By Deborah Baker

Graywolf Press, 256 pages

For Margaret and Maryam, it was always the West that persisted in considering itself the superior civilization, with inevitably tragic results. Far from seeing her own life as a bridge between America and the Muslim world, Maryam believed that Western civilization and Islamic civilization were implacably opposed: ‘any compromise with the former,’ she writes, ‘equaled defeat of the latter’“.

While perusing a collection of papers housed in the Manuscript and Archives Division of the New York Public Library, biographer Deborah Baker discovered a series of gripping letters written by young Margaret Marcus, a New York City suburban Jew who converted to Islam. Margaret, who upon conversion renamed herself Maryam Jameelah, wrote the letters from her new life of exile in Pakistan to her parents, Herbert and Myra Marcus. In her latest work titled The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism, Baker weaves Margaret’s letters with her own subsequent research, and emerges with a story that offers an empathetic and insightful look at the epic clash of Islam with the West.

By incorporating Margaret’s 1960s letters amongst her prose, Baker succeeds in presenting not only a life but a history of political Islam and the origins of global jihad. Baker attempts to subvert erroneous assumptions both Westerners and Muslims hold as truth about one another, and in the midst of her portrayal stands an uncannily strong American woman with a fierce belief in the superiority of Islam. While Baker maintains a careful distance from Margaret, we readers cannot help being drawn into the sometimes frightening and always curious complexities of extremism.

Jennie A. Harrop