this did nothing to lessen how impressed I was with the book. It documents historical information about the Qur’an, the Sunnah and Hadith: how they were formed and what they constitute, and Mawdudi’s contribution to them. Equally fascinating are the physical details of the story – for instance the eight months Maryam spent in Pattoki, a tiny provincial town with no telephones and few cars. The narrow lanes between houses were largely reserved for donkeys, water buffalo, and the odd pony cart. Residents walked from one end to the other via rooftops.
For all her fascinating history, we exit with the image of Maryam as simply an old woman alone in an untidy little room in Lahore with little more than her faith, her library, and letters from her grandchildren for comfort – perhaps waiting, now, in eager anticipation of her three copies of this book. We can only wonder how she will feel when she reads it, and what answers she will have for the searing questions Deborah Baker asks her at the end.

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