Christopher Buckley

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"Florence of Arabia"

(Reviewed by Pat Neuman MAY 1, 2006)

Florence of Arabia by Christopher Buckley

Outraged by the execution of an Arab friend who had tried to escape her husband and seek asylum while in Washington, DC but was then forced home to her fate, Florence Farfaletti has a brainstorm.  She informs her boss at the State Dept. that she has gone over his head to the Secretary of State with her plan: "Female Emancipation As A Means of Achieving Long Term Stability In the Near East: An Operational Proposal,"   …  and explains:

"I’m just trying to think outside the box."

What box?  Pandora’s box?"

Scoffed at and forced to resign at State, Florence is then approached, recruited and secretly funded by the mysterious "Uncle Sam" who appears to know all about her proposal but will not even tell her which government agency he works for; finds herself off to the Persian Gulf.  She goes directly to the fictional country of Matar ("the Switzerland of the Persian Gulf" enriched by "Infidel Land" gambling and access rights to the pipeline running through it to the gulf from the adjacent fictional county, the much more extreme, Wasabia, the "Middle East's preeminent no-fun zone"). 

In Matar, she seeks an audience with the Emir, Gazzir Bin Haz (Gazzy to his friends) to bribe his consent to have his only wife (a half-British former London television personality who negotiated a shrewd pre-nuptial agreement) to help her set up a new satellite television station targeted at women. Florence tries to show him projected advertising revenue.

"… there are vast sums to be made."

"How do you mean ‘vast’?  The desert is vast.  The ocean is vast."

"In the neighborhood of two billion dollars per year, my lord."

"That’s not half vast."

Florence is cleverly assisted by sheika Laila and an unlikely crew, studded with a cast of characters that are somehow as original as they are stereotypical: the "Black Beret" body guard, a gay desk-jockey and former colleague at the State Dept., and a mercenary, high-powered international lobbyist, "who was acknowledged by even his most grudging peers to be the capital’s premier champion of causes so devoid of hope, so lacking in integrity, there was a kind of gallantry to it that aspired to a level of grandeur."

They launch a seemingly innocent line-up of programs for women. The first, "Cher Azade, The Thousand and One Mornings" begins with a burkha covered woman accidentally tripping over a coffee table and revealing part of her leg. The women in the live audience are at first shocked and dismayed but are soon laughing uproariously, as they realize that because it was accidental, there will be not be the usual harsh consequences.  She introduces the first guest who is promoting her book "Stop, You’re Killing Me: The Repression of Women in Arab Societies and What You Can Do about it."

"God be praised.  What is it about?" deadpans Azade.

… "It’s hard to put my finger on it, Azade, but probably when the religious police pushed those girls back into the burning school because their heads weren’t covered.  I thought, ‘What kind of barbaric society do we live in that such abominations go on every day?" ***

***You may recall that this is a fact.  In this volatile part of the world, these things have really happened.

Florence is hopeful that her plan to raise the consciousness of the women in her audience could eventually lead to improvements in the ludicrous aspects of their way of life - overthrowing the burkha, doing away with the religious police and harsh punishments for tiny offenses etc.. In a not-so-subtle way, these broadcasts could lead to some degree of liberation for all Arab women and bring about positive changes in their culture and government due to their newly empowered voices.

Things go well at first and there are numerous very funny incidents, but when they begin to go wrong, they go very badly wrong. There are many laugh-out-louds in this novel, and more and more profound food for thought as things turn ugly. While there is really nothing funny about these harsh cruelties and base corruptions, it seems amazing but possible that this wickedly humorous look at them may be able to accomplish what demonizing cannot: that is a recognition of basic truths about human rights and the abuses of power.

The expected furious reaction from neighboring Wasabia is immediately forthcoming, but the Emir is too busy contemplating the advertising revenue and entertaining his secret harem at a beach resort to mind.  Laila further persuades her husband to persevere by flattering him with planted stories about becoming the "new Saladin" who could "take the Middle East out of the Middle ages."

This story is part farce, part action-thriller, part scathing (but entertaining) commentary on everything that is wrong in dealing with this part of the world, and crazily close to being plausible.

Wasabia is looking for any excuse to overthrow the current Emir, impose their religious police and expand their sphere on influence. They are also tired of paying for rights to pump their oil through Matar to get it to the gulf (ever since the unfortunate partition initiated by Winston Churchill.)  But wait!  There’s more!  This situation develops several entirely plausible subplots about Wasabia and the French government covertly scheming to depose the Emir and to bring his cheating-race-car-driving brother to the throne instead.  

This irreverent farce is as courageous as it is outrageous. Buckley is a highly skilled satirist. He is equally merciless on corrupt officials in all governments (the United States, France and the fictional Arab countries), jaded public relations men, clerics so venal they are snidely referred to by their own people as "moolahs" instead of mullahs, despotic, scheming royal family members, and obsequious servants.  It also provides an all-too- accurate look at some of America’s policy foibles of both the past and the present. "That ought to be our motto: ‘U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East: Making Matters Worse’… it was all going so well that I concluded it couldn’t possibly be a CIA operation.  They always turn out so badly."

While many would take offense at some of the "political incorrectness," it is leveled so evenly across the board that there really isn’t a fair basis for complaint.  Buckley is a master of taking a serious situation and making it entertaining enough to cause people to really think about it.  His satire is razor sharp and right on. This novel deserves the kind of success enjoyed by his hit (and now movie) Thank You For Smoking.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 23 reviews


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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

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About the Author:

Christopher BuckleyChristopher Buckley was born in 1952 in New York City and is the son of William F. Buckley, Jr. He was educated at Portsmouth Abbey School. He graduated cum laude from Yale University in 1976. He shipped out in the Merchant Marine and at age 24, became managing editor of Esquire magazine. and at age 29, became chief speechwriter for Vice President George H. W. Bush. This experience led to his first novel The White House Mess, a satire on White House office politics.

Since 1989, he has been founder and editor-in-chief of Forbes FYI Magazine. He has contributed over 50 comic essays to The New Yorker magazine. His
journalism, satire and criticism have been published in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New Republic, Washington Monthly, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Esquire, and in many other publications. He is the recipient of the 2002 Washington Irving Medal for Literary Excellence.

He lives in Washington, D.C. and has three children.

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