© Copyright Deborah Baker 2011. All rights reserved.
The Convert A Tale of Exile and Extremism 
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India Today "Life is Elsewhere" A Jewish woman's search for meaning takes her to Islam Urvashi Batalia / June 20, 2011 Unfettered by the disciplinary boundaries of academic research, Deborah Baker trawls the archives of the New York Public Library in search of stories. Tucked away between the personal papers and memoirs of the usual suspects-the "bygone titans of a social register"-she finds an unlikely candidate, a lone Muslim name, a female, among the mostly Christian and Jewish ones. Maryan Jameelah, born Margaret Marcus, Jewish in origin, who decides to forsake life, religion and family to convert to Islam and spend the rest of her life in Pakistan, where she hopes to find the "true" world of Islam. In itself, not such an unusual story: the foreigner, disillusioned with her world, seeks another, and looks elsewhere for it. Having found the "elsewhere", she then proceeds to become holier than the holy to defend archaic practices in the name of some 'pure' religion and willfully blinds herself to all negative aspects. I remember reading another such story, not so long ago-that of Robyn Hutchinson, aka Rabiah (original description "a beach bunny"), who becomes a jihadist and names her son Muhammad, coming to acquire for herself the epithet, "Mother of Muhammad". So, it was with some degree of deja vu, and I have to admit, weariness, that I approached this book. I couldn't have been more wrong. Baker's inquiry and investigation into the life of Jameelah is a nuanced and sophisticated study, in which the author grapples as much with herself and her assumptions as she does with the character whose life she is exploring. The search is made much more complicated and indeed richer and more troubled by the baggage the writer brings to the story. Baker is honest about this-anonymity is her vocation, she seeks out unusual stories. But the story of Islam, of conversion, exile, prejudice and rock-hard certainty, holds a particular meaning for a non- Muslim American in a post-9/11 scenario, where, often in the face of loss of friends and those who are close to you, values such as tolerance become hard to hold on to. But will this story bring the author closer to understanding what it is that motivates people to give up their lives to a particular faith, what drives them to extreme action? Life doesn't work quite like that and the story that emerges is a complex story of human failure, of a search for meaning, of exploitation, and at the end, there are still questions that remain unanswered. For me, perhaps the most moving part of this somewhat unusual "detective story" is the ways in which Jameelah's life holds up a mirror to Baker's own life-not that the two lives are in any way similar. Quite the opposite. But-and this may seem like a gross generalisation to make -there is a way in which women explore the lives of other women, where they become almost like shadows, they cannot but implicate themselves in the story. The complex ways in which Baker's own voice intermeshes into the narrative is part of the sophistication and uniqueness of this search. In a book called Women on the Margins, historian Natalie Zemon Davis explores the lives of three women. In the introduction to the book, she recounts a dream in which the three women berate her and demand to know what right she has to yoke them together in the pages of her book. Jameelah does not do that to Baker, having given her permission to write, but I have no doubt the book Baker has produced is not what Maryan herself might have expected-another dilemma that dogs the business of writing lives, and one that Baker handles with honesty. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/site/story/the-convert-a-tale-of-exile-and-extremism-by-deborah- baker/1/141091.html
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