I find myself most susceptible to those tuned to an impossible pitch,” writes Deborah Baker in her beautiful new book The Convert.“Poets and wild-eyed missionaries who live their lives close to the bone.” Baker’s biographies of the poets Laura Riding and Robert Bly, as well as her account of Allen Ginsberg’s travels in India, bear out the truth of this statement.
So why did she turn to Maryam Jameelah, a Muslim ideologue and pamphleteer for the Jamaat-e-Islami from Lahore, for her most recent book? Looking at its cover, with its wearyingly familiar burqa iconography and a subtitle made up of buzzwords, it’s hard to suppress a mistrust of Baker’s motives. “(Baker),” goes Fatima Bhutto’s blurb, “explores…the necessity for a less blinkered version of Islam.”
Refreshingly, the book does no such thing. Its burqa-clad cover image is not pictorial shorthand for the English-speaking world’s familiar narratives about Muslim womanhood, at once so circumscribed and lurid. There are, as we tend to forget once we have looked at image after image of headscarves, individuals wearing them. The woman in that particular photo is someone real; the exile, the extremist, Jameelah.
She was not always called that. Margaret Marcus was born in 1934 to a Jewish-American family in New York. In 1962, she travelled to Pakistan to become the ward of Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami party and an early advocate of the Sharia-ruled Islamic state, an ideal that would influence religious Muslim movements around the world.
Marcus and Mawdudi had exchanged letters in which, to Mawdudi’s gratified surprise, they seemed to discover a near-total philosophical sympathy with each other. Mawdudi’s vision of an all-conquering, all-encompassing Islam was echoed in this young American’s ideas.
She detested Zionism for its persecution of Palestinian Arabs and thought that an over-reliance on technology had dehumanized the West. Women received neither respect nor dignity in her supposedly free world; their immodesty went deeply against the true order of social justice. Sidelined, misunderstood, she would only be truly free among those who would be Muslims like her—not only religious, but uncompromising in their social and political vision.
Baker writes carefully, and magnificently in parts, about their lives and thinking to trace how they came to overlap. She also lays bare the third major presence in this book: herself, an American and a New Yorker, an indirect victim and horrified observer of 9/11 and its consequences.
“‘The truths we respect are those born of affliction,’” she quotes Susan Sontag. “I looked to (Maryam) for the outsider’s crucial insight, a blind seer’s clarifying truth. I found in her story a secret history that would challenge those we had been telling ourselves. The wars we were selling.”
How does religion, with all its social constraints, become a vehicle of transcendence? Could we, in Jameelah’s story, discover that mystical quality that sometimes freed women to be radicals? Every faith has its share of ladies ga-ga: condemned because society could not contain them, crowded against their will into the margins, worshipped as saints after they were no longer around to trouble the orthodox patriarchy. Certainly, Jameelah did not want to live an ordinary life of ordinary ambition; she had no wish to marry and raise a family.
But most of all, as Baker discovers, she did not want to be shut up in mental asylums.
In uncovering Jameelah’s intellectual history, which led her to write polemics such as Westernization and Human Welfare and Islam and Modernism, Baker also reveals a pathological diagnosis. Institutionalized and medicated for schizophrenia, described by psychiatrists as a “hopeless case”, Jameelah’s flight to Pakistan, in a semi-conscious imitation of the Prophet Muhammad’s escape to Medina, was not occasioned merely by saintly unworldliness.
But Lahore was no sanctuary. She was not the woman Mawdudi had assumed she was from her letters; no “equatorial sapling struggling to survive in an Arctic climate”. She was a hellion who—the Mawdudis claimed—wailed in her nightmares, clobbered friends with frying pans, and neither knew nor accepted their ideas of feminine behaviour. Within months of her arrival, incarcerated in Lahore’s “Paagal Khaanah” (madhouse) by a bewildered and angry Mawdudi, Jameelah would come to realize that Pakistan and her mentors here were not the Muslims she sought. Unconscious of the irony of pronouncing judgement on the orientalism of her Western compatriots, even as she based her own ideals of Islamic civilization on English books and issues of National Geographic, she failed to realize that what she was looking for might not exist at all.
She lives in Lahore today, married to a Jamaat party worker. Baker, who concludes her book with an account of her interviews with the woman herself, does not find her a seer. Jameelah cannot speak directly to Baker’s concerns; she offers no solutions to the problems that draw Baker to her story in the first place.
She leaves us with another set of doubts. Radicalism is not proof of insanity, as Baker writes. Jameelah’s letters gave Mawdudi—and Baker—very different initial pictures of her mental illness.
But do the judgements that two societies and their custodians passed on her paint a fuller picture of who she was? Schizophrenia is what Baker writes about as a “cannibalizing” disease: its diagnosticians know that their patient may be reflecting complexes to which they are themselves subject.
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.