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The Kaplans in Morocco: Distinctive duo realizing a dream as they live politics and protocol 24/7

RABAT, MOROCCO — It is just over a year since Sam and Sylvia Kaplan left Minnesota for Morocco. Sam is the ambassador — but they operate as a couple, as they had done for decades in Minneapolis.

Sylvia and Sam Kaplan sat for an interview next to the pool at their residence in Rabat, Morocco.
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
Sylvia and Sam Kaplan sat for an interview next to the pool at their residence in Rabat, Morocco.

RABAT, MOROCCO — Homemade fudge in the refrigerator and sweet corn planted in the formal garden are among the telltales signaling that a Minnesota couple occupies the stately mansion reserved for the highest-level American dignitary in this African nation.

It is just over a year since Sam and Sylvia Kaplan left their home near the Mississippi River in Minneapolis to move into Villa America, the official residence of the U.S. ambassador to Morocco.

During that year, this power duo of Minnesota politics has practiced a well-honed persuasive style along the dusty roads of rural African villages, at the tables of diplomats from around the world, and at the court of Morocco’s king.

And despite the demands of politics and protocol, they’re doing it in their own distinctive fashion. He is the ambassador. But they insist on operating as a couple, as they had done for decades in Minneapolis.

“We don’t divide up very much,” she said.

Indeed, they even talked as a unit during their interview with me in November, interrupting each other and finishing each other’s sentences.

“We bicker a lot over the details of things,” he confided to me.

‘Bickering’ with ‘His Excellency’
Take, for example, this exchange.

Sam: “We have three responsibilities here in Morocco: furthering the bilateral relationship, furthering the economic interests of America and protecting the interests of Americans.”

(Sylvia interrupts, reminding him that his website lists four main responsibilities, not three).

Sylvia: “You probably didn’t even put them on your website yourself.”

Sam: “Sylvia! We are trying to be supportive of me here. I’m His Excellency, you know. People call me ‘Your Excellency’!”

Sylvia: “My major job is to be the person to keep him from getting carried away with this role, because when you have all of those people surrounding you all of the time and saying, ‘Yes, Sir!’ it’s heady stuff.”

Sam: “And, believe me, she does a magnificent job of it.”

Rest assured, dear friends back home. The Kaplans have not changed where it matters — in the humor, spirit and drive they bring collectively to this new challenge, in the dynamic combination of her bluntness and his diplomatic style.

“Bickering” aside, the Kaplans are nearly inseparable. Most high-ranking diplomats spend weeks or months each year away from their families. After 13 months on the job, the Kaplans had yet to spend a night apart.

“If we didn’t like each other, this would be hell,” Sylvia said, because close friendships outside the family don’t develop. “The people at the embassy are really wonderful, as are the people on my staff at the house,” she said. “But they all defer to you. They call you ‘Ma’am’ or ‘Mrs. Kaplan.’ You can’t be friends with someone who is calling you ‘Ma’am’ or ‘Mrs. Kaplan.’ The conditions for friendship — in the words of Bud Grant — do not exist. So we spend a lot of time together.”

While she showed off her sweet-corn patch to another visitor, he turned to me and said, “She is wonderful. No one has more energy or more animation.”

Mansion/nursing home?
The mansion that is their new home sits close to the American embassy in a westernized neighborhood of upscale diplomats’ residences and international schools.

After I passed the scrutiny of guards at a security station outside, a house manager asked me to wait in a reception room just off the grand dining room.

In addition to the manager, the house came with a butler, a chef and two maids. It’s a level of service that is common in many developing countries but rare in Minneapolis, where the Kaplans sometimes stayed up until 2 a.m. straightening up their house after a big political fundraiser.

A granddaughter back in the States wrote to tell them about a classroom discussion of nursing homes for the elderly. “Do any of your grandparents live in nursing homes?” the teacher asked. Not at all, the girl replied. Her grandparents were the ambassadors to Morocco.

“I e-mailed her back, and said it’s pretty much like being in a nursing home,” Sylvia said. “They make your bed. They wash your clothes. They serve you breakfast. When we are out with the ambassador’s security team … they are walking in front of us saying there’s a step, there’s a rug.”

