NEWS & ANALYSIS

The Iranians, Trump and the handbag designer

Jeremy Gordin writes on a Carl Hiaasen plot come to life

Carl Hiaasen, for those of you who have not made his acquaintance, is described by Wikipedia as the author of “humorous crime fiction” that often features “themes of environmentalism and political corruption in his native Florida [in the US]”.

This, in my view, is damning with faint praise. I’d suggest that Hiaasen is a pre-eminent, fall-out-of-your-chair, laugh-out-loud, savage satirist. If you’ve read Strip Tease (1993), Stormy Weather (1995), or (my personal favourite) Basket Case (2002), you’d probably agree. Not that Hiaasen’s perfect, of course. Sometimes he might be a bit laboured and repetitive. But I for one seldom miss his offerings.

Certainly, I jumped at the chance to feast on his latest, Squeeze Me, especially after reading that one of the characters is the POTUS, who so loves his secret service codename, Mastodon, that he asks an agent to take him to the zoo so he can see a real one.

Or that another character is the first lady of the US, who finds distraction from her duties and ghastly husband in an affair with a secret service agent named Keith Josephson, real name Ahmet Youssef. In passing, the POTUS compliments his wife’s lover on his “nice tan”.

Above all, though, for our purposes, there is in this book a group of hard-drinking, bejeweled Florida heiresses who hold fund-raising dinners, such as the Irritable Bowel Syndrome gala, and who simply love POTUS – as a consequence of which they’re known as the “Potussies,” a polite abbreviation for the POTUS Pussies, “a group of Palm Beach women who proclaimed loyalty to the commander-in-chief” and always meet at his club.

Without wishing to give too much away, one more point. One of the heiresses gets squeezed dead and swallowed by a python. But, before the identity of the true perp is revealed, the POTUS, never one to miss an opportunity, blames the death of the leading Potussy on a recently arrested, illegal, dark-skinned immigrant who’s snuck into the US from Cuba. (The man’s Honduran, but the POTUS doesn’t care either way.)

Now then, enough scabrous fiction. Let us turn to the real world, the world (as I understand it) of non-fiction. On Monday morning, eNCA breathlessly led one of its early news bulletins, and carried on for the rest of the day, with a story emanating from a reputable news site called Politico.

According to Politico veteran journalist Nahal Toosi and Communications and PR Coordinator [sic] Natasha Bernard, “The Iranian government is weighing an assassination attempt against the American ambassador to South Africa, U.S. intelligence reports say, according to a U.S. government official familiar with the issue and another official who has seen the intelligence. News of the plot comes as Iran continues to seek ways to retaliate for President Donald Trump’s decision to kill a powerful Iranian general earlier this year, the officials said”.

“U.S. officials,” the report continues, “have been aware of a general threat against the ambassador, Lana Marks, since the spring, the officials said. But the intelligence about the threat to the ambassador has become more specific in recent weeks. The Iranian embassy in Pretoria is involved [sic] in the plot, the US government official said”.

In reply to the obvious question or questions, the report also noted: “The intelligence community isn’t exactly sure why Iranians would target Marks, who has few, if any, known links to Iran. It’s possible the Iranians took her long friendship with Trump into consideration, the US government official said”.

To get his views on this dastardly revelation, eNCA turned immediately to American “international relations expert” John Stremlau with whom, if I remember correctly, I had dealings when I was news editor of The Sunday Independent. He was, as I recall, a “serious chap,” as Nelson Mandela might have put it. Unfortunately for eNCA, he also seems to be a sensible – or an anti-Trump – one.

Stremlau said one had to, he grudgingly supposed, take a Politico report seriously. But he did want to note that this was a fraught period in the US due to the forthcoming presidential elections and there had, especially recently, been some, er, strange examples of misinformation emanating from the Trump camp. He suggested it might be a good idea, therefore, before getting carried away, to ask the Iranian embassy and DIRCO, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, for their views.

The Iranian embassy rejected the report – we were not told how gob-smacked or not the embassy was – and the DIRCO spokesperson said the US allegation had taken the SA government by surprise – good to know we’re in the loop – but the minister might issue a statement later.

In any case, the day was saved somewhat during later bulletins, when eNCA got their US correspondent, Simon Marks, on the line. (One doesn’t know whether Simon is related to Lana.) Well, Marks said thoughtfully (remember he gets paid for what he says, unlike Stremlau), Lana Marks “did tick some boxes” – she is a friend of Trump’s and she had “grown up within the South African Jewish community” ...[i]

That Ambassador Marks is a “friend of Trump’s” seems incontrovertible. As Politico itself noted: “[Marks has] known Trump for more than two decades and has been a member of his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida [ii]. Critics of Trump have derided her as a ‘handbag designer,’ but her supporters retort that she is a successful businesswoman – her eponymous handbags [cost] as much as $40,000 – [and she has] numerous international connections. A personal friend of the late Princess Diana, she also was born in South Africa and speaks some of the country’s key languages, including Afrikaans and Xhosa”.

Now, let me state this categorically. Even if they charge 40 grand a pop, I have nothing whatsoever against handbag designers (unless they use alligator skins), ambassadors, friends of Trump’s, friends of the late Princess Diana, people who live in Palm Beach (in the US), Afrikaans-speakers, isiXhosa-speakers, women, or Jewish people. (Some of my best friends, etc.)

Nor would I ever be so crass as to think of Ambassador Marks in connection with the (fictional) Potussies. But I must admit my Hiaasen bells went ring-a-ding-ding when I first heard this report on eNCA.

Marks is wealthy, a member of Mar-a-Lago, a friend of Trump’s, and above all my bells were jangled by the (almost) brilliant implementation of some gorgeous disinformation – accusing the Iranians of wanting to off a gentle Afrikaans-speaking ambassador in South Africa (which, for a shxthole country, has been a bit cheeky to the US anyway). Not dissimilar, I thought, to arresting an illegal immigrant for a crime committed by a python.

Look, I don’t want to make too much of this. As a senior eNCA type – no names, no pack drill – knowing that I am an old soldier, remarked to me: “Good headline on a slow Monday”.

But, still, do you think US intelligence officials with not enough to do have been reading too much fiction? Do we think Nahal Toosi (real name Nevilla Tuckerman?) and Natasha Bernard might also be reading too much fiction?

Or might some of the intelligence officials and/or Toosi and Bernard be secretly conspiring with Hiaasen? He, like me, would not be at all keen on people who use alligator skins for handbags. It says on the Lana Marks handbag site that “Lana Marks” is the queen of American alligator bags.

Alternatively, could this have been a sort of “reverse” leak, a species of revert ferret, calculated to get Trump, Marks, etc., into deep trouble – engineered by some clever environmentalists of the kind that so deeply annoy my colleague John Kane-Berman? Or might the local Iranian embassy have pulled a sort of “Eschel Rhoodie” move to get more attention and therefore more budget from Tehran?

The possibilities and permutations are endless.

George Gordon Byron (no relation, alas), Lord Byron, famously wrote in Canto XIV (101) of Don Juan that: “Tis strange, but true, for truth is always strange, / Stranger than fiction.”

But these days non-fiction can be even stranger than fiction – or truth.

Footnotes:

[i] Odd remark, don’t you think? I too have grown up, sort of, and during certain periods anyway, within the SA Jewish community. But I do hope the Iranians and their alleged cohorts in SA are not therefore targeting me.

[ii] According to Wikipedia, Marks said she joined Trump’s club because “other country clubs in Palm Beach did not admit Jewish members”. Oy, the troubles the goyim create.