Florence of Arabia: A Novel

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9780812972269: Florence of Arabia: A Novel
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The bestselling author who made mincemeat of political correctness in Thank You for Smoking, conspiracy theories in Little Green Men, and Presidential indiscretions No Way to Treat a First Lady now takes on the hottest topic in the entire world–Arab-American relations–in a blistering comic novel sure to offend the few it doesn’t delight.

Appalled by the punishment of her rebellious friend Nazrah, youngest and most petulant wife of Prince Bawad of Wasabia, Florence Farfarletti decides to draw a line in the sand. As Deputy to the deputy assistant secretary for Near East Affairs, Florence invents a far-reaching, wide-ranging plan for female emancipation in that part of the world.

The U.S. government, of course, tells her to forget it. Publicly, that is. Privately, she’s enlisted in a top-secret mission to impose equal rights for the sexes on the small emirate of Matar (pronounced “Mutter”), the “Switzerland of the Persian Gulf.” Her crack team: a CIA killer, a snappy PR man, and a brilliant but frustrated gay bureaucrat. Her weapon: TV shows.

The lineup on TV Matar includes A Thousand and One Mornings, a daytime talk show that features self-defense tips to be used against boyfriends during Ramadan; an addictive soap opera featuring strangely familiar members of the Matar royal family; and a sitcom about an inept but ruthless squad of religious police, pitched as “Friends from Hell.”

The result: the first deadly car bombs in the country since 1936, a fatwa against the station’s entire staff, a struggle for control of the kingdom, and, of course, interference from the French. And that’s only the beginning.

A merciless dismantling of both American ineptitude and Arabic intolerance, Florence of Arabia is Christopher Buckley’s funniest and most serious novel yet, a biting satire of how U.S. good intentions can cause the Shiite to hit the fan.
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About the Author:

Christopher Buckley is a novelist, essayist, humorist, critic, magazine editor, and memoirist. His books have been translated into sixteen foreign languages. He worked as a merchant seaman and White House speechwriter. He has written for many newspapers and magazines and has lectured in more than seventy cities around the world. He was awarded the Thurber Prize for American Humor and the Washington Irving Medal for Literary Excellence.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER ONE
 
While Nazrah was still dreaming of psychedelic antelopes, the CIA guards and Virginia state trooper Harmon G. Gilletts, weapons drawn, examined their catch through the car’s windows. All they could see, amid the myriad air bags, were two distinctly feminine hands, the one on the left bearing enough diamonds to put all of their children combined through Ivy League colleges and law school.
 
Another expensive German car drove up, this one bearing Shazzik, looking even more grim than usual, and his two mukfelleen. The CIA guards and Trooper Gilletts noted the diplomatic license plate but did not holster their weapons.
 
Shazzik emerged from the car and, in his accustomed peremptory manner—Hamooji retainers are not renowned for their courtesy to nonroyals—announced that the vehicle contained a member of the household and asserted his rights of extraction.
 
This was too much for Trooper Gilletts. As a Marine Corps reservist, he had spent time in Wasabia during one of America’s periodic interventionist spasms in the region. As a result, he could not stand Wasabis (a common enough sentiment among foreign visitors). Six months at the Prince Wadum Air Base had left Gilletts, a reasonable man of no particular bias, hating even the name “Wasabi.”
 
He dispensed with the usual “sir,” with which he addressed even the most wretched of his highway detainees, thrust out his impressive marine reservist pectorals at the chamberlain while tightening his palm around the grip of his Glock nine-millimeter, and counterasserted jurisdiction on behalf of the sovereign commonwealth of Virginia. Stonewall Jackson at First Bull Run, just down the road from here, had been no less unmovable than Trooper Harmon G. Gilletts.
 
The CIA guards, meanwhile, had pressed buttons summoning backup in the form of an armored vehicle capable (should any gate situation deteriorate seriously) of launching missiles; also of passing impressive amounts of electrical current through the bodies of the undesirable. A helicopter with snipers was also put into play. Why take chances? Why screw around?
 
