Wisdom from the Middle East:
An Interview with Yvonne Seng

by Alexander M. Dake

A former professor of Middle Eastern studies at Georgetown University, an Australian by birth and now a storyteller of her meetings with leading holy men in the Middle East: meet Yvonne Seng. I met her in New York, where she was speaking at the renowned Open Center and joining several events to celebrate the release of her recent book, Men in Black Dresses: A Quest for the Future Among Wisdom-Makers of the Middle East.  Her book has achieved widespread praise and is a finalist in this yearís upcoming Nautilus Book Awards.

Yvonne Seng doesnít come across as the serious Islamic scholar she is. She combines her causal Australian style with a down-to-earth but engaging demeanor. This engagement also can be found in the description of her journey to Egypt and Syria, where she not only describes her meetings with spiritual leaders, Muslim sheiks, Copt bishops, Syrian mystics, and Orthodox Christians, but also her own spiritual journey to find wisdom and understanding for the future.

We started our interview by talking about her journey.

Alexander Dake: How did you begin and what did you try to accomplish?

Yvonne Seng: I started the book just before Y2K, when the focus was on a new age of technology. At that time there were also people starting to look inwards and question how technology and globalization were influencing the global village. While that was going on I remembered that I had met various people of wisdom during my academic career and on my personal path and was concerned that the forces of technology and Westernization would drown their quiet voices of wisdom. So, I set out to visit these spiritual leaders to capture their wisdom, before it was too late.

AD: What were you most interested in finding?

YS: The question I was most interested in was that these holy men represented cultures that had survived centuries of different governments, ravages of nature and of mankind. I thought that they would be able to tell us how we can deal with and how we can survive modern-day challenges. My approach for this book was very different from my previous academic works, where everything was historical and footnoted. In Men in Black Dresses, I wanted to write about real people who were living now and dealing with contemporary problems. Frankly, I was quite struck with how contemporary these men were, considering that they were all steeped in age-old histories.

AD: You had conversations with these holy men about technology, the environment, and globalization, topics seemingly far removed from their daily lives. What did you learn from them?

YS: One of the major lessons for me was that we need to respect diversity and that we can learn from our differences. The way of doing that is through conversation and dialogue. In the West we often forget to listen. These spiritual leaders, however, have learned over the centuries the power of listening, the importance of patience and the strength in subtlety.

Other important lessons for the future are how we raise our young people, as they will be determining the future, and then there is technology. Most of the spiritual leaders I met were in favor of technology, from medicine to transportation and communication. But they did make one big exception: when technology does not have a spirit, or the people who are in charge of technology do not have a spiritual core, we are in danger of self-destruction. You could say that technology without meaning can lead us astray.

AD: One recent technology is the Internet, which obviously is also having its impact in the Middle East. What did they tell you about that?

YS: Clearly the web is of major influence, because governments can no longer control information and no longer control peopleís minds. The Coptic Minister of Youth, for example, told me that he sees that young people are increasingly exposed to many opposing ideas. He acknowledges that the Internet not only increases the information available but also that misinformation and pornography will increase. However, he still supports free access to the Internet, something some religious groups in the West would not dare to say. He emphasized that children should be taught values and learn how to make choices. He compared it to a car: just because you are driving in a car doesnít mean you are free. There are traffic rules to adhere to.

AD: What was your overall impression of what you heard?

YS: I was surprised by how open they were and also how knowledgeable they were about our world. Due to the increased telecommunications they have access to our world and because they also have an age-old history of inquiry and discussions they are actually more knowledgeable than we are about their culture.

AD: Are you speaking of religious leaders or of people in the Middle East in general?

YS: Both: the religious leaders are very well educated and well traveled, but even ordinary citizens were open to discuss many different issues and expressed their views on almost anything.

AD: Reading your book, I was indeed impressed with the knowledge and wisdom these men expressed, but I had trouble reconciling that with the other images I have of the region: fundamentalism and lack of democratic development. How do you reconcile that?

