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."
"Your country is truly blessed to have such abundance."
"Our fig oil is second to none."
"Justly famous, throughout the world."
"It has many, many applications. Perfume, industrial—do you know that it is used as a lubricant on Chinese rockets?"
"I was not aware of this fact. But how marvelous."
The emir leaned forward intently. "It lowers cholesterol. Rather, it increases the good cholesterol. In time medical studies will establish this beyond question, God be praised."
"Matar is a river to the world."
They looked at each other. "Shall we cease with the bullshitting, Ms. Farfal—Madame?" "His Majesty is too gracious. I was about to run out of conversation about fig oil."
"I've never used it myself," the emir said, taking a cigarette from a gold box in front of him. A servant dressed to match the drapery appeared like a swift ghost. He lit the emir's cigarette and disappeared back into the folds with a rustle of silk. "Ghastly stuff. I prefer walnut oil, pressed by four-hundred-year-old millstones in the Dordogne. I have it flown in. Anyway, who cares about cholesterol? I have my blood changed every month by Swiss doctors. I donate the old blood to the hospital. It is quite sought after, apparently. Now, Florence (and why don't I just call you that, since I am unable to wrap my tongue around all those pretty Tuscan vowels?), your Arabic is excellent. You are, I take it, with the government? Surely in some capacity. CIA? It would be audacious of them to send a woman. Would they have such imagination? I think not. So"—his eyes narrowed a bit, showing Florence a glimpse of the hard-eyed coastal trader of yore—"who are you, lovely lady? And without seeming rude, what do you want?"
This bluntness was utterly un-Arabic. Had she put a foot wrong? It took Florence a moment to compose herself.
"His Majesty favors me with his directness. I have come to ask your permission to approach Sheikha Laila with a business proposal."
The emir's features screwed up into a grimace. His face, a caramel pudding in repose, suddenly looked quite fierce.
"Business proposal? The sheikha? You've not come to ask her to endorse some product?"
"No, sumuu al-amiir." "A cause? A children's disease? No—land mines. All the beautiful women, they are against land mines. We don't have any here, I am happy to say. Though there have been times when, I freely confess, I would happily plant them like flowers along my borders."
"I do not seek the sheikha's endorsement of any skin cream or disease or against land mines. We would like to start a satellite-television station here in Matar, and have her be in charge of it."
The emir stared. "Television, you say. The sheikha. I hardly think ..." "With His Majesty's permission, I would show him some numbers."
"The emir must not deal with numbers. There are ministers for that, for every kind of number."
"These are unusually interesting numbers. They suggest that there are vast sums to be made. But I will take them to the ministers, as His Majesty commands."
"How do you mean, 'vast'? The desert is vast. The ocean is vast." "In the neighborhood of two billion dollars a year, my lord."
"That's not half vast."
Florence handed the emir the single sheet of paper she had prepared.
"What sort of programming?" he asked.
"These figures are based on targeting a female audience, my lord."
The emir again screwed up his face. "Female?"
"They are the ones who do the shopping. Who make the purchases."
"I suppose. Who has the time but the women? But there is already an Arabic satellite-television station. Al-Jazeera. I will say, in case you are with the CIA, that I am not in sympathy with its political point of view. Every time I turn it on, there is Osama bin Laden, sitting in front of his cave, looking in urgent need of a new kidney. But then one can always"—he pressed a button on an imaginary remote control—"see what is on the History Channel. There is always another documentary on Hitler. They ought really to call it 'The Hitler Channel.' But why the sheikha?"
"Many reasons. First, she is the sheikha, the first lady of Matar, a personage of reputation and authority. Second, she has experience in television."
"Yes," the emir said, as if warming to the concept, "she was very successful in London. Until she gave it up to marry a ... towelhead."
Florence wasn't quite sure how to field that one. She smiled in a noncommittal sort of way.
"But a very nice towel," he continued. "Go on. You have our attention."
"Third, we of course need a Matari partner in this enterprise, since by law Mataris must own at least half of any business operating here. These three factors make the sheikha, as they say, a natural."
"Who is 'we'? For starters, who are you?"
