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Barack Obama’s Pakistan Connections : ALL THINGS PAKISTAN
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Barack Obama’s Pakistan Connections

Posted on September 1, 2008
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Foreign Relations, Pakistanis Abroad, People
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Adil Najam

Most Pakistanis seem to like Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic Party candidate for President. However, for most, Senator Obama’s “Pakistan Connections” were limited to (a) his rather strong words about Pakistan, including about sending troops into Pakistan, and (b) his choice of Senator Joeseph Biden, who has a long and deep interest in foreign affairs, including Pakistan. Most Pakistanis are not very fond of the first of these connections. The second connection they like, especially because Senator Biden has been the key architect of a new, very generous and quite sensible support package for Pakistan.

It turns out, however, that Barack Obama may have slightly deeper and more personal connections to Pakistan. But, frankly, only very slightly deeper and only very slightly personal.



First, there is the story circulating around that Barak Obama’s mother lived in Pakistan for five years. It is quite clear that Ann Dunham, Obama’s mother, did indeed work and live in Pakistan as a consultant to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), working on a project in Gujranwalla (here, here, here). However, I must confess that I have serious doubts if she actually “lived” in Pakistan (i.e., Pakistan was her primary residence) for five years.

The “5-year” conjecture is based on a headline in the Daily Waqt that proclaims that “Obama’s Mother Stayed in Pakistan for 5 Years.” My own sense is that this may be a case of a bad translation and/or an erroneous headline.

Here is why I think this is so: first, the type of work she is reported to have been doing for the ADB would usually require occasional and repeated visits but not permanent placement; second,  if it did, it is unlikely that she would have stayed in a 5-star hotel the entire time as the report alleges. Here is the Daily Waqt report in question:

The mother of American Presidential hopeful, Barack Obama, Mrs. Ann Dunham lived in Pakistan for five years. During this time, Barack Obama also visited his mother and stayed for a few month. Mrs. Ann Dunham was hired as a consultant by the Asian Development Bank for Pakistan Agricultural Development Bank’s Gujranwalla Agricultural Development Program. This program began in 1987 and ended in 1992.

Mrs. Ann Dunham monitored the funds received for this program from the Asian Development Bank and trained the Mobile Credit Officers of the Agricultural Bank. This program was controlled from the Gujranwalla Regional Office. She stayed for five years in the Hilton International Hotel (now Avari Hotel), Lahore. She travelled daily from Lahore to Gujranwalla. When Barack Obama visited Pakistan, he stayed in the same hotel. After returning from Pakistan, she died from cancer within three years.

Second, Barack Obama has himself visited Pakistan. Indeed, Barack Obama may have visited Pakistan for longer than any U.S. President or presidential candidate ever has. As so many college students do, he seemed eager to see the world. He was in Karachi in 1981 as a young student, returning from a visit to his mother in Indonesia. According to a New York Times report:

…Mr. Obama also spoke about having traveled to Pakistan in the early 1980s. Because of that trip, which he did not mention in either of his autobiographical books, “I knew what Sunni and Shia was before I joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” he said… According to his campaign staff, Mr. Obama visited Pakistan in 1981, on the way back from Indonesia, where his mother and half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, were living. He spent “about three weeks” there, Mr. Obama’s press secretary, Bill Burton, said, staying in Karachi with the family of a college friend, Mohammed Hasan Chandoo, but also traveling to Hyderabad, in India.



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Finally, as mentioned in the excerpt above, Senator Obama had a number of Pakistani friends during his college days, and it was that friendship that brought him to Pakistan. Some details, again, from the same New York Times report:

…In Dreams from My Father, he talks of having a Pakistani roommate when he moved to New York, a man he calls Sadik who “had overstayed his tourist visa and now made a living in New York’s high-turnover, illegal immigrant work force, waiting on tables”… During his years at Occidental College, Mr. Obama also befriended Wahid Hamid, a fellow student who was an immigrant from Pakistan and traveled with Mr. Obama there, the Obama campaign said. Mr. Hamid is now a vice president at Pepsico in New York, and according to public records, has donated the maximum $2,300 to the Obama campaign and is listed as a fund-raiser for it. Mr. Chandoo is now a self-employed financial consultant, living in Armonk, N.Y. He has also donated the maximum, $2,300, to Mr. Obama’s primary campaign and an additional $309 for the general election, campaign finance records show.

