The Honored Dead

    Overview

    Joseph Braude is the first Western journalist ever to secure embed status with an Arab security force, assigned to a hardened unit of detectives in Casablanca who handle everything from busting al-Qaeda cells to solving homicides. One day he’s given the file for a seemingly commonplace murder: a young guard at a warehouse killed in what appears to be a robbery gone wrong. Braude is intrigued by the details of the case: the sheer brutality of the murder, the identities of the accused—a soldier—and the victim, a shadowy migrant with links to a radical cleric, and the odd location: a warehouse owned by a wealthy member of the last Jewish community in the Arab world. After interviewing the victim’s best friend, who tearfully insists that the true story of the murder has been covered up by powerful interests, Braude commits to getting to the bottom of it.

    Braude’s risky pursuit of the shocking truth behind the murder takes him from historic Marrakesh to the proud Berber heartland, from the homes of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country to the backstreets of Casablanca, where migrants come to make fortunes, jihad, and trouble, but often end up just trying to survive with dignity. The Honored Dead is a timely and riveting mystery about a society in transition, the power of the truth, and the irrepressible human need for justice.

    Backstory

    The brutal murder that frames the story of The Honored Dead hadn’t happened yet when Joseph Braude arrived in Casablanca to embed in a unit of the Moroccan police. He went to Morocco because he was interested in the relationship between authoritarian states and the masses they patrol. He believed that the most poignant meeting place of the two is a police precinct, where ordinary people viscerally encounter the power of their government. But he hardly expected that he would encounter a killing that touched him personally – or that he would grow deeply involved with the strange network of people surrounding the crime.

    He came to his odyssey in Morocco from the perspective of a writer who had already experienced both sides of criminal justice. In the 1990s Braude was a confidential informant to the FBI on counterterrorism cases. In 2004 he faced Federal prosecution for illegally importing Iraqi artifacts to the United States, and pled guilty to the charges. This background added layers of sensitivity and complexity to his experience in Casablanca, and he came back from Morocco transformed by what he had seen.

    Technique

    The Honored Dead is a work of narrative non-fiction. A video camera and audio recording device were used every day for four months to record scenes, situations, and dialogue. Nearly all of the narrative is retold chronologically. There are no composite characters in the book. There are, however, composite scenes. Moreover, some of the characters’ names were changed: police agreed to interview on condition that their real names not be used, while several civilians felt that revealing their names might compromise their reputation or personal safety.

    Praise

    “…[A] lyrical and engrossing book.” — Publishers Weekly

    “One of the most affecting, sympathetic accounts of Arab culture in recent memory.” — Kirkus

    “The Honored Dead is a rare treasure in which every word does quadruple duty. It’s a crackling whodunit, an incisive political thriller, vivid travelogue, and it’s told by a complicated, memorable, and eminently likeable protagonist. Spectacular.”
    —Dan Baum, bestselling author of Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans

    Excerpt

    Muhammad Bari eased out of his bedroom and opened the creaking front door just enough to make his way outside. His wife deserved her sleep; she had to get up for work in an hour. Usually Bari’s best friend would be waiting for him in the alleyway and they would walk together to a nearby mosque for the dawn prayer. This morning, the alleyway was empty. Bari didn’t worry: Sometimes his friend slept in until sunrise.

    It was December in Casablanca, Morocco’s sprawling economic capital on the Atlantic coast of North Africa. An ocean mist chilled the lingering darkness. Bari’s teeth chattered as he took off his shoes outside the mosque and placed them in an empty cubby hole. He performed his ritual ablutions in the washroom and proceeded barefoot into the sanctuary warm with body heat: several hundred people had already lined up on the floor in long rows facing east. The sanctuary’s warmth was welcome, but the dawn prayer only lasted ten minutes.

    Ordinarily, Bari and his friend would repair from the mosque to a nearby cafe. If one or both of them had missed the dawn prayer, they would find each other inside. They would sit and talk for hours while people with jobs hurried in and out. This morning Bari arrived alone, and drank his coffee alone, and read the newspapers alone, and watched Al-Jazeera alone, and worried about where his friend could be now. The place where he sleeps does not belong to him, he thought. He has to evacuate early so that the men who control the facility do not catch him.

    Could he have overslept? How could he possibly risk sleeping in?

    Bari finally felt driven from his familiar café chair to find out what was going on with his friend, why he had left Bari alone on this morning. He knew where to go. He knew the place well.

    The enormous warehouse was enclosed by a spiked metal wall that someone painted red a long time ago. At one end the wall abuts a field of gravel and dirt bisected by the same train track that slices the city in half; people gather there at night to lie around and get drunk. Nobody ventures over that wall. Nobody is supposed to go inside except the people who work there. Silence ordinarily surrounded the place.

    But not this morning. When Bari reached the spiked front gate, it was surrounded by state security. A dozen uniformed police minded a perimeter of yellow ribbon. Auxiliary Forces in green fatigues stood guard by the entrance. Plainclothes detectives paced in and out.

    “Who are you, what do you want?” one of them barked.

    “I’m looking for a, a friend of mine,” Bari replied.

    The detective locked in on Bari’s eyes. He grabbed him by the forearm and pulled him in past the gate to a raucous crowd of cops, who were bending down and peering over and putting down markers and taking pictures and arguing with each other.

    There was a rusty smell in the air.

    “That was a friend of yours?” the detective demanded, pointing.

