The Convert: A Fable of Islam and America

Margaret Marcus as Maryam Jameelah. © NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY
Elections 2024
01 March, 2010

In May 1962, a 28-year-old New Yorker called Margaret Marcus set sail for Pakistan to live the life of a Muslim in the household of Maulana Mawdudi – ideologue and leader of the Islamic political party, Jama’at-I-Islami. For the next 30 years, in vivid and chatty letters to her parents back home, Margaret Marcus, or Maryam Jameelah, described her life in Lahore and the reasons for her embrace of Islam.

Jameelah would go on to write a highly influential set of books that attacked Western secular materialism and upheld a life lived by the laws of the Holy Qur’an. She would become the first person to consistently critique Western civilisation from within the paradigm of Islam.

DEBORAH BAKER’S new book, The Convert (from which the following excerpt is taken), tracks the astonishing journey of this radical woman and explores the philosophical basis of the dream of an Islamic nation.

The Convert is forthcoming from Graywolf Press.

5-A Zaildar Park

Icchra, Lahore

PAKISTAN

April 18, 1962

Dear Maryam Jameelah,

Assalaam-o-alaikum.

I am glad to know you have accepted my counsel and are ready to come to Pakistan. I pray to Allah that He may guide you to what is right and in your best interest.

I think it is advisable to mention a few things. As you must already know, our way of life and social conditions are vastly different from those in America. We lack many facilities and amenities that Americans take for granted. Therefore, the first months here will certainly prove fatiguing and taxing upon your nerves. Unless you have patience and are resolutely determined to mould your life according to ours, to live and die among your Muslim brethren, you might find it extremely difficult to reconcile yourself to our ways. Although I will try my best to look after your needs and make things easier, your steadfast cooperation is essential.

Two of my daughters are near to you in age. One is studying for an MA in English and the other a BA in Economics. I hope they will make friends with you, teach you Urdu and in exchange, learn from you the enthusiasm of a new convert. My wife does not know English. Initially, this may hinder your intimacy with her but I hope you will pick up enough Urdu within two or three months to enable you to communicate. After you have learned Urdu, it will be relatively easy for you to learn Arabic, because these languages share vocabularies. In due course, I will also try to arrange for an Arabic teacher.

As regards marriage, I will not pressure you but should you decide to marry, I will try to help you choose a suitable life partner. Naturally you will want to be married to a youth who lives as a good Pakistani Muslim. If you choose not to marry, I am prepared to welcome you forever as a member of my family. I am inviting you to share my hospitality in the spirit with which the early Muslim inhabitants of Medina had extended their invitation to their forlorn brethren outside of Medina and I wish you to respond with a similar spirit of migration, thinking that bonds of faith are firmer and stronger than relationships of flesh and blood.

There is still another reason why you should postpone any decision about marriage. When you arrive, my wife will train you in how a Pakistani Muslim wife runs her home and manages her household affairs. This knowledge will stand you in good stead when you are facing married life. For such a marital relationship to achieve success, it is essential to learn the social etiquette of Muslim families.

When you reach Lahore, daytime temperatures average well over 100 degrees F. Our houses are not air-conditioned but we do use electric fans. Eventually you will become accustomed to our tropical seasons but you must be prepared to bear the first onslaught of this extreme climate.

You should bring with you all necessary belongings. Due to heavy customs duties, foreign products are very expensive here. Do not assume that such things can be easily replaced.

I am writing a separate letter to your parents. I advise you to introduce me to them yourself and show them some of my letters so they may be able to grasp fully the background of my present letter to them.

Your brother in Islam,

ABUL ALA

Larchmont Acres Apartments, Apt 223-C

Mamaroneck, NY

USA

May 2, 1962

Dear Mr. Mawdudi,

I am grateful for your kind letter of April 18th, extending to my daughter, Margaret, an invitation to live in your home. My wife and I are deeply moved by your gracious offer of hospitality.

Since embracing Islam, particularly as an ardent convert, it seems that living in our society presents practical difficulties. Margaret is eager to accept your invitation and as her parents, we are ready to give her our consent although it means going to live in a distant land. Especially in view of the zeal she has shown, we are hopeful this would give her the opportunity for a happy and meaningful life.

Coming to a country with such a different culture will surely require much forbearance during a period of adjustment. With the sympathy and understanding indicated in your letters combined with Margaret’s ardor, I am confident that her entrance into your family life will be successful.

