The Daily Rumpus
The New York Times Book Review
A New York Jewish Girl Becomes an Islamist
The Chicago Tribune
Review: The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism
Los Angeles Times
Discoveries: The Convert by Deborah Baker
Susan Salter Reynolds
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Deborah Baker’s The Convert Tells the Story of an American Woman’s Love for Islam”
The Christian Science Monitor
“How did Margaret Marcus — a middle-class Jew from Larchmont, NY — become Islamic ideologue Maryam Jameelah?”
“The story [Baker] is telling is like a hall of mirrors in a fun house — full of so many distortions that the truth can come only in glimpses. The life story of Maryam Jameelah seems to have alternately fascinated, disturbed, and unsettled Deborah Baker. It is guaranteed to do the same to her readers.”
Radar Book Review
Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer Deborah Baker’s investigation into the life of Margaret Marcus — a nice Jewish girl from Westchester who converted to Islam, moved to Pakistan, and re-emerged as the outspoken Muslim author Maryam Jameelah — is more than a biography; it gets at the heart of the ongoing conflict between Islam and the West. — K.C.
“Hall of Mirrors”
Deborah Baker’s The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism tells the strange and haunting story of Margaret Marcus, a middle-class Jewish girl from a Westchester suburb who, in the early 1960s, changed her name to Maryam Jameelah, moved to Pakistan, and became an important voice of radical Islamism. It’s a philosophical puzzle box of a book, and the most unsettling thing about it is the lingering suspicion that this troubled young woman did not necessarily make a mistake when she traded postwar America for purdah. Jameelah’s ideology was harsh, even totalitarian. She consorted with vicious anti-Semites and lambasted feminism in the name of a vision of womanhood that she herself could never live out. And yet her Islamic milieu sustained her in a way that the liberal Jewish world she was born into could not. To read The Convert is to begin to understand the appeal of that world to someone at sea in ours.
Baker has written a book that mimics her own process of discovery. To do so, she adopted a daring, unconventional narrative method — just how unconventional isn’t clear until the very end. Some readers will object when they realize the liberties she has taken with some of her sources, but her approach succeeds in creating a hall of mirrors that forces the reader into constant reassessments. “The form of the book is where the meaning is,” Baker says. “This is really about making narrative sense of a life.”
The Jewish Week
“From Jewish Westchester to Radical Islam”
From Jew to Muslim in “The Convert”
This book is a beautiful illustration of a profoundly unique person, Maryam Jameelah. If you like a biography with a twist, The Convert is for you.
The Observer’s Very Short List
“One Long Strange Trip”
Deborah Baker is best known as the author of relatively straightforward books about Laura Riding and Allen Ginsberg. Her latest, The Convert: A Tale of Exile in Extremism, is a near-total departure for the author: It tells a fascinating story, and pushes the envelope of the biographer’s art.
Baker was rummaging around in the New York Public Library when she ran across personal papers of Margaret Marcus — an American woman who left her life in the New York suburbs behind in 1962, and became a radical Islamist in Pakistan. (Marcus, who’d changed her name to Maryam Jameelah, had written a number of diatribes against Western materialism, but she’d also continued to correspond with her Jewish parents in Westchester County.) Baker follows the paper trail, which ultimately leads her to Pakistan, and to a bracing confrontation with Marcus/Jameelah herself.
The Faster Times
The TFT Review of Deborah Baker’s The Convert
Ultimately, despite her naiveté, Maryam Jameelah reveals herself to be surprising, sometimes contradictory, and sometimes ironic, but hardly an anomaly when compared to other fanatics. Likewise, Mrs. Baker’s biography reveals a thoughtful writer exploring a subject in the best way she knows how, and the result is a conscientious book—sometimes unorthodox in its ventriloquism — that teaches us about the consequences Maryam Jameelah faced when manufacturing public dogma from her personal, spiritual journey.
Gatehouse News Service
“The Convert,” despite the implications of the subject matter, finds the irony, the humor and the greatly perplexing disunity in the struggles of the key players. Baker also finds a way to present this story so that it is a readable, page-turning parallel to her own journey of amazing discovery. The book is valuable for its historical insights, its timeliness, its portraits of human beings torn by passion and intellect, and for its model of splendid writing and reporting.
Publishers’ Weekly (starred)
“Crusader for Islam: PW Talks with Deborah Baker”
Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Exile and Extremism in ‘The Convert'”
A Pulitzer Prize finalist delves into the fascinating life and letters of a young Jewish woman who converted to radical Islam and moved from suburban New York to Pakistan.
In 1962, 28-year-old Margaret Marcus left her parents’ secular Jewish home to live in Lahore in the Muslim household of idealogue and Islamic political leader Maulana Mawdudi. In Pakistan, Marcus changed her name to Maryam Jameelah and penned expressive letters to her parents describing, during the next three decades, her newfound identity, community and the motivations behind her conversion and all-consuming embrace of Islam. Jameelah went on to write not only letters — the archives of which Baker (A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, 2008, etc.) came across in the New York Public Library — but an enormously popular set of books criticizing Western materialism and exalting life lived according to the laws of the Koran. Baker’s account unfolds chronologically through Jameelah’s letters, included in the book, as well as various articles she published in American magazines. Despite Jameelah’s unwavering, outspoken disdain for Western secularism, she faced mounting obstacles in her new life, all of which the author examines as a platform to explore the broader subject of how radical idealism manifests itself. Jameelah eschewed what she viewed as the miserably misguided popular values of her native country, but this opposition did not tamp out her love for and connection to her parents. On this note, Baker, who corresponded and finally met with Jameelah in her home, opens the door to the vital questions of how radical Islam has impacted the world, and what part converts such as Jameelah have played.
