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Convert [Hardcover]

Deborah Baker
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

May 10 2011
*A 2011 National Book Award Finalist*
 
A spellbinding story of renunciation, conversion, and radicalism from Pulitzer Prize-finalist biographer Deborah Baker
 
What drives a young woman raised in a postwar New York City suburb to convert to Islam, abandon her country and Jewish faith, and embrace a life of exile in Pakistan? The Convert tells the story of how Margaret Marcus of Larchmont became Maryam Jameelah of Lahore, one of the most trenchant and celebrated voices of Islam’s argument with the West.

A cache of Maryam’s letters to her parents in the archives of the New York Public Library sends the acclaimed biographer Deborah Baker on her own odyssey into the labyrinthine heart of twentieth-century Islam. Casting a shadow over these letters is the mysterious figure of Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi, both Maryam’s adoptive father and the man who laid the intellectual foundations for militant Islam.

As she assembles the pieces of a singularly perplexing life, Baker finds herself captive to questions raised by Maryam’s journey. Is her story just another bleak chapter in a so-called clash of civilizations? Or does it signify something else entirely? And then there’s this: Is the life depicted in Maryam’s letters home and in her books an honest reflection of the one she lived? Like many compelling and true tales, The Convert is stranger than fiction. It is a gripping account of a life lived on the radical edge and a profound meditation on the cultural conflicts that frustrate mutual understanding.

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Review

Praise for The Convert:
 
"The Convert is the most brilliant and moving book written about Islam and the West since 9/11." —Ahmed Rashid
 
"[Deborah] Baker's captivating account conveys the instability, faith, politics, and improbable cultural migration that make [Maryam] Jameelah's life story so difficult to sum up yet impossible to dismiss." —The New York Times Book Review
 
"[A] stellar biography that doubles as a mediation on the fraught relationship between America and the Muslim world. . . . [The Convert] is a cogent, thought-provoking look at a radical life and its rippling consequences." Publishers Weekly (starred review)
 
"[The Convert] is more than a biography; it gets at the heart of the ongoing conflict between Islam and the West." —Marie Claire
 
"[A] profoundly disorienting biography. . . . 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." —Christian Science Monitor
 
"[Baker] opens the door to the vital questions of how radical Islam has impacted the world, and what part converts such as [Maryam] Jameelah have played. . . . An important, searing, highly readable and timely narrative." Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Spellbinding. . . . Baker's investigation of [Maryam] Jameelah yields mysteries and surprises galore. A significant contemporary figure in Islamic-Western relations becomes human, with all the foibles and angst that word implies." Library Journal (starred review)
 
"[The Convert is] a new biography as absorbing as an excellent detective story. . . . Cutting back and forth between Margaret/Maryam's two perplexing lives, Baker gives us a miserable, privileged woman whose argument with her home was so strong that hers became one of the most trenchant voices of Islam's argument with the West. In this superb biography, Baker makes it an argument worth our attention." Cleveland Plain Dealer
 
"By unpacking the boxes and piecing together [Maryam] Jameelah's complicated life, Baker untangled a nonfiction narrative as surreal as any fairy tale. . . . engrossing." Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
 
"Baker is a remarkable writer. 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." Rae Francoeur, GateHouse News Service
 
"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." —Jewcy
 
"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

"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 an 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

From the Back Cover

He is the biggest pay-per-view attraction in the world.
He is "the Baddest Dude on the Planet."
He is Brock Lesnar.

For countless fans of professional wrestling and mixed martial arts, Brock Lesnar has long been known for his freakish athleticism, mind-blowing speed, and meteoric rise to the top. Yet despite the fame and fortune that have come with his enormous success, Brock has shunned the media, choosing instead to remain intensely private about his life and his accomplishments. Now, for the first time, he tells his remarkable story in his own words, describing the journey from his South Dakota farm boy roots to the most popular pay-per-view attraction in the world.

In Death Clutch, Brock opens up about what it takes not only to succeed in the world's fastest-growing sport but to become the undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World. He also speaks candidly about the illness that nearly killed him, how it changed him as a fighter and a man, and how it shaped his will to survive. In the end, Brock holds nothing back in this revealing, raw, and ultimately redemptive tale of determination and domination.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Thanks May 8 2013
By Iman
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Nice book.........Excellent interesting story for a woman who was looking for the truth until she find it..........it also illustrated the differences between two different cultures. Interesting.
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Amazon.com: 3.1 out of 5 stars  19 reviews
53 of 56 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting & informative, but a few structural issues May 19 2011
By Jessica Martinez - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The Convert is the "tale" of Margaret Marcus, a young Jewish woman from New York, who converts to Islam, becomes Maryam Jameelah, and moves to Pakistan. She goes on to become one of Islam's most dynamic critics of the West and Western culture. In this book, Deborah Baker attempts to understand Maryam's life, beliefs, and actions through her letters and other writings, and through a journey to uncover the details of Maryam's life and relationship with Mawlana Mawdudi, one of the men who helped lay the foundations for militant Islam extremism and Maryam's guardian in Pakistan.