I was pleased to note in your letter to Margaret the advice regarding change of citizenship and marriage. It is my paternal wish that she took irrevocable steps only after a reasonable period of residence.

She goes to your country with our blessings and we shall maintain our continuing interest in her welfare. Therefore please feel at liberty to write to me about her at any time.

Mrs. Marcus joins me in conveying to you, your wife and children our heartfelt gratitude.

Very sincerely,

Herbert S. Marcus

AFTER ALL OUR GOODBYES, after you, Mother, Betty and Walter walked down the gangplank and drove off; I was overcome by a profound sense of dread. I stood at the deck rail for a long time completely stricken, the excitement of the weeks leading up to my departure gone. When the ship finally pulled away from the Brooklyn pier, the lights of the city began to dim and the engines seemed to echo the pounding of my heart. A black and fathomless ocean was slowly swallowing everything I had ever known. It took some time and many prayers before my fears began to subside.

The crossing thus far has not been without incident. At first, my fellow shipmates distracted me from my panic.  There is an Indian boy on board named Jehangir Govind.  He is returning home to Bombay after his studies in America. He snootily insists on being called Jack because he says I mispronounce his name. There was also a young man named Sherman accompanied by an older, helplessly alcoholic wife named Thelma.  A Greek captain and crew, along with several Greek deportees completed the passenger list. After ten days at sea in close quarters with all of them, I ended up taking a number of meals alone in my room to spare myself their comments about my clothes.

Mother, you imagined that I was going to need my nice silk dress for dining and dancing on board, as if my passage had been booked on a cruise ship instead of cheap Greek freighter! I was happy to leave that dress behind with Betty (along with my girdle and corset). My high heels I gave to the colored lady who lived in the next room at the Martha Washington Women’s Residence. In my hand sewn, ankle-length dirndl skirt and high-necked long sleeve blouse I certainly saw that I cut an unlikely figure. Why would an otherwise attractive Western woman insist on dressing in such a manner? Honestly? I don’t blame them.

The Captain has just returned from Turkey and despite Mustapha Kemal Ataturk’s best efforts to persecute Muslims by outlawing polygamy, the Hajj and the Arabic script, it seems that he found no dearth of religious fanatics. I asked him what he meant by religious fanatic.

Muslims who refuse to eat pork for fear of Hell, he answered. Muslims who avoid non-Muslims like the plague.  He would be perfectly happy to see the Muslim religion eradicated, he said, because everyone knows Western civilization is superior. While Istanbul and Ankara are fairly Westernized and home to many Europeans, he assured us that the rest of Turkey is as backward and reactionary as ever. A young Greek sailor chimed in: You will see for yourself the filth and poverty of the Arabs when you get there. This is the tenor of the nightly commentary on board.

My first thought was that I was sorry Turkey was not on the ship’s itinerary. I am frankly surprised to learn that there are that many Turks who have resisted Ataturk’s effort to turn them into modern Europeans. The secular and nationalist leaders of Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, Tunisia and Morocco have all been desperately eager to put development before everything else, to westernize and modernize away every last evidence of their traditional Islamic cultures in frantic pursuit of Western standards of urban living and dress. It’s been a constant worry that the world I am looking for will be gone by the time I arrive. Would I arrive at my destination, forty years, seventy years, a century too late?

Jehangir tells me that if I want to pray five times a day that is my own business but he just doesn’t see what possible difference it makes. He can’t tell one religion from another. And it is a complete fairytale, he insists, that God is everywhere watching to see whether I behave.  Once he became a man he found he could dispense with such fantasies; he is now in the habit of being good. Jehangir reminded me of those young men at the Columbia Muslim Students Association whose mission in life is to modernize Islam to death, gutting it of its essentials.

Five days later the sun rose on Alexandria. Watching from the Captain’s deck after my early morning sala I saw the coast come into focus, then dozens of feluccas manned by men in skull caps and flowing white jellabeyas skirted across the harbor out of the morning mist. It was a most incredible sight. Clearly recognizing me as a fellow Muslim, they called out ‘asalaam aleikum’ and my heart practically lifted me off my feet.  I was no longer travelling in the West. I had finally crossed over.

