Visiting a club packed with California girls, he was smitten by a teen with a T-shirt that declared her love for Lebanon. At an American pizza shop near his Marine base, Wassef Ali Hassoun's (search) favorite pie was made with zaatar, a Middle Eastern herb.
Now the Marine corporal with a deep affection for his native land is caught up in a tangled story in which the latest twist is his safe arrival Thursday at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut (search), 18 days after he went missing from Iraq (search).
Friends and relatives testify to his warmth, loyalty and politeness -- though his immediate family has said little. The silence has left more questions than answers about the 24-year-old translator who at one point was reported slain by captors.
"He's a really, really nice guy, a very genuine person. The whole aura about him is very respectful," said Nichole Merzi, an 18-year-old southern Californian who caught Hassoun's eye at a club last winter.
While pursuing her, the Marine was embraced by her entire family.
The news about Hassoun has been contradictory and confusing. An Islamic militant group said he had been abducted and threatened with execution, then that he had been beheaded -- and then announced that he had not. Military sources told news organizations he may have deserted, or been lured away from his base and then betrayed, and then raised the possibility that the entire kidnapping could be a hoax.
The story of his life before Iraq is only slightly clearer.
Born and raised in Lebanon during its civil war in the 1980s, he came to the United States in the late '90s and joined family, including at least one brother, in the Salt Lake City (search) suburb of West Jordan, according to Judy Hassoun, the ex-wife of an older brother. A member of the Hassoun clan in Tripoli, Lebanon, said the same.
Before coming to America, he studied at the Evangelical School of Tripoli and later learned translation at a technical school.
Hassoun attended the 2000 summer and fall sessions of Salt Lake Community College. In 2002, he joined the Marines as a motor vehicle operator, though he worked as a translator. He has become a U.S. citizen, the Marines say.
Judy Hassoun, who was married to Hassoun's older brother until 1998, said she remembered him as "very brave, very loving," and a good student who "always wanted to get good grades." She now lives in Texas and hasn't seen her former brother-in-law for five years.
A distant cousin in Tripoli, Abdullah Hassoun, said that Wassef Ali Hassoun had been married in Lebanon several months ago, though Wassef wasn't present -- his father stood in for him to sign the marriage contract, which is allowed in Islam. And a neighbor in Tripoli said he married an American woman two years ago, but they divorced.
But for the Merzi family in Oceanside, Calif., near San Diego, the man whose picture they've pasted up on the wall of their pizza place poses no mystery.
Hassoun became part of a group of Arabic-speaking Marines who frequented their pizza shop, Spanky's, during a few months last winter when they were stationed nearby before the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force went back to Iraq.
The shop and the family that ran it offered a comforting taste of home, especially when the father, a native of Lebanon, made pizza with zaatar -- a mix of green herbs -- in an echo of a favorite Lebanese snack.
"All of them were like, 'Thank you, we haven't eaten this since our mothers made it!"' said Michele Lisi-Merzi, whose love for Marines was homegrown -- her father was a staff sergeant, and she spent 10 years as a girl living at Camp Pendleton.
Hassoun stood out from the group because of his shy yet insistent courtship of Nichole Merzi.
The two met at a nearby club -- she asked him to dance -- and then he tracked her down. When he wanted a date, he followed the traditions of his homeland.
"I've never gone out with a guy who asked my parents before me to go out on a date," Nichole said. "I was like, `What?"' Still, she just thought it was funny and they went out for dinner at an Italian place, talking mostly about soccer and Lebanon, she said.
That was their only date "solo," Nichole said. But he spent lots of time at Spanky's, hanging around after hours talking. He also helped with the move when Nichole went off to college at California State University, Northridge.
The mother said Hassoun made it clear he wanted to marry Nichole. Michele explained that, in America, it's not up to the parents, though she and her husband encouraged Hassoun to continue his friendship with their daughter. He kept up an e-mail correspondence with Nichole while he was in Iraq.
The Merzis were horrified at what happened to their friend overseas, especially what they saw as his vilification in news reports. "Deserter? What happened to POW? What happened to missing Marine?" Michele said.
Now that he's free and safe, the family was sure the truth of Hassoun's loyalty and bravery would be seen clearly.
"I just remember how strong he was mentally," Michele said. "He saved a lot of boys' lives because he spoke Arabic."