An Interview with Joseph Braude

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing author Joseph Braude give a lecture in New York City.  After hearing about his experiences in Morocco, I felt compelled to share his unique insight and perspective on the Middle East.

Honored DeadJust to provide some background, Joseph comes from an Iraqi-Jewish family and grew up in Providence, Rhode Island. He is an expert on Middle Eastern politics, language, and culture, and is fluent in Arabic, Persian, and Hebrew. Joseph has lived, studied or worked in most Middle Eastern capitals. His most recent book, The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World, was listed by the Christian Science Monitor as one of the 20 smartest nonfiction titles for this summer’s reading list. It is an account of Joseph’s time shadowing a Moroccan police force in Casablanca. He is the first western journalist ever to secure embed status with an Arab security force. Joseph provides an enthralling and thorough examination of Moroccan society and how security forces operate in a police state. The book specifically follows his journey to uncover the truth behind the odd and mysterious murder of a Moroccan warehouse guard. Filled with cover-ups, action, and the intrigue of life in a Middle East kingdom, The Honored Dead is definitely a book that should be on your reading list.

Check out my interview with him, where we discuss the state of Arab Israelis and the details of his book:

RL: One thing that people are constantly emailing me about are questions related to Arab Israelis. Given your background, I thought you might have a unique perspective on the Arab Israeli community. How have your experiences living throughout the Middle East and North Africa, coupled with your background, affected your relationship and interactions with the Arab Israeli population?

JB: As you know, the subject of Arab Israelis is highly polemicized due to the discussion about Israel’s democratic character. Jews like to point out that Arab citizens of Israel enjoy rights that are denied the citizens of most if not all Arab countries, but meanwhile are mostly free of responsibilities such as military service. There is also a tendency to cast aspersions on this population, suggesting that it’s a fifth column in Israel’s midst. It is true that income and opportunity are greater for Arab Israelis than for the majority of people in the Middle East and North Africa – though that’s a really low bar. But there are also glass ceilings in the professions and a range of other indignities that make them less than first-class citizens. That said, I’ve seen comparative studies indicating that African Americans are worse off in the United States than Arab citizens in Israel in terms of relative income and opportunity. Moreover, the Mizrahi Jewish underclass in Israel suffers some of the same indignities – and they do serve in the military.

From my own experience of Arab Israelis I would like to add that they are inadequately credited for the contributions they have made to Israel’s security and that the discrimination they often encounter inside Israel is matched by prejudice from Arabs beyond the borders of Israel. They’re caught “betwixt and between.” I recall encountering a group of Arab Israelis in the Jordanian capital Amman, where they were guests at a local wedding. Before we got to talking, I observed them in a hotel lobby meeting some Jordanians of Palestinian origin. When the Jordanians found out that they were from Haifa, they reacted with disdain – almost as if they were meeting a bunch of Jews. It came out that they perceived Arab Israelis as “collaborators” – agents of the “Zionist enterprise.” The Jordanians also seemed to believe, incongruously, that the Arab Israelis are victims of violent repression in Israel. It fell on the Arab Israelis to rectify this picture, and I was moved to see them effectively functioning as cultural ambassadors of Israel in Jordan. They told the Jordanians that life is good for Arabs in Israel, that Jews are mostly decent and kind, and that Israel isn’t the warmongering country so many Arabs and Muslims think it is. Responding to the charge that Arab Israelis are “collaborators,” moreover, they awkwardly played down the fact that Arab Israelis have been quietly assisting the Israeli security agencies, both inside Israel and far beyond its borders, for more than 50 years.

For a riveting portrayal of Arab Israeli life and relations among Arab Israelis, Palestinians, and Israeli Jews, check out the movie Ajami – a police drama that’s something like Crash set in the Middle East.

RL: Because pride is particularly important in Arab culture, is it possible that the inadequacy of credit given to Arab Israelis for their contribution to Israeli security is precisely what the Arab Israeli community wants? As you have pointed out, Arab Israelis are already unfairly judged by the Arabs outside of Israel’s borders. If they were given greater credit, do the advantages of being accepted in Israeli society outweigh the disadvantages of being scorned by the other Arab nations?

