The Usual Suspects
A journalist investigates a mysterious murder in Casablanca, home to the last Jewish community in the Arab world. An excerpt from the forthcoming The Honored Dead.
Last night in a shantytown in Casablanca, the sprawling economic capital of Morocco, I watched police beat a young man senseless. They hauled him away like a fresh-caught fish and flopped him into the back of a van marked “National Security.” I got into the van with them and we sped off deep into the darkening margins of the city. It was my first night out with a unit of the Moroccan police, with whom I am spending several months embedded as a journalist. When I procured this unusual access, I was eager to get a close-up look at the strained relationship between an Arab authoritarian state and the society it controls. But I never imagined exactly how strained it would turn out to be—or how deeply I would find myself involved in one case.
The Moroccan police are guardians of a monarchy that is one of America’s closest Arab allies as well as a friend to many Jews. Security cooperation between Morocco and Israel has been an open secret in the Middle East for 50 years, and the kingdom is home to the last Jewish community of any size in the Arab world—though it numbers only 3,000 souls. I am an American Jew with maternal roots in Baghdad, a city in which 125,000 Jews once thrived but where nearly none now live; I speak both Arabic and Hebrew. So for my own reasons, I value the Moroccan kingdom. But I also value human rights, social justice, and democracy—and so it is especially uncomfortable to watch this particular regime crack down hard on its own population.
Blinding sunlight glares off the mirror I face when I wake up in the morning. I’m in my apartment in the west Casablanca neighborhood of Ma’arif. The sounds of construction and rush-hour traffic mix in the distance, and I can hear Arabic briskly spoken by hard hats along the sidewalk a floor below me.
I take breakfast in the sidewalk café near my apartment. My table is surrounded by men in button-down shirts sipping espresso shots in hot milk and puffing cigarettes together over the daily press, which they read with an air of detachment. I peer over my croissant and orange juice at my copy of Al-Sabah.
“Casablanca Man Kills Storekeeper Who Refused to Lend Him a Pack of Cigarettes,” crows one headline in Arabic.
“ ‘Hollywood-Style’ Bank Robberies Roil Casablanca with Distinctive Professionalism and Coordination—A Challenge to the Security Services,” says another.
The front page isn’t only about crime. Martin Scorsese just accepted an honorary award at the Marrakesh Film Festival. The price of a paschal lamb is up this holiday season—a boon for rural farmers in the provinces, a crisis for rural migrants to the big city. The enemies of Morocco are reported to be beating the drums of war again on the Saharan front. I continue reading below the crease, however, and there it is again:
“Police Accuse a Barber in Fez of Kidnapping and Rape of Five-year-old Boy in His Own Hair Salon.”
“Detectives Learn Identity of Killer of Man Whose Body Was Discovered in a Large Bag Near Night Club on Casablanca Highway.”
The sensational prose under each headline evokes the kind of black-and-white broadsheets that spin around and freeze-frame in old American gangster movies, and together they create the distinct impression that Casablanca, if not the whole of Morocco, is in the midst of a crime wave. I look up from the paper. Edith Piaf, via stereo speakers, pierces the steamy smoke-filled air. A waiter in a bowtie winds his way toward me with a silver tray.
“Journalist?” the waiter asks in French, pointing at my recording device.
I nod my head.
“Where you off to?”
“Ayn Sabaa—Al-Hay al-Muhammadi,” I reply, naming the hyphenated police precinct, in an underclass section of the city, to which I have been assigned.
“Ah,” he says, “the other side of the world.”
I hail a fire engine red Peugeot “petit taxi” and, once inside, watch the city hide its skyline behind block after block of white concrete apartment buildings. Rusting satellite dishes lie prostrate in clusters on every roof top, hosed down cold by the cloud-cloaked sky.
“My Iraqi brother!” cries the man behind the wheel, smiling broadly through the rear view mirror. “Brother in God, brother in blood!”
He has noticed that I speak Arabic with an Iraqi accent and figures he knows the rest.
“O Iraq, land of Saddam, land of manhood! Your martyred leader Saddam is our hero, brother, God have mercy on his soul! God destroy the enemies of Iraq, enemies of the Arab and Islamic nation: the Americans, the Jews, the effeminate among the Arabs! God make Iraq a graveyard for their children!”
He rockets northeast off a shopping strip on Gandhi Boulevard, windshield wipers squeaking, then slows up into the mire of traffic that swells the neighborhood of Anfa.
“They said they came to bring democracy to Iraq,” the driver goes on. “See the rivers of blood they brought with their false democracy, brother. And they killed Saddam, the only man fit to rule Iraq since the days of Al-Hajjaj!” He proceeds to quote a poem attributed to the latter, a gory 8th-century governor in Baghdad. It rhymes in Arabic: “O people of Iraq, people of treachery and hypocrisy … I can see ambitious eyes, long necks, and ripened heads, so it is time to harvest them. Indeed, it is I who will cut them off!”
The Arabic language, as spoken today by rich and poor alike, brims with poetic references and poignant tropes from a bygone age. Most of them are beautiful and wise, but more than a few speak to a vision of the world that is torturous and dark.
“Am I right about this world, brother?” he asks. “A strong people needs a strong ruler, do they not?”
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