By Jared Chausow
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According to Farris and news reports, Redha told Farris to fly to Beirut, where he stayed with family friends for a week. Family members arranged an interview for Farris with a Hezbollah public relations officer, and his father told reporters he secured Farris a plane ticket to Baghdad from Beirut and arranged for bodyguards to protect his son. (Redha Hassan who is in Beirut could not be reached for comment.)
Farris insists he bought his own plane ticket and had no bodyguards.
On Christmas Day, he flew to Baghdad and was transported by family friends to the Palestine Hotel. He spent most of the time talking to American soldiers and Iraqis in and near the hotel a concierge, some translators, a woman working at a nearby cell phone store, and others.
On day three, he started calling news organizations. Fox News ignored him, so Farris headed to the Associated Press bureau, where he was interviewed. Relating the story today, he sounds irritated, claiming that he was taped surreptitiously by AP reporter Jason Straziuso and had no idea a story would be written about him. In other words, Farris strolled into a news bureau in the most contentious place on Earth and was surprised when he became the subject of a news story.
The AP contacted the U.S. Embassy, and with the help of the 101st Airborne Division, Farris was soon put on a plane.
Meanwhile, another Pine Crest student, Seth Extein, was making his own way back from a trip to Europe. He remembers catching news of Hassan's Baghdad adventure in the Times of London and on BBC World News, where he learned that Hassan's trip to Kuwait had taken him through Amsterdam initially and that he was en route back to South Florida. Extein wondered if he'd bump into his classmate.
Sure enough, Extein looked up from his seat on his Martinair flight to see Hassan coming down the aisle. Although they weren't really friends, about 30 minutes into the flight, Extein made his way up to Hassan and asked another passenger to trade seats with him.
Relieved and excited to see a familiar face, Hassan quickly opened up to Extein. He showed him photos and video footage he took in Baghdad, which Extein describes as "in the style of an MTV video diary."
The most impressive video, Extein says, was taken from the balcony of Hassan's hotel in Baghdad. With his camera, Hassan scanned the devastated landscape. The video picked up three distinct pops, and Hassan explained that those were bombs going off.
The boys talked the entire way to Florida, going back and forth between Hassan's experience and how it had been portrayed in the media, which Extein filled him in on.
"He didn't realize the extent of the media attention until I showed him," Extein says. "I had the Times of London on my lap, with his picture."
Hassan worried about the attention, Extein says. He worried about how he'd be perceived politically and what the others at school would think of him. He wondered how the trip would affect his chances at getting into a good college. He worried about reactions from two friends who had tried to stop him from going. And he was upset that the Air Force had to take care of him.
"I can't believe I took those guys away from their jobs," Extein recalls Hassan saying.
As he and Extein walked off the plane together, a half dozen TSA and Homeland Security Officers whisked Hassan away. He later told Extein he had lost his laptop computer on the plane, along with all of his video footage and photos.
Meanwhile, it took the Extein family more than an hour and a half to get out of the airport. To Hassan's horror, his mother had informed the media that her son would be arriving, and local TV news trucks blocked all the exits.
Figuring the attention would be good for him, his mother gave out his cell phone number, which resulted in a barrage of unwanted calls. Atiya also called a news conference at their home without consulting her son. Unready to speak and furious at his mother, Hassan sheepishly backed out of the interviews.
He did agree to an interview with MSNBC's Rita Cosby but was disappointed with his performance. Exhausted from a week of avoiding the media, dealing with the Pine Crest administration, and studying for a calculus test, Hassan found himself stuttering and drawing blanks.
"I didn't articulate who I was. I didn't articulate why I went on the trip," he says. "The message I came to deliver, I failed to deliver."
With lines like "I was looking forward to help, maybe dispersing some food or just bringing a smile or two to some children there," he came off as phony and coached.
Hassan was also upset at a story published in New Times. Columnist Bob Norman brought up Redha Hassan's anti-Hussein past, including his involvement in a 1985 terrorism arrest by the FBI that also ensnared two of his brothers and a pro-Khomeini activist. Redha's neighbor, Joel Feinstein, turned him in after Redha asked Feinstein to manufacture 2,000 fake Iraqi passports and 2,000 military IDs. The charges were eventually dropped, but the implication of Norman's column was clear that Redha's anti-Hussein history, as well as the help he provided Farris during his trip to Baghdad, should color our understanding of what Farris was trying to accomplish.