US spook treads religio-racial fault lines in modern Morocco

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 September, 2011, 12:00am


The Honoured Dead
by Joseph Braude
Spiegel & Grau

Part memoir, part murder mystery and part investigation of contemporary Arab cultures, The Honoured Dead: A True Story of Friendship, Murder and the Underbelly of the Arab World is that rare hybrid that lives up to the promise of its title and delivers more besides. It grew out of Joseph Braude's four months with Casablanca's judicial police in 2008. The first Westerner to be embedded with an Arab security force, Braude's ability to penetrate the many layers of Arab society owes as much to his heritage as to his chutzpah. An American born to an Iraqi-Jewish family and fluent in Arabic, Farsi and Hebrew, Braude's riveting narrative thrusts the reader into the backstreets of Casablanca from the outset.

We follow in the footsteps of one of the city's poorest citizens, Mohamed Bari, who goes looking for his missing best friend, Ibrahim Dey, only to find a group of detectives surrounding Dey's blood-soaked corpse. But rather than refer to the murdered man by name or as the 'victim', the detective in charge of the investigation, Lieutenant Jabri, calls him 'al-Marhum', Arabic for 'he who has been granted mercy'.

Braude has a superb ear for Arabic dialects. From the 'vowel-snipped Moroccan slang' of the slums to the courtly poetic daily parlance of rich and poor alike, he takes the reader ever deeper into the nuances of language and mores of Moroccan society as he probes the mysteries surrounding Dey's murder.

Braude doesn't hide his Jewish identity from his police hosts. He reveals it too, to Muhammed Bari, an unemployed baker and father of nine, soon after they meet, and understands full well the sensitivity of the murder because Dey's battered body was found in a warehouse owned by one of the few Jews left in Morocco. Adding to 'sensitivities' is that Dey was a Berber and the man charged with his murder is both Arab and a member of the security forces. But a friendship soon develops between the pair and Bari, convinced there has been a police cover-up, enlists Braude's help to conduct another, private investigation into his friend's death.

Braude knows that such an undertaking could derail the trust he's established with his police hosts, men who've welcomed him into their homes. In one police precinct a detective tells him: 'We're not just police, we're guardians of the social fabric.' Yet he cannot resist Bari's request because he sees that 'it resembles so many quests people have undertaken before to pry out the truth from a regime that would lock it up forever'.

Ultimately he cedes to Bari's wishes as he believes it will test the police's contention that things are changing in Morocco, particularly concerning human rights. So the pair set out on the amateur investigation that forms the spine of Braude's narrative, enabling him to take the pulse of contemporary Morocco through a disparate array of locales and characters.

From Casablanca's slums to the Amazigh, or Berber heartland outside the city, where the victim hails from, Braude probes the racial and religious fault lines of modern Morocco and the power of its traditions. Taking his cues from Bari's worst fears and from the contradictions they discover in the victim's personal history, he maps out a labyrinthine web of connections between terrorist groups and drug cartels, between liberals and fundamentalists, between the haves and the have-nots in a country in the midst of a home-grown effort at reform.

Braude even ventures into one of the 31 functioning synagogues in Casablanca and reveals that, until the 1940s, nearly a million Jews inhabited the Arab world, and in Morocco they numbered 265,000. If it weren't for the Moroccan authorities spending enormous resources to protect its remaining 3,000 Jews, they too would leave. Those that remain are an enigma to ordinary citizens.

What Braude doesn't reveal either to the police or to Bari is how deeply his experiences with the security services in his own country have, albeit subconsciously, coloured his Moroccan quest. A former consultant to the FBI on terrorism cases, Braude was arrested on smuggling charges when he tried to retrieve antiquities that had been looted from the Iraqi museum in 2003.

Bari guesses at his deeper emotional secrets just as Braude comes closer to unravelling the mystery surrounding Dey's death, a case that involves traditional magic and a sex scandal. It is to Braude's credit that he eventually draws all the tangled strands of this narrative together and that in the truth he eventually unearths about Dey's death - a far simpler, sadder truth than either of them realised - his friendship with Bari grows even stronger. It is to his credit, too, that one leaves the pages of this book with a sense of all preconceptions being overturned and a newly minted respect for Morocco's self-described 'guardians of the social fabric'.