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How Palin caught Obama off-guard

Because she is a mum who shops at Wal-Mart and disembowels moose many Americans, suspicious of intel

The Democrats have finally chosen their woman. The stand-in for Sarah Palin who will tussle with Joe Biden in closed-door rehearsals for the vice-presidential debate on 2 October will be 49-year-old Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan - a brilliant Democrat who would undoubtedly be a presidential contender herself, had she not been born in Canada and thus constitutionally ineligible to occupy the White House. She will undoubtedly give Biden a hard time, but will Palin?

Three weeks ago, just the thought of this year's vice-presidential debate would have made most Americans yawn. But the sudden emergence of Governor Palin on the world stage on 29 August has electrified this election and turned just about every previous assumption upside down. Biden's little finger, for example, probably knows more about foreign policy than Palin. However, I can easily visualise him patronising or bullying her - which would be catastrophic. Palin, just as easily, could reveal her ignorance or extremism in some equally disastrous way.

The very fact that it is the vice-presidential debate that is suddenly the hottest ticket in America - far more so than any of the three presidential confrontations between Barack Obama and John McCain - is indicative of the disaster that Palin has been for the Democrats so far.

The polls, which now show McCain and Palin ahead, tell their own story. The celebritydom market that Obama had cornered for himself was suddenly hijacked by a brand new political celebrity, spawning more media coverage, gossip and excitement than either Obama or McCain. Picking Palin to be his running mate was a high-risk gamble for McCain, but there are now only six weeks left in which she must maintain rigid discipline and avoid gaffes.

If she and McCain can pull that off, I suspect they will win on 4 November. It is certainly a very big if. But, precisely because it was so very unexpected, even by those close to McCain, Palin's emergence flummoxed and panicked Obama. Faced with a competing political celeb rity suddenly hurling invective and jokes at his expense to vast rallies of people roaring with laughter - an experience to which he had never been subjected - Obama visibly wilted and made the error of responding to her attacks rather than concentrating his fire steadily on McCain, a much more vulnerable and important target.

Michael Dukakis, the former governor of Massachusetts, made the same mistake in 1988 by campaigning against poor Dan Quayle, George H W Bush's running mate, rather than Bush himself. The result was that Bush and the blatantly inadequate Quayle won by a 40-state landslide. Adlai Stevenson had done exactly the same in 1952, handing two presidential terms to the Republicans.

So, if Obama does not speedily change course, and McCain-Palin do not present him with any gifts, he could well be heading for the same fate. His "change" theme was snatched from him in a single strike by the Republicans - but, at least so far, Obama has failed to adapt to the drastically changed political landscape. He seems unable to confront the inconvenient reality that rather than being the small-town mayor she once was, Palin is now the highly popular governor of a state with 29,000 full- and part-time employees and an annual budget of $12bn, and thus has more executive experience than Obama himself, McCain and Hillary Clinton put together.

The Sarah Palin/Alaska phenomenon is one, I suspect, that will never be properly understood in Britain. It is because she is a mum who shops at Wal-Mart, runs marathons and disembowels moose that so many Americans, ever suspicious of intellectuals or elitism, have granted her instant celebrity status. Alaska, a state I know well, still has more than a whiff of the frontier mentality. "We don't give a damn how they do it Outside" is an ever-popular bumper sticker, "Outside" being the rest of mainland America.

That kind of defiance, personified by Palin, is widely admired by Americans. The Democrats underestimate her at their peril. I would guess that Granholm, Palin's fellow governor from Michigan, is politically astute enough to know that the Democrats must now reserve most of their fire for McCain, and that when they attack Palin the target should be her extreme right-wing views rather than her celebrityhood.

Yet she also knows that the Democrats have selected a previously little-known male celeb rity to be their presidential candidate, who in turn chose a 65-year-old man to be his running mate, rather than the woman who finished in a virtual dead heat with him in the Democratic primaries.

Have the Republicans outwitted the Democrats again, this time by finding a little-known female celebrity as a supposed riposte to sexist hubris? Time, I fear, will tell.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party

Joelle Gueguen for Cafe Clock Marrakech
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Meet the master storyteller keeping Morocco's oral tradition alive in the internet age

Amid declining numbers of storytellers, veteran performer Ahmed Ezzarghani's ambition is to rescue Morocco's thousand-year-old tradition of storytelling from the era of technology.

