A native of Providence, R.I., a son of Arabic and Lithuanian culture, Joseph Braude grew up in two worlds — his Baghdad-born mother’s tales of a childhood in Iraq and his Lithuanian-born grandfather’s Midrash lessons. There were the kasha varnishkes and qar’yie (an Iraqi vegetable dish) at Shabbat meals, and both Sephardic-style and Ashkenazic-style charoset on Passover.
The Arabic part stuck.
Braude, a full-time writer and weekly commentator on Morocco’s Radio MED network who speaks Arabic fluently and has worked for a while in most Arab countries, spent four months in 2008 embedded in a plainclothes detective precinct in Casablanca, Morocco’s biggest city. He was the first reporter of any type — let alone a Westerner, an American, a Jew — to receive such extended, unfettered access to the inner workings of the police in any Arab land.
The result, “The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World” (Spiegel & Grau), is part social commentary, part travelogue, part “Murder She Wrote.” The book tells of friendships formed and friendships forsaken, of suspicion and acceptance, of his work several years ago for the FBI on Islamist terror cases and of his arrest on an international smuggling charge that brought a sentence of six months home detention and two years probation.
Following in the literary footsteps of the late Truman Capote, whose 1966 “In Cold Blood” documented his research into a 1959 murder in rural Kansas, Braude — after choosing to follow a murder case that involved a mixture of Arabic, Jewish and Berber society — accompanied Moroccan police on their investigations, and took off to conduct his own, whose conclusions sometimes deviated from the detectives’ findings.
“That’s my job,” he says, “to question official facts.”
Braude’s curiosity colors and enriches “The Honored Dead,” says Chris Jackson, executive editor of Spiegel & Grau. “His curiosity makes him a good reporter and a good storyteller.”
“The Honored Dead” is a first-person detective and mystery story, with new secrets and theories unveiled in each chapter.
“It had to be first-person, because I was engaged in the process — I was part of the story,” Braude, 36, says, sipping Turkish coffee at an outdoor café a few blocks from his home in the hipster part of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Braude, who went to an Orthodox day school, is in shul “most Shabbatot” and keeps “ingredients kosher,” does most of his work in cafés, plugging his laptop computer into a wall outlet.
“I love cafés,” he says, and his book is full of encounters in various coffeehouses. That’s where men in Arab countries sit for hours to talk about sports or politics or family matters. “As to Turkish coffee,” he says, “I always start my morning with a cup of it, whether here at home or overseas.”
It reminds him of home.
Braude’s path as a journalist and author with a concentration in Arabic — he studied Near Eastern languages at Yale, and Arabic and Islamic history at Princeton — began in Providence, with the stories that his mother, who had lived and worked as a Hebrew news broadcaster in Israel before moving to the United States, had told him.
“Of Iraq, she remembers idyllic moments from her early childhood,” he writes. “Behind high, vine-shrouded stone walls, she used to listen to her nanny tell animal fables under a palm tree’s fragrant shade. Roses, gardenias, lemons, strawberries, and okra grew in a garden flanked by water fountains. There were Muslim friends who came to visit at the home of her great-grandfather, the chief rabbi of Baghdad, and Jewish neighbors who advised a Muslim king on how to build up the Iraqi state.”
So going later to Iraq or Dubai or Jordan — or Morocco, for his book — seemed natural. “In a way, it’s a homecoming,” he says. “I feel close to Arab culture.”
A detailed look at the work of police, Braude decided, would be a perfect window into larger Arab society. “Because the police in an Arab country are the point of intersection between the state and the society.” Witness Arab Spring earlier this year.
Braude approached several Arab countries about his project. Most weren’t interested. Morocco was.
“Morocco is a more moderate country,” he says. “They felt they had something to show … they are making improvements in their human rights record.”
Braude, living in a small apartment, getting around Casablanca by foot or taxi, would embed himself with a precinct in a poor, often-dangerous part of the city, an area of ramshackle homes. “Yet these ramshackle homes,” he writes, “have spawned the country’s finest athletes, a handful of Arab movie stars, and some of the region’s best-loved vocalists — not to mention a few of the world’s most deadly al Qaeda fighters.”
When he arrived in Casablanca, Braude did not know which case would be the subject of his book. Then he learned of a night watchman’s murder in a warehouse that turned out to be Jewish-owned. That case had all the elements of a gripping story. “A no-brainer.”
Braude watched the detectives at the precinct, rode with them in their cars, went with them on interviews and visited their homes.
“The police knew I am Jewish,” he says.
It didn’t matter, he says.
The police, like many of the Muslim Moroccans he told about his religious identity, were intrigued, not belligerent, Braude says. “Many of them don’t get to meet Jews,” in a country whose Jewish population has declined from 265,000 in 1948 to about 3,000 today. “What is the Torah? How is it different from the Koran?” they would ask him.
Was he scared, working openly as Jew, in a Muslim Arab country? Was he threatened? Was it dangerous?
Those are the questions he gets asked a lot, especially by American Jews, he says. The questions, while understandable, bother him. “It seems more dangerous to an outsider than it really is.”
“Why do you keep asking about the danger?” he asks. For someone with a street-smart sense of Arab society, his work in Casablanca wasn’t particularly dangerous, he says. “I don’t feel I put myself in harm’s way. You learn when to be open and when to be guarded.”
Reactions to a Jew would range from hostility to curiosity, but he knew when and where to talk about his background. “There were certainly people who don’t like Jews — plenty of them. You learn to be careful. I would reveal my Jewishness [only] to certain people.”
Lacking smoking-gun level of proof for his theories about the murder case investigated by the Casablanca detectives, Braude in “The Honored Dead” leaves conclusions up to the reader. A “perfect ending,” with all questions definitively answered and all loose ends tied, “can be less satisfying than to end with open-ended questions,” he says.
Because of his time in Morocco, literally walking the Arab street and seeing up close a new strain of Arab openness, Braude says he was not surprised when the Arab Spring demonstrations took place this year in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other countries. He saw how disgusted people were with official corruption, how much they wanted more freedom.
His book does not directly touch on Arab politics, but shows — in one poor part of one city — what was brewing. “It’s a book,” he says, “about the Arab Spring before the Arab Spring actually happened.”