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Kaplans return from Morocco with treasure trove of diplomatic memories

Sam and Sylvia Kaplan are unpacking in their Minneapolis home after nearly four years in Morocco, where he served as U.S. ambassador.

Sam and Sylvia Kaplan with SonnyBoy, their 22-month-old lab given to them by Gen. Housni Benslimane of the Royal Moroccan Gendarmerie.
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle

Most of us cherish mementos from our travels – t-shirts from far-away beach bars, colorful ceramics and hand-crafted clothing.

But few could match the treasure trove that Sylvia and Sam Kaplan are unpacking in their Minneapolis home after nearly four years in Morocco, where he served as U.S. ambassador: 8,000 pounds – yes, four tons – of rugs, antique swords, tea sets, cookware, art, clothing, etc., etc.

The Kaplans purchased most of the items they shipped from Morocco to Minnesota. Other pieces were gifts.

The exchange of diplomatic gifts is a centuries old tradition, according to the National Archives.

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“From the ancient civilizations of Rome and Egypt to the native tribes of North America, ceremonial gifts have paved the way for peaceful coexistence between peoples of different cultures,” says a display in the archives.

In 1787, a young America decided to reject these universal symbols in the language of diplomacy. The founders banned the acceptance of foreign gifts by U.S. government officials.

But refusing them proved impossible.

“It was at best impolite and at worst a stinging offense,” says the Archives display.

As a result, every president since George Washington has received gifts of state, as have most of their representatives in other countries.

Federal law requires U.S. officials to report gifts of more than minimal value, currently defined as $350. Lists of the reported items are published annually in the Federal Register. Some U.S. Ambassadors have reported receiving lavish gifts; for example, in 2011 an ambassador reported that he and his wife received Germani diamond watches worth $37,000 from a major general in the Armed Forces of Qatar. The explanation noted is typical: “non-acceptance would cause embarrassment to donor and U.S. Government.” The watches were turned over to the U.S. General Services Administration, the entry says.

The Kaplans said that they did not receive gifts of more than minimal value.

In combination, the gifts and the items they purchased represent more than mere souvenirs. Many of the items represent stories of culture and diplomatic life in a fascinating and pivotal country during these globally turbulent times. The Kaplans took time last week to share a few such stories with MinnPost.


By far the keepsake commanding the most attention is SonnyBoy, an energy-packed, 22-month-old yellow lab.

The dog was a gift from Gen. Housni Benslimane, who oversees national security as commander-in-chief of the Royal Moroccan Gendarmerie.

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In Morocco, the Kaplans had a front row seat for high-stakes political drama, watching government after government collapse as unrest spread across North Africa and the Middle East. Demonstrators took to the streets in Morocco, too, but never with enough lasting intensity to shake the government.

The common voice across Tunisia, Egypt and Libya was the voice of people who hated dictators and their corrupt families.

“It is just the opposite in Morocco,” Sam Kaplan said. “You have a stable government, you have a monarch who is revered by all or virtually all, and he has a family that behaves properly.”

Even so, Morocco is under constant threat from the terrorism that infects the region. Jihadists have recruited in the country, and Casablanca and other cities have suffered bombings.  

This is where SonnyBoy comes into the story. The Kaplans were invited to a demonstration of Morocco’s capacity for fighting terrorism, including its canine corps.

When the demonstration ended, Benslimane approached Sylvia carrying a small case. Inside was SonnyBoy as a tiny puppy.

The Kaplans like dogs. And after the family pet died 20 years ago, they thought about replacing him.

“We had vigorously said ‘No!’,” Sam said.

“But in Arab countries, to refuse a gift is like a declaration of war,” Sylvia said. “You don’t say no.”

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So SonnyBoy joined the Kaplan family. He also took his place in the limelight that shines on American ambassadors around the world. Benslimane sent a trainer to civilize the rambunctious puppy. When it was time to visit the vet, the TV cameras were there too.

Gifts of live animals are unusual but not unheard of in diplomatic circles. The Indonesian government presented a Komodo dragon to the first President Bush. The dragon, Naga, lived at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden until it died in 2007. 

For SonnyBoy’s full story, see this MinnPost video.

Sam and Sylvia Kaplan introduce SonnyBoy

Student art

While the Kaplans purchased notable works of art, the pieces they were eager to show are personal items they had received from students. Take the multiple images of Sam done on a poster in Andy Warhol style.