An Associated Press story on Obama’s college friends has more interesting snippets. Especially his relationship with Sohale Siddiqi, from Karachi, is fascinating – all the more to the Pakistani reader:

The way Sohale Siddiqi remembers it, he and his old roommate were walking his pug Charlie on Broadway when a large, scary bum approached them, stomping on the ground near the dog’s head. This was in the 1980s, a time when New York was a fearful place beset by drugs and crime, when the street smart knew that the best way to handle the city’s derelicts was to avoid them entirely. But Siddiqi was angry and he confronted the man, who approached him menacingly. Until his skinny, elite univerity-educated friend – Barack Obama – intervened. He “stepped right in between. … He planted his face firmly in the face of the guy. ‘Hey, hey, hey.’ And the guy backpedaled and we kept walking,” Siddiqi recalls.

…Obama spent the six years between 1979 and 1985 at Occidental College in Los Angeles and then in New York at Columbia University and in the workplace. His memoir, Dreams from My Father, talks about this time, but not in great detail; Siddiqi, for example, is identified only as “Sadik” _ “a short, well-built Pakistani” who smoked marijuana, snorted cocaine and liked to party. Obama’s campaign wouldn’t identify “Sadik,” but The Associated Press located him in Seattle, where he raises money for a community theater. Together, the recollections of Siddiqi and other friends and acquaintances from Obama’s college years paint a portrait of the candidate as a young man. They remember a good student with a sharp mind and unshakable integrity, a young man who already had a passion for the underprivileged. Some described the young Obama’s personality as confident to the point of arrogance, a criticism that would emerge decades later, during the campaign.

Not everyone who knew Obama in those years is eager to talk. Some explained that they feared inadvertently hurting Obama’s campaign. Among his friends were Siddiqi and two other Pakistanis, all of them from Karachi; several of those interviewed said the Pakistanis were reluctant to talk for fear of stoking rumors that Obama is a Muslim. “Obama in the eyes of some right wingers is basically Muslim until proved innocent,” says Margot Mifflin, a friend from Occidental who is now a journalism professor at New York’s Lehman College. “It’s partly the Muslim factor by association and partly the fear of something being twisted.”

…Of course, he was only 18 when he arrived at the small liberal arts college nicknamed “Oxy.” His freshman roommates were Imad Husain, a Pakistani, who’s now a Boston banker, and Paul Carpenter, now a Los Angeles lawyer… Obama had an international circle of friends _ “a real eclectic sort of group,” says Vinai Thummalapally, who himself came from Hyderabad, India. As a freshman, he quickly became friends with Mohammed Hasan Chandoo and Wahid Hamid, two wealthy Pakistanis.

In 1981, Obama transferred from Occidental to Columbia. In between, he traveled to Pakistan – a trip that enhanced his foreign policy qualifications, he maintained in a private speech at a San Francisco fundraiser last month. Obama spent “about three weeks” in Pakistan, traveling with Hamid and staying in Karachi with Chandoo’s family, said Bill Burton, Obama’s press secretary. “He was clearly shocked by the economic disparity he saw in Pakistan. He couldn’t get over the sight of rural peasants bowing to the wealthy landowners they worked for as they passed,” says Margot Mifflin, who makes a brief appearance in Obama’s memoir.

When Obama arrived in New York, he already knew Siddiqi – a friend of Chandoo’s and Hamid’s from Karachi who had visited Los Angeles. Looking back, Siddiqi acknowledges that he and Obama were an odd couple. Siddiqi would mock Obama’s idealism – he just wanted to make a lot of money and buy things, while Obama wanted to help the poor. “At that age, I thought he was a saint and a square, and he took himself too seriously,” Siddiqi said. “I would ask him why he was so serious. He was genuinely concerned with the plight of the poor. He’d give me lectures, which I found very boring. He must have found me very irritating.”

Siddiqi offered the most expansive account of Obama as a young man. “We were both very lost. We were both alienated, although he might not put it that way. He arrived disheveled and without a place to stay,” said Siddiqi, who at the time worked as a waiter and as a salesman at a boutique… In about 1982, Siddiqi and Obama got an apartment at a sixth-floor walkup on East 94th Street. Siddiqi managed to get the apartment thanks to subterfuge. “We didn’t have a chance in hell of getting this apartment unless we fabricated the lease application,” Siddiqi said. Siddiqi fudged his credentials, saying he had a high-paying job at a catering company, but Obama “wanted no part of it. He put down the truth.”

