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Men in Black DressesPoint here for more book info
A Quest for the Future Among Wisdom-Makers of the Middle East 
by Yvonne Seng, Ph.D. 

Paraview Pocket Books, 2003
ISBN: 074347726X
Spirituality/Memoir, 304 pages
Trade paperback, $14.00 
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From the Introduction to
Men in Black Dresses

  Men in black dresses used to scare the bloody hell out of me. The first time I saw one, a priest, in the Australian tropics where I was born and raised, I knew something was up. Even as a child it took a lot to throw me off stride -- snakes, spiders, sharks, ballet teacher -- but those holy guys got a bead on me.

I'd never seen a man in a dress before, let alone anyone in black, except the immigrant widows. They didn't speak English, so they didn't count back then. No one wore black in the tropics, where we wore as little as possible, except for dress-up occasions when we did The Full Colonial with the white gloves and all the rest.

Strange people, we were, but this man was even stranger. He wore jewelry, a gold cross, when the only man I knew who wore jewelry was Nick the Greek, the local grocer who also wore a lot of aftershave, which this fellow didn't. Nick also wore his shirt wide open over his obscene beer gut, while this guy auto-asphyxiated with a white cloth collar.

Something about the way this stranger addressed my mother, the only redheaded divorcée in shouting distance, made me stand close to her. My mother is not the kind to encourage clinging, nor I to cling, but he aroused a primitive bond against danger. I followed the frigid conversation about attending church, and my mother's rebuff that she saw his face enough at the pub (where she worked part-time as a barmaid) to want to see it one more day, thank you very much, sir. For all my precocious vocabulary it took years to understand that his parting phrase, which sounded something like child-a-sin, was not a Celtic blessing.

Nuns confused me even further. Were they also men? They behaved like them, stern and harsh, wielding the cane like demented Crusaders. They wore heavy black shoes. Some had chin hairs. If they were not men, then why were they so unhappy? Being a Bride of Christ looked a bitch -- but don't get me started on marriage. They added the words feral and pagan to my vocabulary.

My first religious vision knocked me dizzy. I was five. A heat wave sizzled the mangoes that fell on the hot, tin roofs and drove our land-loving cattle dogs into the sea. Floundering around in the surf, an apparition staggered up onto the beach, hitching his swimsuit (black) over his belly: the priest, arms outstretched toward me.

I was dumbstruck. Except for the stark whiteness of flesh, the man under the black robe was human just like the rest of us. He was just, well, ordinary.

In punishment for my childish thoughts, however, God sent me my own personal plague of religious men and women to shadow me through life. For my twenty-first birthday in Italy, I got locked in a tomb with skulls and various body parts of medieval monks in some mountaintop cathedral. But fascination overrode repulsion, and my fate was set. Mostly I've met up with them in the Middle East, where I've spent much of my adult life mucking about; in remote oases in Egypt, up minarets, down tombs. Some dead, most alive, a few difficult to tell. God's big laugh came when I ended up doing my doctoral dissertation in the religious archives of Istanbul, surrounded by still more men in black dresses. Some turned out to be wise men in bad drag.

I no longer flinch when I run into one and have come to look forward to their company. They are, like me under my black cocktail dress, imperfect and human. Some of these wise men and women no longer bother with the black robes (just as Queenslanders have finally given up their oppressive white gloves), and take many forms. They turn up as old storytellers in Syria willing to exchange ancient wisdom for a shared moment or a cigarette. Or desert monks in Egypt joyriding in the back of a pickup truck. Or a Muslim mystic who is a psychiatrist by day and a television commentator by night.

One holy man in particular got under my skin.

I'd met him years ago on the Nile train into Upper Egypt and, with the confidence of strangers who never expect to see each other again, we talked about life and death, and the future. I had been in a slightly suicidal frame of mind -- combining a Ph.D. and divorce at the University of Chicago will do that to you -- and was stubbornly challenging the whole damn universe as well as my own will to survive. Return to Egypt, he had said, and you will see the future. Promise me, he said, and I promised.

