Editor's note: This article, based on the first in-depth interview ever with Farris Hassan, appeared originally in New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
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.
"Our first conversation was about transcendental pantheism and quantum physics," Spaceman says. "We got into string theory a little."
Spaceman has attended nine Rainbow Gatherings and teaches electrical apprentices at a community college in El Paso, Texas. He was glad to have met Hassan, whom he considers an intelligent young man, but this gathering was not Spaceman's grooviest. He was disappointed to see boomboxes, amplified instruments, and alcohol brought in, and he became violently ill with altitude sickness early in the week.
When he was able, Spaceman shared with Hassan the history and principles of the gathering. Because no one is in charge, people are often fined and taken to jail after no one steps up to get camping permits. There's not usually a whole lot of food to go around, but everyone shares what's available.
"Everything was based on people's voluntary will to assist, and it worked out really well," Hassan says. "Usually, you hear that if you rely on the good will of people, the world will collapse and there will be chaos. At least in this small example, that didn't happen."
McKenzie soon bonded with Hassan as they observed naked campers running through the compound, shared meals together in the various kitchens (their favorites were Love Oven, Krishna, and Middle Eastern), and discussed many subjects, including drugs and the hippie lifestyle.
McKenzie a flower child who cites Mother Teresa and Janis Joplin as her biggest influences says she hopes someday Hassan will come visit her in Albuquerque, where she works as a hospice minister. She sees great potential in Hassan.
"He's definitely an indigo child," says McKenzie, claiming to have three indigo grandchildren of her own. "Indigo children" supposedly possess special psychological and spiritual powers corresponding to an indigo-colored aura, according to the New Age movement, as first detailed in Lee Carroll and Jan Tober's book The Indigo Children: The New Kids Have Arrived.
After the gathering split up, Hassan and his purplish halo made their way to the tough streets of Colorado's biggest city.
The people he met at the Denver Rescue Mission found him a likable, intelligent, and curious guy. Although Hassan said he was homeless when he first checked in, he came back a few days later and revealed his true situation.
Thomas Allvin, 54, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic who had been homeless but now works at the mission, gave Hassan a tape-recorded interview. "I think he was a little bit naive at first," Allvin tells New Times. "I'm going to assume that he didn't have a lot of knowledge of people in the ditches."
Hassan began his interview with questions about "mechanics," Allvin says. Questions like how many men versus women wind up on the streets and addicted to drugs? What are their races? What are their age groups? Allvin told him, "Addiction has no boundaries like that. So many people are affected in so many different areas."
Hassan spent three nights at the rescue mission, and he helped serve food in the kitchen. He also wheeled his hefty, broken suitcase around the streets of Denver but soon caught a cold and flew home to recover and do a better packing job for his next trip.
For his immersion into the Muslim Community in Dearborn, Hassan told people that he was Jewish.
"I told them my name was Jacob Malachi. M-A-L-A-C-H-I," he says. "I couldn't tell them my name was Farris Hassan. Hassan is like the 'Johnson' of the Middle East."
Hassan wanted to see if his Jewish disguise would elicit anti-Semitic comments from the Muslims but wound up finding them pretty accommodating. He hitched a ride in a van with eight Muslims from Detroit to an Iraq War protest in Washington, D.C., where he flashed peace signs for the cameras. It was an interesting immersion, he says, but Hassan hasn't reached any conclusions yet. Nor does he have immediate answers for Detroit's black neighborhoods, which he wandered for two days and nights. For that, he'll need to look back over his notes, he says, and do some thinking.
"When I'm starting out at my laptop to write about the Muslims and the homeless, I don't know the truth at all," he says. "Sitting in this chair at my laptop and fleshing things out, I think to myself, what needs to be done? What policies can be taken to ameliorate the conditions in the black ghetto? Who is responsible? Is it their fault? Is it partly society's fault? These are challenging questions about morality. You have to really think about it and ponder. So if I'm going to spend six hours writing, 75 or 80 percent of the time, I'm sitting there thinking, what am I going to say?"
