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Queen of The Desert
From the November 8, 2004, issue of National Review.


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Andrew Stuttaford

Florence Of Arabia, by Christopher Buckley (Random House, 272 pp., $24.95)

All it takes for evil to prevail, warned Burke, is “for enough good men to do nothing.” True; but that doesn’t mean that the good men cannot occasionally relax with a good laugh or two. It might even help them, especially in a situation of the kind the West faces today: a war with an ideology so dedicated to the destruction of happiness that, in the shape of the Taliban, it made laughing too loud in public a crime. (For women, anyway.)

In Florence of Arabia, his dark, disturbing, and very funny new satire, Christopher Buckley highlights the cruelty of radical Islamism and the contradictions of America’s response to it. He does this against a backdrop not of history at its grimmest or journalism at its most intense, but of jokes, mockery, bouts of wordplay (a State Department bureaucrat is a “desk-limpet,” an Arab potentate has lips that are “oyster-moist from a lifetime’s contact with the greatest delicacies the world [has] to offer”), and puns that teeter on the edge of catastrophe: The repressive Arab kingdom that is–along, naturally, with France–the main villain of this book goes by the name of Wasabia.

Wasabia is a sand-swept nightmare marked by oil wealth, joylessness, corruption, and ritualized cruelty, a tyranny where “offenses that in other religions would earn you a lecture from the rabbi, five Hail Marys from a priest, and, for Episcopalians, a plastic pink flamingo on your front lawn” are punished by “beheading, amputation, flogging, blinding, and having your tongue cut out . . . A Google search using the key phrases ‘Wasabia’ and ‘La Dolce Vita’ results in no matches.” Well, Prince Bandar, does that remind you of anywhere?

Gallows humor? Certainly. But insofar as the jihadists–with their car bombs, suicide bombs, and dreams of dirty bombs and worse–wish to shove you and me into mass graves at the earliest possible moment, a touch of Tyburn does not seem amiss. Of course, there are people who will find some of what Buckley has to say distinctly, you know, insensitive. The caliphs of multiculturalism will twitch a little, and this is not a book that will find many fans in Foggy Bottom (“the State Department’s reflexive response to any American in extremis overseas is to hand them a pamphlet–along with a list of incompetent local lawyers–and say, ‘We told you so’”).

But satire should not make comfortable reading for the subscribers to any orthodoxy. Running through this book is the clear implication that the American approach to the Middle East has not worked out quite as well as might have been hoped. And what, exactly, is the role played in Buckley’s drama by the Waldorf Group, an investment company (named, hmmm, after a New York hotel) that has danced a little too long, a little too closely, and a little too profitably with the despots of Wasabia?

But about Buckley’s heroine Florence, at least, there are no doubts. Forced out of the State Department for her unwanted imagination and initiative, she now has a new assignment: using covert funds to set up a TV station to transmit to the Arab masses. This will not, of course, be another Al-Jazeera, glossily repackaging nationalist resentments and religious prejudice 24/7, but nor will it be a source of ticky-tacky U.S. propaganda, ineffectively boasting about multicultural contentment in midwestern suburbs. Instead it will be something altogether more revolutionary, directed at the most excluded and mistreated of all the Arab masses: women. This will be Lifetime for women who really have no lives, its purpose to promote female emancipation as a counterbalance to militant Islam.

Qatar, the home of Al-Jazeera, being presumably unavailable, Florence’s TV station is hosted by the venal but fairly relaxed emirate of Matar (“pronounced, for reasons unclear, Mutter”), a statelet created by Churchill at one of those colonial conferences that have done so much to make the Middle East the cheery place that it is today. “One might suspect,” writes Buckley, “that its borders had been drawn so as to deprive . . . Wasabia of access to the sea. One would be right.” The result was to leave Matar rich, permanently grateful to old Winston (spotting Matar’s Churchillian place names is one of the book’s many pleasures), and under the control of a royal family that knows how to handle its mullahs: cash, cars, 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.”

This relatively tolerant country makes an ideal base for Florence and her offbeat and entertaining team: a delightfully cynical PR man, a State Department employee so camp that he could have been pitching tents with T. E. Lawrence, and a CIA Col. Kurtz lite (a seductive–ask Florence–and effective mix of Esquire and Soldier of Fortune).

Throughout, Buckley’s lightly ironic tone only accentuates the savagery that is his main target, making it somehow all the more terrible when, as in this extract, it comes into clear, brutal focus:

The package turned out to contain a videotape. It showed Fatima buried in sand up to her neck, being stoned to death with small rocks. The tape was twenty minutes long. Everyone who watched it wept. Florence brought the tape to Laila. She could not bring herself to view it again so she left the room while Laila viewed it. She waited outside on the terrace, looking out over the Gulf in the moonlight, her skin misted by salty droplets from the fountain that spouted out the royal crest. Laila emerged, pale and shaken. Neither woman spoke. The two of them stood by the balustrade overlooking the gardens, listening to the waves lap the shore and the onshore breeze rustle the fronds of the date palms.

And then, right at the end of this book, cruel, bleak, awful reality finally comes crashing in. There, in the closing acknowledgments, Buckley pays tribute to Fern Holland, “a real-life Florence of Arabia,” who was assassinated in Iraq on March 9, 2004. She was trying to help, and that would not do.

Mr. Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.



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