An important, searing, highly readable and timely narrative.
Library Journal (starred)
Steve Young, McHenry Cty. Coll., Crystal Lake, IL
Biographer Baker (In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding) came across an archive of Jameelah’s papers and became entranced; she presents here a spellbinding factual account of Jameelah’s estrangement from her family, faith, and country; her quest to find an authentic Islam halfway around the world; and her confinement in mental asylums on two continents. How did this troubled woman become the theorist behind the notion of Islam vs. the West? Baker’s investigation of Jameelah yields mysteries and surprises galore.
VERDICT: A significant contemporary figure in Islamic-Western relations becomes human, with all the foibles and angst that word implies. General readers will find this story compelling, while scholars will be pleased with the insight it brings to an important 20th-century Islamist voice. Highly recommended.
The Friday Times
C M Naim
“Ten years after two planes crashed into the Twin Towers in New York, books are being written, seminars and conferences organised, special commemorative issues planned to make sense of 9/11. Deborah Baker’s The Convert has already been hailed as “the most moving and brilliant book written about Islam and the West since 9/11”, but it would be a mistake to lump it with the scavenger industry that has pitched its tent this year. Baker does not ask, “why do they hate us?” or “what’s wrong with them?” as many western commentators are wont to — indeed there are no easy villains and heroes here. Baker’s is not a grand narrative of civilisational clashes. The Convert is instead a sober meditation on our common humanity by laying bare the pathology of civilisations — of East and West. In retracing the life of a single individual — a very maladjusted one at that — Baker finds the key to several Big Questions and promises that questions like the above may indeed be red herrings.”
“This work does not lie, it just blurs the boundaries between fiction and fact. The meaning of the book is condensed in its jerky form, which becomes the battleground where the inner demons of the West and the East fight one another over a seemingly insignificant woman who had the courage to summon them up. Perhaps this is what Virginia Woolf, in her essay “The Art of Biography” had called “that high degree of tension which gives us reality.”
The Sunday Guardian
“Made Maryam: The Power of Schizophrenic Zeal”
… a gripping but fascinating account of a brilliant but troubled woman.
If you like thrillers, Deborah Baker’s “tale of exile and extremism” is a true story with a new twist at every turn of the page. If you haven’t read a good biography lately, then too here’s your opportunity. And this is just for starters, since The Convert is ample nutrition for our minds, morals and politics.
“Life is Elsewhere” A Jewish woman’s search for meaning takes her to Islam
A Bringer Of Brimstone
The raised, inflamed Islamism of Maryam Jameelah, and her portrayal of her mentor, Maulana Maududi
To Baker’s credit, she doesn’t allow her even-handed treatment of [Mawdudi] to obfuscate his message. Maududi regarded Islam as a revolutionary ideology akin to Marxism. In his vision of God’s earthly kingdom, non-Muslims and women could not hold public office. Indeed, the good maulana traced the collapse of every great civilisation to the moral decay caused by granting women undue freedoms. Painting was the first step along the road to idolatry.
Maududi recommended death for apostasy, and unceasing jehad against infidels who are preventing the truth of God from prevailing. At times, today’s Pakistan with its blasphemy laws, riots against religious minorities and public prayers for Osama bin Laden can symbolise the dark fruition of Maududi’s holy vision. If you’re looking for an unusually angled view on how it got here, you could do worse than delve into the strange life of Maryam Jameelah.
First City: Delhi’s City Magazine
Submerging herself headlong into this tale of ‘exile and extremism’, [Baker] ensures that we, as readers of The Convert, are completely, compellingly, unforgivably, absorbed, in turn. As the teller of Maryam’s story, she takes no chances whatsoever with the research, building the strong backbone of her book, spending months in the library, traveling to Lahore, and as she takes us along on what turns out to be a very personal journey, she lets the seams show too — no matter how disturbing and raw — wound-like they are. It’s categorised under non-fiction, but all the life-altering — thought-provoking drama that an able fiction writer thrives on, is very much here.
A book about the state of perpetual exile — irreversible and uncertain, at best — The Convert is for anyone who’s ever wonder about the “infinitely mysterious, riotously confusing task” of finding your place in the universe.
“The Woman Who Led Deborah Baker Down the Garden Path”
Mint & The Wall Street Journal
“From Larchmont to Lahore”
Jameelah’s “tale” is full of sinkholes and quagmires. In her story we may begin to understand how gender and mental health are links in the chain of nation, faith and race, binding us even as they exclude others. Baker’s lucid, compassionate biography does well to bring up those questions but leave them open-ended, in favour of the portrait of a woman. Maryam Jameelah found no easy answers; neither do we.
“Deborah Baker’s astonishing book reads like a detective story but is also a work of enormous beauty and understanding. She has explored the most difficult of subjects in an evocative and original way, powerfully conjuring a bygone, albeit simpler era when the argument between Islam and the West first arose fifty years ago. The Convert is the most brilliant and moving book written about Islam and the West since 9/11.”
— Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban and Descent into Chaos
“With remarkable even-handedness, Deborah Baker reveals the terrible costs of belonging exacted by two very different, battling cultures. Sweeping books on the big wars can’t do what this focused gaze on a single misfit so vividly accomplishes.”
— Kiran Desai, author of The Inheritance of Loss
“In this unusual, sometimes funny and sometimes frightening biography Deborah Baker deftly explores the urgency and lunacy of conversion, Pakistan — and America’s — romance with fundamentalism, and the necessity for a less blinkered vision of Islam.”
— Fatima Bhutto