Such heavy thoughts for a young man still not old enough to vote are the product of a background that was both privileged and profoundly difficult.
Farris' parents, Redha Hassan and Shatha Atiya, both grew up in Baghdad, but Redha's ancestors were Persian, and Atiya's were Persian, Turkish, and Russian. They saw each other for the first time at a wedding when Atiya was 16 and Hassan, nearly a decade her senior, was a medical student. He was instantly attracted, but it wasn't mutual.
"He looks like he could be my father," Atiya remembers thinking. "It was not a love story."
The arranged marriage took place in Syria, and Redha Hassan exiled from Iraq began his residency in Baltimore. In 1979, Saadi Hassan, Redha's brother and a 24-year-old architecture student, was kidnapped by Iraqi secret police and later executed. Redha took his brother's death hard.
"He went into a severe depression," Atiya said. "But he's the kind who covers it up and doesn't want to show it. He vowed to get back at Saddam Hussein."
Redha became a Fort Lauderdale anesthesiologist, and the family began to grow. Farris, the youngest of four children, was born in 1989.
As a parent, Redha was lenient, Farris says, hoping that reasoning with his children would keep them out of trouble. His mother's parenting style was different "traditional irrational mom: 'Do this, do that, or I'm going to smack you,'" Farris explains.
But Atiya says she was actually as hands-off as her husband. When her children were young, for example, Atiya would take them to Publix and give them their own carts. "Go get what you want," she'd tell them.
Four years after Farris was born, Redha's life changed radically. A table holding an obese elderly man began to collapse, and when Redha tried to help, he sustained multiple slipped discs. He was left in constant pain and was prescribed an arsenal of medications, including Percocet. He has not worked as a physician since.
Devastated that he couldn't work, Redha fell into depression and became addicted to his pain medication, according to his wife. And he stopped opening the household's mail, which became a problem because he refused to let anyone else open it either.
"They shut the power. They shut the water. They shut the phone. Nobody has car insurance," Atiya remembers. She begged her husband for permission to pay the bills, but he wouldn't allow it. Rather than letting his wife take care of things, he eventually hired a secretary.
It wasn't the only privilege Atiya says her husband denied her. For years, she wished to go back to school, but her husband told her he wanted her to wait until the children had gone to college. She enrolled herself in classes at Broward Community College and Florida Atlantic University and studied in secret.
While reading for school an activity Redha strictly forbade Atiya made sure to have a women's magazine nearby to conceal her textbook.
Farris remembers things differently.
"My father wished she could have taken care of the kids to a greater extent, but he's not against her education," he says.
When they filed for divorce in 1999, 9-year-old Farris was relieved.
"Well, finally," he remembers telling them. "You guys are not compatible."
Soon after, Redha had two more accidents.
First, he sliced his left palm with a razor. Then he passed out and sliced open his right hand. When he came to, a rare infection had entered the wound that required daily surgeries for a month.
After he recovered, Redha moved out and Atiya was awarded custody of the children. But Farris didn't want to live with his mother, and he didn't want his dad to be alone.
At age 10, he called a taxi, sneaked out through his window, and went to live with his father. Atiya, in yet another example of hands-off parenting, didn't interfere.
"I told him, 'I love you to death, and I fought for you,'" she says. "If that's your decision, that's your decision."
Living with his father was almost like living alone but with the added responsibility of taking care of his dad, he says. When high school approached, Farris applied to Pine Crest School all on his own. He took taxis to and from school for most of his freshman year, costing his father about $2,700.
Home life was still a struggle, as Hassan's father continued to neglect his daily tasks.
"I would beseech him to open his mail and take care of the things that are going on in our life," Hassan says. "I'm 14, 15. There's all this craziness going on in the family. He needs to be a father and provide for me."
