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Secrets of Obama Family Unlocked

February 1, 2007 by  


By Michael Sheridan, (Jakarta) and Sarah Baxter (Washington)

WHEN Barack Obama, America’s newest presidential hopeful, was hit by allegations that he had attended a radical Islamic madrasah school as a boy in Indonesia, the claims spread like a virus through the media and internet.

It was a lie — the school was barely more religious than British church schools — but it was also a sign that Obama’s chances of winning the presidency depend to an unusual degree on his life story and character.

The race is on to define the gifted but little-known senator for Illinois and The Sunday Times can reveal that his heritage is far more diverse and astonishing than anything American voters have heard so far.

Obama, 45, has two half- sisters, one living in Britain, and five surviving half-brothers, the eldest of whom converted to Islam, and whose stories span the globe.

Nobody was more surprised to hear that Obama had reportedly been educated in a madrasah than Julia Suryakusuma, a close friend of his mother until her death from ovarian cancer in 1995.

Suryakusuma, 53, one of Indonesia’s most outspoken feminist writers, has fearlessly taken on extremist Muslim clerics in print. Last week she described Ann Dunham, Obama’s mother, “as a liberal and a humanist”, who learnt to speak fluent Indonesian and adored the culture.

“She was interested in religions but didn’t follow one. She was a free-thinker,” Suryakusuma said. “She was a pioneer and when she came to Indonesia she was ensnared and enchanted.”

On the coffee table in her cool modern house in Jakarta, full of the beautiful Indonesian fabrics and carvings which captivated her friend, lies an album of photographs which record the happy times.

There is Dunham, pale-skinned, jolly and frizzy-haired, celebrating with her friends at an art gallery opening or a drinks party, wearing the baggy, free-flowing clothes often favoured by bohemian western women in Asia. She always seemed to be laughing.

“You know Ann was really, really white,” smiled Suryakusuma, looking through the album, “even though she told me she had some Cherokee blood in her. I think she just loved people of a different skin colour, brown people.”

Dunham was from Wichita, Kansas, but her parents moved to Hawaii in search of a better life. According to Obama, a distant ancestor was a “full-blooded Cherokee”.

Dunham’s first marriage was to a Kenyan student, also called Barack Obama, but he left the family to study at Harvard and returned to Africa.

She went on to marry Lolo Soetoro, another foreign student, and moved to his native Indonesia with six-year-old Barack in 1967, after the new dictator Suharto summoned the country’s citizens home.

Soetoro became a government relations consultant with a big US oil company. “He changed when he came back to Indonesia,” Suryakusuma recalled. “Men can be a certain way when they are in the West and when they come back they are sucked into their own culture.”

In his memoir, Dreams from My Father, first published in 1995, Obama does not conceal the estrangement between his mother and stepfather as Soetoro made compromises with Indonesia’s power elite. They divorced and he died decades later of a liver complaint.

At 10, Obama returned to Hawaii, where he lived with his grandparents and attended an elite private school. His mother went back to Indonesia with Obama’s half-sister Maya, now a professor at the University of Hawaii, and became an expert on the “feminine crafts”, such as weaving and basket-making, practised by the women of Java.

Suryakusuma recalled that Dunham called her son “Berry” — Barry with an Indonesian lilt. “We were both mothers and we talked about how difficult it was for a mother to separate herself and send her child away, but she was really concerned about Barry’s education.”

She first met Obama when he came to visit his mother as a young adult. “She was so proud of him. I remember she was glowing with pride when he became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review.

“You know, having a white mother and a black father and coming to Indonesia,” Suryakusuma reflected, “I could see he had the same kind of empathy with people that his mother had.”

Obama’s multi-hued heritage has put a distance between him and the African-American community, which has been reluctant to claim him as a “brother”.

America’s white community, in contrast, has embraced Obama as a hopeful affirmation that the fabled melting pot can transcend race. With his middle name Hussein (like Saddam) and surname Obama (like Osama), he is a rare and exotic figure in American politics.

“I believe the American electorate is ready to support leaders who embody the American dream despite their differences. In doing so, we affirm ourselves as a tolerant people,” said William Galston, a senior fellow in public policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Yet there are details in Obama’s life that have yet to be subjected to full scrutiny. It may not be the information itself that matters, according to Galston, but “how Obama talks about the facts as they emerge and handles questions and controversies.”

The Chicago Sun-Times columnist Lynn Sweet was the first to spot in 2004, when Obama burst on the national stage at the Democratic party convention, that his memoir, Dreams from My Father, contained “composite” characters and changed names.

“Except for public figures and his family, it is impossible to know who is real and who is not,” she pointed out.

Obama admitted as much in his introduction, saying he had altered characters “for the sake of their privacy.” As with the revelation that he took cocaine in his youth, he appears to have been candid about potential areas of controversy.

Obama’s African family is particularly complicated. By his own account, his father never really left Kezia, his first wife, in Kenya. She bore Obama Sr two children, Roy and Auma, who now works in social services in Berkshire.

They were separated, Obama’s mother claimed, but “it was a village wedding and there was no document that could suggest a divorce”.

His own father and mother’s wedding in Hawaii may not have been properly documented either. “How and when the marriage occurred remains a bit murky, a bill of particulars that I have never quite had the courage to explore,” Obama writes in his memoir.

After his father left Ann and two-year-old Barack to study at Harvard, he went to Africa with another American woman, Ruth, who became his third wife. She bore him two sons in Kenya, one of whom died in a motorcycle accident, but Obama Sr continued to see Kezia.

“Traditionally, she was still his wife,” a relative explained. Kezia went on to bear two more sons, Abo and Bernard. Although their paternity is disputed by some relatives, Obama Sr regarded them as his own. Later in life, he fathered another son, George, by a young Kenyan woman.

After his parents split up, Obama saw his father only once before learning that he had died in a car crash in Kenya in 1982.

Obama’s eldest brother Roy moved to America and went on to convert to Islam.

Obama, in contrast, became a committed Christian while he was working as a community activist in Chicago. Last week he denounced the reports that he was educated in a madrasah as a “ludicrous” smear.

Larry Sabato, professor of political science at the University of Virginia, believes Obama’s richly textured African and Indonesian background will attract voters, no matter how controversial it is.

“America loves a success story — the new generation that rises from the sins and misfortunes of the older generation,” Sabato said.

In Indonesia, Suryakusuma said she could still feel the “warm” presence of Obama’s mother Ann. “She would be so proud if she knew about Barry, so proud to think that her little boy would be running for president of the United States.”

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