Soon after we docked, a dragoman arrived and offered to show me the sights of the city, pulling an official permit out of his pocket to alleviate my concern that I might be taken advantage of.  Once I made it clear that I was a convert and only wanted to attend a prayer service, his distant manner gave way to warmth and he immediately hailed a taxi to take us both to the Old City.

All my life I have heard about the backwardness of the Arabs. I have read the accounts of Christian missionaries, Orientalists and Zionists. You, Mother, and the Greek sailor gave me the same refrain, though after the war the polite word became “underdeveloped.” Indeed in Egypt, I saw poverty everywhere I looked. Horse-drawn carts plied cratered roads and the buildings looked on the verge of collapse. Some of the men I saw were indeed indescribably filthy. Children in rags played in the street with toys engineered from bits of wire and rubbish; hawkers sang out their wares in a sweet singsong fashion. The vast majority of men, women and children wore traditional native dress, including one woman fully clad in a burqa carrying a crate of live chickens on her head.

In your eyes, this scene would look like something out of the Middle Ages. You would withdraw in disgust at the unsanitary conditions, cluck at the crude dwellings in which they lived, quote me child mortality statistics. You couldn’t get out of here fast enough. But I see something else. I see their dignity and gentleness, their exquisite manners and open arm hospitality, their unquestioning faith. I envy them their lives, beyond the reach of “technical assistance” and the poisoned fruit of modernization. Pure sentiment, you would insist.

Before taking me to the mosque, the dragoman invited me to his home to meet his family. We found his wife preparing the noon meal in a soot-covered kitchen over a kerosene stove, chickens and roosters quick stepping around her, as if impatient to be fed. His older daughter held a severely malnourished baby. His fourteen-year-old son looked more like a ten year old, but read from the Qur’an fluently.  After lunch my guide took me on a tour of saint’s tombs in his neighborhood. We entered a schoolroom filled with boys studying the Qur’an. When I was introduced, they were all astonished to meet an American woman who chose to be a Muslim and live in a Muslim country. Under their reverent gaze, I felt something like a saint myself.

MANY OF THE LESS FAMILIAR NAMES of the New York Public Library’s Manuscript and Rare Book Division’s collection are by-gone titans of the social register, well-heeled library donors whose achievements in finance, real estate, and charitable works are entombed in thousands of anonymous grey boxes—like the bones of obscure Christian and Jewish saints. But one morning it was a lone Muslim name that tripped my eye. That name, wedged between a 19th century nun and a 21st century animal rights activist, was Maryam Jameelah. Though it was evident she was well known in the Muslim world, I had never heard of her.

The first two boxes of the archive contained her correspondence, newspaper interviews and profiles of her, reviews of her many books, and the handwritten manuscript of a novel. The next three boxes contained artwork. There were childhood crayon drawings on yellowing paper by “Peggy” and pastel works depicting the daily lives of Arab peasants. The last of the boxes included wedding photographs of heavily made up Pakistani bridal parties, the haphazard remnants of a life of a woman who was celebrated worldwide for making Islam’s argument against the West.

Maryam Jameelah’s bibliography listed a number of books and pamphlets all published out of Lahore. Each extolled the superior virtues of Islam, particularly when set against the shortcomings of the modern and secular West. They bore bristling, grandiose titles: Modern Technology and the Dehumanization of Man, Islam Face to Face with the Current Crisis, Western Materialism Menaces Muslims, The Resurgence of Islam and our Liberation from the Colonial Yoke. For her portrayal of Western culture and social mores, Jameelah drew on an array of magazines and books sent to her by her mother back in New York. There were citations of social critics like Oscar Lewis and Lance Packard as well as racier fare like ‘I was an Alcoholic Housewife’ from Reader’s Digest. In Western Civilisation Condemned by Itself, a pirated chapter from Catcher in the Rye was used to illustrate adolescent misery and selections from ‘The Waste Land’ were used to evoke the psychic toll of godless living.

But the true source of Maryam Jameelah’s authority to make Islam’s case against the West appeared to arise largely from the circumstances of her life. Self-taught, untravelled and unlearned in any foreign language, Margaret Marcus had sacrificed the easy life and supposed freedoms of America for the pure and sustaining truths of Islam. The choice she laid out for her readers was blunt and by now bleakly familiar: a life lived by the sacred laws laid out in the Holy Qur’an or one blackened by hell-bent secular materialism.

