Biographies of Faith: The Convert by Deborah Baker

Back in May of 2011, Kim on her blog Sophisticated Dorkiness posted a review of The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism. I remember being intrigued by what Kim had to say about Deborah Baker’s 2011 biography of a young Jewish American woman who in the early 1960s converted to Islam, moved to Pakistan and became a protegé of an influential Islamist. In the comments section of her post, I wrote I was intrigued by what Kim said about The Convert and noted my desire to someday read it. In her response, Kim thought based on my interest in Islam and religion in general I should read The Convert. I agreed with her response, but then like I do with so many other promising books I read or hear about, quickly forgot about it.

Fast forward to December of 2013 and I found myself picking my way through the shelves of my public library and what did I come across but a copy of Deborah Baker’s The Convert. Remember Kim’s review from 2 and half years ago I quickly snatched it up. As I began reading it a few days later, I was optimistic that Baker’s biography would make for enjoyable reading. I finished it this morning at my neighborhood coffee shop and during my walk home I reflected a bit on The Convert.  Eventually, I came to the conclusion that Baker  does a good but no means perfect job telling the story of a unique, highly complex and somewhat troubled individual and her search for meaning and happiness.

In telling the story of Margaret Marcus and her transition from Jewish suburban family life to Muslim convert Maryam Jameelah of Lahore, Pakistan Baker touches on several subjects. Besides the tension between Islam and the West, Baker also discusses through the lens of her subject’s life story mental illness, gender inequality and religious identity. Like some literary detective, Baker uses Margaret/Maryam’s letters, published materials and those of her mentor Mawlana Mawdudi to reconstruct the details of her life.

As fascinating as this story is, Kim astutely pointed out in her review her concerns with Baker’s methodology, specifically her practice of “inserting herself in the book.” Kim went on to say that

believ[ing] she was trying to write Maryam’s story to reflect her experience researching — letting the reader go with one assumption and then dramatically shifting it later in the story as new facts came to light. This made the book even more unsettling; any assumption the reader started with almost inevitably shifted.

A valid conclusion, definitely worth considering. While The Convert wasn’t perfect, it told a fascinating story. For that alone, I’m glad I read it.

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1 Comment

Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, History, Indian Subcontinent, Islam, Judaica

One response to “Biographies of Faith: The Convert by Deborah Baker

  1. I read it too–probably last year–and it certainly was a fascinating read. ‘Unsettling’ is a good description.

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