Murder in Casablanca: A Homicide Observed Up Close by Author Joseph Braude

In this excerpt from his nonfiction narrative The Honored Dead (Random House: Spiegel & Grau), Joseph Braude describes the characters in a homicide case which he studied while embedded with the Moroccan police in Casablanca.

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 bookpeddler 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.

To read another excerpt from The Honored Dead, click here. For more information, click here.

Speak Your Mind