Though Jameelah’s output trailed off in the mid-1980s, her books, translated and distributed through Islamic centres and bookshops all over the world continued to have a decided impact on the way the Islamic world thought of the West—America in particular. “Maryam Jameelah’s significance [lies] in the manner with which she articulates an internally consistent paradigm for [Islamic] revivalism’s rejection of the West,” her entry in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Modern Islam read. “In this regard, her influence far exceeds [that of] the Jama’at-I-Islami.”

The Jama’at-I-Islami, I’d soon learn, was the first Islamic political party, founded in pre-Partition India. It was the brainchild of the man who had first invited Maryam Jameelah to live in Pakistan as his adopted daughter.  His name was Abul A’la Mawdudi. Vali Nasr, Mawdudi’s biographer and a scholar of political Islam (often referred to as the Islamic Revival), described Maryam Jameelah’s writings as broadly responsible for cementing the global cultural divide. His father, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, one of the pre-eminent scholars of traditional Islam living in the West, is more precise. “Maryam Jameelah began to write at a time when few in the Islamic world were criticizing Western culture in any depth. While there were mullahs who made superficial critiques, say of Western women’s scandalous clothing, for someone from within the West to criticize modernism, in an articulate and logical way, was revolutionary.”

I knew none of this that first morning in the reading room.  I only thought to wonder how such an archive ended up at the Manuscript and Rare Books Division. That day I merely glanced at the bibliography before turning to the photographs. A family portrait taken in 1938 showed the future revolutionary as a four-year-old in a smocked dress, gazing at a distant point with large brown eyes, while her sister Betty mugged coyly for the camera.

I noticed that as Margaret Marcus grew older, the photographs became less forgiving. Awkwardness radiated from her. Trussed in fancy dresses, she stood apart from her respectable looking parents and lipsticked sister, gamely smiling and looking as if she wanted to disappear. Where Betty worshipped Shirley Temple and fretted about her weight, Margaret playacted adventures in the Syrian Desert. By her mid-twenties, she began wearing what looked like a babushka. Finally, a news photo taken soon after her arrival in Pakistan showed her in a burqa, standing alone in front of a sunlit door, only her hands and feet visible.

I looked at that photograph for a long time.

It was a photograph of a woman who, after a lifetime of hiding, now wanted to be seen. Not a ghost. It was a photograph of someone who could only be herself beneath a pitch-black burqa. Twenty-eight years into her life, Margaret Marcus had transformed herself. Under this veil Maryam Jameelah saw the world and her place in it with absolute clarity.

5-A Zaildar Park

Icchra, Lahore

Early July 1962

NOW THAT I HAVE SETTLED MYSELF here, I would like to explain how I came to be a part of the Maulana Mawdudi’s family.  It seems I have spent my entire life trying to get to this moment, to explain myself in terms that make sense to you. I’m not sure I ever will. But if I don’t try then we will never be able to put the difficulties of the last ten years behind us.

According to the Maulana, among every people in every period of history there have been the good and the righteous and, whatever creed they professed, they are the true Muslims. He saw these qualities in me. There were even true Muslims before the time of the Prophet (Peace be upon him), a period traditionally held to be a time of total pagan ignorance or jahiliyya. The Maulana believes that Western values exported to the Muslim world by colonialism created only the most recent manifestation of this sorry state and, like me, he went through a period of ignorance and upheaval before alighting on the Right Path. In Arabic they call this path the Sunnah, meaning The Way of the Prophet.

On the advice of a jailed Islamic leader, over a year ago I sent the Maulana Mawdudi some of my writings on Islam as a way of introducing myself. He responded with an invitation to share the coming Ramadan holiday with his family in Pakistan. “When I was reading your articles,” Mawdudi wrote me, “I felt as if I were reading my own mind.” He was certain I’d feel the same when I read his work and of course I did. He was impressed but only mildly surprised that a girl born and brought up in America could come to hold the exact same views he had been preaching for the last thirty years of his life. Naturally, Maulana Mawdudi wanted to know how a young American girl, from a Jewish family no less, could arrive at a clear and genuine conception of Islam all by herself. He asked if I might find the time to write a brief story of my mental evolution and send it to him.

So I wrote him of my typical American childhood, my secular education and my abortive religious one. Though my interest in Arab culture predated the founding of the state of Israel, 1948 was also the year I began reading deeply in Arab history, poetry and writings. It was a book by a Jewish convert to Islam who eventually showed me my path, I told him.

