Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Romance of the Two Kingdoms

The Romance of the Two Kingdoms, or
Florence of Arabia:
Christopher Buckley’s Middle East
Comedy Thriller
About a Capitalist Plot to Foment
The Emancipation of the Women of
The Arab World

According to the author’s bio for his 2004 novel, Florence of Arabia, Christopher Buckley (b. 1952) had recently had a ten-and-a-half-hour lunch with Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011): paladin of the Left, brilliant essayist, prolific political journalist, talk show pundit, and British atheist. Be that as it may, Christopher Buckley is still the son of William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925-2008): paladin of the Right, brilliant writer, prolific political journalist, talk show pundit, New Englander and devout Roman Catholic.  

William F. Buckley, Jr. – what a legacy! Founder of the Conservative National Review, author of God and Man at Yale (1951) and over fifty other books, Buckley brought intelligent political conversation, and debate, into the homes of Middle America. William F. Buckley, Jr. was host of the television talk show Firing Line from 1966-1999. For those too young to remember Firing Line, it is difficult to over-emphasize, in this era of Tea Party disinformation and divisiveness, William F. Buckley, Jr.’s urbanity, his civility. Successful at engaging spokesmen from all points of the political spectrum in topical dialogue, William F. Buckley, Jr. gave his guests a national platform – and more time on the air than he gave himself.  When he did savage his opponents, he savaged them with wit. In what must have felt like an ambush to slower minds, Buckley, with purring tones and perfect timing, would skewer his opponents in debate, always playing by the rules. Perhaps with the exception of his verbal jousts with U.S. Congressman Allard K. Lowenstein, Buckley usually prevailed in getting his ideas across. [Left-Liberal Democrat Lowenstein would no doubt have successfully argued with William F. Buckley, Jr. in even more such conversations, but for the fact that he was shot and killed, age 51, in his Manhattan office by Dennis Sweeney, his one-time protégé.] William F. Buckley, Jr. had, as Wikipedia points out, a superb vocabulary, but he didn’t further his ideas by throwing big words around. He promoted Conservatism through strategic argumentation and implacable logic, and especially through his disarming humor and consummate courtesy: he was a gentleman through and through.

Described as having “courtly manners” and “a wry sense of humor” in conversation (James Reginato, “Meet the Parents,” W Magazine, May, 2009), Christopher Buckley can equally be seen to be his father’s son in the style of his authorial persona. Florence of Arabia is written with exuberant wit (and an impressive vocabulary), and is as dense with precise information as it is politically shrewd. The novel has two kinds of characters: those whose sins are cardinal, making them fair targets of Christopher Buckley’s arrows of satire; and those whose sins are venial: noble souls whose humanity shows itself in a range of misbehaviors from minor follies to royal fuck-ups, making them suitable objects of satire while entitling them to their author’s gentle forbearance.

Hilarious, comic, improbable: these are the high frequency words used by reviewers of Christopher Buckley’s Middle East adventure. But there is something else here – something that lies churning beneath the comedy. Early in the novel, the author describes the beheading of Nazrah al-Bawad, wife of Prince Bawad of Wasabia:

Nazrah Hamoooj had been executed that morning at dawn by sword …”She was pretty calm about it from what we heard. Sometimes they make a hell of a fuss. Last month they did Prince Rahmal’s wife. Man, did she put up a fight. Yelling, screaming, kicking. They finally jabbed her full of Valium so they could get a clear cut….”

Here the brutality of the Islamic Kinngdom of Wasabia is matched by the brutality of the narrative. News of Nazrah’s beheading culminates the story’s exposition, in which the reader is briefly invited to identify with – and admire – the feisty Nazrah as she makes her breathless bid for freedom, fleeing her jailer-bodyguards in the hope of winning American asylum. As the story unfurls, and we are again invited to invest affection and admiration in the character of a spirited Arab woman  – talk show host Fatima Sham, this more fully developed character meets a similarly brutal fate:

[The videotape] showed Fatima buried in sand up to her neck, being stoned to death with small rocks. The tape was over twenty minutes long. Everyone who watched it wept.

