Florence Farfaletti had been sawing z-z-z-z’s when a casual acquaintence, Princess Nazrah, favorite wife of His Excellency Prince Bawad bin-Rumallah al-Hamooj, ambassordor of the oil rich Royal Kingdom of Wasabi found herself slobbering drunk, pursued by a Virginia State trooper at triple the speed limit, and surrounded by the airbags in one of her husband’s Cadillacs after plowing through the gate and a steel retainer of the George Bush Center for Intelligence in McLean, VA. She was still deep in the Land of Nod when Princess Nazrah involked her name when, through a veil of runny mascara and tears, she asked for political asylum in the United States. Be that as it may, as a mid-level minion in the State Department she was powerless to help her out of her fix. Unfortunately, foreign relations being what they are, the price of oil and what not, Princess Nazrah found herself pumped full of valium, hustled back to Wasabi on the next royal jet, and eight inches shorter due to the strong arm and sharp sword of the royal executioner.
Stricken by her friend Nazrah’s death and her frustration at not being able to help her in her time of need, she fires off a passionate policy paper entitled “Female Emancipation As A Means Of Achieving Long-Term Political Stability In The Near East: An Operational Proposal.” Although it it hits the bottom of the round file in her boss’ boss’ office in the State Department, it does catch the eye of some of the boys at Langely. In short, her idea to establish a satellite television network for the women of Islam – kind of an Oprah! Network for the burkah crowd – catches the whim and fancy of the CIA. Within hours she’s gotten clearance to fly to Mattar, Wasabi’s liberal neighbor, and an audience with Emir Gazzir Bin Haz – Gazzy to his friends. Matar is very liberal by local standards. A simple Hermes scarf to compliment the latest Parisian fashion is all that’s necessary in Matar to meet feminine modesty requirements. It’s Florence’s job, in the guise of a big television producer, to pitch the network to Gazzy who, intelligence has told her, has a penchant for very high-class European call girls. Florence convinces him that “A man who gives his wife an occupation creates himself an oasis” and wins his blessing as well as a meeting with his Oxford-educated, gorgeous, third and favorite wife, Sheika Laila.
Laila and Florence click, and their first offering – an Oprah-esque talk show named “Cher Azade” – is released. Soon households are filled with feminine laughter as their clever hostess, Farah, brings on guests like the “self-defense instructor who gave tips on how to cope with cranky, violent husbands and boyfriends during Ramadan.” The show, the network, and the CIA operation are a smash hit. The first Arab women’s network is born.
Great success is often hoped for but rarely predicted, so when the network becomes the toast of women across the Middle East, complete with lucrative advertising dollars to match, it would appear everyone’s goal has been achieved. Not so quick. No good deed goes unpunished, and when a video of an abducted Farah from neighboring Wasabi showing the hostess buried up to her neck in sand and pelted by small stones is delivered to the network, they realize they might have a problem. Not only are Matar and Wasabi ideologically opposites but, as chronicled in “Let’s Put Iraq Here, and Lebanon Over Here: The Making of the Middle East,” Matar was given the whole of Wasabi’s coastline by an arbitrary slash of Sir Winston Churchill’s pen. Finally pushed to the limits of their fragile dignity, the Wasabi and their mullah’s lash out at the Matari heretics for corrupting the flower of Wasabi womanhood. They enlist Gazzy’s jealous younger brother Maliq in an attempt to overthrow Gazzi, place Maliq on the Matari throne and return Matar back to Allah’s good graces…..as well as ceding Wasabi coastline and political power to Wasabi control. All this puts Florence, Laila and a redneck CIA rogue-agent watchdog with ever-changing names and personas in a bad spot and, of course, the hijinks ensue.
Christopher Buckley, son of the conservative icon William F. Buckley, has all of his father’s intelligence and an double helping of razor sharp wit and humor. Florence of Arabia is a hilarious “what if” scenario that, as all the very best satire, has an undercurrent of truth and relevancy to current events. The overall tone of the book is irreverent, clever, and very funny. VERY timely. Buckley, who also wrote Thank You For Smoking, has a penchant for taking on issues so plausible you can’t help but grin and nod your head while reading. I often find myself CTMQ (Chuckling To Myself Quietly) whenever reading Buckley’s work. In the margins though, is a more serious secondary theme.
Florence of Arabia was inspired by the work of Oklahoman Fern Holland, whom Buckley describes as a “real-life Florence of Arabia.” Holland was a 33-year-old lawyer who went to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. On March 9, 2004, Holland was murdered for her work involving women’s rights. The rights of Florence have been purchased by actress Charlize Theron, with a film version due out in the near future.
I’ve read all of Buckley’s work I can put my hands on. He’s insanely clever, caustic and an equal opportunity critic of anyone guilty of chronic stupidity. For those who enjoy this book, I’d also highly recommend Supreme Courtship and No Way To Treat A First Lady, also by Christopher Buckley. All of these titles are available at the Rochester Public Library.