I didn't quite know how to deal with The Convert. On the one hand, there were parts of the story where I was really interested, engrossed even, in Maryam's story; there were times, however, when Deborah Baker seemed to go off on odd tangents. I originally really liked some of the structure, specifically the use of Maryam's letters to tell a great deal of the story, but I was really unhappy when I got to the author's note at the end where Baker says she edited and rewrote pieces of them. Without knowing more about Baker herself, I don't know what to think of this. I think it might have been a little easier to digest if the note had been at the beginning or if the book was marketed a little differently, so that it was clear from the start that she was editing/re-writing; I think I would've felt less deceived. I wish Baker had given us a little more about herself so that it might have been clearer what her intent really was and what her personal biases were.

Structural complaints aside, I do think The Convert was a really interesting book. I was especially intrigued by the questions and details surrounding Maryam's institutionalization, and while I thought the background on Mawdudi was at times too much, I did find a lot of it interesting and informative. I think the book was an interesting view into Maryam's story; it was the structure and some of the uncertainty about Baker's role/biases that bothered me.

I received a copy of The Convert from the publisher to participate in an online book club discussion.
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A fictional story with not much point July 4 2011
By M. Cowan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I decided to read this book after seeing a favorable review in the NY Times Review of Books. After finishing it, I could not figure out why I had read it.

As one of the other reviewers has already noted, you go through the whole book reading Marcus's "letters", only to discover that Ms. Baker has not given us faithful and truthful renditions. She has modified, combined and generally rewritten almost all of them. More important, the original letters from which Ms. Baker presumably took this material were also mostly fantasies of a diseased mind. They purported to be Marcus's letters to her parents in the US describing her life in Pakistan, but her descriptions of her existence and experiences in the Moslem world were almost pure fabrications by Marcus, something we don't discover until a few pages from the end of the book, when it is too late to decide not to read the book to begin with.

We do learn that Ms. Marcus was institutionalized in the US by her parents on several occasions and diagnosed as a schizophrenic. After converting and moving to Pakistan, her Muslim guardians also gave up on her and institutionalized her. As a teenager, she seemed to have very few friends and no social life. She refused to date (there is a passing suggestion of sexual abuse as an 8 year old that scared her, but no details--it might have been nothing more than children playing "doctor"). As a purely lay opinion, I might venture that Ms. Marcus had something akin to a female version of Ausberger's Disease (something that usually only afflicts males and is often associated with an inability to socialize with other individuals). (I realize that there is controversy over whether there is such an ailment as "Ausberger's Disease", but that is another matter. In this case, the symptoms seem to fit, no matter what you call it.)

It is possible that, as asserted in the blurbs, her writings as a Muslim had a significant impact on the fundamentalist movement within Islam, and it would have been interesting to explore that possibility. But nothing in the book supports that assertion, and few if any details can be found on that issue in this book. At best, we have a third hand report of diatribes against Western materialism by someone obviously unbalanced and apparently not taken seriously by anyone else at all, here or there.

Perhaps the book would be of interest to a psychiatrist.
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars How To Make A Good Story Go Bad June 9 2011
By Lisbeth - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
While I was totally mesmerized by this story, the author continually sucked the excitement and momentum from it with her plodding and tedious tangents! This story has everything for a superb read BUT compelling details and attention to loose ends. I agree with the other reviewer...I don't know what the intentions of the author are, but there seemed to be an ulterior motive, which robbed the subject of the introspection she deserved.
28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Whom God wants to punish he makes crazy July 20 2011
By F. Brauer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Judging by her website Maryam Jameelah was one of the chief ideologists of Jamaati Islami (Pakistani Party of Islam). Her books on the superiority of Islam over the West and articles in defense of Islamist values gained prominence among the Muslim conservatives around the world. The unerring and intransigent tone of Jameelah's writings is quite convincing. Her arguments are not easy to dismiss. Reading her articles, however, is as sad and chilling experience, as reading Mein Kampf. Except that MeinKampf was dispatched long time ago to the dustbin of History, while Islamist ideas continue to gain acceptance.

In her book, The Convert, Debora Baker recreated Jameelah's life from an archive she chanced upon in the reading room of Manuscripts and Archives Department of NY Public library. Leafing through the archive register Deborah Baker spotted a `...lonely Muslim name...' of Maryam Jameelah hidden among the many Christian and Jewish ones. Intrigued, she requested to examine the archive. What she uncovered, sorting through the boxes full of letters, drawings, published articles and books, was a trough of human misery, the real life `...agony of unquiet soul...'