Amid this bruit of riot vehicle, rotor blades, drawn guns, male barking and bantam outthrust of chests, Nazrah’s hallucinations ended. She stirred inside her bulbous polystyrene cocoon. The air bags deflated sufficiently to allow her wriggle room. She peered with horror at the standoff taking place outside her car windows and did what anyone would in such circumstances. She reached for her cell phone.
 
FLORENCE FARFALETTI HAD been in the U.S. Foreign Service long enough to know that when a phone rings after midnight it is A) never a wrong number and B) never a call you want to get. But being a deputy to the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs (DASNEA), she C) had to take the call.
 
“Farfaletti,” she said with as much professional crisp as she could muster in the middle of a ruined REM cycle. Even though her last name had been spoken aloud for thirty-two years, it still sounded like too many syllables. But having changed her first name, she felt she couldn’t change her surname. It would crush her grandfather, who remained defiantly proud of his service in Mussolini’s army in Ethiopia in the 1930s. Perhaps after he died. He was in his nineties now. Or if she remarried. Meanwhile, she was stuck with the patronymic embarrassment of vowels.
 
“Flor-ents!”
 
Florence struggled against the glue of sleep. She recognized the Wasabian difficulty with soft C’s. The voice was young, urgent, scared, familiar.
 
“Nazrah?”
 
“It’s me, Florents! It’s Nazrah!”
 
Florence flicked on the light, grimaced at the clock. What was this about?
 
She knew Nazrah Hamooj. They had met back in Kaffa, the Wasabi capital, when Florence lived there. Nazrah was the daughter of a lesser sheik of the Azami tribe, quite lovely, intelligent, self-educated—the only education a Wasabi woman could acquire, since they were barred from schooling above age fifteen. Nazrah was irreverent about the other wives, whom she referred to with delighted sarcasm as “my dear sisters.” During her dismal time in Kaffa, Florence heard the gossip: Prince Bawad had married the much younger Nazrah to annoy his snobbish second wife, Bisma, who felt that Nazrah was socially several rungs too low down the ladder.
 
Florence and Nazrah had reconnected socially in Washington, at an embassy reception, one of the few occasions when Wasabi wives were on public display. They had managed to get together for a half-dozen lunches in French restaurants, where Nazrah ordered expensive wines in view of the frantic Khalil. Florence liked Nazrah. She laughed easily, and she was deliciously indiscreet. Nazrah knew of Florence’s own experience with Wasabi princes and confided in her. Florence dutifully filled out the requisite State Department report after each encounter. Out of decency and respect for her friend, she left out certain details, such as those concerning Prince Bawad’s amatory practices. If Nazrah had confided anything of strategic value or necessity to the United States, Florence would, of course, as an officer of the government, have vouchsafed it to the relevant authority. So why was Nazrah calling at this hour?
 
“Flor-ents. You must help me—I need asylum! Now, please!”
 
Florence felt her chest go tight. Asylum. Within the State Department, this was known as “the A-word.” A nightmare term in a bureaucracy consecrated to stasis and inertia. “I want asylum” sent shudders down a thousand rubber spines. It summoned hellish visions of paperwork, cables, meetings, embarrassment, denial, restatement and—invariably—clarification. “I want asylum” ended in tears, approved or denied. Denied, it usually ended up on the evening news, a nation’s shame, the anchorman asking, in tones sepulchral, disappointed and trochaic, “How could something like this have happened in the United States of America?”
 
Florence was now bolt, wide, awake. The wife of the ambassador of the country that supplied America with the majority of its imported fossil fuel was asking her, a midlevel Foreign Service officer, for asylum. Homeland security alert levels come in six color codes ranging from green to red. Florence’s own alert levels consisted of just three: Cool, Oh Shit and Holy Shit.
 
Her crisis training kicked in. She heard a voice inside her head. It said, Stall. This was instantly drowned out by a second voice saying, Help. The second voice was real and coming through the phone. It was speaking Wasabi.
 
Florence found herself saying, “Tell them you’re injured. Insist they take you to a hospital. Fairfax Hospital. Insist. Nazrah—do you understand?”
 