    Bari turned his head toward the stone steps leading up to the guard’s quarters, where his friend always slept. What he saw, he did not understand at first. The steps were drenched in red. There was a large thing lying on top of them. It had a blood-soaked beard, a couple of teeth, and clothes on. There was a head, but it was mutilated into a different shape. Bari began to feel a rising heat in his head and throat. His temples started pulsating. Now the rest of his body was in on it. He couldn’t breathe. He lost his balance.

    The detective steadied him by the forearm, which was still clasped tight in his muscular hand.

    The lieutenant who questioned Bari over the next three days wore jeans and a charcoal grey blazer. Lieutenant Jabri was genteel, more relaxed than the men at the warehouse, perhaps a little weary of his work. He rarely raised his voice, he never insulted Bari or the other detainee, and he seemed to phrase his questions thoughtfully. Rather than refer to the murder victim by name, for example, he always called him al-Marhum, Arabic for “he who has been granted mercy.”

    On the third day, he went through the same battery of questions he had asked the day before and the day before that.

    “You’re sure al-Marhum was never in any trouble?” the lieutenant asked.

    “Never,” Bari said.

    “How would you describe his, character?”

    Bari combed his scraggly salt-and-pepper beard with his fingernails and shaped it with his knuckles. “I said yesterday he had a good reputation all over the neighborhood and he went to pray in the mosque every morning.”

    The detainee who sat next to Bari in the lieutenant’s office nodded his head vigorously.

    “The last time you saw him?”

    “The night before you found him,” Bari replied. “It was Sharif the book peddler and me and we had a bowl of Harira with him.”

    “Was al-Marhum preoccupied, agitated?”

    “No he was comfortable and maybe almost a little cheerful. He said he was going to do some small deal and he thought it was going to come through.”

    The lieutenant had been seated at his desk. Now he abruptly stood up and looked down at Bari, who had to crane his neck to meet the lieutenant’s eyes.

    “How long did al-Marhum sleep in that place? How long did he sleep there!”

    Bari twitched.

    “The truth.”

    “Five years.”

    “Five years,” Jabri repeated. “Did you ever visit him inside?”

    “Sometimes,” Bari replied.

    “A lot or a little?”

    “Not often. Very rarely.” That wasn’t true.

    “Did he have other visitors there? Was it common for him to bring people in there?”

    Bari could feel his own pulse. The lieutenant must notice the blood rushing to my face, he thought. “Yes I do remember that sometimes I would come by and knock and he would say he had people inside and I should come back later.”

    The lieutenant moved slowly back to the chair behind his desk, fixing his eyes on the other detainee.

    The man who sat next to Bari, a man named Attar, was visibly frightened, increasingly so each day. The police had let Bari go around 7 pm the night before with instructions to come back the following morning – but they had held onto Attar, God knows how late. When Bari returned, he found Attar alone in the office waiting for the lieutenant to arrive. He was slumped over in his chair, asleep. Bari tapped him on the shoulder and Attar convulsed. He cried, There is no power or strength except in God! and looked frantically in several directions before setting his rose-pink eyes on Bari. “Oh I’m so sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

    The stars had come out on the third day of questioning by the time a distant tumult from the ground floor of the precinct drew louder and nearer, banging up the staircase on squeaky wet boots. There was yelling and a nasal wordless plea. Into the room walked four detectives, all sweaty, and a young man between them in handcuffs. He limped and wore a bandage stained with blood around his left wrist. Eight hands were on his body.

    Bari had a son his age.

    “What I want to know is,” one of the detectives began to say.

    The lieutenant motioned him to stop talking.

    “Brothers,” the lieutenant said, “we would like to ask whether either of you has seen this young man before.”

    He looked to Attar, who shook his head.

    “Brother Muhammad Bari?”

    “I have never seen him before in my life and he must not be from our area because I know I would have seen him at least once or twice if he were from here,” he declared, overdoing it a bit, he realized.

    The lieutenant snapped his fingers and an old typist from across the hall showed up with paper. Bari and Attar were made to sign affidavits to the effect that the young man was a stranger to them.

    “My brothers,” the lieutenant said, “you are free to go.”

    Attar darted out of the room with barely a God keep you.

    Bari didn’t move at first. He looked at the boy in handcuffs for as long as his eyes would let him. This man’s role in Bari’s simple life began to dawn on him. Bari stood up and steadied himself, making a tentative approach toward the lieutenant. He took a deep breath.

    “This is the man?” Bari asked.

    The lieutenant nodded.

    “Why did he –”

    “The important thing is we have caught him and he will confess.”

    Another deep breath.

    “That’s it?” Bari asked.

    “Brother Muhammad,” the lieutenant said, “try to move on.”

    Bari went to bed that night weeping and weeping at last.

    Because he had been detained, he had missed the funeral. So had Attar. In his tears, Bari could picture it, having lent a hand in the burial of indigent neighbors before. From the great city morgue off the interstate the body would be thrown into a rickety red and white ambulance and driven 250 yards to the expansive Burial Grounds of Mercy. Down a long flowery lane where amputees and orphans confer blessings in exchange for charity, the dark sack would reach its pit. There are few family plots in Casablanca; lanes fill up with bodies in the order in which they are received. A cleric whom the victim had never met would go through Salat al-Jannaza, a special prayer for funerals. The grave would be marked by a long number.

    Bari lay awake all night.

    When he ran out of tears, he started asking questions of his own.