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Hall of Mirrors

A new book tells the story of a middle-class Jewish girl from Westchester who changed her name, moved to Pakistan, and became a leading voice of radical Islamism

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Left: Margaret Marcus, self-portrait, 1956. Right: Maryam Jameelah, 1962. (Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

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 three previous books, including In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding, a Pulitzer finalist, and The Blue Hand: The Beats In India. The latter book had been completed but not yet published when Baker, searching for a new subject, stumbled across Jameelah’s papers in the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division. “[I]t was the dissonance of a lone Muslim name, among the commonplace Jewish and Christian ones, that waylaid me,” wrote Baker. Inside the archive’s boxes, she found Jameelah’s books, her impressive early artwork—she had briefly studied with George Grosz at the Arts Students League—and, most important, a trove of letters that seemed to map out their author’s bizarre journey.

But as Baker would discover, Jameelah was an utterly unreliable narrator, and her letters were often deliberately misleading. As a biographer who relies on archives, Baker grew increasingly unsettled as she realized just how untrustworthy the record Jameelah left really was. “That was really devastating to me—it made me realize how much faith I have in archives to be truthful,” Baker says over brunch in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where she lives with her husband, the novelist Amitav Ghosh. “And of course that’s ridiculous. People lie in letters all the time.”

Her challenge, then, was to construct the book in a way 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.”

Not that Jameelah’s life ever makes complete sense. Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, Peggy Marcus was an awkward, outcast, agonizingly sensitive girl haunted by the legacy of the Holocaust. Like another semi-famous Jewish convert to Islam, Lev Nussimbaum—subject of the best-selling The Orientalist—she initially lionized Arabs out of a sort of Zionist pan-Semitic solidarity. “I am convinced that the Jews and Arabs will cooperate and together create a new golden age such as occurred in medieval Spain,” she wrote at one point.

Of course, that didn’t happen, and the wars that followed Israel’s creation drove her to despair. Partly, like other Jewish critics of Israel, she recoiled at the chasm between her parents’ civil rights liberalism and their anti-Arab racism. “At Smith College, Mother learned to abhor race prejudice,” she wrote. “Not only does she believe that Negroes deserve complete equality of opportunity, she also feels that social intermingling is acceptable and to be encouraged. … So why are the Arabs any different from Negroes?”

In some ways, Jameelah seems like the archetypical self-hating Jew, someone whose qualms about Israel barely mask darker and more destructive impulses. But this doesn’t explain why she didn’t simply become a radical leftist—a natural trajectory for an alienated girl like her. That’s where religion came in. As a girl, Jameelah had a fierce spiritual hunger, which Baker sees as something distinct from mere neurosis. In her assimilation-minded, Ethical Culture family, such impulses had nowhere to go. “There was no language to describe what she was going through, which was a spiritual crisis,” says Baker. “She had a huge desire for a religious life.” Had Jameelah’s parents sent her to a rabbi instead of a shrink, Baker suggests, things might have gone very differently.

And yet, reading the book, one wonders where the line between spiritual crisis and nervous collapse really is. As The Convert proceeds, the extent of Jameelah’s mental instability becomes increasingly clear. By the time she sails for Pakistan, she was barely functional. Her exasperated parents had cut her off, and she couldn’t support herself. Unattractive and terrified of sex, she had little prospect of ever finding a husband. So, when the Pakistani cleric Mawlana Mawdudi invited her, a Muslim sister marooned among the infidels, to join his family, it was a lifeline.

Jameelah had corresponded with a number of prominent Islamists, including Said Ramadan, the son-in-law of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, and Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual grandfather of political Islamism. It was Qutb who suggested she write to Mawdudi, the founder of Pakistan’s Muslim revivalist party Jamaat-e-Islami. He was impressed by the clarity and intelligence of her prose and by the zeal behind it. Thinking little of the West and less of Jews, he was easily convinced that her wicked family had cast out their virtuous daughter for no good reason. His shock on meeting the difficult, opinionated, and erratic woman he’d asked into his household was, apparently, profound. So was Jameelah’s realization that even in the idealized community of the faithful, she didn’t fit in.

Still, they kept her. Unlike her own family, Mawdudi and the people around him took care of Jameelah. He had “given her another chance to make a life, a not insignificant gift and perhaps a greater and more profound indictment of the West than anything to be found in his books,” Baker writes. Jameelah eventually became the second wife of one of his associates, and from the safety of purdah, she churned out influential books and articles denouncing Western decadence and celebrating jihad and martyrdom. In exchange for giving up her unwieldy liberty, she found a secure place in the world. And that, of course, is the promise of conservative social orders that value group cohesion over individualism. “There are some people who really can’t deal with too much freedom,” says Baker.