She rose and dressed and, even though hurrying, put on her pearl earrings. Always wear your earrings, her mother had told her from an early age.
 
OUTSIDE THE EMERGENCY ROOM entrance, she recognized Shazzik and the two mukfelleen. For the first time in her life, she wished she were wearing a veil. During her months in Wasabia, she’d been required to and never got used to it.
 
Shazzik was furious, making demands of—she guessed—several CIA security officers. What worried her more was the amount of Virginia state trooper-age outside. Seven cruisers. Someone was bound to call the media, and once that happened, the options narrowed. Few situations, really, are improved by the arrival of news trucks.
 
Two armed hospital security guards stood athwart the doors to the ER. Florence pulled her scarf over her head as a makeshift veil, lowered her head so as to look demure, and approached.
 
“I’m here to see Nazrah Hamooj. I am her family.” She made herself seem and sound foreign. With her dark hair and Mediterranean complexion, she looked credibly Middle Eastern.
 
“Name?”
 
Neither “Florence” nor “Farfaletti” sounding terribly Wasabian, Florence said, “Melath.” It meant “asylum” in Wasabi, a fact that would in all likelihood be lost on a Virginia hospital security guard.
 
Word was sent in. It came back: Let her in.
 
“She’s all right. Her CAT scan and MRI were clean.”
 
The doctor was young, not quite as good-looking as the ones in television dramas but, from the way he regarded Florence, an appreciator of beauty. Florence had grasped, as soon as boys began to bay outside her windows, that beauty was, in addition to being a gift, a tool, like a Swiss Army knife.
 
“Could you do another? Just in case?”
 
“She is your . . .”
 
“Sister.”
 
“Well, we’ve established from a medical point of view that your sister is all right. Were you aware that she was drinking?”
 
“Dear, dear.”
 
“She’s lucky to be alive.”
 
“Can you just keep her here? Under observation?”
 
“This isn’t the Betty Ford Center.”
 
“A few hours is all I’m asking.”
 
“The insurance company—”
 
Florence took the doctor by the arm and tugged him to a corner. He didn’t resist. Men tend to yield to pretty women dragging them off into corners. She dropped the Wasabi accent.
 
“I am asking you on behalf of the United States government”—she flashed him her State Department ID—“to keep that woman here in this hospital for a few hours. Surely there are some more tests you can give her?”
 
“What’s going on?”
 
“Do you know what an honor killing is?”
 
“This is a hospital, in case you hadn’t—”
 
“Where she comes from, it’s what happens to a woman who dishonors her husband or relative. No trial, no jury, no appeal, no Supreme Court, no ACLU, just death. By stoning or decapitation. You with me?”
 
“Who is she?”
 
“She’s the wife of the Wasabi ambassador. One of his wives, anyway. She tried to run away. If you release her into their custody before I can figure something out, it’s probably a death sentence.”
 
“Jesus, lady.”
 
“Sorry to lay that on you.” Florence smiled at the doctor.
 
“How long am I supposed to keep her?”
 
“Thank you. Just—a few hours. That would really be great. There’s a tall man outside, Middle Eastern, very unpleasant-looking, thin with a pencil mustache, high forehead and goatee. Tell him you need to do more tests, and she’s in isolation.”
 
“Oh, man.”
 
“You’re really, really great to do this. I won’t forget it.” Florence nudged him toward the swinging doors, then located Nazrah and drew the curtain around her bed.
 
Nazrah had held it together until now, but upon seeing Florence, she burst. The Great Desert in the interior of Wasabia had not seen such moisture in an entire year. She had, in the manner of women of the region, applied copious mascara, which now ran sootily down her tawny checks. Florence listened and nodded and handed her a succession of tissues. Nazrah explained. It hadn’t been planned. She was sorry to have involved Florence. She’d intended to drive to the train station and take the Acela Express to New York City and then . . . whatever the next step was. Then she’d taken the right turn. Then the police car. Then the CIA front gate seemed like . . . Then the crash. And the only person she could think to call was Florence. She was so sorry.
 

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