With the Maulana’s encouragement I marked the end of Ramadan in the spring of 1961 by taking my vows at the Islamic Mission of America in Brooklyn. It was the day after my twenty-seventh birthday. Whenever you tried to talk me out of converting, it never had anything to do with giving up Judaism, it had to do with my finding a place in American society. You warned me that I would become a stranger in the family and the community. As you well knew, by then I was already a stranger. I had been for a long time. Yet I found becoming a Muslim was not the end of my difficulties.

In late March, after you left for Trinidad and Tobago, I made up my mind.  As soon as you returned from your holiday, I handed you Maulana Mawdudi’s letter. There was no time to argue; I had six weeks to prepare for my journey. I emptied my bank account, bought a portable Smith Corona, shipped ahead my library of Islamic books, applied for a passport and secured the recommended immunizations.

As I went about these tasks, I discovered in myself a sense of purpose. I was resourceful, efficient. For the first time, I realized how long I had been stuck in this netherworld between childhood and adulthood, alone in my room with my books, practically friendless, unhappy and frustrated.  And then Maulana Mawdudi opened a door. He showed me how I might escape the awful destiny that awaited me if I remained in America. Approaching my twenty-eighth year, I had the sense that his invitation had arrived not a moment too soon. I was grateful. I am still grateful.

That is how I now find myself, finishing this letter to you while sitting on a narrow bed across from a wall of thousands of books, just outside the study of Maulana Abul A’la Mawdudi.

MARGARET’S LIFE WENT STRAIGHT to the heart of a near-universally accepted notion: the intransigence of the divide between Islam and the West. Western scholars and diplomats, thoughtful editorial writers and old-fashioned Orientalists, even a few secular-minded Muslims were convinced of it.  Maryam Jameelah echoed their convictions. Far from seeing her own life as a bridge between America and the Muslim world, Maryam believed that Western civilisation and Islamic civilisation were irreconcilable: any compromise with the former equalled defeat of the latter.

5-A Zaildar Park

Icchra, Lahore

Mid-July 1962

AFTER A FEW ANXIOUS DAYS, I am now completely at home in the Mawdudi household. Language is my principal difficulty. Everyone seems more interested in practicing their English than in teaching me Urdu. Humaira and Asma and a number of neighborhood ladies who dropped by were crushed to see me dressed in the salwar kameez provided me by the Karachi ladies I had met upon my arrival in Pakistan. They were doubtless expecting a bobbed and blond memsahib with white skin, blue eyes, dressed in a short skirt.  Instead, with my black hair, Semitic coloring, thick features, I really don’t look that much different from them. Used to hearing precise, British inflected English, they find my American accent impossible to follow. As for Lahore, unlike the bit of Karachi I saw in my few days there, it has lovely tree lined streets. Beyond that, I thought very little of it, as I went immediately from the airport to purdah.

The house itself is somewhat dingy and primitive, at least by the materialist standards of Americans, but is well built of stone and cement. A Westinghouse fridge sits in the dining room but the two bathrooms consist of nothing more than chamber pots and a cold-water shower with an unreliable pump. As there are no closets, no one knew what to do with my hangers. There aren’t even chests of drawers. Everyone merely folds their clothes and puts them away on shelves. It is far too hot for my cotton stockings and the bulky black sweaters I got at Gimbel’s bargain basement but they will be useful come winter as there is no such thing as central heating. For the midday nap everyone, with the exception of the Maulana, takes to the largest room in the house, settling down on Indian bedspreads and pillows. At night we sleep in rope beds and on the hottest nights the servants carry these beds to the roof. To escape the mosquitoes, everyone pulls their covers over their heads, giving the roof the appearance of being littered with corpses.

At first I shared a room with Humaira but given the strain of my journey, the Maulana decided I could have a room to myself. Not a bedroom, because there wasn’t one to spare, but the corridor adjoining his study. Here floor to ceiling bookshelves contained Mawdudi’s vast library of English, Arabic, Persian, and Urdu titles. There is also a lower shelf filled with magazines from all over the world. With a space cleared for my own books and a little wooden table for my typewriter, I have my own office.

