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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.

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Casablanca, Morocco. (Abdelhak Senna/AFP/Getty Images)

There is only one acceptable answer—the one I always give, from North Africa clear across to the balmy waters of the Persian Gulf: “Of course, my brother. I know that you are right.”

“Don’t worry, my dear one,” the driver assures me. “As the prophet said, peace and blessings be upon him, ‘On the hour of judgment the Muslims will fight the Jews and kill them, until the Jews will hide behind the stone and the tree, and even the stone and the tree will say, “O Muslim! O servant of God! There is a Jew behind me, come and kill him!” ’ ”

I am numb, by now, to this golden oldie. I ask the man to turn on his radio.

At length, beyond a gas station and a row of oil-stained body shops on Émile Zola Street, we reach an angular grey and white three-story building with long narrow slits for windows. A bilingual sign hangs over the second floor, French script in green, Arabic in red: GREATER CASABLANCA SECURITY SECTOR—JUDICIARY POLICE DIVISION.

I count out the man’s fare and make off, out the door and up nine concrete steps into a pasty-white first-floor landing. An Auxiliary Forces private in green fatigues salutes, guarding the entryway from behind a white linoleum bar. He asks for an ID card. On a long linoleum bench built into the side wall, an elderly woman sits weeping softly.

I am just about to hand the guard my passport when a handsome man in his early 40s pops his head out the leather cushion-padded door of the front-most office. He is clean shaven, hair slicked back, and wears a snazzy yellow leather jacket over a half-unbuttoned dress shirt, no starch. The woman half-rises to approach him, only to sit down again when he fails to meet her eye.

“Welcome home!” he tells me, while putting his arm around the uniformed private’s shoulders. “So he asked you for ID, eh? Come on in.”

Lieutenant Mustafa Sharqawi, the chief of Judiciary Police Precinct Five, motions me to follow behind him.

An oversize desk at the far end of his office sits beneath two regulation portraits hanging overhead: King Muhammad VI sipping mint tea, and his late father, Hasan II, peering inscrutably off-camera. There is a refrigerator with sodas in one corner, a telex machine with screaming instructions from central command in the other. I take my seat next to a small adjoining table where a box of Romeo and Juliet Havanas sits next to a yellow porcelain ash tray with three grooved cigar rests, shining spotless.

Three hundred middle-aged pounds with a bald head extends his hand from across the table, beaming at me already.

“Lieutenant Abd al-Jabbar,” Sharqawi says, “my esteemed deputy.”

A mobile phone on the desk rings. The chief nixes it with his thumb. “So how many pages of material you think you have so far?” he asks, and grins into his phone, scanning text messages.

My mouth malfunctions and nothing much comes out.

“You know,” Abd al-Jabbar volunteers, “all of us here at Precinct Five, all of us work for a hero.”

The Honored Dead by Joseph Braude

“God have mercy on your parents, brother Abd al-Jabbar!” the chief cuts in, raising his voice. “God have mercy on your parents!”

“Don’t let him stop me from telling you,” the deputy insists. “Don’t let him stop me. He’s the hero of Hay Farah!” (“Hay Farah” is a reference to a shoot-out with jihadists back in 2007, which Chief Sharqawi directed.)

Sharqawi dribbles the air beneath his right hand to tone the lieutenant down, and it seems to work.

Somebody knocks at the door. It’s the elderly woman from out front. The chief waves the petitioner off with the back of his left hand. Granted a moment of peace, he gives me a long, hard stare. “So what do you think of Casablanca,” he asks, “is it safe from crime or what?”

“Well,” I begin to say, “I do love Casablanca, but you know—”

“Stick around here and months from now, I guarantee you will not have found the sort of crime you see in Western cities, or most Arab countries,” he tells me. “For one thing we have gun control, so already you know that the murder rate is going to be lower. Second of all, we have very simple people here, with very simple needs. Simple, poor, uncomplicated people.”

“Some of them are Islamist militants, no?” I ask him.

“Very rare!” he nearly shouts. “Very rare!”

“That whole issue is exaggerated,” the deputy adds.

“When a man kills somebody around here,” the chief says, “usually either he is drunk or on drugs or he has worked very, very hard to make that man dead because he had to do it with a rock or a stick or something. A knife. Last week down the road, for example.”

“It was a stick,” Abd al-Jabbar interjects.

Sharqawi clenches the space between his eyebrows and aims it straight at the deputy’s big mouth. My mind’s eye, meanwhile, conjures a bloody stick.

“Not only do we work to deny the criminal the essential weapons of his craft,” he goes on, “but the knights of law enforcement are very strong, very patriotic, and we have informants everywhere. Also,”—he pats his hand on a small pile of thick paperback books—“now we have the rule of law. You know what is the rule of law, I think.”

I can make out the Arabic titles along each spine. They are in fact books of law: a new edition of the Moroccan penal code, a slimmer volume about the laws governing media and reporting, and a book about the security services and their prescribed powers.

“We have the rule of law, and we have human rights. Human rights is something that we in the Judiciary Police cherish very highly.”

“You were saying a murder happened down the road last week?” I ask.

Continue reading: the big picture, a secret police file, and “why the Jews love our kingdom.” Or view as a single page.

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Eileen P. says:

As Captain Renault observed, “Life is cheap in Casablanca.” Apparently that is still true.

Gideon says:

It’s SO good to see an article by Braude. I used to enjoy his stuff so much during the period when he did pieces fairly often at The New Republic. Thanks for publishing this.


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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.