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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)

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?”

Continue reading: Precinct Five, Islamist militants, and working very hard to “make that man dead.” Or view as a single page.

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.

He waves the back of his hand in the air like a flag and goes on with his lecture: “I think you will find that we honor the human rights of our citizens and do not tolerate any infractions.” Then he leans in my direction only slightly. “Have you seen anything that would lead you to say otherwise?”

I stumble again for a suitable response, fearing for my status.

“Because if you have,” adds the deputy, “we would launch a full investigation, and if necessary, we would fire the man who did it. We are very proud of our record here. You know, now there is a complaints division and anyone can file a complaint about a policeman to the king. Praise God, no one has ever complained about our precinct.”

“But tell me have you seen anything,” Sharqawi persists, “anything at all that would tarnish the good reputation of our precinct? Last night, for example, during your expedition into the shantytown?”

“I only just got here, Lieutenant,” I reply. “I’m here for the big picture.”

This appears to placate the chief. His eyes close briefly and he nods his head. He opens them again and smiles broadly.

Something tells me the beating I witnessed last night is the last police beating I’m ever going to see in Casablanca.

“I often wonder, you know, why the Jews love our kingdom so much,” Sharqawi says. “Can you tell me? Because I really want to know.”

The answer, not short, is a mystery to many Moroccans. I break off a little piece of it: “The late king, Muhammad V, God have mercy on his soul. He saved Morocco’s Jews from the Nazis.”

“God have mercy on his soul!” Abd al-Jabbar chimes in.

“And God have mercy on your parents,” the chief tells me. “You are welcome here—welcome, welcome.”

I ask him again about the murder.

“It was last week,” he says. “We all worked very hard last week. A man was found—in a warehouse, beaten to death with a stick. There was a lot of blood. Not all of it was his. I got there and I was afraid, deep inside, that we would not find the man who did it. But by the grace of God Almighty, and by the grace of the forensics police, and by the grace of the detectives here at our precinct, we were able to catch the perpetrator within three days and persuade him to confess. Praise God.”

“Three days, by God!” Abd al-Jabbar says. “That is a very long time in Casablanca.”

“You know,” the chief cuts in, “if you want to see an example of how we operate, you can read our file on that killing.” He hands me a staple-bound, 13-page document in Arabic with a red stamp on the top of page one beside the heading:

Judiciary Police in Ayn Sabaa–Al-Hay al-Muhammadi, Casablanca
To: The honorable prosecutor for the king
Subject: Deliberate murder and Prescribed theft

“This is a secret document,” he adds. “For your eyes only.”

I fold it up and put it in my briefcase.

“Let’s have lunch,” the chief suggests. “I bet you never ate Berber food.”

The chief ushers his deputy and me out the office door and locks it behind him. I follow them into the car parked out front and wonder, having read so many raucous headlines about murder, rape, and grand theft all over the kingdom, why a 13-page police file about a common homicide should be designated “secret.”

Joseph Braude is the author of The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World. His writing has appeared in The New Republic, Glamour, and Playboy, among other publications. This is excerpted from The Honored Dead by Joseph Braude. Copyright © 2011 by Joseph Braude. Reprinted by permission of Spiegel & Grau.

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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.

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