Jewish World Review Jan. 10, 2006 / 10 Teves, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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Farris Hassan, boy reporter | So this 16-year-old kid out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., takes a course in journalism at his prep school, reads John McPhee and finds out about "immersion journalism," in which you're supposed to live the stories you write, and, next thing you know, without telling his teacher or parents, he hops a plane to Kuwait City a week before Christmas. Next stop on the schedule: Baghdad.

Why, sure. It seems the kid had decided to immerse himself in Iraq of all places. And in this of all times. It's not exactly the Age of Harun al-Rashid anymore, when Baghdad was the New York of the medieval world only better policed — an architectural wonder, a capital of the arts and sciences, a center of learning and enlightenment, a city where freethinkers took refuge instead of fleeing in terror . . . . If the World Trade Center had been built in the year 800., Baghdad would have been a fitting site. Unfortunately for Farris Hassan of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., this was 2005 and Sheherazade doesn't live here anymore.

Nevertheless, young Farris decided Iraq would be a good place to practice his developing craft. Especially since the Iraqis were having an election at the time. A real, contested election. In the Middle East! Talk about an historic event — well, let's just say it cried out for some immersion coverage. And who better to do it than Farris Hassan, Boy Reporter?

It's about time somebody showed up those amateurs The New York Times has in its Baghdad bureau. (I've lost count of how many journalism awards John F. Burns and Dexter Filkins have between 'em, let alone the number each deserves.)

The kid has to take a detour to Beirut, where his family has friends, but eventually he makes it to Baghdad without unduly attracting the attention of cops, MPs, customs inspectors or the child protective services. Not to mention terrorists. Whereupon he begins covering the place like a combination of Billy Batson and Richard Halliburton.

Sure, there's an occasional glitch. At one point, young Farris nearly gets punched by a cabdriver in a slight misunderstanding. At another, he's left stranded in the desert. He also attracts stares when he has to use a phrase book to order some food from a Baghdad take-out. (Even though his folks come from Iraq, he speaks no Arabic.) And he reports he spent an entire night talking politics — that most dangerous of subjects — with a bunch of Muslim men.

Our hero's adventure comes to an abrupt halt when he visits the AP bureau in Baghdad, doubtless to file a story. That's right, the Associated Press, which routinely reports the kidnappings, beheadings, etc., of visiting foreigners in Iraq. And in walks Young America.

"I would have been less surprised if little green men had walked in," says editor Patrick Quinn, who calls the U.S. Embassy, whereupon a lieutenant from the 101st Airborne is dispatched to pick up the kid and see that he gets home all right, which, after all this, he does.

What a story! And you can bet Farris Hassan will write it under his own byline. But he's worried his people sick. And he's been no end of bother for the U.S. military and the embassy staff in Baghdad, who have a lot of other things to attend to just now, thank you.

His "shocked and terrified" mother says she doesn't think she's ever going to leave the boy in the house alone again. ("He showed a lack of judgment.") His father notes that Farris is an idealist — very principled, highly moral. Which would have made it all the more a shame if he'd caught a bullet. What do you do first when a kid like this shows up alive and well? Hug him or lock him in his room? Any parent of a precocious but not exactly docile teenager will recognize the mixed emotions mom and dad must have felt on the return of the prodigal.

And what has Farris himself learned from this hegira of his? Only this: "You go to, like, the worst place in the world, and things are terrible. 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." How can you stay mad at a kid like that?

But shame on you, Farris, you should be grounded for, like, a year. Maybe two. Also, you should get, like, an A in that journalism class. And let us know when you start looking for work. You seem to have started your journalistic wanderings at about the same age Mark Twain did. And he didn't turn out too badly.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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