Indeed, there is something besides humor here. Christopher Buckley is angry – no, furious – about the oppression of women in the Middle East. Psychologist D.W. Harding has described Jane Austen’s comedy-of-manners satire as a form of ‘regulated hatred.’ And while ‘regulated hatred’ may not be a suitable definition for all of comedy, ‘calibrated anger’ would appear to lie just beneath the surface of Buckley’s rollicking satire.

Christopher Buckley did not in fact spring, Athena-like, fully formed from his father’s brow. It should be no surprise then, that he had a mother, too. Patricia Taylor Buckley (1926-2007), daughter of Canadian industrialist Austin C. Taylor, was a successful fundraiser for charities who possessed a delightful sense of the ridiculous, “a very fine mind” (Christopher Buckley interviewed by W Magazine, May 2009), and, true to the Buckley ethos, a remarkable vocabulary. Yet, as Christopher Buckley explains in his memoir, Losing Mum and Pup, Patricia responded to her insecurities, and to the challenge of living in the shadow of William F. Buckley, Jr., by drinking heavily and “prevaricating:” telling tall tales to impress and connect with people. Perhaps through identification with his mother’s struggles, perhaps through empathy with women generally, perhaps as a part of a broader commitment to human rights, Christopher Buckley was inspired to create, in Florence of Arabia, a cast of compelling women characters seen to be struggling gallantly against the myriad absurdities of male cultural institutions.  Chief among them is American agent Florence Farfaletti, whose character is associated by the author with real-life human rights activist Fern Holland, “assassinated in Iraq, March 9, 2004, age thirty-three” (Christopher Buckley, Acknowledgments). Holland, an attorney employed by the U.S. government to improve women’s rights in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, was targeted for assassination along with her colleagues because of her work on behalf of Iraqi women.

Whatever the author’s rapport with his muse, Christopher Buckley boldly imagines a world in which, despite centuries of oppression (not to mention the hilarious fumblings of every government with a stake in the Middle East), Arab women begin to have the chance to be free. Remarkably, Christopher Buckley invents a fictional universe populated by female characters who are neither idealized paragons of independence, unrealistically adept at surmounting the limitations imposed by their circumstances, nor comely damsels in distress eternally reliant upon male protection.

Treading a fine line, Buckley gives us a resilient, flawed, believable American heroine and resourceful, flawed, believable Arab women in supporting roles.  Florence is equal parts self-sufficient, courageous, and error-prone, leading to – yes, a modicum of exciting chase, capture, and rescue scenes.

Yet in the course of recounting Florence’s mixed bag of bold deeds and missteps, the author lays down a blueprint for comedic female heroism. Contemporary female heroism, it turns out, looks very like male heroism, comprised of courage and self-sacrifice, the will to stand up for one’s beliefs, and the compassion to act on behalf of people less fortunate. As Florence embodies female heroism within the context of a brilliantly paced comedy-thriller, however, her high-minded sentiments and reliable follow-through are often hidden beneath the veil – so to speak – of a brisk dialogue, tightly wound plot, and subplot complications. Buckley charges his dialogue with the momentum of rapid-fire repartee among multifarious characters, and supercharges his plot with manic trial-and-error American foreign policy gambits. Complications engendered by the plots and plotting of spies good and bad give birth to wild escapades, avalanche-humor, and a pile-up of political and diplomatic mishaps that elicit funny and not so funny episodes of blowback. Buckley’s reader, in return for very little effort, can exult in this wild rollercoaster ride while actually learning – in fact getting a fair introduction to the history and politics of the Middle East.

Comedy? Thriller? Historical Fiction? In essence, Christopher Buckley’s Florence of Arabia could properly be described as Historical Fiction, with perhaps more emphasis on Fiction than History. Yet for all that Christopher Buckley’s novel is outlandish, its time frame correlates fairly closely with reality, and with Realpolitik. References to the CIA, but not to Homeland Security, place the narrative before the watershed date 9/11/2001; and an early reference to “that cruise-missile strike in Dar-es-Salaam last year” pinpoints the fictitious year more precisely: 1999.

