In The Convert, Deborah Baker unravels the life of Margaret Marcus, an American woman who, as Maryam Jameelah, became one of the pre-eminent voices of Islamic revivalism in the early 1960s.
You came across Maryam Jameelah's story while reading through the list of papers housed in the Manuscript and Archives Division at the New York Public Library. When did you know that she would be the subject of your next book?
The idea for my last book, A Blue Hand, was love at first sight. Allen Ginsberg's search for enlightenment enabled me to write about the complex relationship between India (where I have lived off and on for years) and America. The same year Allen arrived in Bombay, Maryam Jameelah arrived in Lahore, a recent convert to Islam. When I stumbled upon her letters, I knew I had discovered something, but I wasn't sure if it was a book. The voice of plucky "Peggy" writing to Herbert and Myra Marcus back home was engrossing. But however famous Margaret Marcus/Maryam Jameelah was in the Islamic world, in the West she was a complete unknown.
Was your intent always to combine the story of Jameelah's life with a history of political Islam?
I wanted to construct the book so that it would subvert not only the assumptions and stereotypes Westerners often bring to thinking about Muslims but also the ones Muslims betray when they hold forth on "The West." So this was never going to be a straight, just-the-facts-ma'am biography. But in order to make sense of Jameelah's story as it unfolded, I also had to explore the origins of global jihad and the idea of political Islam.
Jameelah's condemnation of the West and her steadfast belief in the superiority of Islam never wavered. Where did this strong sense of conviction come from?
Jameelah's belief in the essential superiority of Islam mirrors the unwavering sense of superiority of some of our noisier religious leaders and cowboy politicians (and a few voices from the liberal elite). Many of the former have been as eager to impose their grasp of divine sanction on our freewheeling, materialistic, and sexually promiscuous society as on the rest of the world. Perhaps their sense of righteousness, like Maryam's, arises from battles with uncontrollable inner demons. I really couldn't say, not being of the crusader persuasion myself.
In the beginning, your attitude toward Jameelah was "curious but distant." How would you describe it at the end of the project?
Portraying the world through Jameelah's eyes was a very thorny challenge; I doubt my feelings about her will ever settle down. But I was grateful for the effort she made not only to articulate a cogent critique of America's heavy-handedness in the world (a critique reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg's) but also for the way her mind and her heart remained open to those infidels she left behind in Westchester [County].