When I spotted Joseph Braude’s 2011 book The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World during one of my library visits, truth be told I almost didn’t grab it. But upon closer inspection and learning that Braude’s book deals with a murder in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, and remembering that such a book would apply not only to Kina’s African Reading Challenge, but also Helen’s Middle East Reading Challenge I said to myself what the heck and scooped it up. In retrospect, I’m glad I did. While I’ve blogged about a number of books by reporters and writers who’ve spent time in foreign countries, especially in the Middle East and Arab world, to me this book is kind of different.
First of all, it author Joseph Braude isn’t your typical reporter. Ivy League-educated with an advanced degree in Arabic and Islamic history, not only is he a subject matter expert when it come to the Middle East, but unlike many foreign correspondents Braude is fluent in Arabic, Modern Hebrew and Farsi (and I suspect) a bit of French. When conversing in Arabic, he does so with an Iraqi accent, the result of having an Iraqi Jew mother who left Baghdad when she was five. Oddly still, unlike most reporters he’s also a convicted felon, pleading guilty in 2006 to smuggling antiquities. Braude recalls the incident briefly in his book, contending he was a political scapegoat. Following his lawyer’s advice and pleading guilty, a somewhat sympathetic judge sentenced Braude to six months house arrest. (Incidentally, according to piece in the New York Times, while dining with a group of friends and supporters during a break in a trial he would meet the woman who would later become his wife.)
While I’ve featured a number of books by Americans who have written about their travels and adventures in the Middle East, those authors such as Kai Bird, Robin Wright, Neil MacFarquhar and Jared Cohen recalled their experiences throughout the region, detailing everyday life in different counties spanning the Middle East. Braude on the other hand focuses solely on Morocco, and mostly on Casablanca and environs. And while Lesley Hazelton and Saul Bellow, like Braude spent time in just one country, Hazleton and Bellow did so in Israel, where they were surrounded by millions of their co-religionists, whereas Braude religiously speaking could be considered more of an outsider.
So, when I compare Among the Honored Dead to all the other first hand accounts of life in the Middle East I’ve reviewed for this blog, maybe this is only fitting since Morocco is not your typical Arab country. While most Arab countries are in the Middle East, Morocco from its location on the northwest African coast touches both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Plus, being almost a stone’s throw away from Spain, geographically it’s by far the closest Arab country to Europe. While many Arab nations are ethnically speaking to a degree fairly homogenous, even though Morocco’s official language is Arabic, by some estimates 40% of the country’s population is Berber, with many Berber feeling marginalized and locked out of the corridors of power. Adding to this mix, unlike most if not all Arab nations, Morocco is home to a small but significant Jewish community. According to Braude, although tiny in size when compared to the country’s overall population, the community seems to be doing well and receives a high degree of protection from the ruling monarchy. Having such a relationship with its small Jewish community perhaps it’s no surprise that despite having no official ties to the State of Israel, nevertheless Morocco has worked closely but quietly with Israel on matters related to state security.
Thanks to being the first American reporter ever embedded with an Arab security force, Braude learned that an impoverished but well-respected man was murdered while squatting in a Casablanca area warehouse. Not satisfied with the official findings of the security force nor the assailant’s “confession”, Braude traveled throughout the city and surrounding area interviewing countless individuals in hopes of finding out what really happened the night of the murder. As his investigation goes deeper and deeper, he begins to suspect a cover-up as he detects signs pointing to high-level corruption, police brutality, Islamic militancy, organized crime and powerful social taboos.
If asked if I enjoyed this book, I probably answer that I did. For whatever reason, it took me a while to get into it. But once I did I ripped through it quite quickly. Even though Braude didn’t answer all his question, in the end he discovered more than a few things that weren’t revealed in the security force’s official report. In doing so, he served up a readable and interesting look at Moroccan society. And for that, I’m grateful to him.