There is, paradoxically, a strong streak of American arrogance in the way Jameelah set herself up as the arbiter of true Islam. In their book Makers of Contemporary Islam, the scholars John L. Esposito and John Voll quote her attacks on Islamic reformers, who she describes as “the mediocre end-product of their circumstances … the result of an overwhelming sense of inferiority which engulfed the East after its humiliating capitulation under the feet of the imperialist West.” Though she was an outsider and a woman, she felt no compunction about dismissing scholars and politicians who’d spent their lives grappling with Islam. This blithe sense of entitlement was itself a result of the imperialist West, though Jameelah seemed oblivious to the irony.

The woman who emerges from Baker’s book is not likable. She is shrill, manipulative, and prudish, though there are glimpses of another, softer, less dogmatic person in the letters she wrote to her parents over the course of three decades. For Baker, trying to inhabit Jameelah was a painful process, and her opinions about her subject remain in flux.

“I was close to a nervous breakdown for a large part of writing this book,” Baker says with a laugh that suggests she’s not being entirely hyperbolic. Jameelah mostly stopped writing in the 1980s, but—at the risk of giving away one of the book’s surprises—Baker eventually discovers that Jameelah is still alive. She’s started sending Jameelah books, most recently the Israeli novella Khirbet Khizeh, about the expulsion of Palestinian villagers during Israel’s creation. They’re not friends, exactly—in fact, Baker found being in the same room with her nearly unbearable. But their lives are now intertwined. “I think I’ll always probably be arguing with her,” Baker says.

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marco says:

3 points:
I don’t understand why someone would want to write a book about a mentally ill person who spouts violence
I don’t understand why Tablet would publish a review of a book that would seem to be not exactly on the top of the list of much of its readers.
Too bad the author didn’t send her some of the books about the 1 million jews expelled from Arab countries.

Why not write about Laura Riding, alluded to in the article, a Jewish woman who became an honorary member of the Fugitive Poets in the South, and then went to live with Robert Graves?

MJ Rosenberg says:

Marco is right. We should only have books about nice people. That is why there are no biographies of Hitler, Stalin and Haj Amin El Husseini.

At first read,one would say”It’s a shande for the neighbors”—-How about more stories about those intelligent “Jews By Choice” who we welcome as friends.

MonkFish says:

Strange that Ms. Baker didn’t see fit to refer to Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, the definitive psychological portrait of the wayward middle-class Jewish girl who leaves the suffocating ‘burbs of the 60s to embark on life of self-indulgent radicalism. Whether it’s the morbid aesthetics of political Islam, the extreme self-abnegation of Jainism, or the irrational self-righteousness of the fringe left, is immaterial. The content of the politics is irrelevant. These women believed that total dedication of cause will somehow fill their deep existential void and all-consuming self-loathing. Everyone faces a crisis of meaning at some point in their life. Radical religion is the refuge of the coward. True heroism resides in the capacity to, as Meister Eckhart put it, “live without a “why”.”

Oh come on, commenters — this sounds like a fascinating book. Who knew that such a person as Marcus/Jameelah existed? or how she came to such a strange choice, decades before we saw young secular Muslim Americans turning to fundamentalism?

You’re right that this book wasn’t “on the top of the list” for me or probably most readers. I’d never heard of it, in fact. That’s why it’s so nice to find it reviewed in Tablet! Even if I don’t go out and buy it, this review gave me a good summary of the topic.

“What good can possibly come from a book about ?” Fill in the blank with any difficult, challenging or uncomfortable person, idea or situation! I am always dismayed by the self-willed mindlessness of so many people who ought to know better! Life–and history–is complicated and messy, as Jews should know better than almost anyone!

Ranen says:

I am pleased that so many respondents already disagreed with Marco. Tablet never fails to impress many of us for the diversity of the materials it covers and the respect it has for its intelligent audience.

MethanP says:

Stop complaining. This “book/subject” is as valid as any other.
Perhaps it can explain WHY we Jews are so often full of self
loathing. I OFTEN wonder “WHY”.

You see self hating, anti-semetic jews LEADING the CHARGE
against Israel, Zoinism and anti-semitism. Sorry J-Street.

NOT!

“Had Jameelah’s parents sent her to a rabbi instead of a shrink, Baker suggests, things might have gone very differently.”

