The Next Caesar

Whew! I just finished yet another conversation with a Moroccan friend about Obama vs. McCain and have come away amazed, again, by the level of interest in the U.S. presidential race.

It's not that, because Morocco is a hereditary monarchy, its subjects are watching a game they'll never play. For the past decade, the country has enjoyed hotly contested parliamentary and local elections, part of a quickening trend toward democracy in at least one small part of the Arab world.

No, the reason for the tremendous interest is simple: everybody wants to know who the new boss is going to be.

I imagine that, two millennia ago, when this was the Roman province of Mauretania and provided the metropole with wheat, olive oil, marble and not a few warriors, the question wasn't so different: “Who's up next to be Caesar?”

And then, roughly 11 centuries later, when Fez, a center of Islamic civilization, learning and power, was perhaps the largest city in the world, the question was pretty much the same: “Is it true there's a new caliph?”

People here are accustomed to watching the powerful rise. And fall.

Thanks to the Internet and satellite TV, Moroccans are able to follow the current power struggle in intricate detail. A few weeks ago, a Casablanca taxi driver explained to me the U.S. Electoral College system in a way that, for the first time in my life, almost made sense. And my landlord, when he found out I was from South Carolina, said, “Oh, a red state.”

Is Al Jazeera talking about red states and blue states? Is my landlord sitting up late, English-Arabic dictionary in hand, watching “Hardball”? What must he make of “The Colbert Report”?

I'll have to say that the interest level was even higher when the prospective Democratic nominees were still going at each other.

Barack Hussein Obama — how could he NOT attract interest in this part of the world? He's certainly got a great name, at least over here.

“Barack,” as most Americans know by now, means “blessing,” but it comes from a root word that has to do with holiness, wisdom, benevolent power and what seems to be a sort of Islamic karma. All I know for sure is that, when the corner butcher has finished filling my order, I'm supposed to pronounce “baraka” to let him know that all is well and good and that I'm ready to pay. So Obama's in very good shape in the name-recognition department, since the butcher shop is about the busiest place in town.

By the way, I haven't met anyone here who assumes that Obama's a Muslim, though most would be delighted if he were.

And “Heellary” — wife of the beloved Bill (whose girlfriends were nobody's business but his own) — visited here personally in 1999, leaving behind several decades' worth of good will. By all accounts, she was an exceptionally gracious guest in a country where hosting people is far and away the best use of your time.

Hillary toured the royal cities of Rabat, Marrakech and Fez, but also visited a rural school and an ancient kasbah and, between ample courses of tagine and couscous, somehow managed to plug women's rights without preaching too much. In fact, American friends who'd been waiting months for approval of their residency permits tell me that, not a week after Hillary came through their city, every single American residency request was granted, overnight.

However, beyond interest in the outcome and curiosity about the interminable, convoluted process itself, people in Morocco care about this election for deeper reasons. It matters. A lot.

Will there be war or peace? Bush II wanted to finish what was left undone by Bush I. Everybody knows that. But what oil-rich country will be next? Or so people wonder.

Will the economy pick up or slow down? Every time the U.S. dollar slips, the Moroccan dirham jumps, and Moroccan goods become that much harder to sell on the world market.

Will there be more bombings? Morocco has its own Sept. 11, of sorts — May 16, 2003, when four bombs went off nearly simultaneously in Casablanca, killing 45 people, injuring over 100 and forever ending Moroccans' perception of their country as safe from the terror that afflicts neighboring Algeria and their cousins in the Middle East.

Will my son finally find a job? Such is the presumed extent of an American president's influence.

But it's funny — as closely as people are following this election, and as much as they enjoy talking about it, almost no one will venture a guess about the outcome. They just don't do that here. People tend not to make projections about events that, they are certain, are divinely orchestrated. And so every single discussion that I've had on the subject has ended with the same remark: “Only God knows.”