Fiction October 2004

Florence of Arabia (Part II)

One woman's crusade to bring female emancipation to the Middle East. A short story

Florence Farfaletti, a longtime Foreign Service officer, has gone to the Middle Eastern country of Matar with a mission: to liberate the women of the region, especially of the ultra-repressive neighboring country of Wasabia. Her team consists of Bobby Thibodeaux, a disgraced Green Beret; Rick Renard, a "strategic planner"; and George Phish, a State Department friend. They are funded by a mysterious figure, "Uncle Sam." Their weapon of choice: TV programs.

The Emirate of Matar (pronounced, for reasons unclear, Mutter) consists of a ten-mile-wide, 350-mile-long strip of sand that runs down the western side of the Gulf of Darius. Its northern boundary begins in the mosquito marshes of the Um-Katush. From there it takes a generally southeastern course to the Straits of Xerxes, where it curves gently westward until it terminates at Alfatoosh, on the sparkling shore of the Arabian Sea.

This bizarre physical configuration—the direct result of "Winnie's" vengeful cartological pen (for a full account of Matar's creation, see David Vremkin's magisterial history, Let's Put Iraq Here, and Lebanon Over Here: The Making of the Modern Middle East)—left King Tallulah, of the neighboring, landlocked country Wasabia, with no choice but to make a deal with the emir of Matar. Wasabia built its first pipeline through Matar to the Gulf shortly after the signing of the treaty resulting from Churchill's machinations. Over the years a dozen more followed.

The Emirate of Matar prospered magnificently from this steady black income stream through its territory. The emirs never released official figures, but it was estimated that by the end of the century the "courtesy fees" paid by Wasabia into the royal Matar exchequer ran annually to the tens of billions of dollars. Matar's bin Haz dynasty continued to maintain the face-saving fiction that the country's extraordinary wealth derived from fig oil, dates, fishing, and tourism.

This last assertion was in some ways the boldest, given Matar's fierce sandstorms and average (winter) temperature of 105°. Matar could, however, legitimately boast that part of its abundant gross domestic product came from gambling. The present emir developed "Infidel-Land," a complex of hotels, casinos, and theme parks on an archipelago accessible by a ten-mile-long causeway. Officially Matari residents were not allowed across the causeway to take part in the gaming and collateral activities, but this law was rarely observed and never enforced. The emir had decreed it as a bit of window-dressing for the local mullahs.

His handling of Matar's religious authorities had, by unanimous consent, been masterly. Matari mullahs were the best fed in the Muslim world. Indeed, they were so prosperous that they had acquired the local nickname "moolahs." Each received a generous salary from the state, a luxury apartment, a new Mercedes-Benz every three years, and an annual six-week paid "sabbatical," which most of them chose to take in the south of France, one of Islam's holiest sites.

As a result of the emir's attentions in this area, Matar was a veritable oasis of tolerance. Its mullahs were among the most contented and laissez-faire of their faith. As one scholar put it, "Here, truly, is Islam with a happy face." Clerical careers were avidly sought in Matar, and strictly regulated.

This approach to matters religious stood in starkest contrast with that across the border in Wasabia. After Sheikh Abdulabdullah "The Wise" fended off a challenge to his rule in 1740 (or 1742), he struck a deal with the Imam of the Nejaz in order to consolidate his power throughout the territory. The Imam preached an extremely austere version of Islam called Mukfellah. Abdulabdullah agreed to make Mukfellah the official religion of Wasabia if the Imam would pledge his allegiance to the Hamooj dynasty. Thus Wasabia united under one rule.

Alas, this doomed Wasabia to becoming, as one historian put it, the Middle East's pre-eminent "no fun zone"—unless, as he dryly noted, "one's idea of fun includes beheading, amputation, flogging, blinding, and having your tongue cut out for offenses that in other religions would earn you a lecture from the rabbi, five Hail Marys from a priest, or, for Episcopalians, a plastic pink flamingo on your front lawn." A Google search using the key phrases "Wasabia" and "La Dolce Vita" results in "No matches."

This disparity in religious temperament, added to the matter of the national border, made relations between the two countries predictably strained. King Tallulah's successors chafed at having to pay Matari emirs the "Churchill tax."

The United States maintained good relations with Wasabia (the unthinkable alternative being to use less oil), but it had always supported Matar's sovereignty, as a means of containing Wasabi power. That old lion Churchill may have been drunk, but he was shrewd. The U.S. "tilt" toward Matar also had the advantage—as Henry Kissinger noted in Years of Genius, Volume XXI of his memoirs—of "driving the Wasabis nuts."

Wasabia periodically rattled its scimitar at Matar and threatened to push through to the sea, but these episodes were not taken seriously. Protected by America, its economy guaranteed by Wasabi oil, its religious authorities fat, happy, and uncensorious, Matar was the Switzerland of the Gulf. All it lacked was a Matterhorn and a chocolate-bar industry.

All in all, it was the perfect platform for Florence and her team. And there was another advantage: you could order a drink at the bar.

The Emirate of Matar was liberal in the matter of women's dress; nonetheless, Florence took care to observe the formalities for her introduction to the emir. She wore a pantsuit of turquoise and purple shantung silk and an Hermès scarf over her hair.

She was ushered into the audience room. The door was flanked by two bodyguards in ceremonial dress and swords.

"As-salaam alaikum," Florence said, without an accent. "Sherefna, sumuukum."

The emir's eyes brightened, and not just at his guest's flawless Arabic. He took her hand and bent and chastely kissed it. Florence blushed. She continued in Arabic, remembering that in Matar the protocol in conversation with the emir was to use the third-person address—not altogether easy for Americans, who want to call everyone "pal" or "bub" or "honey" after five minutes.

They sat. Florence noted that her Louis XVI chair was a few inches lower than the emir's Louis XIV chair. At not quite five-foot-six—exactly the height, it occurred to Florence, of T. E. Lawrence—Emir Gazzir bin Haz ("Gazzy" to his family and intimates) was not a tall man. What large things small men have accomplished.

He was impeccably accoutered in an immaculate white thobe, his head covered with a ghutra, a triangular folded cloth tied with gold braid. Four of his plump fingers were adorned with rings. His goatee was perfectly trimmed, his lips oyster-moist from a lifetime's contact with the greatest delicacies the world had to offer, from caviar to Dom Perignon to foie gras. His face radiated contentment; and indeed, why not? The emir just might be the happiest camper on earth.

"His Majesty is most welcoming," Florence said with a slight bow.

"It is a trait with us," he said, switching to English. He was, like most high-born Mataris, an Anglophile (they sent their future emirs to Sandhurst), and liked to display his excellent command of the language. "Even the humblest Matari will open his door to a stranger and share what he has." He smiled. "Not that you will find many humble Mataris, mind you. This, too, is a trait with us, I fear."

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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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