Maybe it was the time the taxi dumped him at the Iraq-Kuwait border, leaving him alone in the middle of the desert. Or when he drew a crowd at a Baghdad food stand after using an Arabic phrase book to order. Or the moment a Kuwaiti cab driver almost punched him in the face when he balked at the $100 fare.
But at some point, Farris Hassan, a 16-year-old from Florida, realized that traveling to Iraq by himself was not the safest thing he could have done with his Christmas vacation.
And he didn’t even tell his parents.
Hassan’s dangerous adventure winds down with the 101st Airborne delivering the Fort Lauderdale teen to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, which had been on the lookout for him and promises to see him back to the United States this weekend.
It begins with a high school class on “immersion journalism” and one overly eager — or naively idealistic — student who’s lucky to be alive after going way beyond what any teacher would ask.
Diving in headfirst
As a junior this year at a Pine Crest School, a prep academy of about 700 students in Fort Lauderdale, Hassan studied writers like John McPhee — a writer who lives the life of his subject in order to better understand it — in the book “The New Journalism,” an introduction to immersion journalism.
Diving headfirst into an assignment, Hassan, whose parents were born in Iraq but have lived in the United States for about 35 years, hung out at a local mosque. The teen, who says he has no religious affiliation, added that he even spent an entire night until 6 a.m. talking politics with a group of Muslim men, a level of “immersion” his teacher characterized as dangerous and irresponsible.
The next trimester his class was assigned to choose an international topic and write editorials about it, Hassan said. He chose the Iraq war and decided to practice immersion journalism there, too, though he knows his school in no way endorses his travels.
“I thought I’d go the extra mile for that — or rather, a few thousand miles,” he told the Associated Press.
Using money his parents had given him, he bought a $900 plane ticket and took off from school a week before Christmas vacation started, skipping classes and leaving the country on Dec. 11.
His goal: Baghdad. Those privy to his plans: two high school buddies.
Given his heritage, Hassan could almost pass as Iraqi. His father’s background helped him secure an entry visa, and native Arabs would see in his face Iraqi features and a familiar skin tone. His wispy beard was meant to help him blend in.
An American teen
But underneath that Mideast veneer was full-blooded American teen, a born-and-bred Floridian sporting white Nike tennis shoes and trendy jeans. And as soon as the lanky, 6-foot teenager opened his mouth — he speaks no Arabic — his true nationality would have betrayed him.
Traveling on his own in a land where insurgents and jihadists have kidnapped more than 400 foreigners, killing at least 39 of them, Hassan walked straight into a death zone. On Monday, his first full day in Iraq, six vehicle bombs exploded in Baghdad, killing five people and wounding more than 40.
The State Department strongly advises U.S. citizens against traveling to Iraq, saying it “remains very dangerous.” Forty American citizens have been kidnapped since the war started in March 2003, of which 10 have been killed, a U.S. official said. About 15 remain missing.
“Travel warnings are issued for countries that are considered especially dangerous for Americans, and one of the strongest warnings covers travel to Iraq,” said Elizabeth Colton, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Colton said the embassy’s consular section can provide only limited help to Americans in Iraq, though once officials learn of a potentially dangerous situation every effort is made to assist.
Inside the safety of Baghdad’s Green Zone, an Embassy official from the Hostage Working Group talked to Hassan about how risky travel is in Iraq.
“This place is incredibly dangerous to individual private American citizens, especially minors, and all of us, especially the military, went to extraordinary lengths to ensure this youth’s safety, even if he doesn’t acknowledge it or even understand it,” a U.S. official who wasn’t authorized to speak to the media said on condition of anonymity.
Eight time zones
Hassan’s extra-mile attitude took him east through eight time zones, from Fort Lauderdale to Kuwait City. His plan was to take a taxi across the border and ultimately to Baghdad — an unconventional, expensive and utterly dangerous route.
It was in Kuwait City that he first called his parents to tell them of his plans — and that he was now in the Middle East.
His mother, Shatha Atiya, a psychologist, said she was “shocked and terrified.” She had told him she would take him to Iraq, but only after the country stabilizes.
“He thinks he can be an ambassador for democracy around the world. It’s admirable but also agony for a parent,” Atiya said.