I would never have guessed that Humaira and Asma were only two of the Maulana’s children since he hadn’t mentioned the other seven in his letters. Umar Farooq is his oldest son and a student of Arabic. Next is twenty-five-year-old Ahmad Farooq, who is on summer leave from medical college in Karachi. Both are so deeply immersed in their studies that neither pay me the least attention. Indeed, they behave as if I didn’t even exist.  Begum Mawdudi tells me that this is because Islam forbids young men from talking to strange women. As the oldest sons, the entire household treats them with great respect.

Twenty-three-year-old Humaira is hard at it studying for her final exams in English literature. We are all obliged to be deadly quiet. Though the exam is eight months away, she reads Henry IV and The Canterbury Tales for at least fifteen hours a day. She is shocked that I have never read Shakespeare. When she isn’t reading the classics, she rereads Gone with the Wind. She is so besotted with that novel that the other night she dreamt she was Scarlett O’Hara! When I asked her about her appreciation of the great Urdu poets, Iqbal and Ghalib, she scorned them as sentimental. Asma, barely nineteen, is already embarked upon a Master’s Degree in Economics. Though both girls are perfectly polite and obedient, with exceptionally refined manners, I was astonished that the Maulana had agreed to such Western courses of study. He explained to me that in Pakistan until one mastered Western subjects, a person wasn’t considered truly educated.

After Asma and Humaira comes Muhammad Farooq, in his last year of high school, and then my favorite, fifteen-year-old Haider Farooq. I think of all the children, the sweetness of this boy sets him apart. Haider, like many boys his age, has a soft spot for animals and promises to take me to the Lahore zoo. For more than a week, he nursed a baby pigeon in his room.  His mother told me he had once brought a stray dog into the house, to his father’s absolute fury. Muslims consider dogs unclean. On my arrival, he presented me with a silly ring with imitation diamonds, which I wore until all the stones fell out. Even though he speaks little English he still manages to make me laugh, relieving me of some of my loneliness.

Finally there is ten-year-old Khalid and, the family favorite, six-year-old Ayesha. As the ‘baby’ she is spoilt, bright and mischievous. When she refuses to eat, the Maulana takes her on his lap and feeds her like a baby bird.  I am nothing to her but the butt of her jokes; she loves nothing better than to mimic my English. The household staff includes a cook and a twelve-year-old servant boy from the Punjab named Hidris. No one seems to think it strange he isn’t in school. To round it off, friends and relations of the Maulana and the Begum arrive in a steady stream, sometimes for tea and sometimes for months at a time.

Begum Mawdudi is forty years old but looks nearly fifty.  She also gives lectures on the Qur’an and the Hadith at the homes of various women in the neighborhood. I always accompany her and sit on the floor with the rest of the women and babies for several hours. I’m only sorry I can’t understand what she is saying, so I content myself with observing everyone very closely. Naturally, everyone in Begum Mawdudi’s social circle and immediate family has been eager to meet me. My early weeks in Lahore have been filled with tea parties. It won’t surprise you to hear that even in Pakistan where there is not a cocktail to be seen, I have no patience for such things.

All but one of the Begum’s younger brothers and sisters (she is the eldest of ten) lives in Lahore and they are all far wealthier than we are. My arrival coincided with Jackie Kennedy’s visit with her foolish sister Princess Radziwill.  Their exploits and shameless clothes were an inevitable topic of conversation. I couldn’t help but contrast these teas with the attitude of my hosts during my brief stopover in Karachi.  They wanted nothing to do with the Peace Corps. They knew that by accepting ‘technical assistance’ from the Americans, vulgar Hollywood films and books were sure to follow, with the aim of turning Muslim youths away from Islam. Until I learn Urdu I am, alas, at the mercy of the English-speaking and Westernized upper crust of Pakistani society.

FOR OVER THIRTY YEARS, Margaret Marcus corresponded with her parents, Herbert and Myra Marcus, back home. In her letters she described her work as a writer, her life as a wife and mother living in purdah in Lahore, the capital of east Punjab near the Indian border of Pakistan. These letters began in May 1962 and continued until 1996 when her father died at age 101 in a Boca Raton nursing facility. But it was the first twenty-four letters of this correspondence, filed apart from the rest, that I kept returning to. Beginning with the letters Maryam Jameelah wrote aboard the Greek freighter that brought her to Pakistan, this series ended abruptly eighteen months later.