Don’t get this wrong. The Kaplans aren’t complaining. They talk in terms of realizing a dream.

“For us to have the experience of a lifetime at this stage of our lives, it just doesn’t happen. It doesn’t happen,” said Sam, who is 74. “People have the experiences of a lifetime, and then when they get to our age they reflect on it. We’re not reflecting on it. We’re doing it.”

Morocco: wonderfully diverse and confusing
Follow any boulevard leading downhill from Villa America to the Atlantic Ocean, and you pass through layers of culture reflecting the wonderfully diverse and confusing mix that is Morocco today.

In some places, the country is as worldly and modern as its many European-chain hotels, where alcohol flows freely in the bars and wi-fi is ubiquitous in the rooms. Morocco is in many other places as old and intriguing as the ruins of Rabat’s fortress wall, ordered built in the 12th century by a powerful caliph who used the city as a base for military conquests in Spain and Portugal.

This is a country where women are encouraged to run for seats in the Parliament. But they’re not always welcome to sit with men in the tea houses of a conservative casbah.

Note the camel's head displayed (just under the light bulb on the left) in this market in Fez.
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
Note the camel’s head displayed (just under the light bulb on the left) in this market in Fez.

This is a land where you can find a severed camel’s head and a computer flash drive in the same market.

It’s a country that courts business dealings and warm diplomatic relations with Arab neighbors to the East and European neighbors to the North — but closes the door to international criticism of its tight control over the territory known as Western Sahara.

Against that backdrop, Sam had a ready answer to the question of what’s been the toughest part of his experience so far.

“Anyone who tells you it is anything other than understanding the complexities of the host country is being disingenuous,” he said. “I’m not sure I would use the word ‘toughest.’ It is the largest challenge. … One must adjust to the fact that your host country has a different style of government and a different history.”

Not Europe
Kaplan, a top cash “bundler” for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign finance committee, stepped into his diplomatic career along with more than a dozen other political appointees. Most of the others went to European countries. Initially, the Kaplans expected to do the same.

“They gave us a list and said these were the political opportunities,” Sylvia said. “We chose European countries like Portugal and Hungary. Then I looked at the last minute, and said, ‘Put Morocco down.’ We had never been here, but I had always wanted to go to Morocco.”

In taking over the U.S. mission to Morocco, he was taking on grave responsibility. In some respects, overwhelmingly Muslim Morocco is more important to U.S. interests than many European countries.

I asked them to describe the learning curve for someone who is not a career diplomat.

Sylvia answered first: “The ambassador has spent his whole life as an attorney who dealt with negotiations and bringing people together to arrive at solutions. … Do you think the National Football League was easy?” (He was co-counsel for the Minnesota Vikings for years.)

Then he answered, “I’ve had a number of family-owned businesses that I represented. And in the various going away parties they gave for us, they all took credit for my becoming an ambassador because of the lessons I learned in dealing with their family disputes.”

One thing he hadn’t anticipated, though, is the relentless pace of the work.

“It’s been much harder than I expected in terms of the hours,” he said. “This is not a walk in the park, not a vacation. … We play a role, and we’re playing that role every day.”

Strong U.S. ally
Morocco’s strategic value overshadows its size — slightly larger than California.

“This is one of the most reliable allies of the United States,” Sam said. “It is reliable in all of the major issues — counterterrorism, defense cooperation, law enforcement, economic development.”

Morocco was among the first Islamic states to denounce the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Its king has collaborated with U.S. intelligence and led initiatives to thwart terrorism in the region. In 2003 and 2007, suicide bombers staged attacks in Casablanca, the nation’s largest city.

King Mohammad VI also has ordered extraordinary security for the U.S. ambassador.

Surrounded by security
While the Kaplans welcome the security, it does crimp the very public and often spontaneous lifestyle they enjoyed in Minnesota, where they were free to stroll along the Mississippi River on the spur of the moment, take in a movie or try a new restaurant.

A 10-man security team goes everywhere with the American ambassador. That’s not counting drivers and outdoor guards at the home and the embassy. He travels between a lead car and a chase car. And extra police cars, sirens blaring, often greet and accompany him through the cities he visits.