The art of storytelling has been an integral part of Marrakech’s culture for generations. One of the most recognisable symbols of Djemaa el-Fnaa Square, the city’s main thoroughfare, is of animated men performing folk tales; stories about kings, families, lovers and beasts, each one meticulously crafted to educate, entertain and inspire.

But over the past decade, the number of storytellers present in the city has declined significantly. With the advent of new technologies and more lucrative revenue streams, many storytellers have retired from their profession or moved onto something new. For a while, it has seemed as if Moroccan storytelling may be lost completely. One man, however, has been fighting to keep this distinctive tradition alive in the modern world.

Hajj Ahmed Ezzarghani is a master storyteller who has spent more than 60 years sharing folk tales as his profession. Now in his seventies, he’s training a new generation – a mix of university students and young professionals – in the skills of the ancient artform.

All photos: Joelle Gueguen for Cafe Clock Marrakech

“As I have grown older, I have realised that storytelling is dying, because the new generations don’t give it as much attention as ours did,” he explains. “But these young Moroccans, they came to me and said they wanted to learn. So we have been working together to preserve this tradition.”

In Ezzarghani’s youth, storytellers made a viable income from street performances in cities all over Morocco. Ezzarghani himself spent time wandering from lively port cities in the north to quiet towns and villages in the south, sharing his stories with as many people as possible. He spent the last few years of his storytelling career in Djemaa el-Fnaa Square, but retired in 2009 after battling with young performers who would sabotage his performances with staged fights or loud music. “The square has become a place for business instead of art,” he says. “These young acts don’t know the craft [of storytelling].”

One of Ezzarghani's apprentices performs.

Though Ezzarghani accepts that society has changed significantly since his ancient stories were first told, he is keen to emphasise that they still have a role to play in modern life. He believes that storytelling offers two important things to audiences: pleasure and a sense morality. “Storytelling has always been about both entertainment and education,” he says. “By that I mean it has offered both a show and a moral lesson. Each story is about these two sides of a coin.”

At the centre of his work to ensure the continuation of Marrakech’s heritage is Hikayat Morocco, a collective founded by Ezzarghani and his apprentices: Mehdi EL Ghaly, Malika Ben Allal, Jawad EL Bied and Sarah Mouhie.

“We as Moroccans grew up on this form of art,” says EL Ghaly. “Nowadays there are fewer storytellers. Their spaces are smaller and they’ve simply disappeared from Djemaa el-Fnaa Square.”

It was the observation of this fading heritage that led to the creation of Hikayat. “We aim to preserve the traditional Moroccan storytelling, as well as giving back to society and encouraging people to pay attention to this ancient form of education,” he says.

Another performer.

One of the biggest obstacles that modern storytellers encounter comes from technology. Apprentice Ben Allal explains that when videos are posted online, it becomes difficult to make a performance compelling, because the audience may already be familiar with the story. “Technology can be challenging for us, especially with the younger generations, because their lives revolve around social media,” she says. “We love the live interaction we have when we perform a story. It’s very important for a storyteller.”

Hikayat runs popular storytelling events at Café Clock Marrakech every week, attracting audiences to their interactive performances. Michael Richardson, the British expat who owns the café, has been impressed by the diversity of their audiences and the positive public response to their storytelling. “We want to be as open to the local population just as much as we are to any tourist, and I think we’ve achieved that. The audience is varied, and we want to keep it varied,” he says. “We’ve actually had young Moroccans come and visit us who’d never even visited the medina, despite living in Marrakech their whole lives. That’s pretty amazing.”

Passing the tradition on to Morocco's youth.

Richardson adds that some of the older audience members have spoken to him about their childhood memories of Marrakech’s storytelling traditions. Many used to perch on walls in the square and watch the storytellers, fascinated by the epic tales and energetic delivery. For these guests, visiting Café Clock for a storytelling night brings back a lot of fond memories, and shows that the personal and social connections with this artform run deep for the city’s residents.

Among the apprentices, there’s talk of trying to make a career out of professional storytelling in the future, but this isn’t their first priority for the moment; they feel that the preservation of this culture-defining tradition is more important than their individual aspirations. “Our aim now is to put Hikayat Morocco and the work we do on the map – not any commercial thing,” Ben Allal explains. “We have a lot of goals to reach before becoming professional storytellers. But this will come with time.”

Lauren Razavi is a freelance columnist and features writer. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRazavi.