Sunday, October 10, 2010
An American Muslim in Pakistan
KOVALAM LITERARY FESTIVAL
Photo: Deborah Baker
Credit: Julienne Schaer
Maryam Jameelah, born a Jew in New York, converted to Islam, and migrated to Pakistan in 1962. Deborah Baker has written a book about her life and career as a writer
By Shevlin Sebastian
One day, in 2007, Deborah Baker, the wife of the acclaimed novelist, Amitav Ghosh, was browsing through the catalogue in the Archives and Manuscript Division of the New York Public Library. Suddenly, she came across the name of Maryam Jameelah. She was taken aback to see a Muslim name among a list of Christian and Jewish names.
“I wondered how a Muslim's papers ended up in a New York library,” she says. So she asked to see the boxes containing Jameelah's papers.
And this is what she discovered. Maryam Jameelah was born Margaret Marcus, the daughter of a Jew, who grew up in Rochelle, a New York city suburb. As a child, she became interested in Arab culture, when she heard Arabic music on the radio and liked it.
As she grew older, she read books like Muhammad Asad’s ‘The Road to Mecca ’, which described his conversion from Judaism to Islam. Thereafter, she read many other books on Islam and began correspondence with religious leaders around the world, including Seyyed Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
The one who replied and encouraged her interest in Islam was Mawlana Abul A’la Mawdudi, the founder of the fundamentalist Jama’at-I-Islami party in Lahore. Convinced that only Islam had the answers to the great questions of human existence, on May 24, 1961, the American converted and took the name of Maryam Jameelah. The following year, at the age of 27, Maryam travelled to Pakistan to live as Mawdudi's adopted daughter.
And she began to write a series of letters to her parents over the next thirty years describing her life in detail. “It was the voice of the letters that gripped me,” says Deborah. “It was ingenuous and chatty, and filled with detailed descriptions of her life in purdah, and Mawdudi’s activities.”
Maryam also wrote a series of books that was a harsh indictment of the Western way of life. One book had the title, ‘Western Materialism Menaces Muslims’.
These writings had a powerful effect in the Middle East. “Earlier, the criticism was not very sophisticated, because the Muslim thinkers, scholars, and writers did not have a direct experience of the West,” she says. “But here was Maryam, coming from the bosom of the West, New York, and providing this detailed critique from an Islamic point of view. She was able to give ammunition to those within the Islamic world who wanted to reject the West.”
Asked why she had such an antipathy, Deborah says, “Maryam felt that the West was very materialistic, superficial, and tawdry. She hated Hollywood, Broadway musicals, and commercialised sex.”
She also was upset at the tribal warfare between Catholics and Jews, blacks and whites, and the various kinds of social inequities that were prevalent. On the other hand, she found that Islam was the perfect religion for her. “It was an answer to her innermost needs,” says Deborah.
Deborah spent three and a half years to write the book, ‘The Convert: A Fable of Islam and America.’ The forthcoming book has numerous letters written by Maryam, interspersed with commentary and background information by Deborah, who had gone to Lahore in 2007 to do detailed research.
Meanwhile, a year after she went to Pakistan, Maryam fell out with Maulana Mahdudi. “It could have been a jealous wife of Mahdudi,” says Deborah. “It could have been the Jamaat-i-Islami, which may have wanted to protect the Maulana from Maryam.”
After all, since she was a former Jew from America, they felt that Maryam could have been a spy. Or it could have been that the Maulana no longer trusted her. “He might have become wary of having this woman in his house, with all the problems that entails,” says Deborah.
Anyway, Maryam moved out, and a year later, she got married to Muhammad Yusuf Khan, a leader of the party, and had five children. Two sons ended up joining the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s. And all along, Maryam continued to write books, essays, and articles, with most of them being diatribes against the West.
But in the end, the author rejects Maryam’s way of thinking. “I don't agree with her claim that Western and Islamic civilisations are irreconcilable,” says Deborah. “It is an abstract view. You don't live a civlisation. Are Muslims and Jews or Muslims and Hindus essentially antagonistic? The answer is no. All of them are human beings, and if they try they can get along with each other.”
Notes from the festival
Having heard the former BBC correspondent Satish Jacob over the radio for several years and read his books, it was a pleasure to meet the silver-haired journalist in the flesh. He had come to deliver the fifth K.C. John Memorial lecture at the Kovalam Literary Festival. But Satish shocked the audience, including me, when he said that he was not a Malayali.
At the tea break I rushed to find out the true story behind his name. Satish tells me that he was born in Azamgarh, in Uttar Pradesh. His father, Manilal, was a member of the Bhumihar community. “Do you remember Kalpnath Rai?” says Satish. Rai, a former Union Minister, is also a Bhumihar.
So what happened was that Manilal fell in love with a Christian woman, Monica. He wanted to marry her, but she said, “I cannot marry a Hindu.” Manilal said, “No problems, I will become a Christian.” And that is how Satish Jacob got his name. Interesting, the after-effects of love: An UPite ends up with a Mallu name.
Less SPG please!
Thanks to the presence of Daman Singh, the daughter of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Special Protection Group was in full force. But frequently, they displayed an irritating ‘in your face’ security. Exasperated, I went across to a SPG personnel and asked him why this was so. “You have to understand that we are trained to treat every person as a threat,” he said. “Madam Daman is the daughter of the Prime Minister. If anything happens, we will be blamed.”
But I do remember watching the televised funeral of US Senator Edward Kennedy at a church in Boston, and the most powerful people in America, including presidents and senators, were in attendance. But you could not see a single security person in sight. Perhaps, the SPG needs to learn a few tricks from their American counterparts about unobtrusive security.
While talking to Chinese author Lijia Zhang under a large, overhanging tree, on the grounds of the Kanakakunnu Palace at Thiruvananthapuram, a few red ants began to crawl down her neck and arms. Incredibly, they did not bite her. Instead, they were peacefully wandering around. I wondered to myself: are they re-incarnated Chinese ants with a belief in Buddhism?
(The New Indian Express, Chennai)