"I am merely a producer. This project is my concept. Of course, with an enterprise of this size one has backers, investors. We're prepared to give the people of Matar fifty-one-percent ownership."
"Shall we say fifty-five percent?"
"I apologize, my hearing is not what it used to be."
"And the sheikha's role, she would be ... ornamental?"
"On the contrary. It is our hope that she would become very much involved. It was this part that worried me in presenting this to His Majesty."
"I fear that we might be, well, taking her away from you. Starting a television station can be a very consuming enterprise. But very fulfilling."
"Ah. Well, that is for her to decide, of course."
"His Majesty's reputation as an enlightened man and husband does not do him justice."
"We are not a backward people. Unlike some in the region. I shall present your proposal to the sheikha. I must say I have mixed feelings, for is it not written that a man who makes his wife queen ends up washing the dishes?"
"But is it not also written, sire, that a man who gives his wife an occupation creates for himself an oasis?"
"I'm not sure what part of scripture either of us is quoting, but you may have something there, Ms. Farfa—Florence. Now, if you will excuse me, my next audience is upon me. You see that an emir's life is not all fig oil."
"I hardly see how His Majesty manages at all."
A large complex outside Amo-Amas, the capital of Matar, was made available to Florence and her team. The work proceeded at fever pace, twenty hours a day. What sleep was to be had was had on cots in the office. But no one complained. Excitement and purpose coursed through their shop. Bobby and George were sniping less at each other. Uncle Sam, in the guise of a Las Vegas—based gaming consultant, flew in for a brief visit and pronounced himself delighted with their progress. He reported that he had arranged for the necessary satellites. "Got a great deal from the NSA on some used birds," he said with a grin. Uncle Sam seemed to have an all-access backstage pass to the U.S. government. Florence no longer sought to pinpoint his precise role within it. She assumed that he was with the CIA. Perhaps he belonged to some directorate within a directorate, one of those star chambers set up for a specific mission years ago and never shut down, still operating, like a probe launched at a distant planet that keeps on going, deeper and deeper into the frosty night of space, autonomous, serene, oblivious.
Rick Renard, TVMatar's chief of programming, was in a private Eden. What PR man hasn't dreamed of having his own TV station with no client breathing over his shoulder?
This morning Rick was doubly excited, because he was previewing for Florence and Sheikha Laila the show that would be the centerpiece of TVM's morning schedule.
"You're going to love this," he said. "This is our flagship. The tone-setter. The anchor, if you will."
"Weigh anchor, Rick. I have to meet with the fragrance people in half an hour." Florence felt more like an advertising director these days than the godmother of Arab feminism. She was furiously pitching advertisers. The more ads the enterprise had, the more legitimate it would look—and the more money would flow into Gazzy's coffers, keeping him happy.
"Her real name's Fatima Sham," Rick said, as the video clip started to roll. A veiled figure—the program's chief hostess—came onto the set, which was arranged in a manner typical of morning talk shows. She walked into the coffee table and pitched forward head over heels, in the process revealing beautiful calves sheerly stockinged and, above those, a generous glimpse of lovely thigh and a garter belt. There was an explosion of female laughter on the soundtrack.
"We had to add that," Rick said. "The actual audience didn't know what to make of it. But once they got it, oh, man, did they get it. It was like this release of a thousand years of repression and—"
"Shall we just watch, Rick?"
The name of the show came up in letters: Cher Azade.
"We tested," Rick said. "They all got it right away that it's French. 'Dear Azade,' a play on Scheherazade."
A line came up below the title, in Arabic: "A Thousand and One Mornings."
The hostess, Azade, picked herself up off the floor and bumped into one of the chairs. The audience roared. She felt her way to her seat and sat down.
"This new veil," she said. "I can't see a thing ..."
Rick said, "I Love Lucy meets The Arabian Nights. Listen."
"Don't tell the religious police," Azade said, "or it will be forty lashes. And that's just for showing an inch of ankle!"
The audience laughed.
"Well," Florence said, "that'll get their attention. Laila?"
Rick said, "Now, here's the beautiful part. They can't touch her, technically. George found a loophole in the Book of Hamooj, where they get all these bullshit rules from."
