The Australian born scholar Yvonne Seng is a professor of cultural history specializing in the culture and religions of the Middle East and Turkey. After leaving the region for several years to pursue her academic career, she decides to return to that part of the world to conduct interviews with its spiritual and religious leaders. She chronicles her journey in Men in Black Dresses: A Quest for the Future Among Wisdom Makers of the Middle East. The book is as much a journey of self-discovery and her own quest for enlightenment as it is to share the insights of the spiritual leaders she interviews.
The book opens with a promise extracted from her on her previous visit by a Coptic Bishop on the Nile train. She promises him she will return to Egypt to “see the future.” She does just that many years later to conduct her interviews.
Her journey begins in Egypt where she interviews a Sufi mystic; Sheikh Tantawi, the Grand Sheikh of Islam; Adel Beshai, a former assistant to the Coptic saint, Pope Kyrillos; and Bishop Musa, Bishop of Youth of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
From Egypt she heads to Syria where Hafiz Al-Assad still rules the country. There she interviews Dr. Ali Khayyam, a personal advisor to the Sufi poet, Assad Ali; Assad Ali, himself; Abu George who speaks of the miracles he witnessed and the visitations he had from St. Elias/the prophet Elijah; Pope Zakka, the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East and the Supreme Head of the Universal Syriac Orthodox Church; Sister Salma who channels Jesus and is visited by the Virgin Mary; the tomb of Ibn Al-Arabi, the 12thC Sufi saint and mystic.
She returns to Egypt, does the five-hour hike up Mount Moses to witness the sunrise, and then interviews Archbishop Damianos of the Greek Orthodox Church before returning back to Cairo to make her way home.
Seng writes in an engaging style. On full display is her intrepid attitude as she knocks on doors of mosques and cathedrals hoping someone will open them and let her in; her patience as she navigates her way through the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the Middle East; her inquisitiveness; her adventurous spirit; her sense of humor; and her obvious love for the culture, its sounds, smells, and people.
What she learns from these wisdom makers in black dresses surprises her. She learns of the common threads that unite them: their progressive attitude toward technology and medical science as long as the goal benefits mankind; their willingness to embrace people of different faiths; their tolerance of difference; their emphasis on the importance of family; and their belief that it is the heart and not the mind that is the seat of enlightenment.
An engaging book that speaks to a tolerance of diversity and a celebration of difference that the world is very much in need of nowadays. Highly recommended.