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The Honoured Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder and the Search for Truth in the Arab World by Joseph Braude; published by Spiegel & Grau

Say ‘Casablanca’ and what reaction do you get? The Bergman and Bogart movie always rates first strike, coupled with an almost automatic ejection of ‘Play it again Sam’ and the humming of ‘As Time Goes By’. Dig a little further, and a well-informed reader might remember the Casablanca Landings and maybe the subsequent Casablanca Conference between Churchill and Roosevelt. However it has always been one of the ironies of Moroccan history that none of these three enduring mental tags that have become attached to the word Casablanca were remotely connected to the Moroccan people. Not a single scene of the film Casablanca was shot in North Africa nor were any Moroccans used in the Hollywood studio, whilst the Casablanca landings were an Anglo-American military assault on a colony of Vichy France and the Casablanca Conference was totally dominated by the war strategy and characters of the two Western statesmen.

Only recently has a fourth ‘Casablanca’ been added to the memory bank of the West. The Casablanca bombings of 2003 are listed alongside the train bombings of Madrid of 2004, and the four London bomb blasts of July 7th 2007, as one of the after-shocks of militant Islamic terrorism in the wake of 9/11.

The Casablanca bombings were a true slice of Moroccan history, even if many of the targets were perceived to be connected with the West, - hotels, clubs, cultural centres, cemeteries or restaurants. A link was also quickly established between the notorious shanty-towns of Casablanca and the fourteen young Moroccan terrorists. It is also an affair that has smouldered on, albeit with less publicity, despite further bomb blasts and a dramatic prison break-out.

Which leads us to why an American journalist, Joseph Braude, is embedded in the Casablanca police force for a couple of months in the year 2008 and left free to follow his wit and his whims. The Honored Dead is his account of this experience. At first, I felt nothing but pained sympathy for his hosts in the police force, who had to endure the presence and questions of this loose cannon, with his neurotic fears and fantastic speculations, such as the danger of a worldwide conspiracy that would link Islamist terrorists with drug smuggling cartels in South America and northern Morocco. It also seemed evident that Braude, whilst trying to penetrate the mysterious silences that lurk behind a casual murder in a Casablanca warehouse, was equally as busy with creating a sense of mystery about himself, with references to youthful freelance work for the FBI, his Iraqi accent, his Sephardic background, his Middle-Eastern research or his lost Muslim friend, Ali. When he confesses to the reader, “maybe I need to relax. I’ve been in Morocco fifteen days” I began to fear that I was not exploring the dense social fabric of Morocco’s metropolitan city in the company of an experienced expert, but was being fed the notebook jottings of a naive Walter Mitty-like Bogart-wannabe. The impression wasn’t helped by some blood-chilling quotations from dubious Hadith, a crude understanding of Morocco’s ancient Arab-Berber duality and some outright historical muddles about why the Portugese built fortresses in Morocco and the mystical role of the Sidar tree in Islamic belief.

But fortunately I read on and found, to my delight, that my first impressions gradually dissolved, and were replaced by fascination with the tale and then, finally, by grateful respect. For Joseph Braude has crafted an ingenious, moving, clever, respectful and ultimately honest book about Morocco and the Moroccan people. He has an acute ear for the elegant phrases that raise the dignity of Arabic life above the everyday scramble for funds, and a fine eye which succeeds in capturing scene after scene in memorably telling detail, whether it is the proud sitting room imbedded within the unpromising exterior of a slum hut, or a good cop at home, watching his team being beaten at football beside his son, or the curious balance of mood in a police station, caught halfway between violent assertion and a protective, engaged paternalism.

In retrospect, I now see that the initial flurry of conspiratorial speculation and confessional monologue (dressed in the borrowed language of TV cop shows or film noir scripts) were tools to capture the reader’s interest. This is always a difficult task when it comes to North Africa. As the adage has it, 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, in this case, thank God for the unquiet American.

I also appreciated that Braude’s idea of following one bizarre murder trail (rather than painting a broad anthropological picture of a year in the life of Casablanca) not only saves the general reader from drowning in a welter of confusing Muslim names but also allows him to gradually build up an emotional sympathy with one specific Moroccan family and its interconnections. As one is served up fascinating helpings of mystery, sexual deviancy, magic and political conspiracy, all wrapped up in a whodunnit, Braude also succeeds in instructing us about Moroccan diplomacy, its curious interface with the Israeli-American policy axis, the tactics available to the Moroccan government and its various police forces, not to mention the role of women, faith, corruption, employment, migration, patronage and education in modern Morocco.

When you say ‘Casablanca’ at the end of Braude’s The Honored Dead, it is the living, pulsating, confusing, exasperating and fascinatingly complex city that now comes immediately to mind.

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