"Rick, please don't use that language in front of the sheikha."
"I can handle it, Florence," Laila said.
"Right. The mukfelleen, the Wasabi religious police, the ones who go around with whips, beating women if so much as an inch of flesh is exposed—theoretically they can't complain, because it was technically an accident that she tripped. Never mind that we rehearsed her tripping so many times that she's got bruises up and down her shins. George—he knows all this shit—found this clause in that book where if you reveal your flesh accidentally, you get a free pass. It goes way, way back. Some Hamooji princess fell off her camel and went ass over teakettle. Everyone saw her legs. It was this huge scandal. The whole caravan had to stop while they debated whether to stone her or cut off her head. Someone finally said, 'Wait a minute, this is the caliph's favorite squeeze we're talking about here. He's waiting for her in Kaffa, and we're going to bring him her head in a basket? Fuck that.' But the religious cops had to save face. So they wrote it into the religious law that you can't be punished if the flesh was revealed accidentally. So from a religious point of view, they can't lay a hand on us."
"They're going to go ballistic," Florence said.
Rick shrugged. "Isn't that the whole point?"
TVMatar went on the air at sunrise on the day of the new spring moon. Advertisements had been taken out in newspapers and magazines in both Matar and Wasabia, alerting women to a new station "just for you!" and full of "delicious recipes" and "advice on everything from raising a family to being a good wife in today's society." The ads flew under the radar of the Wasabi censors, who assumed this was just another of those shows where you learn how to make zesty hummus and properly starch your husband's thobe. How surprised, then, were all the males of Wasabia to hear the peals of female laughter as Cher Azade beamed into homes from Wanbo to Kaffa to Akbukir.
"My next guest—not that I can see her—are you there, Farah?"
"Over here, Azade."
"God be praised. Now, Farah, I understand you have actually driven a car?"
"Yes! A Mercedes."
"It's too exciting. What's it like, driving an automobile?"
"Thrilling—thrilling beyond words."
"Did you hit anything?"
"Just some mukfelleen who were chasing me. So I backed up and ran them over again."
"Oh, dear," Azade scolded. "That will earn you a good beating. What did you do then?"
"I kept on going till I got to the border. The car is outside. I left the motor running. Would you like to go for a drive?"
"Only if we can run over religious police. Now, don't go away, even if you do have a car, because we have a wonderful program for you, including a self-defense instructor who's going to give us tips on how to cope with cranky, violent husbands and boyfriends during Ramadan."
The phones soon began to ring at the Ministry of the Enforcement of Religion in Kaffa, headquarters of the mukfelleen. There wasn't much they could do immediately, other than go about smashing and confiscating television sets. Sedans careened through the streets, screeching to a halt at the sight of a television in a café or a store and disgorging enraged, whip-wielding mukfelleen in their distinctive black-and-blue robes.
"We're back, praise God. That was very useful, what the self-defense instructor showed us, wasn't it?"
"Most helpful," said Azade's co-hostess. "Now I might actually look forward to Ramadan."
"I'm certainly going to get a big brass tray with handles to use as a shield. Now, our next guest has written a book. Needless to say, you won't find it in the stores. But we'll put a number on the screen, and you can buy it over the phone. They'll mail it to you in a plain wrapper."
"What's the book called, Azade? You make me eager to read it already."
"It's called 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.
"Well, it's not a cookbook, I can tell you."
Chop Chop Square, TVMatar's prime-time soap opera about a royal family in an unnamed country that looked uncannily like Wasabia, had its premiere in the 8:00 P.M. slot and had been denounced from 500 mosques by dawn the next day. Bobby, looking even more sleepless than usual, reported that the grand mullah of Muk, Wasabia's leading religious authority, and certainly no cream puff, was preparing to issue "the mama of all fatwas."
"Well," Laila said, drawing on a cigarette, "that'll melt the wax in Gazzy's ears."
Laila seemed to be reveling in it all. Florence ascribed this less to the Wasabi fury than to the predicament into which it had thrust her husband, the emir. Laila confided to her that there had been a rather royal scene the night before.
