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Florence of Arabia by Christopher Buckley

Florence of Arabia (2004)

by Christopher Buckley

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This is another book that for me defies easy categorization. It's part political thriller/satire, tackling real issues about fundamentalism and Islam and Middle Eastern politics, especially in the context of feminism. But that the same time it's actually very funny in parts, as though it were a nice chick-lit beach read. It's an odd combination, but it works! ( )
  BraveNewBks | Mar 10, 2016 |
Արյա ոնց եմ ես սրան սիրում: 2 գլուխ եմ դեռ կարդացել, բայց արդեն երրորդ անգամ սի​րահարվեցի նույն հեղինակին :D ( )
  Dorian_am | Mar 7, 2013 |
Well its Christopher Buckley so one can expect some eviscerating satire and plenty of laughs (though I didn't think it was anywhere near as funny as [Little Green Men].) The subject matter looks interesting and is initially. Florence Farfarletti of the State department is outraged after the youngest wife of Prince Bawad, the ambassador of Wasabia flees from her home and pleads for asylum from the U.S. government. Wishing to avoid an international incident the government hands her back to the Prince and she meets a grisly end back in Wasabia. Charged with indignation, Florence puts together a plan to try and influence the Middle east and bring about social and cultural change that will improve the plight of the region's women. Her plan is rejected and she is booted out of the state department but then a mysterious stranger from an unnamed secret agency shows up at her doorstep and offers her the resources to put her plan into action. She moves to the Arabian emirate of Matar and sets up a Television station which starts beaming religiously subversive and empowering programming which immediately has an impact on the region. Outraged, the Wasabians start plotting with the French (looking for oil contracts and a naval base in Matar) to bring down the government of Matar and impose Wasabian-style fundamentalist laws on that country too. Needless to say this was not part of Florence's plans.

The fundamentalist-blighted land of Wasabia is obviously an analogue of Saudi Arabia and Matar seems to be a combination of Qatar and Bahrain. The tale is leavened with humour but also grisly and shocking scenes. The story itself at times shows signs of sophistication in terms of understanding the region and international politics but at other times it feels as if the author is putting forward ideas and plot twists that have more to do with conforming to the average American reader's sensibilities circa 2004 than trying to provide an insight into the actual political situation in the region.

In 2012 the Arab Spring has shown that the idea that it takes American intervention to bring about social change in the region seems a little quaint. Events in Bahrain over the last couple of years suggest that it is not the French who are willing to back a despotic monarchy against its population's demands for social change in order to secure oil supplies and a naval base but the United States (after all that's where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based in the region's largest naval facility, which is currently being expanded in preparation for any upcoming confrontation with Iran.) In the book Wasabia sends its armed forces into Matar to squelch the troublesome demands for women's equality and the TV channel which is inspiring them. The move was eerily reflected last year when the Saudis sent in their armed forces last year to help put down pro-democracy protesters and in current announcements of a Saudi-Bahraini union.

Lastly the idea that a U.S. funded TV channel will be the harbinger of a social revolution was probably inspired by the real-life decision by the Bush government to fund an Arabic-language television channel. The problem is that Al Hurra television which has been on air since 2004 and receives $100 million a year from the U.S. government has very little credibility in the region and certainly much less than Al Jazeera, Al Arabiyya or various other news and entertainment channels. Its programming has not even been that revolutionary and has actually been criticized at times by progressives for featuring programming that projects fundamentalist or sectarian views and even Holocaust denial.

So I'm knocking a star off the book's rating for misrepresenting geopolitical and social realities. That doesn't mean however that the book is not worth reading. It is entertaining and the story is a compelling and amusing one if you can just make peace with its fantastical elements. ( )
  iftyzaidi | Jun 6, 2012 |
the previous reviews pretty much say everything I would say. I didn't find it all that funny. I would put it right up there with the [Olivia Jules] book. ( )
  benitastrnad | Dec 1, 2009 |
In the spirit of Lawrence of Arabia who freed the Arabs, so also Florence of Arabia bravely set out to free the women of the Middle East from gender injustice in an oppressive theocracy. Every sentence in this story is packed with humor, farce, irony, satire, irreverence, mockery, or exaggerated stereotype. An example of this writing style is contained in this example where the author describes a fictional country 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." As you can see, Christopher Buckley is an equal opportunity insulter with his politically incorrect view of the world. The whole book is a satire about American-Oil-Arab relations. But since this book is focused on the middle east, the Arab Muslim part of the word takes a big hit. The United States, France and the United Nations receive their licks as well. However, it appears that he let Israel off easy. He probably didn't want to hurt book sales.

The following are some example quotations from the book that illustrate Buckley's clever japes and juicy bits:
About the Israelis:
''A single Israeli fighter pilot could shoot down the entire Royal Wasabi Air Force and still have one hand free to hold his bagel''
About the native population:
"Wasabia's population was booming, owing to the fact that every man could take up to four wives. You were hardly considered manly unless you had twenty children. As a result, it was an increasingly young and thirsty nation."
About 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."
About American officials:
"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."
About the United Nations:
"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."

Beneath the silly stuff contained in the story there is an underlying political thriller plot that involves matters of life and death. The kind of the justice system to be contended with is illustrated by this quotation from the book where it describes the harsh justice dealt to two women who were apprehended while out to pick up some milk and the dry cleaning. They were picked up by the religious police because they were unveiled and unescorted by a male. "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." As the tension builds in this environment toward the end of the book, the humor takes on the ambiance of gallows humor. (Not gallows in this case, but rather a chopping block for beheading. -- Chopping Block Humor?) The reader knows from earlier incidents in the book that execution of uppity women by beheading, stoning or being whipped to death are real possibilities. Florence is guilty of being uppity to the extreme, so her fate is very uncertain as the plot nears its climax. There's even a high speed chase scene. If the humor were stripped out of the book's narrative, the remaining plot would be grim indeed. This is not a children's book.

Since problems caused by investment bankers are currently in the news, it is interesting to note that readers who make it to the end of the book will learn that money fund managers play a role in the story. Is it possible that Mr. Buckley was providing an early warning, in 2004 when the book was published, that investment bankers can be counted on to make a mess of things in 2008? Thus, the book is prophetic in addition to being humorous.

Christopher Buckley must have inherited his writing skills from his father, William F. Buckley Jr. The younger Buckley is obviously a very intelligent and skilled writer to be able to pack so many, and often subtle, humorous barbs into the text. Mr. Buckley may be intelligent, but I'm not so sure he showed wisdom in mocking the culture and faith of millions of people. Furthermore, a few among those millions of people have a record of reacting in less than desirable ways to such irreverence. There's a general inference that the fictional countries in the book are stand-ins for two of the emirates located on the Arabian Peninsula. I trust that the conditions described are exaggerations of conditions in those countries. So upon reflection I don't think this book contributes much that is helpful to intercultural understanding. ( )
  Clif | Jan 14, 2009 |
Showing 1-5 of 12 (next | show all)
As one has come to expect from Buckley, the premise is a clever one ... But its execution, like the garb of most of the novel's female characters, leaves something to be desired. "Florence of Arabia" falls flat, not even Sunni side up.
added by MikeBriggs | editLos Angeles Times, Shashi Tharoor (Oct 24, 2004)
As a dissector of human folly, the author wields a mean chainsaw,although he isn't quite in the side-splitting form he displayed from thevery first sentence of "Thank You for Smoking" (1994).
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0812972260, Paperback)

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.

From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:02 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Florence Farfarletti has a plan for female emancipation in the Middle East, and enlists the help of a diverse group to help her carry out her plan of reaching her audience with TV shows.

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