A hybrid novel of diverse genres, then, Florence of Arabia can also reasonably be described as Historical Romance. Historical Romance is a genre combining history with storytelling. In Florence of Arabia, the story is told through plot and subplot, anecdote and thinly veiled political allegory (Buckley’s riffs on Scheherazade and The Thousand and One Arabian Nights).  

Christopher Buckley’s alternative-history lessons on the Middle East are subtly woven into the storyline. We learn in an aside that Churchill, allegedly in a fit of pique, denied – with the stroke of a pen – access to the sea to fictitious Wasabia. Some of Buckley’s most outrageous humor is reserved for his descriptions of current affairs, such as the machinations emanating from the ancient but still smoldering feud between Britain and France. The hunger of French diplomats for influence in the region underpins a hysterically funny subplot, announced with a flourish by way of La Rochefoucauld’s purported maxim: “How pleasant it is to cram cold dead snails down the throat of an Englishman.” The French subplot is elaborated in snapshots of the perfidy of the Onzième Bureau, France’s top secret, but apparently well-known, intelligence service. In Buckley’s rather more Anglophile than Francophile world, the Onzième is not beneath risking the security of the region, plotting a coup, and flagrantly disregarding human rights – all in exchange for discounts on oil.  While France’s actual geopolitical opponent in the novel is the United States, France’s stratagems ultimately relate to bitterness over her loss of influence in the region, due to perfidious Albion’s expanding sphere of influence under the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, and under the British Mandate for Palestine, ratified by the League of Nations in 1922.

As Historical Romance, Florence of Arabia is a tale of two kingdoms: the retrograde, ultra-Islamic state of Wasabia, landlocked and seemingly locked out of modernity, and its more modern and civilized, but still Islamic, neighbor, Matar. The two kingdoms are presumably loosely modeled on Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

In narrative terms, the two kingdoms play divergent roles. Wasabia, beyond the pale of civilization, locus of “chop-chop square” and other scenes of state-sanctioned violence against women, is too repressive to be the primary scene of the novel’s comic action. The Kingdom of Matar, however – just modern enough to be a little less disorienting, and a lot less horrific – is ripe for satire. Matar is ruled by the fatuous Emir Gazzir Bin Haz, whose throne is, unbeknownst to him, under threat by his evil half-brother Maliq, racecar driver and newly minted Imam. The emir, in thrall to his weakness for Russian prostitutes, is easily manipulated by his wife, the sheika Laila, who in turn, perhaps not unwillingly, is deceived by the American activist Florence Farfaletti, who in turn, perhaps not entirely unwittingly, becomes an agent of the CIA, or rather of an ex-CIA CEO, now CFO of Big Capital.

Matar, with its resemblance to Qatar, is the ideal location for Florence’s plan to bring stability to the Middle East by liberating Arab women – through exposure to TVMatar. Qatar in 1999 was, in fact, the center of innovation in media in the Arab world, as home of the satellite television network al-Jazeera. In 1999, satellite television was the quintessence of New Media; only six years later the Internet became the center of innovation, and satellite broadcasting seemed suddenly “so 1999” (Armbrust, Walter, New Media and Old Agendas, International Journal of Mideast Studies 39, 2007). While the information revolution in the Middle East was at first limited to elites, information became more accessible with the spread of pan-Arab newspapers; due to the restrictions placed by Arab regimes on print materials, however, it was the advent of satellite television networks that allowed political discourse to cross national boundaries. (Ghareeb, Edmund, New Media and the Information Revolution, Middle East Journal, 54, 2000) Placed in the context of the impact of technological innovation upon politics in the Middle East, Florence’s plan to preach emancipation to Arab women throughout the region becomes less quixotic, more plausible.

For TVMatar, as conceived and effected by Florence, is to be a covertly feminist media outlet: the small kingdom’s ticket to esteem and profitability in the modern age. In addition to its obvious resemblance to Qatar, Matar is, certainly, the ideal location for the development of Christopher Buckley’s satirical vision, from ribald descriptions of the emir’s love nest, to the non sequitur of an Arabic feminist TV station, to Buckley’s Middle Eastern version of the Keystone Kops: Matar’s security police, and finally to the most accident-prone of all visitors to the kingdom: the CIA and its facsimiles.