"What are you and that American woman doing, in the name of God the most merciful?" the emir had demanded. "Tallulah himself has called me—thrice. You might have informed me about the content of this ... this television station of yours. And hers. Who is she, anyway? I hear things about her."
"She's a very shrewd businesswoman. Would you like to see the projected revenues? Here."
"Um. Are these ... true?"
"So is this." Laila handed him a clipping from al-Ahram, the pan-Arabic newspaper. The headline said, "IS THE 'PUDDING OF MATAR' THE NEW SALADIN?"
The story had been written by Rick, placed by George, and paid for by Bobby. It began, "TVMatar, the new satellite-television station based in Amo-Amas, comes with a bold agenda, and is causing speculation throughout the region that Emir bin Haz, until now thought to be content merely to rake in his Churchillian riches and disport himself at his 'winter palace,' has a heart that, contrary to reports of faintness, appears to beat strongly indeed."
"Hmm," Gazzy said, frowning.
"My lord doesn't seem pleased."
"'Pudding of Matar'!"
"Darling, they're calling you the new Saladin, for heaven's sake. Accept the compliment."
"Well, this is your thing, not mine. But it's got all Wasabia in a fury."
"But you detest the Wasabis. And it's going to make you one of the richest men in the Gulf. If there's a problem, I'm missing it."
"I'll have to discuss it with my ministers."
"I'm sure they'll be full of wisdom, and you will emerge wiser than ever."
"God be praised," Gazzy growled, "there are times when I wonder if I mated with a she-devil!"
"You used to say that to me in bed. Our first night, at the Connaught? Oh, what a lion was my lord," she teased tenderly, stroking his cheek.
He stomped off to continue his growling in private. Yet he was also tempted to smile, for this projected advertising-revenue stream was indeed like a gush of sweet water in the baking sand of the desert. And it was pleasant enough to be called the new Saladin, even if he was not quite clear who the infidel was.
Mukfellahs—TVMatar's new sitcom about an inept if ruthless squad of Wasabi-type religious police—caused an immediate sensation throughout the region. One television critic called it Friends From Hell.
The opening episode showed the six regulars all relaxing back at the office after a hard day of whipping women for a variety of offenses, complaining about how their arms hurt and passing around ibuprofen.
"Praise God, that last one put up a struggle. But that will teach her to walk on the sidewalk without a male escort."
"We live in a shameful world, brothers. If it were not for us, hell would be full to bursting."
"My arm, how it aches! Five hundred lashes I dealt today. And I have three stonings tomorrow."
"Listen to Mansour! He whimpers like that woman at the mall today!"
"God's mercy upon us!" declared one, who had been reading the label on the bottle of ibuprofen. "These are made by a company named Pfutzer!"
"It's Jewish, you fool!"
"No. German. Surely."
"Do you want to take that chance?" He thrust his finger down his throat and ran off camera, making terrible sounds.
The rest stared at each other and then suddenly plunged their fingers down their throats and ran off camera.
"Clever," Florence said, "the way it deals so subtly with the issue of anti-Semitism."
"Yeah," Rick said. "I was sort of pleased with that too."
Two weeks later ...
"Here's what we know," Bobby said, phoning in to the station. "We just received word that Princess Hamzin, King Tallulah's second wife, busted into the king's council meeting in Kaffa yesterday. The last time something like that happened in that country, there were still dinosaurs. And as if that wasn't bad enough, she was wearing no veil, and pants. Pants. And as if that wasn't bad enough, she started lecturing the king and his council about improving the lot of women in the royal kingdom. Appears the princess is a real fan of TVMatar. The king was reportedly taken to the hospital with chest pains."
"It's begun, then," Florence said. "The revolt of the Arab women. This is great news."
"I'd say that depends on your definition of 'great.' The Wasabis are madder'n adders. Our birds are picking up all sorts of chatter. We're hearing references to lapidation in the chatter."
"This wasn't exactly the brightest thing she could've done. Embarrass her husband, the king, in front of all his ministers? Hell, I wouldn't do that back home in Alabama."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that Princess Hamzin is in for a real rough ride."
"We can't just abandon her, Bobby."
"What do you mean? She's not working for us."
