When they arrived in Tangier to run the American Legation, Thor and Elizabeth Kuniholm knew they were embarking on an adventure. It was 1991, when the world was about to witness the fall of the Soviet Union, and Francis Fukuyama was drafting the End of History. In Tangier, history wasn't ending, it was just taking a new twist.
It's a story that began in 1821, when Morocco's Sultan Moulay Suleiman donated a building in the medina of Tangier to the new American Republic, one that became the American Legation, which conducted America's relations with Morocco through its independence in 1956. At which point, diplomatic relations moved to the capital Rabat, and the Legation's future teetered on the brink.
"What led to the restoration was a birthday," writes Boston University historian Diana Wylie in her forthcoming book about the Legation, its history, and its art collection. The birthday: America's Bicentennial in 1976. The restoration and the preservation of the building was the work of a motivated group of American diplomats associated with Morocco and the Old Legation.
The ensuing years of consolidation then led to the Kuniholm Era, echoing the Maxwell Blake era of the first decades of the 20th century. Blake had given the Legation the structures it has today; Thor Kuniholm gave TALIM its multifaceted programming, all done on a shoestring budget.
Thor and Elizabeth rolled up their sleeves and commenced what was to become a 19-year labor of love, one which ended today when they got on a plane to return to another adopted city of theirs, Philadelphia. The very city that was the capital of the newly-independent United States when it sent its first diplomatic mission to Tangier.
The Legation was once saved by a special Fourth of July, and Thor and Elizabeth marked their July 4th 2010 with a farewell lunch on one of Tangier's loveliest sights, overlooking the blustery Atlantic. Earlier, American Ambassador to Morocco Samuel Kaplan came to honor the Kuniholms for a special "America Day."
Lovers of art and good neighbors to the people of Tangier's crowded inner-city medina, the Kuniholms turned America's only National Historic Landmark abroad into a museum and a place where neighborhood women learn to become literate in their own language, Arabic.
In September 2001, when President George W. Bush asked rhetorically "Why do they hate us?" of the Muslim world, the Legation's director didn't stop his literacy programs to ask himself the question. This kind of diplomacy of the deed is the Tangier American Legation's strongest suit. And Thor Kuniholm is synonymous with the Legation. He's The Man Who Makes Things Happen.
TAL expanded to TALIM in recent years – Institute for Moroccan Studies – a reflection of the Legation's association with the American Institute for Maghrib Studies, AIMS, a consortium of American universities with North Africa programs. The Legation makes a unique venue for AIMS conferences, and scholars from the US, Europe, and across the Maghrib use its research library for their work.
I've had "hard acts to follow" often in my Foreign Service career, but this time it's going to be a while before this new guy in town gets name recognition anything like that of Thor Kuniholm. All honor to Thor and Elizabeth, who served their country while earning the respect, admiration, and affection of their Moroccan neighbors.