Fiction September 2004

Florence of Arabia

How one woman (plus a disgraced Green Beret, a shameless PR lackey, and the wife of a sheikh) brought the Middle East to the brink of female emancipation. A short story

The official residence of His Excellency Prince Bawad bin-Rumallah al-Hamooj, ambassador of the Royal Kingdom of Wasabia to the United States of America, perches expensively on $18 million worth of real estate overlooking a frothy rapid of the Potomac River a few miles upstream from Washington, D.C. The front gate of the compound displays in bright gold leaf the emblem of the Royal House of Hamooj: a date palm, a crescent moon, and a scimitar hovering over a head. The head does not bear a pleased expression, owing to its having been decapitated by the scimitar.

Historically speaking, the head belonged to one Rafiq "The Unwise" al-Sawah, who one night in 1740 or 1742 (historians differ on the precise date) attempted to usurp the authority of Sheikh Abdulabdullah "The Wise" Waffa al-Hamooj, founder of the Wasabi dynasty and a future king. According to legend (now taught as historical fact in the country's schools), Rafiq's severed head attempted to apologize to the sheikh for its perfidy, and begged to be reattached. Sheikh Abdulabdullah, however, was in no mood to hear these entreaties. Had he not treated Rafiq like his own brother? He ordered the still blubbering mouth to be stuffed with camel dung and the head tossed to the desert hyenas.

The event is commemorated every year on the anniversary of the Perfidy of Rafiq. Adult male citizens of the kingdom are required to place a token amount of camel dung on their tongues, as a symbol of the king's authority and a reminder of the bitter fate that befalls those who attempt to undermine it. Only Hamooji palace staff and the most conservative of Wasabis re-enact the ritual literally, however. A hundred years ago an enterprising confectioner in the capital city of Kaffa devised a nougat that gave off the aroma of the original articleenough to fool the mukfelleen, the religious police who enforce the precepts of the Book of Hamooj. Wasabis could pop one onto the tongue and walk about all day with a showy air of piety. Alas, the trickery was discovered, and the unfortunate candymaker forfeited not only his license to manufacture sweets but also his tongue, right hand, and left foot. On assuming the throne, in 1974, King Tallulah decreed that a "symbolic" piece of dung would suffice. This caused much grumbling among the mullahs and mukfelleen, but vast relief among the adult male population.

A few minutes past midnight on a crisp September night the gates on which the royal emblem was mounted swung open and let out a car driven by Nasrah al-Bawad, wife of Prince Bawad.

Nasrah's exit would doubtless have been smoother had she spent more time behind the wheel of an automobile, but Wasabi women are not permitted to drive. However, being enterprising and spirited, Nasrah had since adolescence been begging various males, starting with her brother Tamsa, to teach her the mysteries of steering, brake, and gas. Taking the wheel of their father's Cadillac in the open deserts of Wasabia was not so complicated. In Washington she would importune (that is, bribe) the reluctant Khalil, her chauffeur-bodyguard-minder, to let her drive on certain half-deserted streets and in the parking lots of such royal hangouts as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. She had progressed to the point of almost being able to parallel park without leaving most of the paint on the fenders of the cars in front and behind. Khalil had in the process earned a reputation within the household as a driver of less than perfect reliability.

Tonight Nasrah found herself maneuvering with difficulty. Exiting the gate, she sheared off the rearview mirror and left a scrape down the side of the $85,000 car that would cause the most stoic of insurance adjusters to weep. Her intention had been to turn left, toward Washington. But seeing the headlights of a car coming up the country lane from that direction, she panicked and turned right, deeper into the deciduous suburb of McLean.

In truth, Nasrah was not thinking clearly. In truth, she was drunk.

After many years in Washington her husband the prince had announced his intention of returning to Wasabia, along with Nasrah and his three other wives. His uncle, the king, had decided to reward his decades of service by anointing him Foreign Minister. This was a big promotion that came with an even bigger palace and a share of Wasabia's oil royalties.

The news was less than joyous to Nasrah, the youngest, prettiest, and most independent-minded of the prince's wives. She did not want to return to Wasabia. Her years of living in Americaeven under the watchful eye of Shazzik, Prince Bawad's stern, neutered (or so it was rumored) chamberlainhad left her with an appreciation of the role of women in Western society. She was in no hurry to return to a country where she would have to hide her lovely features under a veil, and in even less of a hurry to return to a country where women were still being publicly flogged, stoned to death, and having their heads cut off in a place in the capital city so accustomed to the spectacle that it had earned the nickname "Chop Chop Square."

Nasrah had been planning to inform the prince of her decision to remain in the United States that night, after he returned from his dinner with the Waldorf Groupa very influential group indeed, consisting of ex-U.S. Presidents, ex-Secretaries of State and Defense, ex-directors of the Central Intelligence Agencyexcellent folks all, and what contacts they had! Since its founding, ten years earlier, the Waldorf Group had invested more than $5 billion of Wasabi royal money in various projects. This made for close relationships all around. Many members of the Group's board also sat on the boards of the companies in which the royal money was invested.

Tonight's meeting concerned a desalination project. Desalination is always a hot topic in Wasabia, owing to the country's geographical peculiarity: it is entirely landlocked and even lacks access to rivers. This unhappy circumstance is a grating historical vestige, the result of a moment of bibulous pique on the part of Winston Churchill, who drew up Wasabia's modern borders on a cocktail napkin at his club in London. King Hamir had been uncooperative during the peace conference, and so, with a few strokes of his fountain pen, Churchill denied him fresh water and seaports. Thus do brief, brandy-saturated moments determine the fate of empires and the course of history.

Back at the residence, Nasrah took a nip from the prince's bottle of 150-year-old Napoleon. When at eleven o'clock he had still not returned, she took another nip. Then another. By the time the prince finally did arrive, at 11:40, she was feeling no pain.

The speech that she had so carefully rehearsed tumbled off her benumbed tongue without eloquence or coherence, and heavily redolent of brandy. The prince, moonfaced, goateed, and imperious, brusquely ordered Nasrah to her room.

A late-night argument between an indulged royal prince and a tipsy junior wife is not an occasion for ideal dialogue. It deteriorated quickly into shouts and terminated with the prince's dealing Nasrah a cuff across the chops with a meaty, cigar-smelling hand. With that he stormed off, loudly cursing Western corruption, to the bedroom of one of his less troublesome wives.

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Presented by

Christopher Buckley

Christoper Buckley is an author, satirist, and novelist. His books include Thank You for Smoking and Supreme Courtship. Buckley was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush.

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