Margaret was wildly chatty. Her letters to her parents were nothing like her polemical writings. Here her lectures on Islam and secular materialism largely gave way to the story of plucky Peggy Marcus in Pakistan, complete with dramatic dialogue and vivid description. Mailed at nearly weekly intervals they ran pages and pages long with scarcely a typo to interrupt the flow.  Where my own writing was filled with equivocation, Margaret Marcus was brisk and direct. She never hesitated to express an opinion or offer herself up as an unquestioned authority. But she was also a careful observer, with an anthropologist’s cool eye. However perplexing I sometimes found the writer of these letters, however unintentionally comical, there was something salutary and bracing in her prose style. I soon began to think of her, with both affection and condescension, as Peggy.

5-A Zaildar Park

Icchra, Lahore

Late July 1962

YOUR DESCRIPTION OF MOTHER’S birthday dinner at that fancy Westchester restaurant was nearly unbearable to read. I am still unaccustomed to the Pakistani diet and to hear of the rich menu of foods you are enjoying is a torment. When I am most hungry I have visions of steak and pot roast and meat loaf and mashed potatoes, finished off with a thick slice of Sara Lee cheesecake and ice cream. The Maulana confided to me that he experienced similar visions of Begum Mawdudi’s dishes when he was being feted as an honored guest of King Saud in the tents of Saudi Arabia. On his yearly visit he is expected to relish the sight of an entire roast camel, its head split open so that the brains can be scooped out. As an added honor he is presented an array of choice desert delicacies – camel testicles and eyeballs on a platter. I expect I will soon grow used to the chilies and will find food tasteless without them. Until then I dream of Sara Lee.

Mian Tufail Mohammad is both the Secretary General of the Jama’at-I-Islami and the Maulana’s publisher. In his flowing, immaculately white salwar kameez, he was the picture of elegance when he arrived to collect me at the airport. He has a gray beard and, like the Maulana, wears a lambskin cap. In one of the Maulana’s last letters to me he wrote that Mian Tufail Mohammad had not had an opportunity to read my novel for possible publication. The reason was that he had been arrested and thrown in jail without trial for having written a pamphlet against the anti-Islamic Family Laws Ordinance recently passed by the government. Thinking he was still in prison, I was astonished when he introduced himself. And before I knew it I heard myself asking him if he had been tortured.

It is good to suffer for the cause of Allah, he said in a most solemn voice.

The Maulana Mawdudi is not long out of prison himself. On first meeting him, I could scarcely believe that he was only sixty-one years old. His white beard, lined face, and stiff movements made him seem far more ancient. Jail took such a toll on his health that he has enough medicines to stock an entire dispensary! I was told by one of his associates that in an effort to make him ‘confess,’ he was beaten and tortured. Even the threat of execution did not budge him from his principles.

Yet despite his ill health, the Maulana is a tireless political leader. He is a bitter enemy of President Ayub Khan and the Western ‘intelligentsia,’ precisely because he is one of the most important Muslim thinkers in the entire world and the message of his teachings is the exact opposite of what they represent. I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone more widely read in so many languages. I’d be surprised if there was anything he didn’t know about Islam. And like me he acquired his knowledge largely by his own efforts, with little formal education. On a recent visit to Saudi Arabia he conferred with King Saud about his plan for a new Islamic university at Medina. As a gesture of solicitude and respect, King Saud sent him a large piece of the black covering of the Holy Ka’aba at Mecca, with verses of the Qur’an embroidered on it. The entire household was awestruck when it was spread out on the bed.

From five o’clock in the morning until nearly midnight about two dozen bearded brown men in white pyjamas visit the Maulana’s study. There they carry on grave conversations about the work of his political party, the Jama’at-I-Islami, which has been banned by the government. Just like the Society of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, they are seeking to make Pakistan a fully-fledged Islamic state with the Qur’an as the law of the land. In fact, Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb both acknowledge Maulana Mawdudi’s teachings as supplying the foundation of the Muslim Brotherhood mission in Egypt. During the day the Jama’ati leaders sit in the back garden enrapt in the Maulana’s discourses, Mian Tufail Mohammad among them.  When the muezzin sounds they form their own congregation with the Maulana as Imam leading them in prayer. “My father’s family!” as my dear Haider Farooq once joked.

