aby Maniza Naqvi
This is about the biography of an American woman who was the author of key militant interpretations and texts which are followed by extremists today. She left New York in the 1960s and went to Egypt and then from there came to live in Lahore with the founder of the Jamaat e Islami Maulana Maududi. She lived in Lahore till she died in 2012 at the age of seventy- eight. This is also about an Austro-Hungarian man who became the spiritual advisor of the House of Saud. It is about Maryam Jameela, an American woman whose given name by her parents was Margaret Marcus and an Austro Hungarian man— Muhammad Asad whose given name was Leopold Weiss. It is about them then, and it is about us now.
The first time I saw razor wire was along the checkpoint at Eretz in Gaza, a dozen years and change ago. And then more recently I'd seen it coiled atop the compound walls of the offices and homes of donor agencies in Addis Ababa, a city changing fast with shanty towns being mowed down to create overpasses and underpasses, Malls and residential paradises for the purchasing powerful foreigners and visiting and returning diaspora. And I'd seen it at the peripheries of a holiday lakeside resort in Malawi built on land grabbed from fishermen, razor wire, presumably to keep the animals out. Now I stared at the knife's edge of gobs of razor wire at ground level in Lahore. And the last time I'd seen such an array of foreign corporate journalists passing through the barricades to speak to the local citizens as the notable and primary experts on that country, on just about every aspect of it, was well—in Bosnia. Now here they were, ‘conflict' experts, some the same, doing the same thing in Lahore.
Large coils of razor wire barricades snaked around the circumference of the venue for the Lahore Literary Festival as a protective barrier against possible attackers. A barricade of police vans and police men provided further deterrents and reinforcements. Snipers sat on the roof top. This didn't give me any comfort. Security guards don't translate into security—or secure progressive thinking. Was the space for art and literature being protected or prisoned?
A bomb had exploded in the vicinity near a police station and a shrine not far from the venue of the festival two days prior to the start of the literature festival. The Punjab government had refused to provide security for the Festival citing too great a security risk till 11.30 p.m. on the eve of the festival when the resolute organizers prevailed and demanded that the Government not abscond from its responsibility and provide full security for the event.
Only a day earlier another imam bargah had been bombed this time outside Islamabad a few hundred miles north. A month earlier a bomb had exploded in an imam bargah in Shikarpur thousands of miles to the south. A month before that a school in Peshawar had been attacked killing one hundred and forty kids. Hundreds of lives had been taken in just these attacks alone. With the dull grim regularity of every few weeks a terrible attack occurred on innocent civilians either worshipping, studying, rejoicing or grieving.
In Pakistan targeted attacks in February 2015 were on the increase. Thousands of lives—at least a hundred thousand Pakistani lives have been taken by such attacks in the last fifteen years. No one colors their Facebook pages in our colors—no arms linked together in parades of the coalition of the willing happen in our streets no showering of sympathy. Just drones bombs and bullets.
Daily threats and fear stalk everyone and people are clearly frightened. Invisible blasphemy accusers seem to be prowling the streets in search of and stalking their targets. A bullet or a bomb could strike anywhere at any time. And the Government seems to provide more security to those who spew hate and encourage such heinous crimes then it does to the victims.
Yet in February of this year, in the face of such fear and terror the Lahore Literary Festival and the Karachi Literature Festival steeled themselves and stoically went forward. A small group and yes class of people and arguably with less than three degrees of separation from each other by marriage or by birth, held the fort: human rights activists, politicians, bureaucrats, ex-military officers, writers, poets, actors, musicians and artists, or all of the above all in one. We filled a Green room. And the audience seats. And session after session for three days all of us manned the figurative barricades, although the literal manning of barricades of– razor wire barricades was left to the less socially connected and more heavily armed policemen and policewomen of a much lesser pay grade. We felt as if we were comrades in pens, determined to resist attempts to color the narrative for Pakistan as being one terrorized by sectarian violence and threats. We were refusing to give in to such repressive thinking. Inside the barricaded and sniper secured Festival there was the attitudes of camaraderie akin to inmates in a large bunker. A sense of euphoria borne of defiance mixed with anxiously counting the moments till the final session when a safe and uneventful eventful event would come to a close and we would all breath a sigh of relief. A bullet dodged. In the Greenroom, the delegates tried to forget the threat level and mingled with each other over cups of tea and coffee and a sumptuous lunch buffets of many a Lahori delicacy. And there were gifts too for the guests—exquisite designer earrings for the women and even more exquisite cuff links for the men.
It was in this atmosphere and context of high tension and stress and of ‘It's all good till it isn't' that I was requested to and agreed to be in conversation with an American author for her book which was to be launched at the Festival. I was on two panels already and without thinking I jumped and accepted this—one more session. More exposure! Great. I said yes and asked questions later. Later that day I googled, the author, Deborah Baker, and her book.
I found to my consternation that the book was called The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism. The book, is about a young American woman who converted to Islam and came to live in Lahore in 1962 and never left and died there in 2012 at the age of seventy-eight.
