It's 9:30 p.m. in Casablanca, and the Al Jazeera sports channel blares off a corner wall to a rapt all-male crowd in the coffeehouse near precinct headquarters. A game is on, the score is tied with seconds to go, and the promise of victory for Widad, a local soccer team, looms like a ticking bomb. A thick cloud of cigarette smoke and sweat chokes the room. Most of the viewers are too engrossed to say a word, but four plainclothes police, hunched around one table sipping mint tea, have been trashing the rival Syrian team in Morocco's distinctive dialect of Arabic.
"Donkeys!" they call out, hissing. "Pigs! Go home to your sty!"
My own clear view of the TV screen is obstructed suddenly by an explosion of frenzied men jumping, smacking, kicking, and hugging amid spontaneous cries of "Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!" Every table becomes a war drum, every ashtray a rattling tambourine. One man grabs hold of a table between his arms and crashes it repeatedly against the linoleum floor. A Coke bottle smashes. The acrid cloud over our heads seems to yield a few drops of rain, and in the noise of shouting and cavorting I catch a glimpse of the instant replay: Widad just pulled off an upset victory, thanks to a long-shot goal by native son Muhammad Fallah. The athlete grew up in a shantytown family from the slums a few blocks east.
All four cops join the celebration, banging tables with the rowdiest fans-until a shrill finger-whistle from outdoors cuts above the shouting of the crowd. Alerted by the cue, the police stand tall, pushing their way clear of the room and out the front door with the universal swagger of their profession.
I march straight out of the coffeehouse with them-as we are formally joined at the hip.
Just outside, a young woman in a brown hooded robe is heaving a wordless plea into the wiry frame of Abd al-Qadir Marzuq, the cops' commanding officer. She squeezes both his wrists. "You have to get him and lock him up tonight or the man will kill me," she says.
Marzuq pries free an arm and points an index finger at each of his pale gray eyes-a North African sign of devotion to a task. "You are my sister," he adds, though she is not.
Three of his four men pile into the back cage of a white van marked National Security in blood-red paint. The fourth takes the steering wheel and Marzuq rides shotgun. With two days to go before the joyous Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha and the first big win for Casablanca's home team in five long weeks, police citywide are energized by God and country-and it is a wretched night for any wanted man to wind up captured by the Moroccan security services.
I climb in with the back cage crew and hear a sound like wood chips cracking under my sneakers. The light goes on briefly, and I see what litters the grooved metal floor: thousands of sunflower seed shells, spat out by cops and their prey over months, maybe years, of night raids into the city's teeming slums. The van swerves off the main road and I tumble onto a cold metal bench.
"You almost missed," an officer says, punching me gently in the shoulder. We speed east into the darkening margins of the city.
In the front seat, Marzuq cusses out an ex-wife over his mobile phone, something about their teenage daughter, until a different phone-the one informants dial him on-warbles the Moroccan national anthem out of his vest pocket, ending the chat with his ex.
"Yes!" he shouts into the informant line. "God keep you! Where?"
He nods his head and promises forceful action, with God as his witness.
The van comes to a screeching halt and my benchmates tumble out the back. We emerge by the curb of a circular concrete embankment at an asphalt roundabout near the northeast tip of the city. A rooster crows in the distance; livestock faintly moo and bleat. Nestled among palm trees, a pair of crudely sculpted black lions stand guard. A thousand juicy clementines rolling home for the night on a wagon's back sparkle under the glow of a flickering streetlamp. The man who hauls them averts his gaze at the sight of the white-and-red van.
Police scuttle down a dingy road and into a derelict quarry where goats and sheep are nibbling at the edges of a giant trash heap. At length, they reach the mouth of a dark corridor hewn by parallel rows of corroded aluminum-roofed huts-the beginning of a vast shantytown. A mammoth barbecue somewhere inside lends a palatable after-aroma to the overwhelming stench of human waste.
Marzuq huddles with his men. "Hit them tonight," he says. "Even the small-timers. Hit them hard. We meet at Susu's."
He splits them up in two directions and I follow the boss.
Down a main shantytown artery, electric lighting fades to black. The glow of kerosene lanterns inside shack windows casts a murky green light into alleyways, smoky from the outdoor liver and sausage grills. Almost everything that moves is male and hooded. The artery narrows into a vein. Marzuq snakes through, slowing occasionally to accept holiday greetings from men his age, stopping only to accost clusters of teenage boys. Any three or four hunched inward in silence meet with Marzuq's skeletal fingertips on the neck.