IN HER LETTERS HOME Peggy reported the Maulana’s teachings to her parents without gloss, and seemed to relish the prospect of being at the centre of an epic struggle.  Like Pakistan, the world was easily divided into two camps: one part devoutly Muslim, and one part, well, everyone else.  The former represents the epitome of good, Peggy wrote gravely from her rope bed in Icchra, and the latter the apogee of evil, Herbert and Myra Marcus presumably included. Margaret appeared confident that her own role in this global contest would be significant. Indeed, within a month of her arrival the fortunes of the Jama’at-I-Islami seemed to shift.

In the late afternoon of July 16, 1962, the Mawdudi household was startled to learn that the courts had overturned martial law and lifted the ban on his party’s political activities. Mawdudi immediately drew up a list of charges and demands addressed to Ayub Khan’s government. In between her accounts of Haider Farooq’s new family of kittens, the doings of the Sufi neighbors she’d seen from the upstairs bathroom window, and the servant boy’s attack of malaria, Peggy wrote her parents of the air of anticipation in the back of the house where Mawdudi was holding an emergency meeting with his party workers.

I tried to imagine what part Maryam Jameelah would be given to play in the political drama the Maulana mapped out that afternoon. Mawdudi had already made space for her in his party as he had in his family. Before she arrived, he had published translated extracts of her letters in his party publication, introducing them as an “eye opener for Muslim youth.” Beyond serving as an example to his daughters, had he envisioned her as his helpmeet, a translator to help his writings reach a broader audience? Or something else?

What exactly were his thoughts when he heard the constant tapping of the Smith Corona just beyond his study door? Did he read Maryam Jameelah’s letters before he posted them? If the Maulana’s entourage considered her at all, were they at all inclined to view Maryam Jameelah not as a propaganda tool, but as an interloper, even an American spy? There were certainly enough of them around. The Maulana had already spent several years in jail. He was not a well man. They needed to look out for him.

My speculations were a measure of how little Peggy’s letters conveyed, despite their volubility. She seemed oblivious to the anomalousness of her position: an innocent abroad. I told myself that because her letters home showed no curiosity as to Mawdudi’s motives I felt obliged to imagine them. I had the idea that Maryam assumed the Maulana had invited her to Pakistan and taken up guardianship of her simply because he was as invested in her writings on Islam as she was. Margaret often betrayed a sense of entitlement, styling herself as Mawdudi did, as the last word on what it meant to be a faithful Muslim.

But there was the inescapable fact of her sex. As part of the requirements of purdah, the women of the Mawdudi household were only allowed to use the front lawn and front portion of the house. The back garden and the Maulana’s study, with the pile of books and papers spilling over his desk, constituted the inviolate men’s realm. Begum Mawdudi never acknowledged her husband’s associates or ventured into his study, Peggy boasted to her parents; she didn’t even know Mian Tufail Mohammad. Peggy did. She was proud of her space in the narrow corridor opposite the Maulana’s library, intimating to Herbert and Myra that she was privy to the men’s world as well as that of beautifully appointed teas and suckling babies. Herbert Marcus had always held that women in Muslim societies were treated no better than slaves, but here she was, not simply respected but lionised.

Yet before I could even begin to understand the dynamics of the Mawdudi household, Peggy Marcus’ letters to her parents were suddenly all about a man named Hakim Rai Naimat Ali Khan and his wife Khurshid Bibi. The return address was no longer the Maulana’s house in Lahore but a place called Pattoki. A month into her stay, Peggy explained to her parents, she had received a kind letter from a friend of Mawdudi. Hakim Rai Naimat Ali Khan invited her for a visit, explaining that they would welcome her presence in their household as a kind of substitute daughter. After three days her childless hosts, whom she soon referred to familiarly as Baijan and Appa, asked her to stay permanently. Maryam gladly accepted, returning only briefly to Lahore to collect her clothes and books.

I let myself be carried along by these new developments, losing myself in Margaret’s slipstream account of a busy household in a small Pakistani town an hour south of Lahore half a century before. Then, in the second to last of those twenty-four letters, I was furiously trying to back away from the drop in front of me. After an unexplained five-month lapse in correspondence, Peggy wrote to her parents from yet another address. The building on Jail Road in Lahore was known locally as Pagolkhanna. Just under a year after her arrival in Pakistan, Maryam Jameelah had been committed to the madhouse.