The book is the biography of an American. Maryam Jameelah or Margaret Marcus told through her own letters to her parents somewhat reedited by Deborah Baker. Praise for the Convert includes a blurb on the cover”The Convertis the most brilliant and moving book written about Islam and the West since 9/11.” —Ahmed Rashid.
I had never heard of Maryam Jameelah before. Nevertheless, now here I was about to participate in a conversation about her with her biographer Deborah Baker. I was about to be educated. Most people I knew whom I subsequently asked if they knew anything about Maryam Jameelah had never heard of her either. And when I told them about what I had learned it only confirmed their long held assertions that throughout Pakistan's history the religious parties and this one in particular had been supported by the Americans.
Worried, I had asked the organizers about the appropriateness of someone like me conducting this conversation given the context of extremism and its threatening stance in the country. I tried to get out of the session during a phone conversation with one of the wonderful organizers. But instead I agreed to do it and in a way I trapped myself. I felt that I was letting everyone down by voicing such a misgiving of fear. I felt that I would appear to be a coward not a team player if I didn't agree to going ahead and doing this. And in a way by being such a coward I was showing that I was not worthy of being invited again.
Ahmed Rashid, a member of the core organizers of the Lahore Literary Festival, tried to allay my fears and kindly reassured me when I expressed my concern. It would be fine and that this was a good book to be in conversation about. I would enjoy it he said cheerfully. ‘It's an important book. Most interesting. Stay away from talking about religion. Keep the conversation about the two different social and cultural worlds that she bridged and experienced. ‘Talk about bridging cultures! Just don't talk about religion. You'll be alright.'
In preparation for the session in addition to of course reading the book I had found two articles one written by Deborah Baker for the Paris Review (here) and the other a review of her book by the New York Times (here). The New York Times said that: ‘Deborah Baker is a serious biographer who specializes in fairly crazy writers.' And later in the review, this: ‘Baker sidesteps one of the book's most crucial questions: “Was Maryam Jameelah a schizophrenic? I couldn't say.” Yet the letters led me to believe she was. Baker mentions that Jameelah was medicated with Compazine, but blurs the implications when she omits that it's prescribed for schizophrenia. She also leaves out instances when Jameelah unambiguously acknowledges why she takes the anti-schizophrenic medication Thorazine. In a letter of Sept. 15, 1981, for example, Jameelah wrote: “I have to take Thorazine every night. I know if I stop taking it, I will soon relapse into the same condition I was before I went to the hospital both in New York and Lahore.”
I had promised my family that I wasn't going to do anything foolish or foolhardy while I was in Lahore, attending the Festival in such dangerous circumstances was already cause enough for worry. Every single relatives and friend in Karachi and Lahore had expressed their own high level of stress over the sectarian danger stalking the country. Being put in a position where any remark, anything could be misconstrued as an affront by extremists was not worth it. Now, I was going to be in conversation with Deborah Baker about her biography of Maryam Jameelah aka Margaret Marcus, the daughter of, as Baker puts it ‘Secular Zionist Jews' who converted to Islam. In 1962, after converting to Islam and after years of correspondence with Maulana Maududi, Margaret Marcus now Maryam Jameelah came to Lahore and never ever returned to the United States again. She had written extremist texts and was the adopted daughter of Maulana Maududi the founder of the Jamaat e Islami. She died a few years ago in Lahore. Deborah Baker had accomplished the astonishing feat of bringing her back to life in her biography. It took Deborah Baker, to enlighten me about Maryam Jameelah and Jamaat e Islami.
I was scared to get into a conversation about this book and that too on a stage in Pakistan in February 2015 when bombs and bullets were killing people who were of my ilk. And even though friends and my own good sense, were telling me to politely back out—I went ahead. Why? Because I was far too terrified of being left out of the Festival, shunned by the literati. Can you imagine? I was bewildered as to how could it be possible that Deborah Baker had agreed to do this, given the situation, and did she not feel the fear or level of threat that I was feeling? How could she not?
Deborah and I exchanged several emails before we met over tea at one of the Lahore Gymkhana's cafés overlooking the lush green Golf course, on a chilly afternoon before the Festival began. She signed off as Deb. She was from New York. She lives in Delhi with her husband, also an author, Amitav Ghosh. She said she half suspected she had been invited because the organizers really wanted her husband to come too. I think she was being too self- effacing and under estimated her own talent. I didn't tell her that I half suspected that I was asked to do this session because no one else wanted to-given the terror threat level in the country. I expressed my concern about discussing such a book given the tense context and I was unable to convey my sense of foreboding and fear. She said I might be over reading the threatening environment.
Deb, pretty in her colorful eyewear, her features to me a charming cross between Elizabeth Warren and Mary Tyler Moore — was attired much in the same way as I was, dressed for the part, a shawl, long kurta, over ankle length tights. We had an hour to talk and then Deb was off to an art opening in town. Admirably, Deb seemed to have more access to Lahore's art and intellectual glitterati then I did though she had been to Pakistan only a few hours and only once before this visit—for two weeks a few years ago when she came to Lahore to interview Maryam Jameelah.