"But this is our fight. This is our revolution. We started it."
"Wait a minute. We didn't tell her to storm into her husband's meeting and give everyone the finger."
"Have you ever seen a lapidation?"
"Well, no, but what's that got to do with it?"
"I have. A video clip, anyway. She couldn't have been older than nineteen. Adultery. They use small stones, so it takes longer. It was awful, Bobby."
"I don't doubt it for a second. But look, Flo, we got to keep our eye on the big picture here. You go public with somethin' like this, and they're going to know exactly how you got the information, and this whole thing is going to come down on your head."
"Bobby, this is the moment. We can't back down now. We can't just leave her to die."
"Goddammit, girl, what did you think was going to happen? That broadcasting all this feminist crap into a kingdom that's still back in the fourteenth century was going to result in some conference or somethin'? That there'd be panel discussions, with everyone wearing nametags? And they'd say, 'Oh, why, you're quite right, wise American lady, you're absolutely right, we shouldn't be persecutin' our women like this. How medieval of us! Okay, ladies, throw away your veils, this way to the driver's-license window. And just to demonstrate how liberal we're gonna be—we're not even gonna chop off your little heads anymore!' Is that how you thought this was going to play out? This is the Middle East. The cradle of destabilization, mother of all tar babies, the planet's longest-running argument. Don't you understand that since the dawn of time, startin' with the Garden of Eden, nothing has ever gone right here? And that nothing ever will go right here?"
"Then what are we doing here?"
"Well, from the looks of it, fuckin' things up even worse. But at least we're consistent. That ought to be our motto: 'U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East: Since 1920, Making Matters Worse.' Flo? You there? Talk to me, Florence. Flo! Dammit, girl ..."
But Florence had hung up. She called Laila. "I have to see you. It's urgent. Chartwell Mall, by the Starbucks. I'll be outside by the ficus tree."
Florence, in disguise, watched through the mesh opening in her veil. Presently a woman, also dressed head to toe in a white abaaya, approached, looking around uncertainly.
"God be praised. Look at us both. I feel like a guest on Cher Azade."
They sat by the ficus tree as the bourgeoisie—haute, middle, and low—of Matar ambulated past in the Muzak hush of the mall.
"I lost my bodyguards by slipping out the back of the dressing room at Ralph Lauren. They are inept. God forbid someone should actually try to assassinate me. Well, what's all this enormous urgency about?"
Florence told Laila about Princess Hamzin. Laila absorbed the news in silence.
"I met Hamzin once," she said. "She's the prettiest of Tallulah's wives—not that that will help her. What on earth was she thinking?" Laila sighed. Her head turned toward the Starbucks. "Hundreds of years ago—perhaps a thousand—this area right here was a souk. Teeming with merchants and ships and caravans. Some of the first coffee ever drunk by Europeans passed through here. Now we have Starbucks. Thus do we progress. Well, Florence, I must say you seem to be very well informed about all sorts of things. What else do you have to tell me outside Starbucks? Have you got me mixed up in some sort of CIA operation after all?"
"I'm sorry, Laila. I'd been looking for the right moment to tell you."
"It's not that I hadn't wondered," Laila said, in a slightly softer tone. "It did occur. I mean, I'm not a fool."
They sat without speaking for a while.
"I can arrange to get you and your son out of the country," Florence said.
Laila stood. "Thank you, but I really think you've been enough help as it is."
"Good evening. I'm Fatima Sham, and this is TVMatar's Six O'Clock Report. Princess Hamzin, second wife of King Tallulah of Wasabia, has been sentenced to death by stoning. Her crime: petitioning her husband and his ministers for basic women's rights. I spoke this afternoon by telephone with Prince Jerbil al-Jakar, Minister of Wasabi External Affairs."
"This is a monstrous lie. There is no truth at all to it. It is lies. All lies!"
"Will you make the princess available for an interview with us?"
"The royal household does not give interviews. No, this is a gross provocation. This is an attempt to interfere in our sovereign affairs. This will not succeed. No, no."
"Can you at least produce proof that the princess is alive?"
"Of course she is alive! Everyone is alive! Good night to you, madame!"