Still, Farris very much enjoyed their conversations abut philosophy and politics, and his father, a man who created his own fortune through investing and real estate, also ensured that money was never a problem for his son.
It was that steady cash flow and the permissive parenting style that made it possible last Christmas for Farris to take himself to a war zone.
"There is a struggle in Iraq between good and evil, between those striving for freedom and liberty and those striving for death and destruction."
After writing those words in an essay about his decision to skip town, Farris Hassan left for Baghdad on December 11, 2005, ready to miss five days of class and to see the war for himself.
He flew to Kuwait City and tried to enter Baghdad by taxi, but the border was closed for elections, and Hassan didn't really have a backup plan. It was at this point that he first informed his father of his whereabouts, he says. And he denies what Lourdes Cowgill, president of Pine Crest School, told the media that Redha knew about Farris' trip from the beginning.
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.
Farris sorely resented the column and claimed his trip to Iraq had nothing to do with his father's activities 20 years ago.
"What is Bob's problem?" Farris asks, his voice jumping an octave. "Certainly, he got that story ridiculously wrong. My father's anti-Saddam activities have been exaggerated. His involvement in anti-Saddam activities since he left Iraq in 1971 was mostly restricted to financial support of the Iraqi exile community, probably in the same way that a Cuban exile might engage in anti-Castro activities through the financial support of the Cuban-exile community."
Asked how his father's anti-Hussein past had affected his decision to go to Iraq, Hassan replies, "It didn't."
As the local media clamored for Hassan, the reaction at Pine Crest was mixed. Already something of a school celebrity for his taxi rides and other escapades, Hassan quickly learned that many were not amused by his new notoriety.
When he returned to economics class, for example, he found the following sentence scrawled on the blackboard: "Stupidity should not result in celebrity."
A well-respected teacher had written it.
Some students, such as senior Jason Baum, believe that the Iraq trip was a publicity stunt and that the summer's adventure is more of the same. And hiring the press agent, well, that's just disgusting, Baum says.
"That's the thing I don't respect. If he really cared about helping those people in Iraq, he wouldn't have tried to use it to his advantage."
Still, Hassan fascinates Baum.
"He's a really interesting kid," he says. "When I first met him, I would see him walking around the halls with history books and economics books in his hand for pleasure reading. There's just something different about him, and he's always got an interesting viewpoint. He has over-the-top ambition. He's just got this one little thing I'm not so fond of."
Some middle school students idolized Hassan and high-fived him on a daily basis. Other students took their complaints directly to the media.
"They were underclassmen speaking to the media and slandering me. Outright slandering me," Hassan says. "Saying awful things. Like they said I'm a brat. I'm a snob. The most painful thing was that I'm anti-Semitic. That's 110 percent untrue."
Hassan mentions his Jewish girlfriend who also happens to be Armenian royalty as proof.
He says he doesn't care about his high school reputation, and it's clear that he's far more concerned about how he comes off in the media. That could affect opinions of important people like college admissions directors or even Hassan's heroes.
He's especially fond of Ted Conover, whom he learned about from Robert Boynton's The New New Journalism, a collection of interviews with 20 nonfiction authors that inspired the Iraq trip. Conover also wrote Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails With America's Hoboes a work of immersion journalism that Hassan read right before his summer trip. He's also a big fan of John McPhee and Lawrence Weschler.
"Do you think they've heard of me?" Hassan asks.
Turns out Conover has.
"I admire the spirit of Farris Hassan, his willingness to meet the world face to face, his curiosity and lack of fear," Conover wrote in an e-mail. "He's only 17, but already he understands the power of venturing alone outside your own group, and of bearing witness. He seems able to judiciously question/ignore rules of various kinds, a fine trait. He's hungry for experience. I admire all those things." But Conover suggests that Hassan "forget the press agent, and instead read more good books and focus on college things that will help him to develop his own mind."
College is definitely on Hassan's mind. Although he's undecided and nervous about mentioning preferences in public, he admits that he's thinking Ivy League, perhaps Princeton.
