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HindustanTimes Thu,02 Oct 2014

World

Obama's 'bromance' with Pakistani in the limelight
Guardian News Service
London, October 07, 2012
First Published: 23:05 IST(7/10/2012)
Last Updated: 23:09 IST(7/10/2012)

Four years ago, the first black White House candidate was smeared with all sorts of allegations. Barack Obama was not born in the US. He was a mole. A socialist - no, make that a communist. Barack was gay. Barack was a Marxist. And a Muslim too.

Now the same myths are rumbling through the country's bars, online forums and, worryingly, major news outlets.

It is against this backdrop that new playwright Rashid Razaq is staging his debut production, based on Obama's college days at Columbia, New York.

Provocatively titled The President and the Pakistani, it revisits Harlem, 1981, when "Barry" Obama was living with his alleged party-loving, drug-abusing, illegal alien Pakistani friend, Sohale Siddiqi.

"They had an odd-couple relationship," says Razaq, a reporter, showing me a picture of the pair sprawled on a mustard yellow sofa, a leather-jacketed and polo-sweatered Obama kicking back with an impressively moustached, skinny Pakistani.

In the play, Siddiqi has been renamed Salim "Sal" Maqbool. In Obama's 1995 autobiography, Dreams From My Father, he was recreated as a composite character named Sadik, mentioned in only a few pages.

"Sal is a cokehead," says Razaq, who admits he has never spoken to Siddiqi.

"He has manic, nervous energy while Barry is the stable, secure, sensible guy. But there is a real closeness between them and hopefully that comes across." At heart, Razaq's play is a studied 80s bromance.

When tracked down, Obama's former room-mate, who now works for Getty Images in Seattle, says the reports of his drug use have been wildly overstated: "I was never in 'rehab'," he emails, "I simply curtailed drugs."

Their lives had naturally drifted apart by that point, but a solid bond remains. Siddiqi still refuses a steady stream of press requests to talk about his old friend, including the offer of $50,000 to talk to one anti-Obama filmmaker just a few weeks ago.  

Asked what he thinks of the play's script, Siddiqi says he feels "helpless", that "the portrayal of 'Sal' as a clingy and dishonest roommate is completely off the mark and makes me cringe."

"Obama was exceptionally kind and considerate of others which I considered to his own detriment - the play got that part correct," he says of his time spent living with Obama in a shabby apartment on East 94th Street.

It was a lease that Siddiqi, who was an illegal immigrant when he met Obama (having overstayed his tourist visa), had lied to win.

Siddiqi confirms the young Obama, a high school pothead, "was lighthearted and fun-loving for the first half of our cohabitation and grew serious later".

The Pakistani was preoccupied with "assimilating to my new environment [US]. Our cohabitation was on a temporary basis with me hoping to move to more comfortable surroundings and he wanting to live closer to Columbia."

Does it matter if the play is inaccurate?

"It wasn't about showing [Obama] doing drugs and making it shocking and sensational," says Razaq.

"Without it sounding sinister, he has just been a very ambitious, driven guy and we see the beginning of that in this play."

Razaq agrees representing a living president during the busiest period of electioneering is political.

"All theatre is a political act to some degree."

But he insists he drew inspiration from Obama's own book and scoped David Maraniss' biography, Barack Obama: The Making of the Man, published earlier this year, for further detail.

It's not the first time liberties have been taken about this relationship.

When we meet "Sadik" in Dreams From My Father, he is ushering Obama into his flat as a woman in her underwear cuts up lines of cocaine on the kitchen table. In Maraniss's biography, Obama first meets Siddiqi in a New Year's Eve party in San Francisco.

Maraniss says his past links with Pakistanis didn't affect Obama.

"The Pakistanis, in my mind, didn't shape him in any way but made this transitionary period of his life comfortable for him, as he was still learning what it was to be African American."


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