By Lyla Trilling
When I ask Ali Hassani, CC ’21, how he wants to be pitched for Campus Characters, he texts me: “When I was 9, I had two pet ducks that I carried under my arms.” Jileel and Bileel, the ducks in question, made up part of nine-year-old Hassani’s intimate circle of friends. A self-described chubby misanthrope, young Hassani spent his childhood in Dubai holed up inside, watching art-house films and figuring out ways to contain the massive amounts of poop excreted by his companions.
Hassani is no longer the hermit he once was. Holding court at a table outside of Hungarian Pastry Shop, dressed in sweatpants and rubber ducky socks, Hassani is interrupted every five minutes by friends and associates. He tells them about restaurants he likes and his favorite bookstore in New Haven: “It’s the one with the bookkeeper who looks like Stephen Malkmus.” His reference to the lead singer of lo-fi ’90s rock band Pavement is not unusual—his discourse is colored with niche facts. “Did you know that Regina Spektor wrote ‘Us’ about Leningrad and Stalingrad?”
Columbia helped Hassani come into his own; New York City piqued his interest in intellectualism and cosmopolitanism, especially as they relate to Judaism and his own culture. Through bites of raspberry hamantaschen, Hassani shows me videos of a sweet, bearded man named Moishe who has been tutoring him in Yiddish for a few months now. In the years since his archival job at The Forward, New York’s premier English-Yiddish hybrid magazine, his Yiddish has gotten a bit rusty. “It’s a beautiful language,” he tells me. “It’s just misunderstood.” Yiddish turns out to be but a single bullet point on a long list of things that Hassani deems “misunderstood.” On the very top of that list stands former Columbia professor Edward Said, the author of Orientalism. (Though after my talk with Hassani—whose Instagram handle is @edwardsaidofficial—I would be remiss not to refer to Said as a cultural critic.) Hassani loves Said because he wants to be like Said: a renaissance man confined to an intellectual coterie, a lover of literature and art. When I ask about his post-grad plans, he says, “Ph.D. programs. Definitely Ph.D. programs.” He has no professorial aspirations, though. A writer, a lawyer, maybe—he still doesn’t know. For now, he wants to continue building his cultural and intellectual vocabulary and finding ways to situate himself in a “broader historical context.” He is well on his way; throughout the entirety of our three hours together, I was only able to surprise him with one historical fun fact: “You know, Fifty Shades of Grey started out as Twilight fanfiction.”
It took me a while to successfully schedule a meeting with Hassani. He was always slammed with work (his vow to take only seminars has undoubtedly left him with more to do than the average Joe), meeting up with old friends, or reviewing books for his current internship at BOMB Magazine. When I finally manage to sit down with him, our time together is sandwiched between his job and a meeting for the Columbia Journal of History, where he serves as one of two Editors-in-Chief. It’s a big day for the Journal—Hassani finally gets to choose his editorial staff, a head-honcho hallmark that he’s been waiting for since he first joined the Journal in 2018. Embarrassingly, as a History major, I had never heard of Hassani’s publication, but their website reveals that the job was made for him: Its members are interested in everything from the history of cybersecurity to settler colonialism to Spartan bribery.
A day after our meeting, I asked Hassani to send me photos of his bedroom. It’s exactly what you’d expect: Posters from a Viennese art show hang above a repurposed fireplace, and golden light pools through the windows—illuminating his shelf of W.G. Sebald and Phillip Roth novels. The Dutch and French versions of Portnoy’s Complaint signal one of Hassani’s greatest loves: languages. With a method that he describes as “foolproof,” Hassani has garnered an extensive arsenal of dialects, including (but not limited to) Arabic, English, French, Dutch, German, and Yiddish. My very first interaction with Hassani took place in Central Park sometime in September—he overheard me jokingly speaking in Hebrew with a friend. “I barely speak it,” he said, and then proceeded to converse with me in grammatically sound Hebrew sentences that my nine years of Jewish Day school could have never prepared me for.
Hassani doesn’t own a start-up. He didn’t invent groundbreaking med-tech, and he’s never negotiated a peace deal between warring nations. But he still manages to be one of the most distinct people I know. Though he’s still figuring out his next steps, he has some idea of who his future self will be:
“What do you want to do with your life?” I text him.
“Who the hell knows bro,” he replies. “I just want to be a mensch.”