It became known as the “scandal of the kiss.”
As U.S. ambassador to Morocco, Minneapolis lawyer Sam Kaplan, 77, had made it clear he came as a package deal with his outgoing wife Sylvia, a longtime Twin Cities’ restaurateur and his partner in DFL politics.
So when newly installed Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane met them at an air show in the fabled North African city of Marrakech, the traditional Moroccan kisses were exchanged all around, including between Sylvia and Benkirane, the moderate leader of an Islamist party.
The news footage went viral around the Muslim nation, one of the few in the Arab world to ever have hosted a Jewish U.S. ambassador.
Benkirane, who once was quoted saying he had no interest in dictating to women “how many centimeters of skirt they should wear to cover their legs,” survived the ordeal. But the next time, he was not so eager to kiss the American ambassador’s ever-present companion.
The Kaplans’ 3-1/2-year tour of duty in Morocco gave them a close-up view of the “Arab Spring” protests that convulsed nearby Egypt, Libya and Tunisia starting in December 2010, a year after they arrived.
It also left them sitting out the 2012 U.S. presidential election, a difficult transition for major Democratic fundraisers and power players who had helped launch the career of the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone. In 2008, the Kaplans raised between $100,000 and $200,000 for the Obama campaign, ranking them among the campaign’s top 500 bundlers, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Signed up to raise money
Since their return in May, they’ve already signed up to raise money for Minneapolis mayoral candidate Mark Andrew, U.S. Sen. Al Franken, and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz. Nor was their political exile in Morocco a complete desert of campaign fundraising. Sylvia Kaplan, working on her own, managed to raise nearly $80,000 for Democratic causes and candidates in the 2011-12 federal election cycle, records show.
The Kaplans, however, say that diplomacy meant playing a larger role not only for Obama, but for their country and perhaps the world.
“It was very meaningful for us to be able to represent the United States at the period of time,” said Sylvia Kaplan, now 74. “In that part of the world, people really do not understand American electoral politics. We had an opportunity to talk to kids in college and other places to talk about the joy of politics, Paul Wellstone-style.”
Nor did diplomacy inhibit their Minnesota-bred cosmopolitan ways. Morocco is perhaps one of the most Westernized nations in North Africa, with a tradition of tolerance and good relations with the U.S. Tight jeans and European fashions are more prevalent than burqas. Sylvia Kaplan said she felt no need to cover her hair when she accompanied her husband to present his credentials to King Mohammed VI.
She regrets only that she forgot to curtsy. “Or bow,” Sam Kaplan added.
“The truth is Sylvia was very popular in Morocco,” her husband said. “She and I were a couple and we traveled the country. We went to areas no ambassador had gone before. They were interested in Sylvia.”
“It was nice to be together,” Sylvia added, “because sometimes we don’t agree and I would interrupt him. We were modeling alternative behavior.”
Serious issues, too
But the mood wasn’t always light for the Kaplans. In March, 2010, the Moroccan government began expelling foreign evangelical Christians accused of proselytizing children in church-sponsored schools and orphanages.
Amid loud complaints by American evangelical organizations back home, Kaplan took the U.S. government’s protests to the Moroccan Interior minister. The expulsions ended; the crisis was averted.
“The significance of that event,” Sam Kaplan said, “is that it was the only time I spoke critically of the Moroccan government in public.”
In the Kaplans’ view, the Moroccan king’s willingness to bend could have been an important factor in limiting the impact of the Arab Spring protests that overthrew repressive regimes in Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli. In Morocco, King Mohammed immediately went on television and offered political concessions, constitutional reforms, and greater civil rights.
“Moroccans are very cautious people,” Sam Kaplan said. “In the first place, they love their king, and they also like stability. We never felt Morocco was on the brink of revolution.”
The Kaplans say the upheavals they’ve seen throughout the rest of the Middle East have given them a deeper appreciation for American-style politics, gridlock, polarization and all.
“As bad as the Democrats and Republicans are, it’s a wonderful system,” the ex-ambassador said. “It was a great honor to serve over there, but it was also wonderful to see America from afar, to see how extraordinary it is.”
‘Protocol is a dance’
The couple also left with a deeper appreciation for America’s challenge in the streets of the Arab world, even after Obama’s overtures in his 2009 Cairo address, shortly before he dispatched the Kaplans to Morocco. “Notwithstanding the enormous support that America gives to the Palestinian territories, America is seen as a pro-Israel ally and is deeply resented as a result,” Sam Kaplan said.
The Kaplans, however, say they felt accepted in Morocco, even if they sometimes struggled to navigate the Byzantine nuances of diplomatic protocol. “Protocol is a dance,” Sylvia Kaplan said, “you never know if you’re doing all the steps exactly right.”
The most tangible reward for their efforts is a 22-month-old yellow lab, a present they couldn’t refuse from a general of the Royal Gendarmerie, an integral part of the nation’s security forces. Raised among Moroccan butlers and servants, “Sonny Boy” is now getting used to being just a regular American dog.
“He’s very much the focus of our household,” said Sam Kaplan.
“He’s defining my life,” said Sylvia Kaplan.
Follow Kevin Diaz on Twitter at StribDiaz.