The son of a famous talking head, himself a journalist, Buckley conjures up media outlet TVMatar as both an object of satire and a conduit for democratic ideals. Indeed, the proposed democratization of the Middle East is to be carried out via talking heads and televised spin-doctors – an updated, feminist version of Radio Free Europe  – except for the fact that the TV station is owned by the Kingdom of Matar.  

Again, behind the comedy, the idea of a potentially free, even liberating press in the Middle East is treated with a degree of seriousness. Especially at the outset, idealism regarding the potential of television as a conduit for democracy in Islamic lands is in the ascendant. A film clip in which a veiled woman trips and accidentally reveals a few inches of flesh becomes a teaching moment; the stunned audience heaves a collective sigh of relief on realizing that, due to the accidental nature of the exposure, the fallen woman is by law exempt from prosecution. (Just a touch of cynicism here, as a laugh track is added to clarify the lesson when the studio audience doesn’t react at precisely the right time.)  An interview on the morning program Cher Azade  (Scherazade) with the author of a book called, Stop, You’re Killing Me: the Repression of Women in Arab Societies is wildly successful.

Then comes TVMatar’s first test: can the power of the press be used to alter the course of events? Princess Hamzin of Wasabia is believed sentenced to death by stoning for storming into a conference attended by her husband, to demand basic human rights for women. At Florence’s behest, talk show host and news presenter Fatima Sham goes public with the story. There is an international outcry. The Kingdom of Wasabia retaliates by airing video footage (VIDEO #1) of Princess Hamzin shopping for diamond jewelry in Paris. Are we still in the world of satire? Buckley lays it on with a trowel, having a Wasabi reporter quip, “Evidently the princess prefers to wear stones.”

TVMatar fights back, staging a fake interview with a man called Abdul (supposed Wasabi palace guard: actually a cafeteria worker at TVMatar). “Abdul” reveals that the Wasabi video was faked, and the princess is still in danger. All ends happily, it would appear: Princess Hamzin’s life has been saved by the TVMatar broadcast; she is now safely shopping in London, and Florence scores 1 saved life against the lost life of Nazrah. But elation at TVMatar is cruelly premature, for next comes VIDEO #2, the twenty-minute film of the stoning to death of news anchor Fatima Sham (whose name suddenly doesn’t seem quite so witty).

Florence makes the risky decision to air the video of the killing on television. In a scene reminiscent of a sequence in Costa-Gavras’ film Z (1969), Florence shocks viewers when abruptly her image appears on screen, replacing the image of Fatima in the news anchor position, and thus signaling a major disruption. Florence then reports the death of news presenter Fatima, and shows VIDEO #2.

 In Costa-Gavras’ political thriller Z, we see a succession of live images of a reporter-photographer commenting on the trials following the indictment of the Greek generals. In a rapid-fire sequence of newscasts, the reporter comments on his photos documenting the “accidental” deaths of witnesses for the prosecution, and the deaths and deportations of opposition party leaders. Suddenly the reporter’s live image is replaced by a photograph documenting his arrest for treason – and the live image of a second reporter commenting on the fate of the first. In Z, as in Florence of Arabia, the first reporter moves from news presenter to news story; in Z this happens in the space of a few quick frames.

In the wake of numerous plot twists involving the emir’s half-brother Maliq and the machinations of the French, the proliferation of fake videos and video equipment used as strategic weapons announces that, in this war of spin, videos have almost attained the status of artillery. Videocassettes play a role in enlivening the plot, and, like the choice of satellite television as the medium for his message, Buckley is spot on in his use of videos to drive the action. Indeed, usage of this tool of citizen journalism, and its ubiquity here, is typical of Buckley’s historically accurate historical fiction. For just as Iranian revolutionaries used cassette tapes to disseminate their views in the 1970s, so citizen journalists –– from innocents to terrorists – used videos in the 1990s.

