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The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism Paperback – Bargain Price, September 4, 2012

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Pulitzer finalist Baker (A Blue Hand) unravels the often contradictory life of an American woman who became one of the pre-eminent voices of Islamic revivalism, in this stellar biography that doubles as a mediation on the fraught relationship between America and the Muslim world. Margaret Marcus was a secular Jew in Mamaroneck, N.Y., before she became fascinated with Islam and moved to Pakistan in 1962 and took the name Maryam Jameelah. Baker, who discovered the archive of Marcus's papers in the New York Public Library, carefully reconstructs her movements after her arrival in Lahore, Pakistan, using letters Marcus sent to her parents and articles she published in various Islamic magazines. Jameelah's criticism of the West is unwavering: she denounces American foreign policy, particularly its support of Israel, and secularism in general, insisting that law be derived from the Qur'an. As Baker digs deeper into her subject's difficult life—Jameelah's time in Pakistan grew increasingly strained—she ponders the effect Jameelah's writings on global jihad may have on today's al-Qaeda and Taliban. This is a cogent, thought-provoking look at a radical life and its rippling consequences. (May)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Praise for The Convert:


“[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.” Plain Dealer (Cleveland)


“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


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press; Reprint edition (September 4, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1555976271
  • ASIN: B00DPO9N74
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,236,704 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Born in Charlottesville, Deborah Baker grew up in Virginia, Puerto Rico and New England. In 1990 she moved to Calcutta where she wrote In Extremis, a biography of the American modernist poet, Laura Riding which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in biography. A Blue Hand: The Beats in India (2008) explored the imaginative relationship between India and America as seen through the Indian travels of Allen Ginsberg et al in the early 60s. In 2008-2009 she was a Fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis C. Cullman Center for Writers and Scholars at The New York Public Library. There she researched and wrote The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism (2011), a narrative account of the life of an American convert to Islam, drawing on letters she found in the library's manuscript division. The Convert was a finalist for the National Book Award.


Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

54 of 57 people found the following review helpful By Jessica Martinez on May 19, 2011
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.
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful By M. Cowan on July 4, 2011
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.
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30 of 34 people found the following review helpful By F. Brauer on July 20, 2011
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.
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