Obama, his room-mate and rewritten history
The President and the Pakistani, a new play about Barack and the friend he left behind, tells the American story of reinvention, says its author Rashid Razaq
18 September 2012
A drug addict. An illegal immigrant. A Pakistani. It wouldn’t have taken much to hurt Barack Obama’s election chances in 2008 if his former room-mate, Sadik, had decided to spill the beans.
The “short, well-built Pakistani” who smoked marijuana, snorted cocaine, liked to party and was in America illegally, merited only two pages in Dreams From My Father, the would-be president’s autobiography. He was, Obama confessed, a “composite” character, based on a real person. He never publicly revealed his inspiration for “Sadik” and defended his practice of conflating people, times, places and facts to protect his friends’ identities and to provide a tighter and more gripping narrative. Publishing his book in 1995 just as he was launching his political career, Obama was not only telling his life story but selling himself to the American voter. If he could create his own identity then why not other people’s as well?
But who was “Sadik”? In fact, Obama had several close Pakistani friends. There was Imdad Husain, the intellectual British public school-educated room-mate at Occidental College, who spoke with an English accent and was partial to “peacoats and rugby shirts”; And the gregarious and generous Hasan Chandoo, whose family were in the shipping business and became like a “big brother”. The 20-year-old Obama even went to Karachi for his summer holidays in 1981, splitting his time there between the homes of Chandoo and another friend Wahid Hamid.
“These were my closest friends,” said Obama years later. World citizens who spanned cultures and shared his international perspective. It was to Beenu Mahmood that a young Obama revealed the fierce ambition that he kept hidden from almost everybody with the question, “Do you think I will be President of the United States?”
So tight was his clique that Obama’s white Australian girlfriend, Genevieve Cook, grumbled that they only ever seemed to socialise with the “Paki Mob” even after he had graduated and was working as a business researcher in New York.
David Maraniss’ expansive biography, Barack Obama: The Making of The Man, published earlier this year, minutely details how the future President formed life-long friendships with his Pakistani college buddies, sketching in the real people behind his fictional characters and even highlighting inconsistencies in Obama’s own account of his life in Dreams. Chandoo and Hamid, who became high-fliers in the worlds of finance and business, were invited to Obama’s wedding to Michelle in 1992 and even fundraised for his last election campaign. But there was one member of the Paki Mob Obama did not stay in touch with and his story is the most intriguing.
Sohale Siddiqi was Obama’s room-mate after he transferred from Occidental in Los Angeles to Columbia in New York and was revealed to be “Sadik”, when he was tracked down by reporters in the run-up to the 2008 election. He is also the inspiration for the title character of my first play, The President and The Pakistani, directed by Tom Attenborough, which looks at how Obama became the man we know and at the friend he left behind. He could easily be written-off as a bit part player in the story of the 44th President of the United States , but Obama and Siddiqi’s time together marked a fundamental turning point in both their lives.
Hailing from Karachi, like Chandoo and Hamid, he struck up a friendship with Obama after the lanky black kid greeted him with “How’s it going boss?” in Urdu at a house party. They later moved in together into a “slum” apartment in a drug-ridden neighbourhood on the border of Harlem and the Upper East Side where gunshots were a constant presence on the soundtrack.
They made an odd couple. The skinny 6’1 Ivy League student, dressed in military surplus khakis and second-hand leather jackets and his 5’7 Pakistani friend with a thick, bushy moustache. This was mad, bad 80s New York where the two friends would encounter bums, dealers, gang members and worse on their walks through the mean streets with Siddiqi’s pet pug Charlie.
Obama and Siddiqi ended up in court before a judge after they fell victim to a rent scam and were threatened with eviction. Yet the real danger was for the Pakistani as he had overstayed his tourist visa and was in the country illegally working two jobs as a waiter and a salesman and with dreams of making it big.
Siddiqi said (in the rare interviews he has given) that they would do the things young guys do, hitting the town competing for girls – Obama usually the more successful – but eventually their relationship started to fray. Siddiqi was partying too much and, in that Regan-era Wall Street boom, concerned with getting rich quick while Obama was pushing in a different direction. He started living like a “monk”, reading deeply, running obsessively, becoming more socially aware and a “bore” in the process, according to Siddiqi. It was around this time that Obama began to move away from seeing himself as a globe-trotting international outsider, like his Pakistani friends and his Australian girlfriend Cook, and repositioning himself as an American and more specifically an African-American that would see him leave New York for Chicago.
Even though it had been many years since they had last spoken, he did not want to say anything that could harm Obama at the time of the last election. What he did reveal is that after they went their separate ways he became addicted to cocaine and lost his business. And while Obama was beating a path to the White House, the Pakistani was fighting to stay on the road to recovery that eventually saw him clean of drugs and working for a small community theatre in Seattle.
Republican rivals have attempted to make a meal of Obama’s Pakistani connections, even suggesting he is part of a sinister Muslim plot, but there is something in the story of these two former friends that echoes with the wider story of the US and Pakistan since 9/11, a loveless marriage underscored by deception, mistrust and necessity.
When the curtain falls, whether it’s on November 6 or in four years’ time, Obama’s place in history has been assured. Maybe even some of the momentousness and hope from 2008 will creep back into the narrative. For Obama is a master storyteller. The search for an identity that took him from an elite school in Hawaii to the ghettoes of Chicago’s South Side to Harvard Law School on his way to the Oval Office is an epic quest in the greatest American literary tradition.
What becomes apparent is that the President made a series of decisions along the way, from the eschewing of a well-paid corporate career for a life of public service, to the jettisoning of privileged white girlfriends for a smart black lawyer who would become his wife, and the friends he chose and the ones he left behind.
Ultimately, if Obama is remembered for one thing it may be that he reaffirmed that fundamental American belief that in America everyone can write their own story.
The President and The Pakistani is at the Waterloo East Theatre, SE1 (020 7928 0060; waterlooeast.co.uk; president-pakistani.com) from Oct 3 to Nov 4. The author is a reporter for the London Evening Standard