Veiled Optimism

Christopher Buckley, the author of Florence of Arabia, talks about women's lib, exploding camels, and the making of the modern Middle East

By Benjamin Healy
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Florence of Arabia
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Christopher Buckley
Random House
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.

—Benjamin Healy



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Christopher Buckley

 

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.

At the same time, once actions get set in motion, things don't necessarily work out according to plan.

That's also the lesson here. As one of the characters wryly observes, the motto of the State Department ought to be "U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East: Making Matters Worse."

You can put that on the stationery.

Yeah, right, "Fucking things up since 1922." Although in my reading of David Fromkin, it was really the British and the French who brought about the modern Middle East. So when I see the French adopting a high-minded attitude, it really does fry my fanny, since this is the Middle East they helped to create. And Churchill was a key player. Churchill created these countries. And now we live with them. Then we started screwing things up in our turn. And here we are. The Middle East conflict is now the central fact of our geopolitical lives, and I think we're stuck with it for the very long haul. We had nine years off between the end of the Cold War and 9/11. Think about nine years of peace. Now we're back at war. It's kind of like that line in the movie Gladiator, where the ancient Marcus Aurelius, sounding like a tired old emperor, is reminiscing and says, "I've been emperor for twenty-four years; we've had four years of peace." I guess that's America's role in the world, isn't it? One way or the other. Ah, you get to be the top dog—what fun!

Did you watch much al-Jazeera or other Middle Eastern TV while working on the book?

I've watched a bit of al-Jazeera, enough to get a flavor for it. You may be aware that we're now broadcasting a kind of a Radio Free Arabia out of Springfield, Va. It's called al-Hurra, which is Arabic for "The Free One." I wish them well, but al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya are probably likely to remain the dominant Arab satellite networks, and, as such, Osama's primary media outlets.

It's an irony—the fanatical Islamist elements that denounce modernity on the one hand and avail themselves of satellite television networks on the other. There's something screwy with that. But of course from their point of view, how could they resist? Nor would they probably eschew nuclear technology, but let us hope they do. Tom Ridge seems to be reminding us every day that it's going to happen. Maybe we'll get hit by an asteroid first.

While your book is a comedy, it's rooted in knowledge of Middle Eastern history and current affairs. Every joke needs context, I guess. How much research did you have to do?

I didn't spend months in the Middle East researching. I've been to the Middle East, but my research has been mostly literary. I re-read the Thousand and One Nights. I read David Fromkin's book A Peace to End All Peace, which is still, I think, the book to read if you want to find out how fucked up the Middle East got. Some of my favorite moments in Florence of Arabia are those that take off on the titles of real books by British and French authors about the creation of the modern Middle East: We Will Take Lebanon and Syria, and You Can Keep the Jews and the Palestinians, or Let's Put Iraq Here, and Lebanon Over Here. My absolute favorite is a two-page takeoff on David Fromkin's book, who is referred to as David Vremkin. It's a scene where Churchill deprives Wasabia of a seaport, forcing that royal ass Tallulah to drink his own oil.

As my daughter would say, the "most funnest" parts of these books for me is the pure satire. The action stuff, the bang-bang, the car chases I find much less fun to write. Later in Florence there's a car chase, and as car chases go I think it's not bad. But it took ten days to write.

Really?

Yeah. I find it much, much harder than writing the pure satire, the social and historical commentary. In that sense, the first third of my books, where the satire is usually set up, are more fun to write than the back two-thirds. That's probably true of any book, come to think of it. "Oh, hell, now we have to finish it!"

How does one write a good car chase? Is it just a matter of writing and re-writing? Something doesn't sound sufficiently gripping, so you go back and try to make it sound more gripping?

Well, all writing is re-writing and re-writing and re-writing. What's interesting in the process is when you're surprised by your own inventions.

I write from a fairly tight outline which I then almost always discard. I think the very act of writing the twenty-page, single-spaced outline for the book—which is practically on the order of "Ben looks up from desk. Sees Martha. Asks Martha if she wants a cup of coffee"—gives you the basic confidence to start writing. It's like setting off on a journey with a map, but you've studied the map so much beforehand that you don't actually have to refer to it. And that gives you the freedom to maybe take a left when you get to that valley, instead of a right, and to discover something beautiful, or at least interesting.

For instance, take the scene in the book where the camel explodes. I didn't know when I sat down to write that scene that there was going to be an exploding camel. And then when I re-read the whole book, I realized that the first time you see Maliq—the guy who's blown up along with the camel—on page seven, he's feeding charcoal and barley to a camel to fix a race. That bit of chicanery had somehow lodged itself in my mind. Anyway, I was very happy with the camel blowing up. It's not every day that you get to blow up a camel and blame it on the French!