"This may sound pompous, and I probably won't get in, but John McPhee teaches at Princeton," he says with enthusiasm. "He's one of the founding fathers of the New Journalism movement... It would be sort of like a dream of mine to sit in John McPhee's class."
While he prepares for college, Hassan says he looks to Thoreau for advice on how to live. When his uncle gave him an expensive 2005 Mercedes C230, for example, he rejected it for a more modest Honda Accord. And one of the reasons that he moved in with his uncle was that he didn't like living in his mother's opulent Fort Lauderdale house.
"It may sound ridiculous, but the house was just too big," he says. "It would take me two minutes to go from my bedroom to the kitchen. It's probably a $4 million house, with million-dollar houses all around."
Atiya confirms that her son often speaks of being disturbed by the size of the house and adds that he spends most of his time in his room. "For a 17-year-old, he's too much," she says.
Hassan uses all that time in his room to read and study, and he does extremely well in his classes. That's why his punishment for skipping school to go to Iraq was particularly agonizing.
For starters, five points were deducted off his final grades in every class, to match the five days of school he missed. "That destroyed my GPA," he says. "It probably lowered it by two-tenths of a point."
The school took away Hassan's free periods, which meant he had to report to study hall when he didn't have a class. He was also punished with 60 hours of detention, placed on probation, and demoted from the presidency of the Renaissance Club.
That one really hurt. "I had great ideas!" he said. "I saw the Renaissance Club as an awesome embodiment of the spirit of Renaissance. And not just for the crazy revelry. One of my ideas was to have a philosopher's roundtable."
Hassan is also a member of Beta Club and German Club and plays the viola and the piano. He's learning guitar. Over the summer, he started the Society for Love and Justice a humanitarian organization that works with Operation Iraqi Children in collecting school supplies and mailing them to Iraq and Afghanistan. He was on the football team in his freshman and sophomore years but gave it up to focus on academics. He was previously on the debate team as well but now considers it pretty shallow to argue for the sake of arguing.
"I hate to argue; I love to discuss," he said. "I got out before it turned me into one of those debater monsters."
Another club he's recently dropped out of the Young Republicans. Turns out that a few things surprised Hassan during his immersion trips. He liked the hippies he met and the conversations they had. He saw what it was like to be homeless and wanted to do what he could to help. And Iraq? Well, he's not quite ready to take a side. Though he still has inclinations toward conservatism, he likes to think of himself as "independent-minded."
"He's in a category of his own," says Hassan's good friend Francisco Alvarez. "His views transform themselves all the time. He's a young man undergoing transformations in himself and his political outlook."
Alvarez was one of the first four of Hassan's friends to know he had taken off to Iraq, and Alvarez says he's come to an understanding about why his friend went. At the time, it had a lot to do with a perception of the coverage of the Iraq War as liberally biased, he says.
"He wanted to go and ask people what they actually thought about the war," Alvarez says. "And he wanted to do whatever he could to help out the United States.
"In the end, I think he did want to go as a journalist, but not in the modern sense. When he came back, he was willing to put aside his feelings and re-analyze. He re-analyzed the entire situation."
Despite the classroom teasing, however, Hassan hasn't re-analyzed his feelings about Pine Crest.
"What's great about Pine Crest is really the intellectual level of the student body as a whole is admirably high," Hassan says. "Like at lunch, probably at most schools they would either make fun of each other or they would talk music or pop culture. As you can see, I'm rather condescending with that stuff. At Pine Crest, when I sit down with my friends, we talk philosophy and current events. We have mostly deep philosophical discussions. This is a completely different world which is very, very conducive to the sort of person that I am right now."
After prom last year, when most of the students were "drinking and having intercourse or whatever," Hassan and his cronies headed to the beach and played Risk.
"I feel like I'm getting more out of life than the people who are drinking and having sex," he says, but then a premonition comes. "Maybe I'll change my mind in college."
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