There followed the sound of a phone being slammed down.
"That was Prince Jerbil al-Jakar, Minister of Wasabi External Affairs," Fatima continued. "The Wasabi practice when stoning women to death is to match the size of the stones to the severity of the offense. In cases of adultery small stones are used, to prolong the execution. It is not known what size stones might be used on a royal wife for the crime of petitioning to improve the situation of women. I spoke with Grand Mufti Adman Ifkir, one of Wasabia's leading religious authorities."
"Grand Mufti Adman, thank you for speaking with TVMatar."
"Yes, I am here. God be praised."
"This sounds like a very serious offense Princess Hamzin has committed."
"Oh, most serious, most serious. There can be no punishment severe enough." "What about stoning? That's pretty severe."
"Only if you use very small stones."
"Why not just cut off her head?"
"No, no, no. That is too quick. Too quick."
"So what size stones would you recommend?"
"The smallest. Like this. These are the best. Like the ones we throw at Satan in Mecca during the hajj."
"Those are small. Wouldn't it take a very long time to kill a woman with stones that small?"
"Yes. That is the point. It's a mercy. It gives her time to repent of her crime."
"Thank you for taking time to speak with us."
"You are welcome."
Florence spoke through the intercom into Fatima's earpiece: "That'll get their attention. Good interviews."
"Florence," said a control-room assistant. "Sheikha Laila. Line two."
"Christ, Florence," Laila said. "What are you doing?"
"What I came here to do."
"Does that include destabilizing the entire region? Giving Wasabia an excuse to invade us? And you—you'll be long gone, won't you? Last seen climbing aboard an American helicopter."
She hung up before Florence could answer.
Rattled, Florence decided to check in. She dialed Uncle Sam. The phone rang several times, and then a recorded voice told her she had reached a nonworking number. They were destroying the connective tissue. She was alone.
"Good afternoon, from the TVMatar newsroom in Amo-Amas, I'm Fatima Sham. A source close to the Wasabi royal family has confirmed to TVMatar that Princess Hamzin was indeed sentenced to death by stoning for the crime of disrespect. He further confirms that because of mounting international outrage, the royal household is attempting a cover-up. Last night, according to our source, the princess was drugged and put aboard a Royal Wasabi Air Force plane and flown to Paris, where a shopping expedition was staged. Here is footage of the princess ostensibly examining a diamond ring. We bring you this exclusive interview with a Kaffa palace insider. Because he fears for his life, we agreed not to show his face and to identify him only as 'Abdul.' Can you tell us what happened?"
"They were going to stone my lady to death. With little small stones. Oh, terrible. Then came the news on the television—praise God! Then one of King Tallulah's ministers became fearful and said, 'Oh, this will make a terrible, terrible impression! We must wait and kill her when no one is paying attention.' So they came with big needles filled with drugs and stuck her, like this." Abdul jabbed his arm. "And took her on a plane to Paris."
"How do you know this?"
"I was there! I saw! And there was a French person."
"What French person?"
"Oh, very French. An old French person with gray hair. He has been in the palace here many times. The royals listen to him all the time. They think everything French is good. He tells them what to do and they do it. He tells them, 'Bring her to Paris, we will make it look like a shopping.'"
"So you're saying the television images of the princess shopping were all fixed, to make it look like she's in no danger?"
"Yes, yes! But she is in great danger! Still! When no one is paying attention, they will kill her. My poor lady!"
"Abdul, thank you for telling us this. You're very courageous to come forward. One final question: You say the French are influencing—indeed, controlling—the royal household?"
"Yes. Many times I have listened to the princes and the king on the telephone, many times with the French, saying, 'You must help us get back our coastline that the English villain Churchill took from us. We will give you oil and navy bases.' Many times I have heard these conversations. Many, many times."
"Thank you. God keep you safe. When we return, we'll have a report from our correspondent in Paris."
As the news continued, Abdul, the Kaffa palace insider, returned to his job downstairs in the cafeteria.
"Welcome back to TVMatar news. I'm Fatima Sham. We now bring you this exclusive report from Rita Ferreira, our Paris-bureau correspondent."