Instead, I tried to climb the greased ladder of academia and pretended to forget the promise. Thirteen years later in Turkey, I clung to that threadbare promise for dear life. In the middle of a hellacious inferno, a mountain and its ancient olive groves roaring around me, burning wild horses screaming through the ravines, life drained to numbness, I remembered the promise, the challenge to return to Egypt. In the face of death, I swore I would live to see the future.

As the ashes cooled around me, a small cinder flared within. The fire had been purposely set to drive the residents out. Land developers. Speculators. Mafia. Nobody knows for sure. The short of it is that someone tried to kill me and every living thing on the mountain. For what? A holiday resort for naked Germans?

No one died in the fire. A miracle, the villagers whispered. God had intervened.

All right, then, I decided. I'll go knock on God's door and ask why this had happened. And if he was busy, I'd talk to his representatives, the men in black dresses.

And I'd seek out the old holy man from the Nile train and show him I was still alive.

It was one of those inexplicably weird events when seemingly unrelated wires burned loose, melded, and reconnected into a new combination.

Return to Egypt, the holy man had challenged, and you will see the future. His words formed a conundrum, a word game that mystics like to play: Return to the land of the past and you'll find the future.

The renewed promise again evaporated once I was back in Washington, caught up in my academic career and the think tank circuit. For a year after the inferno, however, I struggled silently with the words of the old man. The past and the future had melted our flesh together and he could not be shaken off.

Then God did a kick-butt. I woke suddenly in the middle of the night and sat straight up. It was as clear as day. The Light. The Voice. The whole Vision Thing.

Men in Black Dresses, the Voice said.

Yes, of course. The holy men. The mystics.

I got out of bed and started taking dictation.

I'm not good with irrationalities, an expensive education has taken care of that. Chasing the ghost of a holy man wouldn't cut it, so God was smart enough to frame the quest as an intellectual project and present it in memo form, which made it easier for this argumentative committee of one to sign off on. There was no messy discussion of why this was an answer, or even to what: to that unpinnable sense of loss that pervaded my days, the emptiness that dogged my Manolo Blahnik heels.

The project appeared as a whole. Return to Egypt and ask wise and holy men where the hell they think humanity is going. Surely, with their timeless perspective, surviving generations of man-made and natural disaster, they have wisdom to share about our future. Surely, in their isolated desert monasteries and ancient cities, they can explain why someone would set fire to a village and sacrifice life in order to build high-rise tourist villas. Why we -- as a planet -- value life so little and laugh at murder.

I was sure it had to do with this New World we've entered, where progress and ancient ways, science and faith, the old and the new, battle for ground. I wanted to hear what wise and holy men had to say about the state of the human soul in this new age of technology.

I also longed for a voice other than the Roman Catholic pope's. I had listened to his mediagenic pronouncements, followed his moratoriums on technology, and knew there had to be other perspectives out there. Perhaps I could help redress the imbalance by seeking out equally inspired spiritual leaders from the ancient cradle of civilization, Syria and Egypt, that gave us the early Church and Sufi mysticism. These fresh voices may even agree with Rome, but I wanted to hear for myself.

These were just peripheral thoughts as I brewed my morning coffee; nothing was written in stone.

Since I was already scheduled to leave for Turkey in a couple of weeks to return to the fire-scarred village for the summer, a side trip was neither unwelcome nor impossible. I checked the calendar and could squeeze three weeks out of it. Twenty-one days. If it worked, it worked. The details were up to God, whose bright idea this seemed, anyway.

Twenty-one days in 1998 to find the future. Twenty-one days to find the old man.

I called a close friend in Cairo to let her know I was coming. She was rarely there this time of year, but this year she was. The first step.

The next morning, I caught my boss at the university, a dashing Syrian scholar, between grading exams. With only five minutes to talk, I went straight to the vision. He smiled, held his calls, shouted to his assistant in the next room to bring the name of a contact in Cairo, another in Damascus, in case I got there, and gave his blessings on this quest, which we both knew was not driven by the mind.

I was out the door.

I had a name, a scrap of worn paper with an address, and a memory. I hoped it was enough.

Copyright 2003 by Yvonne J. Seng

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