“It is a life changer,” he said. “I’m always surrounded by people. We can’t go walking unless we have six guys with black suits surrounding us.”

Of course, the security is reassuring in these tense times.

But it also is confining.

“We were told before we came here that if you do want to go out and you hadn’t told the security team in advance, you call Mustafa (the head of the security team), and he calls the team and they all come,” Sam said.

“We haven’t done that once,” he added. “We would be taking them away from their families and whatever plans they have. They are like firemen. They come running, and that’s wonderful. But to go down to the corner to have coffee? I don’t think so. … We do nothing on the spur of the moment.”

Sylvia stressed the upsides: “You walk into a theater, and you have a place reserved in the front. … And when we go to the medina (marketplace), nobody gives us bad deals. They make sure we get a fair price.”

Jewish in a Muslim land
The Kaplans are Jewish. That, alone, might present a security concern in some Muslim countries.

Not in Morocco, home to some 4,500 Jews.

“As Jews in Morocco, we have felt extremely comfortable,” Sylvia said.

This Hebrew Cemetery in Fez is one of many marks of a longstanding Jewish presence in Morocco.
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
This Hebrew Cemetery in Fez is one of many marks of a longstanding Jewish presence in Morocco.

Jewish families have lived in Morocco since ancient times. At the Hebrew Cemetery in Fez, I saw white tombstones dating back more than 200 years — and also stones marking the graves of Jews who died last year.

In September, the Kaplans celebrated Yom Kippur with a large and vibrant Jewish community in Casablanca.

“At 3 o’clock on Yom Kippur, the service is suspended, the doors are opened and the leaders of the Muslim community — the mayor, the governor and others — all march in and pay their respects to the Jewish community,” Sam said.

Each year, the American ambassador is required to report to Washington a detailed summery of human rights in Morocco.

“Every section of that report has some pluses and minuses except for the Jewish one,” he said. “There are no minuses. There are no known exceptions to the rule that the Jewish community is treated well, with respect, and generally prospers.”

Christians expelled
A different human-rights issue surfaced early this year when Morocco expelled a group of aid workers from the United States and three other countries. They were accused of illegally spreading Christianity. The practice of Christian worship is accepted in officially Muslim Morocco, but proselytizing is a crime.

Advocates for the expelled workers have criticized Kaplan and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for not doing more to intervene.

I asked Kaplan what he could tell me about the aftermath of that incident.

“Nothing,” he said.

I reminded him that he had spoken publicly at the time, describing the incident as “jarring.” He also had expressed concern about the due-process rights of the aid workers.

“That was then, and this is now,” he said. “I believe the situation has calmed itself and now we must move on.”

Working for women’s rights
The Kaplans were more eager to talk about a human-rights front where Morocco stands out among Muslim countries: advancing the status of women.

Led by King Mohammed VI, Morocco has revised its laws during this decade to enhance women’s rights — for example, doing away with old code that required a wife to obey her husband. The government also has promoted the election of women to Parliament and high-level local offices.

The United States and many private aid organizations are eager partners in this effort. So are the Kaplans, who go out of their way to support literacy programs for girls and visit factories where women have landed jobs.

One reason they insist on working as a couple is the example set by Sylvia’s strong presence at public functions.

“When Sylvia and I give a speech together, the women all cluster around Sylvia afterward,” he said. “They want to talk to her about her background, about what she has done.”

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Typical day
There is no such thing as a typical day in the life of an ambassador.

The day I interviewed the Kaplans was an official holiday honoring veterans.

They left the house early that morning to visit a group of Peace Corps volunteers who were finishing their service in Morocco.

The next stop was a historic French cemetery, where ambassadors from many countries presented wreaths honoring veterans.

“I marched to the front with the colonel who is my defense attaché,” Sam related. “He saluted, I bowed and they played the drums. This is a new world. … I was standing next to the German ambassador, and I said, ‘Are those uniforms on your men new? He said, ‘After World War II, they certainly were.’ “

The next stop took them past stately columns marking the entrance to Morocco’s Parliament Building. There they discussed major issues with the official who serves a role similar to that of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Morocco is a monarchy where the king has absolute power. But it also has a constitution providing for elections and a parliament.