YS: Itís not an either-or situation; itís not black or white. There are moderate but also fundamentalist leaders. These days obviously when one speaks of fundamentalists, one usually refers to Muslim fundamentalists. Among the Muslims, for example, I met the Grand Sheik of Islam of Egypt. He is considered a moderate, but he is appointed by President Mubarak and cannot afford to attack the government. If he does, he would be out. So his challenge is to represent the people he guides and at the same time push not too hard on the government. He needs to balance also his diverse followers. He guides the daily lives of millions, if not a billion, moderate Sunni Muslims in the world. These are mostly city people. On the other end you have the more traditional people, who believe in folk Islam. These are people living in villages and are less educated. Although the Grand Sheik does not adhere to folk Islam, these people look up to him. As far as religious extremists are considered, they donít think the Grand Sheik is legitimate, because, they claim, he is the voice of an illegitimate government.

The other religious leaders I interviewed are Orthodox, and they are minorities in the Middle East and are not extremist at all. Their challenge in life is just to survive as a minority.

AD: What struck me in your interviews was that even though you covered almost any topic, there was no reference to politics. Why not?

YS: I wasnít interested in politics per se. The conversations I wanted to have had to do with a grander scheme. As a historian I learned that what is important in politics today is just a speck in history tomorrow. I was also interested in more than the Middle East, in the world as a whole and in larger questions such as the state of the human soul. Politics obviously were implicit in some of my conversations, but again that was not my main objective.

AD: I still am bothered by the paradox of the wisdom expressed by these spiritual leaders and last yearís UNDP Arab Human Development Report, which describes widening gaps in freedom, womenís empowerment, and knowledge across the region. It seems that reality in the Middle East is quite a sorry state of affairs. Donít you agree?

YS: These men agree and decry the lack of literacy, the lack of medical standards, hygiene, water, and economic prosperity. The Grand Sheik of Islam was involved with birth control, because he is aware that if women have fewer children they become more educated, and that in turn influences society and the economy positively. Egypt is a case in point: the birth rate has gone down, while the literacy rate has gone up. Another example is female circumcision, which is widespread in Egypt and North Africa. Again, the Grand Sheik has come out against it, saying it has nothing to do with Islam, but that it is cruel and merely a folk belief. This resulted in an outcry by the village people, and he had to backtrack. Some things will take time before becoming accepted. So, yes, it is often a sorry state of affairs: I have often encountered depressing poverty, which I believe is food for extremism. The extremists will blame their ďillegitimateĒ governments for this poverty, and a cycle of extremism is born.

AD: Well, while we are touching now upon political issues, Iíd like to add one more. How do you think the Middle East is viewing the U.S.ís stated policy to bring democracy to the Middle East, starting in Iraq?

YS: Historically in the Middle East and the Mediterranean the concept of the just ruler existed, based on Aristotleís teachings: a just ruler is expected to protect his people. The irony is now that as the U.S. is becoming the world leader, it cannot be just judged according to the values of the U.S., but also of the world as a whole. I think that the Middle Eastern viewpoint is that the U.S. is not only not protecting them, but even fostering oppression. Through increased spread of Arab satellite TV channels, they see what is going on and donít like the U.S. policies, and donít trust its motives.

AD: Coming back to your journey: you only had three weeks to travel and no appointments scheduled. Still you managed to meet some of the most senior religious leaders and have open, candid conversations with them. How did you manage that?

YS: Well, almost god-given and good luck. But it was not only being in the right place at the right time, it was being prepared for this my whole life. I also worked with holy men before, when I worked for two years in the Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent in Istanbul. There I learned patience and humility in dealing with them. I also learned to appreciate their great sense of humor. In the end it was trustworthiness they were looking for, and apparently they saw that in me.

AD: What did this journey -- and writing about it -- do for you on a personal level?

YS: I am a highly trained academic and always put my training and academic accomplishments before anything else in my life. What these men did, and what this journey did for me, is it made me stop looking at my endless punishing myself by achieving and it made me look more at my inner life rather than my external life. These men were not so much interested in my academic background and in my mind, but in my heart, and were wondering why I had stifled my heart and my creativity. I was actually OK in their eyes and thatís how I felt. That in itself was a freeing and liberating experience for me, for which I am very grateful.

Books by this author:
Men in Black Dresses, A Quest for the Future Among Wisdom-Makers of the Middle East

Relevant website:
Yvonne Sengís website

© 2004, Alexander M. Dake



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