From the opening passage of “The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World” by Joseph Braude (Spiegel & Grau: $26), we suddenly find ourselves in an atmospheric scene right out of “Casablanca” — an empty alleyway in the storied Moroccan city, a morning mist, a warehouse where the deep silence is suddenly broken by a squad of soldiers and detectives, and the sight of a mutilated corpse.
“Rather than refer to the murder victim by name,” Braude writes of Lt. Rashid Jabri, the investigator in the case, “he always called him ‘al-Marhum,’ Arabic for ‘he who has been granted mercy.’ ”
“The Honored Dead” may read like an elegant Levantine version of hard-boiled detective fiction, but it is a rich and wholly remarkable work of nonfiction by an American journalist of Iraqi Jewish descent. While spending four months as a reporter embedded in the Judiciary Police of Morocco to report on “the intersection between authoritarian states and the masses they patrol,” Braude was eyewitness to a criminal investigation that penetrates the innermost secrets of a tumultuous Arab country.
Braude allows us to see the Arab world through knowing eyes. The shantytown of Casablanca, as he points out, is the home of “the country’s finest athletes, a handful of Arab movie stars and some of the region’s best-loved vocalists — not to mention a few of the world’s most deadly Al-Qaeda fighters.” Among the cops with whom he spends his time, however, the same neighborhood is known as “the beating heart of crime and vice.” One crime in particular is the focus of “The Honored Dead,” the brutal murder of a homeless man in a Casablanca warehouse that turns out to carry a rich variety of political, cultural and historic subtexts.
As an Arabic speaker, Braude is aware of details that would escape most American writers — the “vowel-snipped Moroccan slang,” for example, and the headlines in an Arabic newspaper: “Hollywood-Style Bank Robberies Roil Casablanca.” He allows us to see that a man who has slashed open a sheep’s stomach in the livestock market has committed “a crime of cosmic proportions” in the eyes of the police precisely because Islam, like Judaism, requires that animals be submitted to ritual slaughter. “It is a crime against the Moroccan people, a crime against Islam,” a cop tells him. “It is as if we are all his victims.”
But it’s also true that Braude’s protective coloration can be thin and treacherous. Because he speaks Arabic with an Iraqi accent, a cab driver hails him as “my Iraqi brother” and declares his solidarity with Saddam Hussein: “God destroy the enemies of Iraq, the enemies of the Arab and Islamic nation: the Americans, the Jews, the effeminate among the Arabs!”
A police lieutenant, by contrast, knows that he is Jewish and American: “Our distinguished brother is visiting from America,” he says of Braude. “Kindhearted people. Universal Studios. Disneyland!” The cop asks why Jews seem to love Morocco. “The answer, not short, is a mystery to many Moroccans,” the author writes. “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.’”
All of these strands and more besides are woven together in the crime that is the centerpiece of “The Honored Dead.” The killer is an Arab with connections to the “security apparatus”; the victim is an Amazigh, that is, a member of the North African ethnic community that is known in the West as the Berbers; and the owner of the warehouse where the murder took place is a Jew whose family has been accused of trafficking in gold, silver and hashish. As Braude penetrates ever more deeply into the case, he comes across “a kaleidoscope of confusion” that touches on satanic magic-working, sexual scandal and “a lewd, dark story” about the victim and his murderer.
“What does it mean when an obscure, marginal, individual life brings together so many disparate elements of his society to mark his death?” muses Braude as he struggles to understand the explanation that the cop offers. “The story line he builds is tangled and weird. Maybe it’s so weird that it actually happened.”
“Tangled and weird” only suggests the tightening coils of tension and suspense that play out in “The Honored Dead.” As we follow the author through the intricacies and contradictions of the murder investigation, nothing is ever quite what it seems. For example, when the police introduce Braude to one of the witnesses — a book peddler called Sharif — a friend of the murder victim named Bari cautions Braude by reciting an enigmatic Arab proverb: “When the crow is your guide, he will lead you to the corpses of dogs.” This, too, is baffling until Bari explains: “His purpose is not to guide you but to mislead you.”
Nor is the warehouse murder the only intrigue in Braude’s book. The author pauses to fill in his own colorful background, which included a period of service in cooperation with the FBI on anti-terrorism cases and an arrest for international smuggling when he tried to retrieve looted antiquities that had been taken from the Iraqi Museum. “Like Bari, I’m wary of law enforcement, too,” he explains. “Not long after learning what it feels like to go after people, I learned what it feels like when people go after me.”
Raymond Chandler once confessed that he never really understood the plot of “The Big Sleep.” To Braude’s credit, the Chandleresque web of mystery that he weaves in the pages of “The Honored Dead” is ultimately untangled, and we are shown with shocking clarity how many extraordinary meanings can be read into a seemingly ordinary murder.