Friday, 22 June 2012

Braude: The Honored Dead

Joseph Braude (2011) The Honored Dead, A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World Spiegel& Grau, New York; 329 pp.; eISBN 978-0-679-60432-7.

In 2008, Joseph Braude spent four months embedded with the police in Casablanca, Morocco. A specialist on the Middle East, his aim was to study the interaction between the state and its citizens at close quarters. Braude is an American and his mother came from a Jewish family in Baghdad that fled to Israel in the 1950s. It was from her side of the family that he developed an interest in Iraqi history and the ethnic complexities of the Middle East and, later, North Africa.

From the age of 19, Braude was involved with the FBI as an informant on radical Islamist groups in the United States. It is not clear what drove this association. His Arabic skills were certainly useful to the FBI, but on his part there might have been some need to prove himself as a loyal citizen or to satisfy himself and others about his own manliness. Self-reflection about this and other issues is not Braude’s strong point.

In Chapter 9, he tells us how he was arrested entering the US after a trip to Iraq. He was illegally carrying artefacts stolen from the national museum in Baghdad. His justification for this act, for which he was convicted of a felony, is feeble and evasive. In the process he lost a very close friend, Ali, to whom the book is dedicated. Either Braude suggested Ali was involved in something criminal or the FBI led Ali to believe this when it was not true. Like much in this fascinating book, we don’t know and we never will.

Braude’s character and his sense of lost friendship are part of what drive his interest in the murder of Ibrahim Dey, a case file that the Moroccan police give him to read. Braude meets Muhammad Bari, Ibrahim’s close friend, who is convinced that the police version of Ibrahim’s death is untrue. Muhammad Bari asks Braude to help him find out what really happened, and the book is largely focused on the twists and turns that gradually expose the story of Ibrahim’s murder, or as much of it as we are ever likely to know.

Ibrahim’s killer is an army private, and together Braude and Muhammad Bari interview the man’s friends and family, the family and neighbours of the deceased, the owner of the property where Ibrahim died, and the police. The story has many false leads, suspicious characters and conflicting statements from the various interviewees. Braude tells the story in the present tense and the style is often like a piece of detective fiction – too much so in parts. Like a good murder mystery, there are tantalising baits left at the end of most chapters, urging you to read on. Braude’s writing style occasionally lapses, and in the later chapters I began to groan as his heart skipped yet another beat, stopped, or palpitated audibly in his chest. There was more than enough tension without these clich├ęs. Fortunately, the gripping story holds it all together.

The book provides a very close-up picture of what it is like to live in a poor society with corrupt institutions and little respect for the rule of law. Morocco is a melting pot of ethnic groups and communal tensions are sometimes strong. Braude highlights the dilemma of how a state should respond to the rise of religious fundamentalism. Morocco has tried various options, but violent repression dominates. The country is a close ally of the US and Israel, and a participant in the international network of torture centres set up by the US under its policy of ‘extraordinary rendition’ – a ridiculously named and unsuccessful strategy supported both by George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The violence of the Moroccan state is intended to stop the radicalisation of its citizens, but by its very nature it nourishes and strengthens that radicalisation. The book offers no solution, just observations on the daily consequences of the policy choices that have been made.

A strong theme in the book is the nature of friendship and the question of whether we can ever fully know or understand our friends, even those we consider intimates. Braude has lost a dear friend before this book begins, and Muhammad Bari experiences a similar loss with the death of Ibrahim. The latter’s loss is made even harder by the subsequent details that emerge about Ibrahim’s murder. It turns out that Ibrahim and his killer were also friends to some degree for a long time before the death. It is possible, though not explored in the book, that Ibrahim’s failure to support his killer against external threats he faced might have been a factor in the slaying.

In the end, the reason for the killing remains unknown, but we learn much about modern Morocco and the lives of its people in the course of the investigation. Braude notes in the book that Arab states tend to lie to their people in order to preserve the status quo, but this is countered by the desire for truth on the part of many citizens. Confining this observation to Arab states is not really justified, as all states are characterised by this opposition. Part of the exercise of power is withholding information and obscuring truth – ‘honest politician’ and ‘honest bureaucrat’ are universal oxymorons.

In the course of researching Ibrahim’s murder, a friendship of sorts develops between Braude and Muhammad Bari, though after Braude leaves Morocco this tends to be sustained via internet contact through one of Bari’s sons. It would satisfy the liberal sense of justice if Ibrahim’s death was fully accounted for and his murderer justly punished, but only a few years after it has occurred the death has left no trace. No one, not even Ibrahim’s family, speak of it anymore. Where the interests of the state are paramount, the tragedies of its individual citizens are merely dust on the desert wind.

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