"What have you got?" he demands. Working necks, he shakes loose orange flame-tipped hashish cigarettes-kufta in Moroccan slang, meaning "cutlets"-and stamps them out with his boots.
Two bearded men with holy books under their arms stop to cheer Marzuq by name as he spins left into an alleyway. "May every Eid find you well, brother Abd al-Qadir," one says. "God bestow his blessings upon you a thousand times."
Marzuq spies four more kids loitering by a corner hill of rock and debris. He is about to nail them when a distant teenage voice twists his neck like a powerful magnet.
"Hasan!" he calls out to the voice. "Hasan, come over here, you fucking pimp!"
Four boys in the distance run off, leaving one.
The teen has a 2Pac baseball cap on backward and a trench coat over his black leather pants. Marzuq charges in his direction and plants two hands on Hasan's shoulders, kneading the flesh.
"What did I tell you?" he says with a rasp. Saliva thickens in his mouth, moistening the vowel-snipped Moroccan slang. "What did I tell you? Open it!"
The boy just shakes his head slowly, eyes open wide.
"Open it, you fucker!"
The cop pulls apart Hasan's trench coat and extracts three little clear plastic bags from an inner pocket. He smacks the kid hard on his neck. Hasan winces with only a clipped "Tsst" out of his mouth. Marzuq rips open the bags and spills a brownish powder out, grinding it into the dirt with his boots.
"Fuck off!" the lieutenant cries.
Hasan begins to move-but too slowly. Up the boy's legs from behind comes a full-sole kick from Marzuq's right boot, then a furious kneecap thrust into the small of the young man's back. Hasan walks away fast, holding his back and limping.
All these random hits are just targets of opportunity. Marzuq keeps speed-walking through the sinewy alleys, deeper into the dank shantytown toward his target. Along the way he turns his head toward me. "What do you think of our service?" he asks. "Do you understand?"
These sound like rhetorical questions, so I keep quiet.
At this writing, the shantytowns of Casablanca house half a million people, roughly a tenth of the city's population. Some tin-roofed huts date back nearly a century, to the beginning of Morocco's forty-year occupation by France. Most of the youth today are third- and fourth- generation squatters-deprived, like their great-grand?parents, of basic human needs. Yet these ramshackle homes 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. For cops, these areas are the beating heart of crime and vice. Thievery rings have a way of tracing back here, along with the drug trade's urban foot soldiers, the lion's share of murderers, and, perhaps predictably, the vast majority of their victims. Tonight's expedition is part of an ongoing security effort, dubbed a "purification campaign" by its chief, to hunt wanted men in their hiding places on the strength of informants' tips.
Slowing down behind the lieutenant, I notice a door.
Marzuq and his unit have converged on a two-room cabin of brick with crinkly tin rods dangling off the roof. Shoehorned into the façade's oblong opening is an ornate blue door, from an old house, perhaps, with geometric and floral motifs carved orange and white into a ceramic tile laid over cedar wood in the distinctively Moroccan shape of a giant keyhole. I have seen doors like it on picture postcards, and in the wealthier sections of Casablanca. But they were to be expected there. Here it stands audacious, unnatural in its habitat-a vestige of defiance, perhaps, by whoever installed it; a proclamation of personality.
Marzuq whispers something to his men, and three move off to either end of the portal. Ears against the bricks pick up voices of the family inside. Even I can hear them from a wind-whipped alley's breadth away- arguing, laughing, putting away dishes. The police just stand there like sweaty statues.
From down the lane a girl of about fourteen draws near the home with a knapsack over her shoulders-brown eyes, high cheekbones, jet-black hair. Her approach in the darkness slows, growing tentative as her eyes confirm the shadows of men flanking her entryway. She shrinks back. Marzuq lunges from the shadows and clasps her arm before she can flee. Strands of her flowing hair break ranks in the clammy breeze.
"What do you want?" she demands.
"Tell Mama to open up," he whispers. "Don't tell her we're here. Talk softly!"
"No," she tries to say, pursing her lips. But only the first consonant of her reply meets the air; Marzuq's spade-shaped palm buries her mouth in time to subdue the vowel. He clasps her arm tighter.
"Do it, by the prophet!"
The girl's eyes widen and her chin quivers. "Mama?" she calls out unevenly.