Attempting to get into Iraq, Hassan took a taxi from Kuwait City to the border 55 miles away. He spoke English at the border and was soon surrounded by about 15 men, a scene he wanted no part of. On the drive back to Kuwait City, a taxi driver almost punched him when he balked at the fee.
“In one day I probably spent like $250 on taxis,” he said. “And they’re so evil too, because they ripped me off, and when I wouldn’t pay the ripped-off price they started threatening me. It was bad.”
Elections at the right time
It could have been worse — the border could have been open.
As luck would have it, the teenager found himself at the Iraq-Kuwait line sometime on Dec. 13, and the border security was extra tight because of Iraq’s Dec. 15 parliamentary elections. The timing saved him from a dangerous trip.
“If they’d let me in from Kuwait, I probably would have died,” he acknowledged. “That would have been a bad idea.”
He again called his father, who told him to come home. But the teen insisted on going to Baghdad. His father advised him to stay with family friends in Beirut, Lebanon, so he flew there, spending 10 days before flying to Baghdad on Christmas.
His ride at Baghdad International Airport, arranged by the family friends in Lebanon, dropped him off at an international hotel where Americans were staying.
‘I should probably be going’
He says he only strayed far from that hotel once, in search of food. He walked into a nearby shop and asked for a menu. When no menu appeared, he pulled out his Arabic phrase book, and after fumbling around found the word “menu.” The stand didn’t have one. Then a worker tried to read some of the English phrases.
“And I’m like, ‘Well, I should probably be going.’ It was not a safe place. The way they were looking at me kind of freaked me out,” he said.
It was mid-afternoon on Tuesday, after his second night in Baghdad, that he sought out editors at AP and announced he was in Iraq to do research and humanitarian work. AP staffers had never seen an unaccompanied teenage American walk into their war zone office. (“I would have been less surprised if little green men had walked in,” said editor Patrick Quinn.)
Wearing a blue long-sleeve shirt in addition to his jeans and sneakers, Hassan appeared eager and outgoing but slightly sheepish about his situation.
The AP quickly called the U.S. Embassy. Officials there had been on the lookout for Hassan, at the request of his parents, who still weren’t sure exactly where he was. One U.S. military officer said he was shocked the teen was still alive. The 101st Airborne lieutenant who picked him up from the hotel said it was the wildest story he’d ever heard.
Hassan accepted being turned over to authorities as the safest thing to do, but seemed to accept the idea more readily over time.
Most of Hassan’s wild tale could not be corroborated, but his larger story arc was in line with details provided by friends and family members back home.
Tea in the desert
Dangerous and dramatic, Hassan’s trip has also been educational. He had tea with Kuwaitis under a tent in the middle of a desert. He says he interviewed Christians in south Lebanon. And he said he spoke with U.S. soldiers guarding his Baghdad hotel who told him they are treated better by Sunni Arabs — the minority population that enjoyed a high standing under Saddam Hussein and are now thought to fuel the insurgency — than by the majority Shiites.
His father, Redha Hassan, a doctor, said his son is an idealist, principled and moral. Aside from the research he wanted to accomplish, he also wrote in an essay saying he wanted to volunteer in Iraq.
He said he wrote half the essay while in the United States, half in Kuwait, and e-mailed it to his teachers Dec. 15 while in the Kuwait City airport.
“There is a struggle in Iraq between good and evil, between those striving for freedom and liberty and those striving for death and destruction,” he wrote.
“Those terrorists are not human but pure evil. For their goals to be thwarted, decent individuals must answer justice’s call for help. Unfortunately, altruism is always in short supply. Not enough are willing to set aside the material ambitions of this transient world, put morality first, and risk their lives for the cause of humanity. So I will.”
“I want to experience during my Christmas the same hardships ordinary Iraqis experience everyday, so that I may better empathize with their distress,” he wrote.
Gained: ‘A new appreciation’
Farris Hassan thinks a trip to the Middle East is a healthy vacation compared with a trip to Colorado for holiday skiing.
“You go to, like, the worst place in the world and things are terrible,” he said. “When you go back home you have such a new appreciation for all the blessing you have there, and I’m just going to be, like, ecstatic for life.”
His mother, however, sees things differently. “I don’t think I will ever leave him in the house alone again,” she said. “He showed a lack of judgment.”
Hassan may not mind, at least for a while. He now understands how dangerous his trip was, that he was only a whisker away from death.
His plans on his return to Florida: “Kiss the ground and hug everyone.”