I thought this was a very insightful comment. Marcus sounds like exactly like the kind of person Chabad seeks and gobbles up. Is she really much different than those ba’alei tshuvah who enter the haredi world?

babawawa says:

DRW, too bad Chabad didn’t gobble her up. She might very well have been a force for good in this world, not a proponent of evil. I entered the haredi world because it was the logical step after learning more about Judaism. Most of my friends are just like me – brought up in secular, supportive of Israel Jewish homes without any spiritual anchor. Not a one of us is mentally ill, or have thoughts of killing people we don’t know. Kinda sad you can’t see the difference between the Rebbe and al-Banna, but that’s your problem, not ours. Good luck. With your world view, you’re gonna need it.

John says:

The subject of the book is psychologically screwed up and not very bright. I’ll skip the book.

Andi3 says:

fascinating. thank you for bringing someone so unique to our attention. my only quibble – a rabbi is no substitute for a good therapist — no one is.

“Not a one of us is mentally ill or have thoughts of killing people we don’t know”
If would take someone more expert than I am in psychology, philosophy, socio-pathology and Jewish history to even begin to unpack the layers of unconscious and contradictory self-revelation crammed into that fascinating sentence!

corey says:

And, BTW, followers of any rebbe, I wonder what some of our tzaddikim of yore like the Besht or Reb Nakhman Bratzlaver might have had to say to a tortured soul like Jameelah? Neither of them ever seems to have shied away from the shadow side of human experience. Like several other early tzaddikim, they never lacked compassion or interest in the outcast, marginalized or troublesome. This ability to include so much in their understanding of the human condition, this generosity of heart and reluctance to judge is what I most love, respect and claim in Jewish tradition.

And, for extra credit:

I know this is not the stern, retributive, angry biblical side of our collective identity, and I know that both sides (and everything in between) ultimately must exist in balance as manifestations of Chesed and Gevurah. (The two “pillars” of the cosmology and psychology of Lurianic Kabalah, something like the idea of Yin and Yang, male and female, positive and negative opposing, yet complementary forces.)

babawawa says:

Corey, Marcus/Jameelah is mentally ill and as a proponent of jihad does advocate killing people she doesn’t know, in other words, people who don’t share her belief system. Don’t know how “deep” that is, but I guess you didn’t get it. Sounds like you spend a lot of time alone, and not by choice.

Mike Dickman says:

Marcus/Jameelah is weird, but the author and reviewer also come across as strange.

In all fairness to Marcus/Kameelah, maybe a family background of Smith and Ethical Culture is not the best.

corey says:

Hey, Babawawa, my comments had less to do with M/J than with the nature of various commentators’ responses. I know almost nothing about M/J, only what I read above. I don’t imagine many Tabletniks do either. Thus, this figure of the murderous, traitor-to-her-people (or tragically sick woman) is a sort of Rorshach blot onto which we project our own fears, prejudices and judgments. Because I care deeply about the world my grandchildren are growing up in, I pipe up a lot in these pages, mainly to wave the flag for those streams within the grand Jewish river that carry the wisdom of compassion, tolerance, humor, skepticism as well as passion. Interesting that you imagine I “spend a lot of time alone, and not by choice.” I haven’t a clue how you spend yours. But, of course, unlike you, I have no psychic powers.

“…an utterly unreliable narrator, and her letters were often deliberately misleading. As a biographer who relies on archives, Baker grew increasingly unsettled as she realized just how untrustworthy the record Jameelah left really was.”
You betcha, It’s like believing Sarah Palin is a Republican who just happened to be maritally designated to the Alaska Party so they could keep all their oil marketable without paying taxes on it.
I have grown increasingly unsettled since looking up the untrustworthy account of Marcus Art education with Grosz at Cooper Union after finding out he taught at the Art Students League; decided to give her the benefit of the doubt or why couldn’t he have done a semester or even years of teaching at Cooper Union?, I had to make up my mind whether I was misled again where the edit-yourself-wikipedia told me Georg Grosz had studied with Oskar Schindler.

Would be quite happy if somebody here were to tell me this was indeed the case before he started enameling and doing shell casing for the Nazis while hiding Jews in his factory.

Maryam Jameelah is as much representative of extremism as NetanYahoo is of Zionist Jews. I wonder how Maryam feels about being in the same room as Zionist terrorist sympathizers like Baker.

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Hall of Mirrors

A new book tells the story of a middle-class Jewish girl from Westchester who changed her name, moved to Pakistan, and became a leading voice of radical Islamism

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