Echo of drones in a play about Obama and his Pakistani pal

By S I Minhas

Lahore, Nov 20 ( A hall packed to capacity with theatre enthusiasts representing London’s multi-cultural mix gave a rousing farewell to a month-long run of “The President and the Pakistani”, on 4 October, only two days before US presidential elections.

The play, written by Rashid Razaq, a journalist associated with London’s Evening Standard newspaper, is based on the life of young Barry (Barack) Obama living in a Harlem (New York) flat with his Pakistani roommate Sal Maqbool in early eighties (Obama had a real Pakistani roommate Sohale Siddiqui when he was at college called).

Contrasting characters

The script, apparently, based on Obama’s 1995 autobiography, ‘Dreams from my Father’ and “Barack Obama: The Making of the Man”, David Maraniss’s biography of the US president, presents a contrasting picture of the two characters as it moves between Obama’s idealistic principles and Sal’s cynical, downtrodden attitude.

Sal Maqbool, played by Junaid Faiz, is depicted as an ignorant, deadbeat drug addict, while Barry Obama, played by Syrus Lowe, is portrayed as an Ivy League graduate who wants to do his bit for society.

The action of the play takes place at 3am when Barry and Sal are in the process of moving to another flat, and cardboard boxes litter the floor. Sal becomes hysterical when Barry tells him he has found a job and is leaving Harlem for Chicago and is soon trying to emotionally blackmail him into staying.
“Essentially it’s about a clash of values, as two young men – once united by circumstance – find themselves diverging sharply,” Henry Hitchings wrote in his review in The Evening Standard on 5 October.

“Limited material”
Straightforward but imaginative production techniques by young director Tom Attenborough were greatly appreciated by the responsive audience, but some of them complained about the limited scope of the play.
“As you have seen there is not much happening in the 70 minute run of the play except for the call for Barry to take up the job of community organizer in Chicago and killing of Sal’s dog Charlie,” Dr Fawzia Afzal-Khan, Professor of English at Monclair State University and author of “A Critical Stage: The Role of Secular Alternative Theatre in Pakistan”, remarked after the performance.

“But even with this limited material Rashid Razaq and Tom Attenborough have succeeded in bringing forth the true characters of Barry and Sal,” she said adding that lack of action could have been compensated for with a bit more fun.

Echo of drones

There was an echo of real-life events inside the theatre hall. Barry could be imagined directly addressing the US votes when he describes his ideals, and when Sal complains about his ingratitude, he sounds like a conservative, ultra-nationalist Pakistani.

“We took you in when you had nowhere else to go in New York,” Sal says to Barry when he informs him about his intentions to leave Harlem and go to Chicago. “…and you are killing us with DRONES,” my friend sitting next to me said, as if completing his sentence.

It was not just a coincidence that the play opened on the day when Pakistani cricketer-turn-politician Imran Khan was preparing for his anti-drone march from the Pakistani capital Islamabad to the South Waziristan tribal district in the first of week of October.

“The play is timely. Not only is Obama facing the fight of his life, but the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan has just marched through Pakistan to protest against the CIA drones which, under Obama’s rule, continue to attack the country,” Daisy Bowie-Sell had also noted it in her review of the play published in The Independent on 10 October. (


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