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Desert Storm

Reviewed by Charles Trueheart
Sunday, September 26, 2004; Page BW07

FLORENCE OF ARABIA

By Christopher Buckley. Random House. 253 pp. $24.95

In these parlous times it takes more than courage to do what Christopher Buckley sets out to do in his new farce; it takes a devil-may-care spirit somewhere between serenity and madness.

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Florence of Arabia is very funny in places, and even devastating in the aggregate. To call Buckley irreverent doesn't do justice to reverence. What is more, this delightfully improbable tale is propelled by a noble purpose -- gender justice in an oppressive theocracy -- that could (Buckley can hope) inoculate him from attack and reprimand. But for me, what dominates this story is its elaborate mockery of the culture and faith of tens of millions of people, people who have reason to be sensitive these days about such irreverence as well as a troublesome record of reacting to it.

Muslims, I mean, in a big wedge of the Arab world. So a non-Muslim's laughter at many of the fine riffs and caricatures in Florence of Arabia is necessarily awkward laughter. Yucks as un-PC as these have not been heard in many a year, and certainly not for the last three, anywhere outside the mouth-foaming sectors of public discourse. Florence of Arabia -- and what a wonderful title! -- concerns the Royal Kingdom of Wasabia, a vast and oil-rich desert land ruled by a vast and oil-rich royal family. Its oppressive power is guaranteed by optimum connections to the American establishment greased by a suave prince as its longtime ambassador in Washington. Wasabia's medieval legal system, among other things, subjugates, humiliates and violates women, as well as executing them for such vices as flirting.

Of course this is a wholly fictional land, too absurd to resemble any in the real family of nations.

A historian whom Buckley concocts describes Wasabia as the Middle East's preeminent "no-fun zone," unless "one's idea of fun includes beheading, amputation, flogging, blinding and having your tongue cut off for 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."

The neighboring emirate of Matar -- pronounced Mutter -- is an equally imaginary gulfside state ruled by, let us say, more relaxed standards of piety, including a mullah-sanctioned gambling and entertainment enclave called Infidel Land. The current emir's "handling of Matar's religious authorities had been, by unanimous consent, masterful. Matari mullahs . . . were so prosperous that they had acquired the local nickname of 'moolahs.' They received a generous salary from the state, luxury apartments, 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."

Florence Farfaletti, the scrappy, wisecracking leading gal of this tale, is a restless Foreign Service officer and angry ex-wife of a Wasabi. Beholding the umpteenth instance of violence being done to womenfolk there, Florence gets a cockamamie idea. She cooks up an ingenious plan to orchestrate the soft overthrow of the system -- the veil, the stoning, the works -- and liberate the women of Wasabia and beyond.

The State Department reels in horror, but, much to her surprise, an angel named Uncle Sam appears in her life, totally witting of her plan, and agrees to bankroll the idea. CIA? White House? Who knows? Who cares? He's got money and authority -- helicopters, even.

Florence of Arabia recruits a buffed-for-Hollywood team: "A hit man from Dogpatch, a PR hack, and a queer Foreign Service Officer," as the latter person cracks. They set up their field headquarters in Matar to carry out the ludicrous op, which mustn't be spoiled here. As it unfolds, its success is serially threatened by tense relations between Matar and Wasabia and the rivalrous meddling of the United States and France. Beyond the kingdom and emirate, Buckley leaves the Arab world alone and keeps a 10-foot-pole's length away from Israel. Otherwise he spreads the satire around with a generous pitchfork -- State Department stuffpots, K Street sleazebuckets, Capitol Hill blowhards, CIA crazies and -- what would we do without them? -- the French.

"Did not France have her own proud history of screwing things up? Look at Algeria, Vietnam, Syria, Haiti -- Quebec -- all still reeling from their days of French rule. Clearly, France was ready and eager to show the world that she, too, could wreak disastrous, unforeseen consequences abroad, far more efficiently and almost certainly with more flair than America."

As we saw in his earlier novels (Thank You for Smoking and No Way to Treat a First Lady among them), Buckley savors Washington for its straight-faced ridiculousness:

"Senators pounded their podia, demanding answers. The president declared that he, too, wanted answers. The CIA said that although it had no official comment, it, too, perhaps even more than the president and the senators, wanted answers. The secretary of state said that there might in fact be no answers, but if there were, he certainly would be interested in hearing them. The secretary general of the United Nations said that he was reasonably certain answers existed, but first the right questions must be asked, and then they would have to be translated, and this would take time."

Buckley keeps us entertained with clever japes and juicy bits, rashers of Thousand-and-One-Nights sexual innuendo, awe-inspiring passages of potted history. I like the titles of two imaginary books he mentions: volume XXI of Henry Kissinger's memoirs, "Years of Genius," and a philandering Arab prince's pensees, "The Seven Pillows of Wisdom." Such wit works well in Buckley's quick-off-the-mark short pieces in the New Yorker. Extending the riff makes other demands, as invention has to give way to sustaining narrative.

We can't help rooting for Florence and her Arab sisters as they take on the hapless sheiks and whoring princes and cold-blooded mukfellah enforcers, and it becomes clear that Buckley has fallen for Florence and her cause as well. The ridicule gives way to sweetness on the one hand and indignation on the other, sentiments you wouldn't expect from the seasoned cynic at the controls. Here's Buckley tut-tutting the harsh justice dealt to two women who walked uncovered and unchaperoned in the streets of Wasabia: "It was quite obvious, declared the mukfellah official who announced their sentences, that they had been on their way to fornicate with loathsome blackamoor cooks. There was no actual evidence of this, but the advantage of a religious judiciary is that you don't need evidence."

Christopher Buckley is likely to make some people very angry with this book, but there will be no denying the elegance and, by my lights, the essential gentleness of his wit. Buckley can be offensive -- sometimes uproariously so -- but I don't detect malice, or at least not much. Whether everyone else will read him this way is another question. •

Charles Trueheart, a former Washington Post correspondent, is a writer in Paris.


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