The apartment was “a slum of a place” in a drug-ridden neighborhood filled with gunshots, he said. “It wasn’t a comfortable existence. We were slumming it.” What little furniture they had was found on the street, and guests would have to hold their dinner plates in their laps. While Obama has acknowledged using marijuana and cocaine during high school in Hawaii, he writes in the memoir that he stopped using soon after his arrival in New York. His roommate had no such scruples. But Siddiqi says that during their time together here, Obama always refused his offers of drugs.

…Siddiqi said his female friends thought Obama was “a hunk.” “We were always competing,” he said. “You know how it is. You go to a bar and you try hitting on the girls. He had a lot more success. I wouldn’t out-compete him in picking up girls, that’s for sure.” Obama was a tolerant roommate. Siddiqi’s mother, who had never been around a black man, came to visit and she was rude; Obama was nothing but polite. Siddiqi himself could be intemperate – he called Obama an Uncle Tom, but “he was really patient. I’m surprised he suffered me.” Finally, their relationship started to fray. “I was partying all the time. I was disrupting his studies,” Siddiqi said. Obama moved out.

… Neither Hamid nor Chandoo would be interviewed for this story; Hamid is now a top executive at Pepsico in New York, and Chandoo is a self-employed financial consultant in the New York area. Both have each contributed the maximum $2,300 to Obama’s campaign, and records indicate each has joined an Asian-American council that supports his run for president. Both also are listed on Obama’s campaign Web site as being among his top fundraisers, each bringing in between $100,000 and $200,000 in contributions from their networks of friends. Both also attended Obama’s wedding in 1992, according to published reports and other friends.

Thummalapally has stayed in contact with Obama, too, visiting him in New York, attending his wedding in 1992 and joining him in Springfield, Illinois., for the Feb. 10, 2007, announcement of Obama’s run for the White House. President of a CD and DVD manufacturing company in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Thummalapally also is listed as a top fundraiser on the campaign Web site.

Siddiqi has not kept in touch. His has been a difficult road; years after his time with Obama, Siddiqi says, he became addicted to cocaine and lost his business. But when he needed help during his recovery, Obama – the roommate he drove away with his partying, the man he always suspected of looking down at him – gave him a job reference. So yes, he’s an Obama man, too. Witness the message on his answering machine: “My name is Hal Siddiqi, and I approve of this message. Vote for peace, vote for hope, vote for change, and vote for Obama.”

But the most interesting account, even more interesting than the yarn about Hal Siddiqi comes from Barack Obama himself, in his book Dreams from My Father. Here are some excerpts from Chapter 6:

I SPENT MY FIRST NIGHT in Manhattan curled up in an alleyway. It wasn’t intentional; while still in L.A., I had heard that a friend of a friend would be vacating her apartment in Spanish Harlem, near Columbia, and that given New York’s real estate market I’d better grab it while I could. An agreement was reached; I wired ahead with the date of my August arrival; and after dragging my luggage through the airport, the subways, Times Square, and across 109th from Broadway to Amsterdam, I finally stood at the door, a few minutes past ten P.M.

I pressed the buzzer repeatedly, but no one answered. The street was empty, the buildings on either side boarded up, a bulk of rectangular shadows. Eventually, a young Puerto Rican woman emerged from the building, throwing a nervous look my way before heading down the street. I rushed to catch the door before it slammed shut, and, pulling my luggage behind me, proceeded upstairs to knock, and then bang, on the apartment door. Again, no answer, just a sound down the hall of a deadbolt thrown into place.

New York. Just like I pictured it. I checked my wallet-not enough money for a motel. I knew one person in New York, a guy named Sadik whom I’d met in L.A., but he’d told me that he worked all night at a bar somewhere. With nothing to do but wait, I carried my luggage back downstairs and sat on the stoop. After a while, I reached into my back pocket, pulling out the letter I’d been carrying since leaving L.A. …

It was well past midnight by the time I crawled through a fence that led to an alleyway. I found a dry spot, propped my luggage beneath me, and fell asleep, the sound of drums softly shaping my dreams. In the morning, I woke up to find a white hen pecking at the garbage near my feet. Across the street, a homeless man was washing himself at an open hydrant and didn’t object when I joined him. There was still no one home at the apartment, but Sadik answered his phone when I called him and told me to catch a cab to his place on the Upper East Side.

