Deborah Baker’s ‘The Convert’ is the true story of a Jewish girl who converted to Islam

The story of Maryam Jameelah is an extraordinary but painfully confused true tale of a young American woman whose search for moral absolutes and emotional security led her to abandon a middle-class Jewish upbringing in suburban New York in the 1960s for a vastly different existence as an exile and convert to Islam in Pakistan, where she experienced both great intellectual productivity and deep personal conflict. Deborah Baker, who based her account of Jameelah’s life largely on troves of correspondence (which Jameelah gave her permission to use), calls her story a parable of Islam and America. But it is hard to find a clear lesson in a life whose multiple twisted strands have included bouts with mental illness, family conflicts, irreconcilable loyalties to rival faiths and versions of history, and ultimate disillusionment in a search for impossible certainties about life and death.

Her tortured relationship with Judaism, Christianity and the West was a jumble of adolescent rebellion, liberal guilt and a desperate search for elusive moral verities. She was first shocked by photographs of Nazi concentration camps, then by the “Zionist propaganda” and the abuses of Palestinians that followed the creation of Israel. “I no longer consider myself a Jew,” she wrote with cold fury in 1949.