News & Politics

Men in Black Dresses: A Quest for the Future Among Wisdom Makers of the Middle East

“A refreshing look at religion in a part of the world often generalized as violent and fanatical.”

 When Seng, a strung-out graduate student, met the dying Bishop Johanna Nuweiba—Catholic Coptic Bishop of Asyout and Upper Egypt—on an Egyptian train in 1984, the cleric made her promise that one day she’d return to the land of the Pharaohs. Then, he assured her, she’d see the future.

 Fourteen years later, she returned, hoping to understand the bishop’s meaning. In this evocative and readable narrative, she recalls her three-week quest.

 A DC-based cultural historian specializing in the Middle East and Turkey, Seng spent her time in Egypt and Syria interviewing such religious figures as the Grand Sheikh of Islam, a Sufi mystic, a Greek Orthodox archbishop, and the Syriac Orthodox pope.

 Seng hopes that these men—as keepers of some of the world’s most ancient wisdom—will shed light on problems of technology, the environment, and globalization. Their thoughtful, often humorous comments are well captured in her fluid prose. After a discussion with the Syriac Orthodox pope about his dying language, Seng asks how he’d respond to the discovery of extraterrestrial life. He says, “Why, I’d teach them Aramaic, of course!”

 Seng’s odyssey takes a personal turn as she struggles to reconcile mysticism and blind faith with her academic training. Often hesitant to yield completely to religious sentiment, she describes how “my expensively trained mind is determined to maintain primacy over my ragtag heart.”

 Seng confronts tough questions—from both the religious men she interviews and herself—about sacrifices she’s made in the name of her profession, including not having children. A Sufi mystic she’s about to interview brushes her résumé aside, asking, “Where in your life is there room for your heart? [I do] not see it here on this piece of paper. . . . Do you have a family?”

Men in Black Dresses reveals Seng’s love and respect for Middle East culture. It’s a refreshing look at religion in a part of the world often generalized as violent and fanatical. While a bit trite at times—there are repeated injunctions to love your neighbor—its message of hope for the future is a positive one.

Yvonne Seng

Pocket Books


Don’t Miss Another Big Story—Get Our Weekend Newsletter

Our most popular stories of the week, sent every Saturday.

Or, see all of our newsletters. By signing up, you agree to our terms.