All the sounds inside the home stop. A woman comes to the door, jostling it diagonally off the ground to expose her veiled head.
"Where is Susu!" Marzuq demands, pivoting his head to scan inside. "Where is your Susu!"
"Not here," she says. Her chin quivers, too, and tears slide down her cheek. "Not here, by God."
Marzuq elbows the door wide open.
"Where is he?"
"Please," she says, affecting a gracious smile, "we don't know."
"Bring him out to us or we'll take you all in, by God," he says.
The fourth enforcer signals Marzuq from the shadows. He has noticed something just off the ground by a livestock shack a few feet away: the moonlit glimmer of an undershirt. A man in his early twenties lies there, concealed in part by the hybrid shadow of a worn-out satellite dish on the rooftop and a cow head bobbing out of the window beneath it. From where I stand, I can smell the booze sweating out of his pores.
Marzuq returns the door to its slot and motions his men to surround the boy. The woman opens the door again.
"No!" she cries, grabbing hold of the door for dear life. She is losing her balance in the slick wet blur of her tears.
Police make a human chain around the boy.
"Yyaaawww!" the boy wails. They haven't even touched him yet.
Marzuq strikes the first blow-your basic kick in the shins. It is a signal to his boys, just an opening salvo.
Susu flails his arms.
Motioning his men to pitch in, Marzuq lands a bare fist in the boy's stomach, provoking a murmur of dissatisfaction and a halfhearted clench of his left fist.
The other cops join in: Susu's left breast meets the cracked plastic rim of a club; the edge of his neck catches the tip of a rubber boot.
"Yyaaawww!" he wails again.
What's he trying to say? I wonder. He lies there motionless, taking the hits like heavy rain. Maybe he is too drunk to feel any pain. Time seems to slow. His smell, his dirt, the brutality of his tormentors are all making my stomach swirl. His helplessness pains me, and I want to throw up.
Other doors begin to open now; neighbors emerge to watch. Three cops continue kicking at Susu's lower body while Marzuq and his subordinate move to pick him up by his arms and legs. They shake him and drag him down the lane as the crowd swells-three dozen, six dozen, a hundred or so. As the numbers grow, police tighten their grip and make haste. Their focus on Susu dissolves and they scan the faces of the crowd with apparent unease. Some onlookers appear to flash anger and solidarity, others satisfaction.
Out of nowhere a little boy in jeans and an ocher sweater points an accusing finger at me. "Who are you?" he demands. "What do you want with us?"
I feel my heart beating in my neck.
As the detectives approach the edge of the shantytown, a large contingent follows along. It falls to two policemen-the ones with free hands-to push the crowd away. "Go home!" they say over and over. One of them has a crack in his voice. "This is a matter of state security!"
"What state security?" someone calls, taunting him.
The cop pulls out his knife and raises it in the air, and nearly everyone draws back.
Our designated driver races ahead to the front seat of the van and starts it up. This is no orderly arrest; it's a getaway. Police hastily unlock the backseat and flop Susu like a fresh-caught fish onto the floor of the cage between the benches. He cringes, evidently pricked from head to toe by shards of sunflower-seed shells. His stench arrests the air we breathe. Everybody is silent-until I open my mouth.
"Who is Susu?" I demand. "What did he do?"
There is no immediate response.
Moroccan law calls for an arrestee with health trouble or signs of injury to undergo a series of medical tests before his arraignment. The van speeds down a minefield of potholes into a residential area of run-down concrete housing, rusty satellite dishes, and laundry lines along the sidewalk. We approach the neighborhood of Dar Laman, home to the King Muhammad V Emergency Ward.
Eventually, through the banged-up Plexiglas window that walls off the front seat from the cage, Marzuq puts his right hand on my shoulder and leans into me, as if to push off into the upper register of his voice. "This is a very dangerous man," he says. "An evil man. He has been stealing for months and evading capture. He stole from homes, he stole from market stalls. Then yesterday in broad daylight, Susu committed a crime of cosmic proportions."
We veer right into a short corridor formed by two white walls, then slow through a blue metal gate. A weary flower grove and a green and red Moroccan flag at half-mast adorn a stubby hexagonal building with a double door directly ahead of us. The guards inside seem to know that a National Security van calls for a stretcher. They wheel one out and bring in Susu strapped down, flanked by police.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Honored Dead by Joseph Braude. Copyright © 2011 by Joseph Braude. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.