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Thoughts on The Convert by Deborah Baker

April 22, 2011

The Convert

The Convert A Tale of Exile and Extremism by Deborah Baker is as much a tale of the biographer’s journey in understanding her subject as it is about the subject itself. 

The book is about a Jewish woman who converts to Islam in the late 1950s/early 1960s.  Maryam Jameelah born Margaret Marcus is a complex individual for a book to be written on.  She is famous in the Islamic world for her vastly anti-western writings.  Maryam was born in New York to Jewish parents and eventually converted to Islam.  This book recreates both the biographers discovery of her collected manuscripts and letters in the New York Library and Maryam’s conversion to Islam and her eventual move to Pakistan where she resides today.

This is not a traditional biography and it was definitely not what I expected when I picked it up and began reading it.  Baker spends as much time discussing her own journey learning about Maryam as she does discussing Maryam herself.  Thus the book has much writing in the first person.  Baker is not shy in expressing her emotions as she explores Maryam and the Islamic faith.  Maryam’s tale is not an easy one to go through as Baker points out there are many inconsistencies in the available research material.

The best parts of the book are the excerpts of letters.  There are letters describing every aspect of Maryam’s journey.  Letters home from Pakistan are the most interesting.  The author admits to cleaning up some of the letters to make them easier to read and to help highlight aspects of Maryam’s life.  In many instances this would be problematic, but the letters themselves are revealed to be suspect.

The story and life of Maryam Jameelah is an interesting one and Baker’s own research into her life is equally fascinating.  However, it is not what I expected from a biography.  As I went into the second half of the book there were twists and turns in the life of Maryam that shed a whole new light on the first half of the book.  It made coming to terms with the entire story very hard.  There is also a definite bias from the author in this book and I can’t tell whether it is a good thing or a bad thing.

Overall, this is a biography about a very fascinating person, but it is much more than just a biography and I can’t tell if it hinders or helps the book.  It is still a book I would recommend people read, especially if they are interested in the Islamic religion.  The subject matter is definitely interesting and makes it worthwhile.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2011 4:12 am

    This sounds like a very interesting book-by coincidence I posted on another short story by a famous female Urdu short story writer-her story “The Quilt” written in 1944 caused obscenity charges to be brought against the author as the story dealt with a lesbian relationship-an amazing forbidden topic in India in 1944. The author, Ishmat Chughtai, obtained a BA degree and a Bachelors in teaching even though her own family was very against any education above mere literacy for women. To this day her work is banned in very conservative places!-She was caused a great outrage when she suggested the veil for women be discontinued as a throw back to feudalism. It is a simply written fun story but with a lot of power.

    • April 24, 2011 9:53 am

      This story sounds really interesting I will have to hop by your blog and investigate it.

  2. April 23, 2011 5:07 am

    Hi-I wanted share this link I found recently with you-it is to an unlike version of Little Magazine-the premier South Indian literary publication-it has a lot of short stories by writers (including many women) from India, Pakistan and Bengladesh-some really good stories-in English and the online version is free

    http://www.littlemag.com/about/about.html

    • April 24, 2011 9:54 am

      This is a great link. Thank you for sharing it. I will definitely be visiting the site and reading some of the short stories!

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