“Wherever you go, don’t forget who you are”
Layers upon layers: can we ever get to know the truth about the private lives of our public figures? In his own 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama changed names and conflated people to both protect people and to create more narrative flow, thus creating his own version of events from his life. And in The President and the Pakistani, Evening Standard journalist Rashid Razaq has now written his own fictionalised account of one of those crucial junctures in the life of POTUS in The President and the Pakistani to further obfuscate the picture whilst simultaneously providing a rather intriguing piece of drama.
In 1985 when Barack was still Barry, he was shacked up in Harlem and living a relatively normal life. But having decided to take a job in Chicago, that would mark the beginning of a meteoric political ascension, he has to say goodbye to his old life, including his roommate, an illegal Pakistani immigrant called Sal Maqbool (who is neither Obama’s fictional Sadiq, or real-life’s Sohale Siddiqi, and yet he is both). Over the course of a long night, Obama has to break the news to Sal – who thinks they’re just packing to move flat – that their journeys are about to take wildly different turns.
It’s one of the strange quirks of life that communal living can bring together the most diverse of people, folk who would never normally give each other the time of day suddenly find themselves in each other’s pockets. And so it is here: Syrus Lowe’s Barry is a fast-maturing twenty-something, hints of the man behind the façade peek through as he bops away to hip-hop and boxes up a pleasingly assorted reading list, but there’s also a suggestion already of the steeliness necessary to survive political life; and Junaid Faiz’s Sal is the victim of that cool realism, his drug-fueled self-destructive impulses completely incompatible with the sought-after entrée into public life.
Occasionally, Razaq teeters over into a heavy-handed foreshadowing of Barry’s future role, the speechifying and the willingness to make harsh choices for the greater good spelled out a little too obviously, though it is interesting to wonder how much of the politician was in Obama’s character before he moved to Chicago. And Tom Attenborough’s forthright direction keeps matters uncomplicated in the intimate space of the Waterloo East – attractively adorned by Francesca Reidy’s set – as we wind to the conclusion that we know is coming.
The genre of fictionalised reality is one which I think I won’t ever feel entirely comfortable with. Whether one is familiar with the subject in question or not, there’s always a nagging sense of uncertainty about its purpose, about what is true and what is not, about what is actually being gained in the telling of a half-true story, especially one loaded with such political significance with the insidious persistence of the birther movement. Razaq negotiates these difficulties quite well here though by focusing on the bigger picture of the journey of two men brought together by circumstance and torn apart by life to quietly moving effect.