1962 Passport Photo
Born in 1934, Margaret Marcus, a middle-class Jewish girl from Westchester County, New York, was drawn to Islam in her teens, converted in her twenties, and in 1962 left for Lahore, Pakistan as the adopted daughter of Jamaat-e-Islami founder Abul Ala Maududi, never to return to the USA.
And it was in Lahore that she died after a prolonged illness on October 31, 2012.
Sadanand Dhume wrote, while reviewing The Convert - A Tale of Exile and Extremism, Deborah Baker's book, on the life of the woman who came to be known as Maryam Jameelah: A Bringer Of Brimston:
Jameelah’s relationship with Maududi does not unfurl as either of them intended, but over time the American convert acquires a reputation of her own as both symbol and champion of the Jamaat’s Manichaean world-view. A smattering of her titles, published in Lahore, speak for themselves: Western Materialism Menaces Muslims, the two-volume Western Civilization Condemned by Itself, and the best-selling Islam versus the West, translated into a dozen languages. In her very first letter to her ideological mentor, Jameelah promises to devote her entire life to “the struggle against materialistic-philosophic-secularism and nationalism”. By the time Baker encounters her in person some five decades later, Jameelah can honestly claim to have fulfilled that pledge.
That said, Jameelah would be of little interest to most if not for her brief cameo in the life of one of the subcontinent’s most influential thinkers. The average Indian of the IPL generation has barely heard of Maududi; many more are familiar with the banned Jamaat-e-Islami terrorist offshoot SIMI, or the Students Islamic Movement of India...
Writing for the Paris Review in 2011, Deborah Baker described how she learnt about the subject of her biography: The Subject Talks Back
From the early 1960s until the mid-eighties, Jameelah had written numerous books and pamphlets, translated into a dozen languages. These books were welcomed all over the Islamic world as the definitive word on the superiority of Islamic values over Western ones. Moreover, in mini-biographies of fabled mujahedin, she urged young Muslims to martyr themselves as “freedom fighters” against the godless infidels of the West and their secular Muslim enablers. Her author photo was that of a shapeless black ghost; not even her eyes could be seen behind the dark folds of her veil...
Yet unlike the hectoring prose of her books, her letters to her parents were affectionate, funny, and acutely observant. Filled with dramatic incident, dialogue, and surprise developments, there were pages and pages of mesmerizing details about living in purdah under the roof of the aging mullah who was the first to call for a twentieth-century global jihad.
Baker goes on to describe meeting her in 2007 and concludes with these fascinating details:
Eventually, I reconceived the entire book, stretching the art of biography to accommodate both the facts and the fantasies Maryam and Margaret had spun in those letters to her family. For she, too, had struggled to make sense of the mystery of her life. She had cast and recast the signature events of the twentieth century in a way that made the radical turn she had taken defensible, romantic, even noble. By portraying that struggle both in her words and in my own, I hoped to get beyond the supposed divide between our respective, warring worlds.
And when I tore open her long-awaited letter it seemed at first to promise a kind of truce: “This note is to acknowledge safe receipt of your book parcel from Delhi (India). I am satisfied with your book as a fair and just detailed appraisal of my life and work.” Not a week later, however, the library in which I found her archive also received a letter. In this one, Maryam Jameelah insisted my portrayal of her was filled with falsehoods and unfounded allegations.
Perhaps I could capture only a hint of that woman beneath the veil. Perhaps fifty years of purdah limited her view of herself and the world she had a hand in making. But somewhere between these two letters lay the unearthly promise of biography: a glimpse of truth, the small window of understanding.