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Joseph Braude

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Mourning Columbo in the Arab World

Posted: 08/01/11 02:56 PM ET

The recent death of Peter Falk -- the actor who played Lieutenant Frank Columbo, one of the most famous and beloved fictional detectives in the history of television -- did not go unnoticed in the Arab world. Reruns of his program used to air with Arabic subtitles from Iraq in the east to Morocco in the west back in the eighties, when the region's dictators still held tight control over the media. The soap opera Dallas and sitcoms like Laverne and Shirley were popular too -- all apparently deemed harmless by government censors. Yet the spectacle of a wily yet humble detective probing the secrets of his own society had a lasting influence on viewers that proved to be mildly subversive. Witness my friend Muhammad Bari in Casablanca, Morocco's sprawling economic capital, who read the news of Falk's death and cried. "God have mercy on him," he said. "Columbo changed my life."

Bari lives in a $26-a-month flat with a wife and eight children and wears a tattered Columbo-style trench coat dating back to the 1970s. I met him in 2008 while I was embedded, as a journalist, with a unit of the Moroccan police. His best friend had been murdered, and though the homicide detectives who cracked the case told Bari it was just a robbery gone wrong, Bari did not believe them. There must be a conspiracy behind the killing and a cover-up by police, he told me privately. He asked me to help him quietly investigate the crime on his own. "I can't go on with my life until I know what really happened," he explained. "And besides, I've always wanted to be like Columbo."

It was a gesture of extraordinary boldness for a poor man in an authoritarian Arab state -- even in cahoots with a visiting foreigner - to try to snatch back a secret from the security apparatus. Bari, 57, came of age under the rule of the late king Hasan II, a regime that is believed to have slain hundreds if not thousands of Moroccans. Asking too many questions could get you killed. And at first I had reservations about assisting Muhammad Bari in his quest for the truth. I was a guest in Casablanca of the same cops whose authority he intended to challenge. In welcoming me into their midst, the security services aimed to persuade an American writer that things were changing in Morocco, particularly in the realm of human rights. But perhaps they were also trying to control what I saw. The investigation Bari proposed, I realized, was a perfect test of whether the regime had truly changed.

So we ventured together into the night - Bari in his trench coat, me in a windbreaker -- and used some of the gentler techniques we had seen on TV to figure out why his friend had been killed. We traded cigarettes for information. We asked indirect questions of people who were afraid. We played dumb when necessary. We leveraged his deep roots in the community and my privileged status as an American, and nearly always avoided a confrontation. Four months into our sleuthing, we established that police had indeed been keeping secrets from Bari - and so had the murder victim.

Cops didn't want Bari and other poor people to know much about the family that owned the warehouse. They're Moroccan Jews, among the few remaining Jews in the Arab world, and the regime is committed to their protection. A member of this particular family, moreover, had been accused (perhaps falsely) of helping stalwarts of the present king's father smuggle assets out of the country. Police were also keen to protect some details about the killer, a soldier in a new urban unit of the Moroccan army which had already killed another civilian. The government didn't want this unit to provoke more anger among the population. The crime, moreover, was inter-ethnic -- the victim, a member of the country's vast and historically beleaguered Berber population; the killer, an Arab -- in a part of the world where ethnic tensions are particularly dangerous. There were the victim's personal secrets to boot: his flirtation, earlier in life, with the preachings of an Islamist cleric; his practice of a form of ancient North African magic which the country's conservatives want to stamp out forever, with force if necessary; and, finally, the victim's propensity for violating one particular taboo in the Arab world that is so dangerous, it could have caused a lethal riot. It is a tribute to the government in Morocco that we managed to unearth these secrets without being molested -- and that three years later, Bari is still alive and well.

I've studied Arab security services from Algeria to Lebanon to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and can attest to the extreme difficulty and danger of carrying out a sustained, independent murder investigation in any Arab country except Morocco. One reason why is similar to the reason for Bari's lifelong fixation on Columbo-style sleuthing: personal narratives, inherently messy and indicative of a society's broader problems, are a threat to the seamless, official narrative of the state. An unstable regime needs to control the stories people tell about each other because their stories, woven together, amount to a visceral account of mass oppression and humiliation by the authoritarian elite. Everybody wants to be like Columbo: the clashes between cops and civilians across the region today are a struggle over the universal need to probe and to reveal as much as they are about eating and earning. But there's also another reason why Arab cops sometimes use brutal means to paper over a true story. As one officer in Casablanca told me, "We're not just police; we're guardians of the social fabric." Autocracies typically maintain the view that their society, fractured along ethnic, sectarian, and cultural lines, needs to be protected from itself.

Six months into the "Arab spring," new forms of turmoil and terror have supplanted old-fashioned tyranny, and it can be just as dangerous to go poking around the slums of Cairo, where police have vanished and hooligans reign, as it is to snoop around Algiers, where vicious enforcers are everywhere. Aspirants to a future of openness as well as security in the Arab world would do well to solve the riddle of what makes Morocco different.

When I caught up with Muhammad Bari a few weeks ago, several million Moroccans had just voted to ratify a new constitution proposed by the king. The document essentially offers to split the difference between the royal family's hold on power and the population's desire for democracy, granting half the reins of government to an elected prime minister. "Other Arab rulers have promised such things too," Bari observed, "but I believe my king will deliver." I asked him why. "The Truth and Reconciliation Commission," he replied. "That's what sets us apart."

Seven years ago the monarch established a commission, roughly modeled on a project of the same name in post-Apartheid South Africa, to acknowledge and compensate the victims of murder and torture that had been perpetrated by the regime of his late father. Over several weeks of riveting television, individual Moroccans recounted the systemic abuse that had destroyed their lives, and the government confirmed that their stories were true. The process did not amount to justice, but it licensed the people of Morocco to share the truth about their history with each other and the world. The regime gained credibility by permitting the revelation of its own criminal conduct. The society also proved its mettle, in that no cycle of vengeance erupted between the victims and their tormentors. Now seven years later, when the king promises sweeping reform to his people, he appears to have the benefit of the doubt. The population, moreover, is clearly capable of sharing the responsibilities of power.

It may be too late, in this season of upheaval, for other Arab rulers to foster a similar process of reconciliation with their societies -- and the truth laid bare all at once in their absence can be a devastating, destabilizing force. In emulating Columbo, Muhammad Bari managed to work around the sore spots of a complex, divided region to expose and confront the trauma that had haunted him. Charting a smooth course toward freedom elsewhere in the Arab world requires that millions more like Bari be empowered to do the same.

Joseph Braude is the author of The Honored Dead: A Story of Friendship, Murder, and the Search for Truth in the Arab World (Random House - Spiegel & Grau, June 2011).