Mention “Casablanca” and what reaction do you get? The Bergman-Bogart movie always strikes a chord, often eliciting a “Play it again Sam” or the humming of “As Time Goes By.” Dig a little further, and a learned reader might remember the Casablanca landings in World War II and the subsequent Casablanca Conference to plot Allied strategy.It has always been one of the ironies of Moroccan history that none of these enduring images of Casablanca had anything remotely to do with the Moroccan people. Not a single scene of “Casablanca” was shot in North Africa, nor were any Moroccans used in its production.The Casablanca landings were an Anglo-American military assault on a colony of Vichy France, and the Casablanca Conference was an affair of Western statesmen, including President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
In recent years, a fourth Casablanca has been added to the memory bank of the West. The Casablanca bombings in 2003 are listed alongside the Madrid train bombings in 2004 and the one-day series of London blasts in July 2005 as an after-shock of militant Islamic terrorism in the wake of 9/11.
Unlike the film or the World War II events, the Casablanca bombings are perceived as a piece of Moroccan history, even if many of the targets were connected with the West: hotels, clubs, cultural centers, cemeteries and restaurants. The 14 young Moroccan terrorists participating in the attacks were linked to Casablanca’s notorious shanty-towns. The attacks continue to smolder within Casablanca society.
Joseph Braude dipped into the shadows of Casablanca when he embedded with a detective unit there. He set out to give a balanced overview of modern policing in the chaotic city but got sucked into a murder case and dug out a bizarre chain of inconsistencies that ultimately revealed the unseen edges of Moroccan culture. In “The Honored Dead,” he takes readers through every twist and turn in the investigation of a humble watchman’s killing at a warehouse by a young Moroccan soldier and delivers a telling portrait of power and justice, even if he never unravels the final enigma of the murder itself.
At first, Braude seems like a loose cannon full of neurotic fears and fantastic speculation, such as worries that Islamic terrorists are linking up with drug smuggling cartels in South America and Northern Morocco. At the same time, he seems intent on creating a sense of mystery about himself: He refers to his earlier freelance work for the FBI, his Iraqi accent, his Sephardic background, his Middle Eastern research and a lost Muslim friend, Ali. In a state of agitation, he confesses to the reader, “Maybe I need to relax. I’ve been in Morocco fifteen days,” prompting me to worry that I was exploring the dense social fabric of Morocco not with an experienced expert but with a naive, Bogart wannabe. The impression wasn’t helped by some blood-chilling — and dubious — quotations from the prophet Muhammad, a crude understanding of Morocco’s ancient Arab-Berber duality and some outright historical muddles about why the Portuguese built fortresses in Morocco.
But fortunately I read on and, to my delight, my first impressions gradually dissolved, to be replaced by fascination with the tale and finally by gratitude for Braude’s telling of it. For Braude has crafted an ingenious, moving, respectful and ultimately honest book about Morocco and its people. He has an ear for the elegant phrases that show the dignity of Arab life and an eye for the telling vignette, whether it is the presence of a proud sitting room inside a slum hut or the conversation of officers in a police station caught halfway between violent authority and paternalism. In retrospect, I saw that Braude’s initial style, dressed in the language of TV cop shows and film noir scripts, was a tool to capture the reader’s interest, which is not always easy to do when it comes to North Africa. As the adage goes, the French and the Spanish are too involved to be dispassionate, while the Germans and the English are not involved enough to be interested. So thank God for the unquiet American.
It was refreshing that Braude followed one bizarre murder trail rather than produce a broad anthropological portrait of Casablanca. The single-mindedness allows the reader to gradually build up an emotional attachment to one specific family as an entry point to all of Moroccan society. As one is served fascinating helpings of mystery, sexual deviancy, magic and political conspiracy — all wrapped up in a whodunit — Braude instructs us in Moroccan diplomacy, its interaction with Israeli-American policy, and the intricacies of the Moroccan government and police work. He also looks insightfully at the roles of women, faith, corruption, employment, migration, patronage and education in today’s Morocco.
After reading Braude’s “The Honored Dead” you will have a fresh image of Casablanca as a fascinating, complex modern city.
THE HONORED DEAD
A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World
By Joseph Braude
Spiegel & Grau. 318 pp. $26