He greeted me on the street, a short, well-built Pakistani who had come to New York from London two years earlier and found his caustic wit and unabashed desire to make money perfectly pitched to the city’s mood. He had overstayed his tourist visa and now made a living in New York’s high-turnover, illegal immigrant workforce, waiting on tables. As we entered the apartment I saw a woman in her underwear sitting at the kitchen table, a mirror and a razor blade pushed off to one side.

“Sophie,” Sadik started to say, “this is Barry –”

“Barack,” I corrected, dropping my bags on the floor. The woman waved vaguely, then told Sadik that she’d be gone by the time he got back. I followed Sadik back downstairs and into a Greek coffee shop across the street. I apologized again about having called so early.

“Don’t worry about it,” Sadik said. “She seemed much prettier last night.” He studied the menu, then set it aside. “So tell me, Bar-sorry. Barack. Tell me, Barack. What brings you to our fair city?”

I tried to explain. I had spent the summer brooding over a misspent youth, I said-the state of the world and the state of my soul. “I want to make amends,” I said. “Make myself of some use.”

Sadik broke open the yolk of an egg with his fork. “Well, amigo…you can talk all you want about saving the world, but this city tends to eat away at such noble sentiments. Look out there.” He gestured to the crowd along First Avenue. “Everybody looking out for number one. Survival of the fittest. Tooth and claw. Elbow the other guy out of the way. That, my friend, is New York. But…” He shrugged and mopped up some egg with his toast. “Who knows? Maybe you’ll be the exception. In which case I will doff my hat to you.”

Sadik tipped his coffee cup toward me in mock salute, his eyes searching for any immediate signs of change. And in the coming months he would continue to observe me as I traveled, like a large lab rat, through the byways of Manhattan. He would suppress a grin when the seat I had offered to a middle-aged woman on the subway was snatched up by a burly young man. At Bloomingdale’s, he would lead me past human mannequins who spritzed perfume into the air and watch my reaction as I checked over the eye-popping price tags on winter coats. He would offer me lodging again when I gave up the apartment on 109th for lack of heat, and accompany me to Housing Court when it turned out that the sublessors of my second apartment had failed to pay the rent and run off with my deposit.

“Tooth and claw, Barack. Stop worrying about the rest of these bums out here and figure out how you’re going to make some money out of this fancy degree you’ll be getting.”

When Sadik lost his own lease, we moved in together. And after a few months of closer scrutiny, he began to realize that the city had indeed had an effect on me, although not the one he’d expected. I stopped getting high. I ran three miles a day and fasted on Sundays. For the first time in years, I applied myself to my studies and started keeping a journal of daily reflections and very bad poetry. Whenever Sadik tried to talk me into hitting a bar, I’d beg off with some tepid excuse, too much work or not enough cash. One day, before leaving the apartment in search of better company, he turned to me and offered his most scathing indictment.

“You’re becoming a bore.”

I knew he was right, although I wasn’t sure myself what exactly had happened. In a way, I was confirming Sadik’s estimation of the city’s allure, I suppose; its consequent power to corrupt. With the Wall Street boom, Manhattan was humming, new developments cropping up everywhere; men and women barely out of their twenties already enjoying ridiculous wealth, the fashion merchants fast on their heels. The beauty, the filth, the noise, and the excess, all of it dazzled my senses; there seemed no constraints on originality of lifestyles or the manufacture of desire-a more expensive restaurant, a finer suit of clothes, a more exclusive nightspot, a more beautiful woman, a more potent high. Uncertain of my ability to steer a course of moderation, fearful of falling into old habits, I took on the temperament if not the convictions of a street corner preacher, prepared to see temptation everywhere, ready to overrun a fragile will.

In case you have not already guessed, the mysterious “Sadik” is our freind “Sohale [Hal] Siddiqi” from above.

So, what does all of this mean? Probably nothing. At best, next to nothing.

Some Pakistanis might want to get all excited about these connections. But, frankly, they will be as misguided in doing so as would be Obama-bashers who would like to concoct deep conspiracies and imagine dark implications of these amusing, but eventually inconsequential and incidental, connections of a young student.

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