The tributes were a thankful response to the Kaplans’ willingness to give talks before student groups and also invite students to diplomatic dinners at the ambassadorial residence in Rabat.

Even with relative political stability, young Moroccans share the frustration that has set off revolts elsewhere in the region. They are part of a so-called youth bulge, a generation denied the job security their parents enjoyed and armed by new tools of social media to express their disillusionment.

Sam and Sylvia Kaplan displaying artwork from studentsMinnPost photo by Sharon SchmickleSam and Sylvia Kaplan displaying artwork from students.
“The youth bulge and unemployment is a very real issue,” Sam Kaplan said. “The official unemployment rate is about 9 percent. But everybody agrees that on the streets of Casablanca for 16- to 30-year-olds the unemployment rate is probably 30 percent.”

Students who snagged invitations to the ambassador’s residence would find themselves at a long table where the main dish might come in an individual tagine (classic Moroccan cooking vessel) and tea would be served in ornate glasses. The Kaplans’ Minneapolis kitchen now features ample sets of tagines and tea glasses.

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Rather than taking seats at the ends of tables, the Kaplans generally sat in the middle of the table and engaged everyone in the same conversation.  

“I would control the discussion, and Sylvia would from time to time bicker with me as to how I was doing it,” Sam said. “I think people liked it.”

Sylvia recalled one dinner where Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak was among the 25 guests. Several college students had been invited to join high-powered Moroccan ministers and a few ambassadors.

“We talked about young people,” Sylvia Kaplan said. “We asked some of our guests to tell them how it was when you were that age and how you expected your life to be and how it turned out differently.”

A fascinating discussion unfolded.

“Some had not thought about it for years,” she said. “It wasn’t a maudlin sharing. But on the other hand, it got kind of personal and intimate.”

Other dinners featured visiting U.S. senators, high-ranking officials, business leaders, military officers and prominent journalists. Often the conversation was intended to shed light on changes in U.S. government and policies or on unfolding events around the world.

Antique swords
MinnPost photo by Sharon Schmickle

Decorative box
MinnPost photo by Sharon SchmickleAntique swords and decorative boxes are just some of the four tons of treasures from Sam Kaplan’s four-year tenure as U.S. ambassador to Morocco.

Losing servants, gaining freedom

In Morocco, the butler and the rest of the household staff, thought the Kaplans were joking when they said there would be no butler, driver or even a full-time maid in Minnesota.

“Every one of the elites and even some of the not-so-elites had maids in Morocco,” Sylvia said.

Typically Minnesotan, I assumed that Sam felt relieved because he no longer needs to call for a driver every time he wants to go somewhere.

“It must be great to just jump in your own car and drive,” I said.

Long pause, scowl and then, “What?”

“I mean the freedom to drive somewhere without having to organize a driver and a security entourage.”

“I liked being driven,” he said emphatically.

Imagine never having to look for a parking place, stop for gas or Google directions.

“It’s a good thing we got out because if you do that for too long you get an exalted sense of yourself,” Sylvia said. “Humility is important. And you have to remember what positional power is. It is not about you. It is about the position.”

Truly, there were disadvantages to constant service from a well-intentioned staff. The Kaplans wanted, for example, to take back-row seats at a concert in case they decided to duck out early. Nothing doing.

“Our bodyguards, a team of 10, were so insistent that we be treated properly,” Sam said. “We had to go to the front row.”

And Sylvia said, “I don’t like having servants around the house at all.  . . . I don’t mind doing the laundry.”

Well, maybe ironing summer linens is drudgery.

But Sylvia said she actually cooked more in Morocco than she does in Minneapolis. The Kaplans gave the servants weekends off. And going out to eat on their own was not as easy an option as it is in Minneapolis.

One freedom the Kaplans definitely enjoy in Minnesota is to openly engage in politics – on the DFL side. Sam Kaplan was a prominent Minneapolis attorney before President Obama appointed him to the ambassadorial post in 2009. Such political appointments typically last only about three years, but the couple had to pull back from political activism until their overseas duty was fulfilled.

Upon coming home, “We got right into it,” Sylvia said.

In setting a date for my visit, they juggled calendar events: the (Congressman Tim) Walz thing, the (Gov. Mark) Dayton thing . . . a visit with (Minnesota Sen.) Sandy Pappas. Since their return in May, they’ve hosted political fundraisers. And they’ve taken a leadership position on the finance arm of U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s re-election campaign.

