Florence of Arabia
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by Christopher Buckley
288 pages, $24.95
Although scholars and diplomats could debate endlessly in search of the surest path to peace and stability in the Middle East, few would find the region's persistent turmoil and antidemocratic leanings a laughing matter. But in his new novel Florence of Arabia, an excerpt of which appears in the September Atlantic, the humorist Christopher Buckley does just that, proposing a third way that casts a satirical and sensitive eye on the bitter absurdities of life behind "the iron veil."
At the center of the action is Florence Farfaletti, deputy to the Deputy Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, and a former member by marriage of the royal family of the fictional Middle Eastern country of Wasabia. (Wasabia may bear a remarkable similarity to Saudi Arabia, but a note on the copyright page cautions against too much connecting of the dots: "Where real-life historical or public figures appear, the situations, incidents, and dialogues concerning those persons are entirely fictional and are not intended to depict actual events or to change the entirely fictional nature of the work. In all other respects, any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental. Got that? Any questions? It's all made up. Okay? Whatever.")
When a car accident involving the Wasabi ambassador's wife sparks an international diplomatic crisis, Florence spies an opportunity. She sets into motion a plan to liberate the women of the Middle East through a unique projection of "soft power": satellite TV. With the help of a ragtag team of crack operatives (including PR maestro Rick Renard, a recurring Buckley character) and backing from some shady sectors of the U.S. government, Florence engineers TVMatar, a new network aimed at Middle Eastern women. For a while, everything goes swimmingly, as shows like Mukfellahs (a sitcom about a brutally stupid detachment of religious police) and Cher Azade ("I Love Lucy meets The Arabian Nights"), a sort of subversive Arab Oprah, find a willing audience among Wasabi women while skewering their society's repressive norms. From an episode of Cher Azade:
"Now, our next guest has written a book ... It's called Stop, You're Killing Me: The Repression of Women in Arab Societies and What You Can Do About It."
"God be praised. What's it about?"
The studio audience laughed.
"It's not a cookbook, I can tell you."
As TVMatar veers closer to hard news, complications arise, spawning a harrowing tale of international intrigue and high adventure with combustible camels and Gallic skullduggery thrown in for good measure.
Christopher Buckley is the author of ten books and the founding editor of Forbes FYI. A second excerpt from Florence of Arabia will appear in the October 2004 issue of The Atlantic.
We spoke by phone on July 21.
Florence of Arabia is billed as "a Middle East comedy." That must be a small genre.
It's my first, and probably last, Middle East comedy. It gets people's attention because it's such an oxymoronic concept. Ultimately it's a light comedy about a very serious matter. After years and years of headlines about car bombs and suicide bombs (as Dorothy Parker would say, "what fresh hell is this?"), and amidst some really wonderful reporting from behind the iron veil, if you will, by very brave women who documented what was done to women in Afghanistan under the Taliban—as well as books like Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran and the works of Fatema Mernissi—I became sort of enchanted with the idea of liberating Arab women. I mean, how much worse could things get in the Middle East if some of them had a voice? And then the title "Florence of Arabia" came to me. Unfortunately, I can't lay claim to it. It's from something Noel Coward said to Peter O'Toole about his performance in Lawrence of Arabia: If you were any better-looking you'd be Florence of Arabia.
Did you come up with the title first and use that to shape what you were mulling over in your head?
Usually, the title comes last for me. This time it came almost first, and it's not a bad title actually. It's probably the best title I've had. I say that because every time I mention it, it gets a laugh. That's a good start. Moby Dick, that doesn't get a laugh. The Scarlet Letter, nope, no laugh there. Even The Great Gatsby! Florence of Arabia makes people laugh. Whether it will make people pick up the book, I don't know, but it's a modest proposal in the form of a comedy.
Ever since 9/11, it seems that there hasn't been much humor engaging the situation in the Middle East. Even The Onion waited several weeks to talk about 9/11.
Yeah, but then they were very, very funny. That headline: "HOLY FUCKING SHIT!"
That's true. When I read that, it was a big release. Having just written Florence, do you think humor is an effective tool for dealing with this sort of anxiety?
There's a saying that living well is the best revenge. I think laughing well is probably even better revenge. It's a way of coping. It's always been a great release mechanism.
This whole book began when I was bouncing ideas off my editor at Random House. I had one idea after another and most of them were lousy, so he said, "Mr. Buckley, while 9/11 is raging, why are you sitting this one out?" So he very deftly threw the gauntlet down. I thought, Okay, how do we deal with this? I was reading Bob Baer's book, Sleeping with the Devil, and then I found myself reading Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong?, and Fatema Mernissi's Scheherazade Goes West. For better or for worse, this is my contribution.
There is a serious idea behind this book, which is to empower Arab women. It is by no means certain that they would be less bellicose or less anti-Semitic or less fanatical, but if they were even a slight improvement over their male counterparts, the situation would inevitably get better. And the suffering of those Arab women is heart-wrenching. I came across a quote from a University of Chicago anthropologist, who's pretty left-wing, but a very bright guy, and he makes the argument that a lot of these women don't want to be liberated. I say, well, fair enough, but some of them do, and the ones who want to keep the veil and go on living that life would at least have the choice of continuing to do so. But I bet you there are a lot of women who would throw the bloody things away and start dancing.
The fictional scenario that you set out in the book is actually fairly plausible. I was convinced, in a way, that a network like TVMatar could work.
I'd love to see those shows, wouldn't you? There's one called Mukfellahs, about the inept but still ruthless religious police. To me, that's high comedy. It's my bid to be Jonathan Swift. It will fail, but it's my bid. It's a funny way of looking at something that's really dreadfully serious. And that's where the Cher Azade show, the Arabian Oprah, comes in. Well we'll see. It will probably never come to pass.