JB: I agree with you about the stigma of “collaboration” with Israel and its deleterious effects on relations between Arab Israelis and Palestinians, not to mention Arabs beyond the Palestinian areas. As to the tension between making gains within Israel vs. winning trust in the broader Arab world, I think the former is a more urgent concern for Arab Israelis.

Twenty years ago and earlier, Arab Israelis’ access to the broader Arab world was considerably more limited, and how the region perceived them was primarily a function of each country’s state-controlled media. They were not in a position to meaningfully connect with other Arab societies. Now more Arab countries grant visas to Arab Israeli passport holders and the media is regionally interconnected and interactive. Yet the cultural gap is still very wide, and bridging it is not as obviously beneficial to Arab Israelis as making further economic and political gains within Israeli society. I’ve met Arab Israeli students at the Jordanian University in Amman, and encountered Arab Israelis in the Gulf sheikdoms who were trying to do business — often as intermediaries between Israeli Jews and the Arab world. They almost always return home to Israel; they don’t make “Aliya” to other Arab countries.

As far as mitigating negative perceptions in the Arab world, I find that it is paradoxically helpful to Arab Israelis that a few of their co-ethnics in Israel have taken extreme anti-Israeli positions, in some cases expressing support for Hizbullah, for example. Azmi Bshara’s politics give Arab Israelis traveling in some Arab countries a kind of protection: extremists who would tend to be suspicious of Arab Israelis have to confront the complexity of there being “good” Arab Israelis as well as “bad” ones (from their perspective). I can relate to this in my own travels in the Muslim world. Though I don’t agree with the politics of the Neturei Karta, for example, the fact that such a group exists can be helpful in legitimizing the presence of non-Israeli Jews, at least, in discussions with Muslims in the Muslim world. And once dialogue begins, there is no telling who will be convinced of what.

RL: Let’s switch gears and talk about your book, The Honored Dead. Did you end up in Morocco because that was the only country that would let you do this? What was some of the feedback like from other countries you inquired with?

JB: I approached several Arab governments to request this unique “embed” access, and received a variety of responses. Jordanian officials, who a few years earlier had granted me access to the Ministry of Islamic Affairs for a magazine story, said, “If we did something like this, we’d be glad to do it with you, but we’re not ready to do something like this.” Some officials in one of the Gulf states were open to the idea, but I felt that they would control what I saw in ways that would make it especially difficult for me to paint an objective picture. You might be surprised to know that the Saudi “FBI,” known as the Mabahith, said they were open to the possibility. But they were slow to make a decision, and I worried that they were stringing me along. It was the Moroccans who offered the most access without stipulating any sort of control over the outcome of my reporting. They neither asked for nor received a preview of the book; they got their copy after it hit the stands here in the US. I think they agreed to do this because they felt they had something to show off, having won some acknowledgment from Human Rights Watch that their prior record of brutality had been mitigated somewhat by the new king’s reforms.

RL: What was your inspiration for shadowing a security force in the Arab world?

JB: I wanted to shed light on an important subject Westerners know very little about, as well as find a way of educating people about the Middle East through an entertaining true story – complete with a murder mystery, fascinating characters from all walks of life, and a moving cross-cultural friendship.

Arab police do more than just fight crime. They work hand in glove with the ruler of the country to protect him from his own population, as you can see from violent crackdowns across North Africa and the Middle East today. They also claim to protect Muslim society from itself – meaning that they keep at bay the tensions that arise from animosity between ethnic groups and sects, and between religious extremists and the broader culture they aim to subvert. Arab cops are a vital part of the machinery of Arab regimes, and no writer had ever been inside an Arab police force. I figured that by shadowing them in their ongoing, dangerous work, I would learn a lot about what a “police state” looks like from the inside, as well as encounter many visceral stories of crime and punishment in the Arab world that would make for an exciting true crime narrative.

RL: Former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak used the Egyptian police force to ruthlessly protect his power for decades. Since the Egyptian revolution began in January they have largely been banished, humiliated and punished by Egyptian society. Did the Moroccan police officers you worked with ever give off any inclination that they knew what the future might hold for them if somehow the system they worked in collapsed? Did they have any guilt about how they treated the public?

JB: Police in Egypt are returning to the streets now, incentivized to do so by double wages and reduced working hours. The new interior minister says he is committed to reforming the brutal culture of policing in Egypt, though he has not only a track record and expertise but also, I fear, the requisite openness to international organizations that can help him institute comprehensive reforms.