Women in Morocco

When I asked to see treasured Moroccan items, one of the first that Sylvia displayed was a black and white caftan. It was from Oujda, a city near Morocco’s border with Algeria.

The wife of the mayor of Oujda presented Sylvia with this caftan.
MinnPost photo by Sharon SchmickleThe wife of the mayor of Oujda presented Sylvia
with this black and white caftan and the tea set.

When the mayor of Oujda invited the Kaplans to dinner, his wife did not join them. But she did ask for a private meeting with Sylvia where she presented the caftan and a set of tea glasses in assorted jewel colors.

In Minnesota political circles people often speak of the Kaplans as if they were one person named Sylvia N. Sam. In Morocco they were determined to work that same kind of partnership.

It was a serious challenge in a part of the world where women often must stay in the background or even hide themselves from public view. Moroccan women have more power than their sisters in other parts of the region, and many work as doctors, lawyers and other professionals.

Even with relative empowerment, though, life is hard for most Moroccan women, especially in small towns, Sylvia said. While the Kaplans were in Morocco, a 16-year-old girl killed herself by eating rat poison after she was forced to marry her rapist. It is a traditional practice for a rapist to marry his victim in order to escape prosecution and to preserve the honor of the woman’s family.

“There still are things happening, but you could not always see it,” Sylvia said. “You would have to delve down to know it.”

Many organizations are working to improve the lot of women, but the efforts aren’t always effective, Sam said.

“You cannot believe how many [non-governmental organizations] there are that are doing the same thing,” he said. “They dilute their effectiveness by their failure to band together.”

So, it was assumed that Sylvia would take a backseat to her husband. Minnesotans who know her also know that is not at all in her nature.

“When we started the process, I was doing the speaking in public,” Sam said. “Then we went to the next phase in which I would call Sylvia up, and we would jointly answer questions. Midway through the process we were a team of speakers, and they had never had that before.”

Sylvia recalled an invitation for her husband to speak at the Moroccan Diplomatic Academy: “He said, ‘That’s fine. And my wife, who is not a diplomat, will be with me and she will speak also.’ I think the guy swallowed a few times and then he said ‘OK.’”

She could coach young diplomats on the social aspects of their work, a big part of the job.

“I was very careful even though I would suggest I wasn’t,” she said. “You are representing America, and you have to be.”

Did Morocco change the Kaplans?

Now, surrounded by memory-teasing treasures, the Kaplans said they have changed from the couple that left Minnesota.

For one thing, they have a deeper understanding of the views of the United States in other parts of the world. As they watch the evolving U.S. policy toward the conflict in Syria, they recall a diplomatic gathering in Marrakesh last December as delegates from more than 100 countries wrestled with questions of what could stop the bloodshed.

“Sylvia and I were there and we had some opportunity to see what was going on,” Sam said. “In many respects, the situation is worse since then. The opposition was more clearly identified. Now it is much too confusing, and there are plenty of bad guys on the side of the opposition.”

What is clear, they said, is that the United States must avoid any appearance of interfering in the affairs of countries in the region.

“They don’t see it as the United States’ job to interfere,” Sylvia said. “They say: ‘This is our part of the world. We’re your friends. Come and ask us. We can be helpful to you.’”

Sam Kaplan modeling the cloak he brought home from Morocco.

The complicating backdrop to all impressions of America is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“It so influences their thinking that we are — in their judgment — on the wrong side of that conflict even though we argue — without acceptance on their part — that we are very supportive of the Palestinians as well,” Sam said.

One other subtle but significant change for the Kaplans is a renewed appreciation of Minnesota-style civic engagement.

“Every event we’ve gone to – political fundraisers and other events for good causes where people come together and they give time and money and their passion – we look around and say ‘That doesn’t happen this way in other parts of the world,” Sylvia said.

Of course, citizens in other parts of the world are sounding political voices, especially in the Middle East and North Africa.

But many in those regions did not understand what Sylvia called “Paul Wellstone electoral politics,” the enthusiasm and passion that drove an ordinary Minnesota college professor to become a U.S. senator and a renowned champion for causes he believed in.

“We talked to students about the joy of politics,” she said. “This was an opportunity for us as political activists to say that ordinary people who start with nothing can become somebody. … It was an opportunity for us to explain how America works.”