I got the opportunity to discuss Maryam Jameelah with the very erudite Khalid Ahmed who knew a lot about her and in fact said he was distantly related to her through the man she married. He told me that Imran Khan, the cricketer turned Islamist politician, too was related to the man Maryam Jameelah ended up marrying. I had a chance to talk to Ahmed sahib about this and other things before another session on which I was on the panel and which he was moderating called Writing about Cityscapes.
While in Lahore I came to know about the translation of the Koran by an Austro-Hungarian journalist Leopold Weiss who in the 1920s traveled to Saudi Arabia –probably writing travelogues and who became close to Ibn Saud the founder of Saudi Arabia and the patriarch of the House of Saud. Leopold Weiss changed his name to Muhammad Asad. His translation of the Koran is au current in Lahore's elite circles now busy studying the Koran. There is something to be said about how the colonized elite— are able only to respect, read or speak the languages of the colonizer—they respect only what is presented to them in translation—and who can only read their key cultural and religious texts when it is translated into English or French by the colonizers. Their own heritage is presented to them through the optic of an outsider and garbled and is consumed by them whole. But that may be a different discussion.
But anyway, last February, in Lahore, a day before our session, Deb and I chatted briefly about the dinner party for the Festival participants, the night before. She told me she had had a harrowing encounter. An older gentleman, dressed to the nines, had started to choke and fainted and fallen right into the lap of a seated Roger Cohen of the New York Times and Deborah Baker. “Oh no! I exclaimed, worried for the man. ‘I know right?' She said ‘I thought for a moment we were being attacked It was all so sudden' Deb had gotten a hold of herself instantly and tried to help the ailing man and tried to loosen his tie and make him comfortable, before the medical aid arrived. She said Roger felt he should take the man's shoes off too–to make him more comfortable. But when the gentleman, came to, he was most disturbed to be shoeless and kept asking for his shoes. He was so embarrassed to be without his shoes. Chit chatting like this, we made our way to our session hall and waited for the room to fill up. Once it was full we began right on time. I introduced Deborah using the New York Times description of her. Deb began her conversation as to why she wrote this book and chose this subject.
At the session, in conversation with Deb, I quoted from her essay in the Paris Review in which she had said that she had been searching for answers for 9-11. I referred to Romila Thapar the pre-eminent historian's key note address at the opening session for the festival in which she had cautioned us about the dangers of ‘contextualizing the past with the present.'
Deb told the audience how she found her subject—while flipping through the name cards in the New York Library archives one day a few years after September 2001. She found the unusual name Maryam Jameelah amongst the otherwise all Anglo Saxon and European names. These letters archived at the Library were a biographer's treasure trove of boxes of Maryam Jameelah's letters to her parents from Pakistan.
I listened anxiously. I was apprehensive that any word out of place by either of us could be misconstrued by anyone in the audience who could take umbrage to anything that was said. I thought of the snipers on the roof top of the Alhamra, razor wire all around it, and metal detectors at the entrance to every hall. I thought of the invisible snipers on the prowl targeting and killing people with my background. Lahore had a track record of extremist guards killing the guarded. And here I was in conversation on The Convert.
I kept surveying the room. Gauging the audience and individual faces. Some faces in the front row were impossible to scrutinize, covered as they were by niqabs. I let Deb talk on about her motivation for writing the book and about its content.
My interventions were only to refer to Romila Thapar's remark about the danger of contextualizing the past with the present; the fact that Maryam Jameelah was clinically unstable and most probably schizophrenic and on heavy duty medication according to the Times article and why had she left this out of her book, and to ask how was it possible to look for explanations for 9-11 in an individual of this nature. I intervened once during the question session when a member of the audience wanted to know why Americans were so negative about Islam—I said we cannot ask Deborah Baker, who is just one individual to explain 350 million people or expect that all 350 million people think alike.
I asked the question ‘Does a biographer end up really only writing an autobiography?'
As soon as the session was over, Deb was surrounded by a crowd of people. I left the hall with several friends of mine. In the evening at about six thirty just as the Festival was ending I stood on the lawn and sighed with relief that all had gone on peacefully and safely at the three day event despite the insecurity and sense of dread—the stalking danger. I thought about making my way out of the venue and moving as far away as possible from the barbed wire vicinity.
Deb caught up with me just then on the lawn—a couple of security policemen with automatic weapons stood nearby—there were snipers overhead on the roof top— —I was on the edge of my nerves feeling as though the razor wire, the menacing motif on the Festival's peripheries, was creating a high pitched screeching scream in my head. But Deb looked so relaxed and content as she took both my hands in hers. Deb said how happy she was with our session and how well I had conducted it. I said I was glad it had gone smoothly and again with a shudder I expressed the sense of anxiety and fear I had felt throughout the session. She laughed and said, I was over stating it.
Pressing my hands in hers she said warmly, “Couldn't you just feel the love in the room?”