So you weren't even aware that you were putting something combustible in a camel earlier on in the book?

No. That was not in the outline. All I knew was that it had to be some act of terrorism that could be traced back to the French.

Here's another odd detail: I made up the name of the French-made explosive, Exuperine. I named it after the author of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The day after I wrote that scene, they found his plane in the Mediterranean. It was a P-38 that had crashed about three miles off the coast of Marseilles, and they'd been looking for it in a desultory sort of way for years, and they found it. It was weird.

Did you tip the cosmic balance by writing that scene?

The coincidence was amusing to exactly one person, but still, I got a sort of harmonic thing up my spine.

All the names in the book—Exuperine included—are pretty great. Are they difficult to come up with, or do they just present themselves to you?

Naming characters used to be a chore, but I'm reading Thackeray's Vanity Fair right now, and the characters have such marvelous pre-Dickensian names. Like Mr. Spendthrift or Miss Leatherbottom, or whatever. They're fun. The French villain's name in Florence is significant, Delame-Noir.

How does that translate?

"Dark soul." But not many people will get that. I wrote a book a couple years ago called Little Green Men, and the main character's name was John O. Banion. No one got the significance of the initials. It's a Job story. Not one reviewer, not one person who read it remarked on that. So it's pearls before swine. But in Florence there are names like Tallulah, the king of Wasabia. It's sort of fun to take Tallulah Bankhead's name and apply it to the name of a Saudi dynasty.

Did the name "Wasabia" come easily?

It was originally "Audi Arabia," and my editor said, "Cut it out." So I kept staring at the name "Wahabbi," and then "Wasabi"—I must have gone to a Japanese restaurant the night before—and then suddenly "Wasabia" came to me. "Matar" is based on Qatar, which is pronounced "Cutter." I became amused during the war coverage by people like Peter Jennings who would say "Cutter! Cutter!" so I thought "Matar" would be fun. So that's how that came about. What about other names? There's the State Department guy, George Dillington Phish, and Bobby Thibodeaux, the CIA operative. I wanted a Southerner, because they're such good killers. And then Rick Renard, the PR guy, who made his debut in The Atlantic's pages.

What's it like keeping a character like Renard alive across different works?

It's kind of fun. For one thing, you don't have to invent the character all over again. It's kind of like "Who do we have in central casting? Okay, Rick, you're on." It's fun putting him in different situations and seeing how he acts. I've got about four Rick Renard stories which I'm hoping to publish in a collection at some point. I think he's a fun American type, the hustling PR guy who would work for anyone as long as there's some money in it. But in the end, he's also got a heart.

And he's sort of a cheerful ...

He's a cheerful scoundrel. There's something very American about that.

I always wonder why more people don't do continuous characters these days. It seems that it used to be more common for a character to recur in multiple works.

Let's see, Updike had a long run with Rabbit Angstrom. Remember Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux?And then of course Flashman in Royal Flash. I think Philip Roth had a recurring character whose last name I can't remember, something like Ungerman.

Nathan Zuckerman?

Zuckerman! That's it. They're out there. I think I enjoy putting the same character in different situations and stressing him. There's something god-like about it: "Let's see how he survives on the island of Lesbos!"

You said that you spent some time in the Middle East. Where did you go?

I've been to Egypt and the Sinai, and Morocco, if you count that as the Middle East. But I've not been to the Gulf. Your editor tried to send me to the Prince Sultan airbase during the last war, and I said, "Are you crazy?!"

Is that the one in Riyadh?

It's outside Riyadh. It sounded really grim. I was actually willing to do it, but my boss at Forbes said he didn't want me to go. I said, "Fine!"

Do you think you might get to Saudi Arabia someday?

I would say the chances of me getting to Saudi Arabia are, at this point, very remote—especially after this book!

Do you think you'd be barred from entry on account of Florence?

It depends how efficient their bureaucracy is. In 1991 I created a hoax in Forbes FYI, where I announced that the Russians were preparing to auction off the corpse of Lenin to raise cash. Peter Jennings reported it and it became a huge story. The interior minister of Russia had to break into television programming and announce that he was not doing this, and he denounced me personally. Five years later I went to Russia, believe it or not, as an election observer, and as I was going through immigration I was sort of bracing for the moment when someone would say "Buckley? Come this way..." But, no, it worked out.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/09/veiled-optimism/303440/