“I’m always amazed at, No. 1, how His Majesty is all powerful, and No. 2, how His Majesty has ceded power to others,” Sam Kaplan said.

He has met the king in person five times.

(I interviewed the Kaplans before WikiLeaks released classified cables from diplomatic posts. At least one of the cables is from Kaplan — one pertaining to a former Guinean junta leader who had been hospitalized in Morocco. WikiLeaks released other cables critical of the Moroccan king’s business dealings, the Guardian reported, but Kaplan’s name was not associated with them.)

Familiar faces on Moroccan TV
After leaving the Parliament on their typically atypical day, the Kaplans went back to their residence for lunch with key members of their diplomatic team.

Then they sat for the interview with me. While a reporter from Minnesota doesn’t cross their threshold every day, the press availability was not that unusual. By now, the Kaplans’ faces are familiar on Moroccan television.

When I arrived, several bloggers were interviewing U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., who was in Morocco for an international forum on development and security issues in which the United States plays a role.

Later that day, journalists from a Moroccan wire service came by.

Men prepared for prayer at a mosque in Fez.
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle
Men prepared for prayer at a mosque in Fez.

Those journalists were part of a parade of people who pass through the mansion almost every day.

Others in that parade represent U.S. businesses. One of the ambassador’s main responsibilities is to promote the interests of American companies in Morocco, which operates under a Free Trade Agreement with the United States.

That includes Minnesota businesses. As I was leaving, representatives from Cargill, 3M and one other Minnesota company arrived.

Sure, it’s a home. But it also is a venue where the Kaplans can practice their smooth arts of cementing political connections and culling information from guests — the same skills that made them stand out in Minneapolis.

Kitchen command
The Kaplans chose a pool-side patio for their interview with me, but later we moved into the kitchen, where Sylvia made tea and fetched a plate of homemade fudge from the refrigerator.

“I take food very seriously,” she said, explaining her role in that kitchen and the kitchen’s role in diplomatic work.

The chef makes “perfect ice cream,” she said, as well as great lemon meringue pies, paella and other dishes.

But Sylvia wanted to widen the repertoire, adding dishes she has served in Minnesota.

“When we are doing that, I’m in the kitchen with him every moment,” she said. “He’s there being a great sous chef.”

In other words, she takes control — something that will surprise no one who knew her in Minnesota, where she ran popular restaurants and commanded the entertainment of up to 800 people at a time in their home.

In Morocco, she bears down on every detail — like the glaze for the carrot cake she served last year. The recipe called for cooking the glaze. The chef served it uncooked.

“So that was like a crisis,” Sylvia said. “There are various crises and sometimes we’re sitting here in a formal dinner and they’ve asked me how to serve the dessert. So you’re telling them how it’s supposed to be done. But then you’re sitting there, and it comes out differently than you would expect.”

It’s been very hard for her to loosen up.

“You know how you want each plate to look and the style in which it will be served,” she said. “I’ve learned to give up some, and they’ve learned to accommodate me. … You have such a feeling of warmth and generosity from this household staff.”

Disarming diplomacy
Working for years as an international correspondent, I have attended functions at embassies around the world. Generally they are stiff and impersonal affairs.

The Kaplans don’t do it that way. Any Minnesotan who has emptied a pocket at one of their political fundraisers knows that their style is more personal — and more disarming.

Guests at their table often are carefully selected to serve a specific purpose. There are necessary formalities, of course. An embassy protocol chief suggests the seating charts.

“The formality mostly is pretty amusing,” Sylvia said. “Once in a while you wonder, ‘Why are we doing this?’… It’s like being in a play.”

But the Kaplans control the conversation — sometimes connecting visiting Americans with key local leaders, sometimes introducing American officials to diplomats from other countries, sometimes courting diplomats from very small countries. (They tell you things, she said.)

“To be able to make something happen where you get beyond the small talk and do the real stuff — that is so gratifying,” Sylvia said.

“I’m such a busybody,” she said. “I always like to know what is going on, so we try to find out any way we can. … What you are trying to do is figure out other people and communicate. That’s what we are doing here.”

In other words, pretty much what they did in Minnesota.

Sharon Schmickle writes about international affairs, economics and other topics for MinnPost. She can be reached at