US President Barack Hussein Obama can cook ‘Keema’ and ‘Dal’ – and cook it well! He is a fan of Cricket – but terrible with bats! These little known secrets about Obama were revealed during his interview to Dawn in June 2009. In the interview, he spoke about his visit to Pakistan and about his Pakistani friends, links that he did not talk about before or after the interview. It is politically unwise to highlight your links with Pakistan in today’s America, so he does not. 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, staying in Karachi with the family of a college friend, Mohammed Hasan Chandoo. He also travelled to Hyderabad. “As you know, I had Pakistani roommates in college who were very close friends of mine. I went to visit them when I was still in college … was in Karachi and went to Hyderabad. Their mothers taught me to cook,” Mr Obama told Dawn. When asked what he can cook, Mr Obama said, “Keema and Dal and ... you name it, I can cook it”. It did not stop at that, though. The US President further revealed that he is an admirer of great cricket players, but doesn’t know how to bat despite making several attempts. “You know, I have to say that I have tried to get up to bat a couple of times, but I’ve been terrible,” Mr Obama said in response to a question. “So I am an admirer of great cricket players, but make no claims in terms of my own skills,” he added. Mr Obama said that he also has an affinity for great Urdu poets. “I have a great affinity for Pakistani culture and the great Urdu poets. My hope is that I’m going to have an opportunity at some point to visit Pakistan,” he said. One of the things that tie the two countries together, he said, is the “extraordinary Pakistani-American community that is here in the US who are thriving and doing great work as physicians and as lawyers and as business people”. While interviewing him, I thought here is an American president who has not only visited Pakistan as a student but also has Pakistani friends and stays in touch with them too after occupying the White House. His first fundraiser, when he ran for the US Senate, was arranged by Pakistanis at a Chicago restaurant where they raised about $3,000 for him. So I thought his personal relations with Pakistan and Pakistanis will also reflect in his policies. It did not. It never does. Policies are guided by national interests and there’s little room for personal likes and dislikes. Memories of that interview – first one-on-one by any Pakistani journalist with a US president – are still fresh. The cameraman and I walked into the White House, carrying our camera, tripod and lights. Thank God we were called early. As we started setting up our shop, we discovered that the lights do not work, the tripods will not stand and the sound system was faulty. Had a CBS team, which was to interview the president after us, not helped, the interview would not have happened. We used their lights, their tripods and whatever else we needed. This is what happens when you work on a shoestring budget. The money we had did not allow us to hire a top professional. We did not come to the interview on a helicopter or in a limousine. We had a battered old car. Its windows would not open, so it was hot and stuffy inside. Then we had to struggle to find a place to park our car on the street (to save money). We could not. So we were forced to go to a parking lot which did not take credit cards. And before giving the car to the attendant, we made sure we had enough dollars in our wallet for this expensive, $18 an hour parking lot. By the time we reached the White House, we were sweating like pigs. So we were grateful when told that we may have to wait for three hours. This gave us time to wash off sweat, cool down and then familiarise ourselves with the place. The White House staff was very cooperative and showed us around, including the garden where they also showed favourite spots of various presidents. They took us to a room full of antique furniture and carpets, some more than 200 years old and were used only on special occasions. It was like any antique store, except that the goods inside looked very expensive and were not for sale. The Diplomatic Room, where we were interviewing the president, also had an antique carpet, covered with a plastic sheet and nobody was allowed to step on it. When the president came, the staff put two chairs on the carpet, which were removed immediately after the interview. When we returned to the Diplomatic Room, a dog walked in, followed by a girl. “It is Bo,” someone shouted. Bo, it was. A bushy, 6-month old puppy when the Obamas brought it into the White House in April 2009. The girl holding the leash was Malia, then 10, President Barack Obama`s eldest daughter. What followed next was a window into the lives of those who live in a fishbowl. Like a fish in an aquarium, every move they make is watched closely, whether they like it or not. What Malia was looking for was a little privacy to play with her dog, like millions of other children do. But it was too much to ask for. Privacy is denied to those living in the White House. The tension that comes with living in a fishbowl was writ large on the child’s face. Although her mother, Michelle Obama, was there to help her, it did not help much. The media people moved to a corner to give them a little privacy as the two Obamas went to the nearby garden. So did the White House staff. But the security detail had to follow the two ladies wherever they went, even when the two were out in the back garden. There were about a dozen of them. Big, tall men. Some in uniform. Others in grey suits. The bulge in their jackets showed the guns they were trying to hide. Malia was trying to train the dog. With a ball in his mouth, Bo, a Portuguese water-dog, was being taught to obey. And he appeared a good pupil. He sat when asked to and walked when told. But the presence of so many people made the dog nervous too. So the two ladies walked out of the garden, into the diplomatic room. They moved to another part of the White House, perhaps to find a spot where they could be on their own. But it seemed impossible. Their security detail followed wherever they went. Meanwhile, President Obama walked into a little room to do his make-up for the interview. A CBS make-up expert, who also helped Dawn, had the president in her hands, brushing his cheeks, covering little patches under his eyes, making sure that he looks good on the screen. And it was no ordinary day. Besides the media, the president had also invited hundreds of fathers from across the United States, even though Father’s Day was still two days away. Mr Obama only got a basketball, his first name and ambition from his father; he later told a gathering that he wanted to give much more to his children, Malia and Sasha, then 8. He said he came to understand the importance of fatherhood from its absence in his childhood. A Kenyan goatherd-turned-intellectual who clawed his way to scholarships and Harvard, Barack Hussein Obama Sr. left a family behind to get his schooling in the United States. He started another family here, then left his second wife and two-year-old Barack Jr. to return to Africa with another woman. He died in a car crash when his son was 21, a student at Columbia University. “I don`t want to be the kind of father I had,” the president is quoted as telling a friend. President Obama also cajoles other men to be better fathers. “I know I have been an imperfect father,” he writes in Sunday’s Parade magazine. “I know I have made mistakes. I have lost count of all the times, over the years, when the demands of work have taken me from the duties of fatherhood.” He promises to give his children a normal childhood. It is a huge promise. Living in a fishbowl is anything but normal.
The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.