Wisdom from the Middle
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
Center and joining several events to celebrate the
release of her recent book, .
Her book has
achieved widespread praise and is a finalist in this yearís
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
© 2004, Alexander M. Dake