"Yes, Fatima, I'm standing outside the gates of the Onzième Bureau, a little-known branch of the French intelligence service. We tried to speak to officials here about a report that they have been funneling money secretly to Matar's mullahs, in an attempt to start a coup in the tranquil Gulf nation and to replace its benevolent and popular ruler, the Emir Gazzir bin Haz, with a fundamentalist Islamic dictatorship."
The screen showed the reporter trying to thrust a microphone through the window of a dark sedan driving out the gate.
"TVMatar, hello! Bonjour! Is it true that you are trying to start a revolution in Matar?"
The car kept going. The screen showed two gendarmes approaching, waving the camera away.
"We are with TVMatar, here to ask questions." "No questions. You must go away. Go. Go now."
"But we want to speak with someone from the Onzième Bureau, to ask about their plans to destabilize our country."
"You must ask at the Foreign Bureau. Allez."
An hour later ...
"I think," Laila said over the phone, "that you'd better get over here to the palace. The French ambassador has requested an audience. The new Saladin's spine could use some stiffening. It's the only part of him that isn't normally stiff. I'll send a car."
Florence was driven through the quiet, baking streets of Amo-Amas to the palace. She walked on lapis-lazuli tiles past cool alabaster fountains and shaded terraces and mosaic corridors, past bodyguards in ceremonial dress, and on into the emir's audience room, where the Lion of Matar awaited. The Lion was frowning. Laila, too, was there.
"Well, Miss Intrigue," he said, "you've made me very popular. Everyone suddenly wants a meeting with me. The French ambassador, the Wasabi ambassador, your American ambassador, even the Russian ambassador. What can he want, I wonder? I should just invite them in all at once. It's been a long time since we have held a grand diplomatic audience. I don't know whether to thank you or have you deported. I could have you escorted to the Wasabi border and thrown across. I'm sure King Tallulah would be delighted to have you as his guest."
"I regret having caused His Majesty such consternation."
"Oh, pish. Now what's this about the French trying to buy my mullahs? Is this true?"
"Yes." "And how do you know this arresting fact?"
"I'm in the news-gathering business."
"Are you with the CIA? I want an honest answer now."
"Not that I am aware, my lord."
The emir stared. "What do you mean, not that you're aware? What kind of answer is that?"
"An honest answer. I really don't know anymore. So now it would seem that I'm an employee of TVMatar. Which is to say, I work for you."
"Stop throwing sand in my eyes. I want an answer!"
"Darling," Laila said, "calm yourself. You'll give yourself a rash. Though I must admit, I'm confused too. But TVMatar is now fully independent. You own it, darling. Moreover, you're doing very, very well with it. You're now the largest broadcaster in the Arab world."
"Yes, yes, yes, but was this funded by American intelligence?"
"Darling," Laila said, "if it had been, do you really think it would have worked this well?"
"Good point," Florence muttered.
"I hardly know that it's turned out 'well,'" the emir said. "And don't try to deceive me with your honeyed tongues. I want to know—right now, this instant—was this an American operation?"
"Yes," Florence said. "I regret deceiving you. But I do not regret what we have accomplished."
The emir looked from Florence to his wife. "Did you know about this?"
"No," Florence said. "I deceived Laila, too. I deceived you both."
The emir sat back on his divan and tapped his purplish lip with his finger. Laila glanced at Florence. "Are you still a U.S. agent?" she asked.
Florence imagined she was giving a press briefing at the State Department. I have nothing for you on that at this time.
"No. No, I don't think I am at this point."
Laila turned to the emir.
"There. So why the fuss?"
"If I find," the emir said, "that you two were in collusion, there will be consequences. Severe consequences."
"Shouldn't we give some thought to what you're going to tell Monsieur Valmar?"
In due course the French ambassador was announced. Laila and Florence withdrew by a separate door before he was ushered in.
"You might have given me some warning that you were about to admit to being an American spy," Laila said crossly.
"Not a spy, Laila. I was never that."
"Whatever. Well, the situation seems to have stabilized for the time being. But au revoir, Switzerland of the Gulf."
"Yes," Florence said. "It's starting to feel more like the Middle East."