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When Farris Hassan is late for class and his whereabouts are in question, the joke is inevitable.
"Went to Iraq," someone will deadpan, and the room will erupt into giggles.
When Hassan walks down the corridors of Pine Crest School, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, he is sometimes asked to show his passport.
And there was the time, last month, when it was announced that school would be canceled as Tropical Storm Ernesto approached. A teacher turned to him and said, "Farris, we're not coming to school tomorrow. Here's your chance. Get to the airport."
Nearly a year after Hassan briefly became an international media figure for making his clandestine Christmas-break voyage to Baghdad, back at home, he gets a ribbing by those at his elite preparatory school who wonder when he'll escape on another wild ride.
Fact is, he already has.
Six months after his Iraq gambit, Hassan used his summer vacation to make several more top-secret trips, this time inside the United States.
On July, 3 he flew to Denver and hitchhiked from Steamboat Springs to attend the Rainbow Gathering in Routt National Forest. For five days, he immersed himself in the annual itinerant tent city of latter-day hippies. Then Hassan hitchhiked back to the city, where he befriended an alcoholic and a prostitute and checked himself into the Denver Rescue Mission posing as a penniless drifter. Then he flew to Dearborn, Michigan, home of America's largest mosque, and for two weeks, he assumed the identity of a Jew, hoping to find out whether Muslims there harbored anti-Semitic views. In Detroit, he spent two nights wandering the streets and five more in the Salvation Army's homeless shelter on skid row. And he's got videos.
For the first time, he's talking about those trips, saying that they're part of his sincere wish to become a journalist in the best tradition of immersion reporting. But it's hard not to conclude that they're also part of an effort by Hassan to keep himself in the news. Before he agreed to one of the interviews for this story, for example, Hassan asked New Times Broward-Palm Beach to speak with his new press agent, who also represents Flavor Flav and Donald Trump. And Hassan seemed as concerned with how an article would affect his chances to get into an Ivy League college as he did in clearing up what he characterizes as misconceptions about his Iraq adventure. Hassan's motives for the trip, however, still seem as slippery and hard to pin down as a drop of mercury.
Also talking are his mother and his Pine Crest friends. And their descriptions of a contentious family history and the rise of Hassan as a minor legend at school help explain what drives the 17-year-old adventurer, who may have tasted fame too soon for his own good.
On a recent Monday night, Hassan opens the door to his uncle's Hollywood townhouse still wearing his Pine Crest uniform a white button-down with vertical blue stripes and khaki shorts. A lanky but attractive kid with good manners, Hassan fetches a couple of bottled waters. Upstairs, the adornments in Farris' room fall into two categories: souvenirs from his travels and black-and- white photos of writers, philosophers, and presidents.
Ben Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and a snapshot of a Jewish ghetto during WWII watch over Hassan as he sleeps, and an American flag dangles from his bookshelf. A rug from the Hotel Al-Rasheed in Baghdad is draped over his desk, and a "DENVER DOWNTOWN" hitchhiking placard perches atop his closet.
Hassan hiked into the Rainbow Gathering the 35th-annual camping trip since the peace event was first held in Colorado in 1972 without a tent or sleeping bag. It was his first camping trip, and the young conservative's attempt to learn about those on the opposite end of the political spectrum was also a balancing act.
"I thought the palpable love I would see at the Rainbow Gathering would be a nice contrast to the rest of my trip the homeless and the Muslim community," he says.
On the Fourth of July, Hassan witnessed a circle of a thousand people in the middle of the woods, praying for peace, singing songs, and performing Native American dances. There to research and not to argue, Hassan was careful not to mention that he thought the Iraq War is a good thing. After all, he needed a tent to crash in.
Apparently, he made a strong impression. "He really is trying to pull the planet together and speak the truth from a very young age," says Bonnie McKenzie, who declared herself Hassan's "rainbow mom." "I think he does have divine guidance. He's unlocking the voice of the people."
McKenzie, 58, also assigned Hassan a rainbow dad her friend Spaceman, 56, whom she met on Yahoo personals a year and a half ago. Neither recognized him as the Florida high schooler who traveled to Iraq, but Hassan filled them in. He declined to discuss his motives for going or what he learned but instead talked philosophy and the cosmos with Spaceman.