After Maliq takes over the throne, Florence suddenly appears on the large plasma TV screen of colleagues Rick and George. Embedded in enemy territory, Florence appears in VIDEO #3 to announce that Maliq is holding Laila hostage, and that it is the French and the Wasabis who have underwritten Maliq’s coup. Earlier, when Florence was captured and threatened with death unless she complied and used the video equipment in her cell to record her confession, a Deus ex machina appeared and rescued Florence. Now back in the fight, Florence wields a camera beneath her abaya to record VIDEO #4: a documentation of the lashing of minor miscreant Ardesha at a shopping mall. Ultimately, Florence agrees, in exchange for Laila’s life, to record her confession. VIDEO #5, containing the confession viewed by Malik, is never aired, however. Due to the superior technology of the West, the tape on #5 self-erases after it plays once. Thus Maliq’s perfidy in reneging on his promise to release Laila in exchange for Florence’s scripted confession is met with an appropriate deceit.

Although liberal TVMatar is taken over by fundamentalists after Malik’s coup, the Florence Op and its fallout continue to be mediated by the media, now in the form of newspaper headlines. For in Florence of Arabia, no event is real or complete until it has been reflected and magnified by the media.  Back home, Florence is even enabled to trace her elusive employer when tipped off by a headline in an American newspaper’s business section.

One curious note in the novel is the absence of the Internet. True, in 1999, if the medium was the message in the Middle East, the message was predicated on freedom from the restrictions imposed on print – a freedom made possible by innovations in pictorial media like satellite TV and videocassettes. And yet, given that, in an action sequence, Florence fills a shopping bag with cell phones, can the Internet be far behind? Less ubiquitous than it is today, the Internet was still a presence in the late 1990s to early 2000s – especially for a journalist. In Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, in a story set during the War in Iraq (beginning in 2003), a newspaper’s Cairo stringer is thrown off his game when a rival reporter makes off with his laptop. Just a few years after this fictitious event, YouTube played a significant role in the Iranian election protests (2009-2010), and Twitter played a similarly important role in the Arab Spring (2010).

In America today, the average reader of a print newspaper, like the average viewer of television news, has turned sixty. (Ken Doctor, Newsonomics, 2010) While intellectuals like Christopher Buckley may listen to historians on public television, the average age of such viewers is, again, sixty and over, and the percentage of the population that watches news on public television is small. During the time period 1999 to around 2007 in the Middle East, however, television, especially satellite television, was a more dominant medium, across all age cohorts, than was television in the U.S.

Today in the Middle East, as in America, the Internet, as a political tool, has recently been where the action is. Christopher Buckley’s comic tribute to the power of sattellite television to convey democratic values and transform lives, while accurate for the year in which the novel is set, is far from prescient. Set in a time period when North Korea and Quada are the enemy, a time when “One way or another…we’re all working for investment bankers,” Buckley’s geopolitically realistic comic tale spins itself out apart from any digital context.

How realistic is Buckley’s comedy then, and how improbable? The realism of Buckley’s comedy is perhaps even more in question regarding the extent to which the plot turns on the revolutionary potential of women as a class. For while it is beyond doubt that the women of the Middle East are oppressed, oppression does not necessarily equate to revolution. Indeed, the mot successful uprising that occurs in the novel involves a sex strike: a comic formula that goes back to Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (411 BCE).  In the real Middle East of the 21st century, it has been, and will continue to be, not women as a class, but the youth demographic – the ever-growing youth bulge – that drives political change. But that is a sobering prospect, taking us too far afield from Christopher Buckley’s delightful satire.

Perhaps Alternative History should be added to the genres artfully integrated into this hybrid novel. For it is only in an alternative universe that a comic drama so contemporary could channel a feminist revolution (albeit an incomplete one) in the Middle East. For all that the uprising in Matar is energized by the New Media, it seems haunted by Old Media bad karma in the form of establishment spooks and a benighted feminist ideology. Buckley’s satire brilliantly highlights the follies of U.S. intervention and the ineptitude of the CIA. We rejoice in his insight. And maybe that is enough. We shouldn’t expect too much of satire. Satire is not a blueprint for action. Satire is made for our entertainment. Covertly, it also makes us think.

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