Maryam Jameelah was born Margaret (Peggy) Marcus in 1934 in America of Reform-Jewish parentage. A talented, but "difficult child" who, according to her mother, "wouldn't shut up", she grew up without friends. Peggy turned the life of her parents and everybody else who happened to fall into her orbit, into sheer hell. After years of dedicated attempts to satisfy the needs of their special child, Peggy's parents had to surrender her to a mental institution, were she spent close to two years. Her diagnosis was schizophrenia.
Interest in the Arab lore and, later, in the Muslim culture started when Peggy was ten years old. Immersion into Islam came much later. In her article `Why I Embraced Islam', she vividly described how her search for new identity brought her to Islam. But there was another motive. The unbearable misery and loneliness she suffered in the mental institution culminated in a vow to convert to Islam upon the release from asylum. She converted in 1961, taking the name Maryam Jameelah.
Unable to find a meaningful job in New-York, Jameelah, being a prolific and gifted pamphleteer, easily found foreign Muslim magazines willing to publish her articles in support of Islamist ideas. She initiated and carried on extensive correspondence with Muslim intellectuals and political functionaries. One of them was no less than Mawlana Abul Ala Mowdudi, the founder and chief ideologue of Islam revivalist movement Jamaati Islami. Familiar with Jameelah articles, he was impressed by the fervor of her ideas. At Jameelah's request, Mowdudi invited her to live with his family in Lahore with an aim to instruct her in the etiquette of Muslim family life. He soon understood his mistake. Jameelah turned the life of his family upside down as she did to her parents. The rest of Jameelah's story, which includes time spent in Pakistani asylum, is not less exciting.

The Convert is based on letters Deborah Baker selected from Jameelah's archive. Twenty-thirty pages long, they were heavily abbreviated and rewritten by her in order to make them more intriguing and readable than they, apparently, are. The letters are accompanied by stories of Deborah Baker's own adventures undertaken to investigate the real Jameelah. Being well versed in Islam, Baker explains Jameelah's religious beliefs, some tenets of Islam, social norms in modern Muslim society and Islamist politics. Both parts of the book are nicely interlaced resulting in a compelling story.
The weaker part of the book is in Baker's own uncritical approach, even sympathy to Jameelah's anti-Judaistic and anti-American positions. Too forgiving to Jameelah, Deborha Baker concentrated on the story of her suffering much more than on the harm that monomaniacal apostate caused to the task of peace and reconciliation between peoples. Sympathy to misery of the misfit from New York was extended to her extremist views.

The appeal of Myriam Jameelah dimmed in recent years. The extremist Islam found new powerful voices to call for Jihad. But the story of a convert from New-York, who so vividly articulated the basis for Muslim Rejection of the West, is a unique story of suspense. As Jewish proverb has it: Whom God wants to punish he makes crazy. But who in the end was punished, the Muslims - by gaining fanatical Jameelah, or the Jews - by loosing crazy Peggy? The Convert might have an answer.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars National Book Award Nominee Oct. 24 2011
By Loves the View - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is the sad story of Margaret Marcus, an American of Jewish descent who fixates on Islam. She connives a sponsorship to live in Pakistan with Malwana Abdul Ala Mawdudi, an advocate of fundamentalist Islam and an active advocate for the Jamaati Islami Party. Taking the name of Maryam Jameelam, she becomes a recognized writer and advocate for conservative Islamic values and jihad and remains in Pakistan for over 40 years. Author Deborah Baker stumbles upon her letters in the New York Public Library and follows her life, eventually meeting her in Pakistan.

This is not a conventional biography. It strays from the story of Margaret Marcus to the story of the author tracking Margaret Marcus. It has snippets of information on Jamaati philosophy and 1950's psychiatry. The chronology is not linear, which is confusing in the first initial part of the book. For instance, the mental health issue is brought up in the course of Maryam's second hospitalization, but the diagnosed schizophrenia informs everything to that point. We learn at the end, that the letters upon which a lot of the story is based, are not just bogus ramblings of Maryam, but appear here in an edited fashion.

Besides the weaknesses above, the book is incomplete. There are no pictures. If the strict Islamic code makes photos of Maryam and her family unavailable, there could be pictures of pamphlets, manuscripts or facades of homes, institutions or streetscapes. There should be at least one interview of one of Maryam's four surviving children.

I had high expectations since this is a National Book Award nominee for 2011. I don't see how this one is placed above books like Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, The Woman Who Could Not Forget: Iris Chang Before and Beyond the Rape of Nanking- A Memoir, Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World, or From Splendor to Revolution: The Romanov Women, 1847--1928, all of which, I expect will stand in their field as definitive for years to come.
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