I don’t think Moroccan police spend much time pondering what life would be like for them if the monarchy collapses. Morocco is not Tunisia, Libya, or Syria; the ruling dynasty has been around for 300 years. As to whether they feel guilty about their own brutality, I think there is a generation gap in attitudes. Older police were not introduced, as cadets, to a clear set of human rights standards, and to the contrary, they came of age in an institutional culture that enabled violence and intimidation of civilians.

As you may know from my op-ed piece about Moroccan police reform, some headway has been made toward improving that country’s record of police brutality. Moreover, the government has been trying to strengthen police-civilian relations in various ways, including the publication of a magazine called “police” that opens up the institution to a modest degree of scrutiny and serves as a platform for citizens to correspond with senior officials. All of this does not add up to a warm and fuzzy feeling toward Moroccan cops. However, the country’s police are less reviled than their counterparts in other Arab countries. Since the onset of upheavals in the Arab works last spring, hundreds of civilians were killed by police in Egypt and Tunisia. Thousands were killed in Libya and Syria. In Morocco, only one protestor was killed. That’s tragic and unacceptable, but it also puts Morocco’s record in perspective.

RL: How did the specific force or unit that you followed react to your being there? Were they receptive? Did they alter any of their techniques or behavior because you were there?

JB: It took some time to establish a rapport with the police. They had never let a civilian, let alone a foreigner, let alone a Jewish boy from Providence, Rhode Island, shadow them every day for months, so the arrangement took some getting used to. I think some police came to trust me more than others, but I managed to build a friendly relationship with most of them. As you’ll find from reading my book, some did not bother to hide their violent techniques from me. One night in a Casablanca shantytown, for example, I watched several cops beat a young man senseless. Other cops probably tried to manage my perceptions of their work, and so it was my job as a journalist to check up on how they might be acting differently when I wasn’t around. As you might expect, numerous civilians whom I interviewed outside the precinct walls described violence, showed me wounds, and named the cops who had harmed them. I feel that I got a clear picture of what was going on, and so I also feel confident in reporting that numerous detectives did their work skillfully, effectively, and without abusing the human rights of their suspects. I watched cops tease confessions out of people gradually, over several hours of questioning, leveraging nothing but cake and sweet mint tea.

RL: I found particularly interesting how you describe that in Morocco, finding the perpetrator of a crime is not always the most important thing to the police force. Sometimes, things like keeping the peace between rival families or religions affected by the crime are deemed more important. How did that affect the officer’s, as well as society’s, image of justice?

JB: Finding the perpetrator of a crime is always important to police in Morocco (though crimes affecting the wealthy and powerful tend to be a higher priority than, say, a murder in the shantytown). But whether the name of the criminal will be revealed to the victim, the victim’s family, or the community, and whether the circumstances surrounding the crime will be disclosed, depends on broader interests, like protecting the establishment and maintaining civil peace. As one Casablanca cop told me. “We’re not just police; we’re guardians of the social fabric.” Sometimes, for example, revealing the identity of a criminal provides a target — the criminal’s family — for the victim and his relatives to attack or kill as an act of vengeance, and cycles of vengeance can spiral out of control. This is particularly true in rural areas, and in underclass sections of the big cities where many rural migrants live.

RL: In your book you describe your first night following your assigned Moroccan police unit. You tell of how they brutally attacked a man, dragged him in to a van labeled “National Security” and drove off. When you were sitting in the car, what was going through your mind?

JB: A strange combination of fear, empathy, and relief. I’m not a war correspondent, so I’m not accustomed to witnessing violence; it was scary. The victim of the brutality was suffering, so I felt compassion for him and worried about what the police were going to do to him next. At the same time, it was the moment when I realized that this “embed” experience was not a dog-and-pony show: I was getting a unique, intimate glimpse of business as usual in an Arab security service. I felt relieved, having worried that I would get a strictly manicured picture of Moroccan police work.

RL:  Thanks for taking the time to talk, Joseph.  For all my readers, you can purchase a copy of Joseph’s book, The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World, by going to his website, http://josephbraude.com/index.htm

This interview was originally published at foreignpolicyblogs.com.