Obama as we knew him... man and boy
Schoolfriends remember his love for comic books, basketball and teasing the girls. A former boss recalls him as a young man running a community project in Chicago. A fellow senator remembers being beaten by him at poker. Gifted student, quiet persuader, charismatic speaker, loyal friend... We speak to the people who knew Barack Obama best, revealing an intimate, often touching, portrait of a man on the brink of greatness
* Interviews by Tom Templeton, Ally Carnwath and Xan Rice
* The Observer,
* Sunday October 26 2008
* Article history
Barack Obama as a student at the school in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1990. Photograph: Joe Wrinn/AP
Indonesia 1969: Rully Dasaad
After Barack's parents split up, he moved with his mother and Indonesian stepfather to Jakarta, aged seven, where he befriended classmate Dasaad - now a commercial photographer - at Basuki Primary School.
When the teacher introduced 'Barry Soetoro' [Obama went by his stepfather's name at the time] to the class, he was very exotic. He was the only non-Indonesian; he was taller than all of us and chubby. He was accompanied by his white mum and his Indonesian stepfather, who was wearing a military outfit, and I remember thinking, that's strange, he looks half black, half white - maybe this is what a boy from Hawaii looks like. He wore Bermuda pants that extended below the knee, whereas our short pants were halfway down our thigh, and he wore T-shirts with stripes whereas ours were plain. He was the only left-handed student in class - it's not considered polite in Indonesia to be left-handed - so it was always amazing to see him writing with his left hand.
Barry was the only one in the class who had bread in his lunch box - the rest of us had traditional Indonesian snacks. There's one called kepan - sticky rice and desiccated coconut which you have to dip in this very strong chilli sauce. It's hot even for us. But Barry was very curious. He tried it and burnt his mouth, and he was saying: 'It's hot, it's hot.' You can see he was always open to learning something new.
He and his mum had been living in Indonesia since 1967. She worked for USAID, helping Indonesian women in the countryside to live in a more Western fashion. For the first two months, Barry was still adjusting. We had a singing class once a week and he wouldn't sing, probably because he was shy and worried that he might sing a word wrong. But after three months, he spoke Indonesian. He became one of us.
I remember one time he had a birthday and I went to his house with some classmates. Barry's house was down a mud track; to play football there, you had to put plastic bags on your feet. Near his house was a small canal - at that time it wasn't polluted - and they had small salamanders in it. Barry had chickens in his home field. It was totally normal for Jakarta in those days.
Me, Barry and Yanto used to play together every lunch break for two years and he was very loyal to our gang. If I said: 'Don't play with that boy, play with us', he'd do it. We'd try to finish our lunch as fast as we could and then we'd go to the fields and play: running, hide and seek, marbles and tak gebok, an Indonesian game of tag where you try to hit your fellow boys with a ball. One time, there was a naughty young boy who missed Barry with the ball so he took a small stone from the playing field and threw it and hit Barry's head, which started bleeding. I remember Barry just went quiet - his mum had taught him not to fight. He was one of those kids you could tell was brought up with a lot of love and affection and so he was never angry or nasty.
We loved playing so much we were always in on the third bell. Most of the girls had a problem with our gang because we were always very active and sweating, and sometimes we'd miss-throw and hit a girl. 'Oh, here they are again,' they'd say. 'Oh, you're sweating from the sun, you stink, go away.' So I had to teach Barry Indonesian swear words to say back to the girls.
At the time, my father and President Sukarno were the only people in the country with Cadillacs, and both were presents from my grandpa, who was the richest man in Indonesia. Grandpa bought me all the DC Comic books, and I was the only one who had them, so Barry and Yanto would borrow the books and copy pictures of Batman and Spider-Man out and ask me to judge which was better. Barry was always better than Yanto. Even Yanto always agreed with that. Barry had a great eye.
We came back from the summer vacation for fifth grade and Barry wasn't there. The teacher said he'd gone back to Hawaii. Our small gang was split up.
Somebody said in 2006: 'Look at Time magazine - your old friend is running for President.' I didn't recognise him. He was much slimmer. Then I saw a picture where he was laughing and I recognised him from the smile and the teeth.
Later on there were allegations that the school was a madrassa, and foreign journalists began hanging around. But the small mosque at the school today was added on in 2001. There was no mosque at the time and it wasn't even a particularly religious school.
It's very sad if a great nation like America wants to persecute Obama just because he was born from a Muslim dad and had a Muslim stepfather. I'm sure one of the reasons for the flexibility he has today is his experiences in Indonesia. At the school, there were half-Chinese and half-Dutch Indonesians, Javanese people, Ambonese, and there were Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Catholics. Barry is used to a mix.