Airport and Aviation Marketing Special Report

AIRWORLD PART 13: SLEEPING WITH THE TERMINAL MAN

My Paris Airport Encounters With Sir Alfred Mehran

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PARIS (AdAge.com) -- On my first night at Charles de Gaulle, I went in search of The Terminal Man -- the real person whose predicament inspired Steven Spielberg’s 2004 movie The Terminal. He wasn’t hard to find, as he spends every day, all day, for the majority of 17 years, sitting on a red bench in the lowest level
of Terminal 1, one of the most out-of-the-way pockets in all of Airworld. Through sheer persistence, and with the help of his refugee status, which immunizes him from removal, he has become part of the airport itself.

Enormous concrete ring
Back in Chicago, an American Airlines representative had assured me that The Terminal “could never happen now,” but au contraire, here he was, unbothered by police or Aeroport de Paris staff. Even Terminal 1’s ongoing renovations, which have closed a third of the enormous concrete ring, couldn’t manage to expel him. He simply moved his belongings -- his bench, his FedEx and Lufthansa cargo boxes, his mismatched set of discarded carry-on luggage -- a few notches around the ring and settled in again. He will manage to outlive this building, or at least its interiors.

It was if he was waiting for me -- he was reclined on his bench, his eyes alert, and dressed in the same manner I was, a windbreaker over a polo, as a guard against the chill. I had brought an offering, McDonald’s French fries, which he eats every day along with his usual Filet-o-Fish. “Thank you,” he said, and motioned for me to place them on a small table he had appropriated from one of the cafes. I sat on one of two chairs. His voice was soft, tremulous. I wondered how often he spoke these days, and whether he was slowly forgetting to say the words. It didn’t help that English was at least his second language. He shook his head at a microphone-equipped iPod -- no tape recorders -- and so his quotes in the story represent the best I could decipher them.

I've read his book...
I tell him I’m a journalist, that I’m spending three weeks living in airports, that I’ve read his book -- at this point I produce it from my bag -- and his blank expression finally fills with some interest. “Is that the new edition?” he says, and begins

Photo: Greg Lindsay
Sir Alfred Mehran, a.k.a. Mehran Karimi Nasseri, a.k.a. The Terminal Man, who has spent 17 years living in the terminal of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. His situation inspired the movie 'The Terminal.' Click to see a large photo of his living space.

paging through, looking for errors, maybe, or refreshing himself on his own history.

The story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri is a sad one, and has been told many times already in newspapers, and best by Michael Paterniti two years ago in GQ. It was tragic before he ever landed at Charles de Gaulle. Born in Iran during the reign of the Shah, he was 27 years old when his father died and his mother confronted him: “You are not my son,” she told him. His birth mother was a British nurse who had worked with his father, a surgeon at the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., and they had had an affair. Now he was dead, and his mother -- no, not his mother -- would send him to study in England, where he could look for his mother, his real one. As he wrote in his diary, “I am standing in the main room of someone else's home in Tehran and I do not know who I am any more.”

Before he hands his memoir back to me, he opens it to a page, points to a passage and says, “Yes, I wrote that.” The passage described his fast-forward accounting to his lawyer of how he came to be stuck here, and so I’ll share it: “So while Monsieur Bourget smokes his pipe, I relate my story: how I left my home, and went to the University of Bradford in England; how the money stopped coming; how I returned to Iran; how I was arrested; how I was released; how I went to England and claimed asylum; how they refused; and how I was refused asylum in the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and France. And finally, how I came to Charles de Gaulle without my passport and got on a plane to England, and how they sent me back.” Along the way he threw away his Iranian exit visa, while claiming he’d been mugged. Later, he obtained refugee papers from Belgium, which he mailed back to Brussels before one of his attempts to enter England. He caught the attention of France’s top human rights lawyer, Christian Bourget, who spent nine years retrieving Nasseri’s papers from bureaucratic limbo, only to watch him refuse to sign because the signature needed was that of “Mehran Karimi Nasseri,” and he had become someone else after all those years at CDG: “Sir Alfred.” That man is still sitting on the bench here.

'Why are you still here?'
Why are you still here, Sir Alfred? Do you not have a visa yet? “Yes, I must get a passport and visa,” even though there has been one waiting for him under his former name since 1999.

'The Terminal Man' is a book about Sir Alfred's life as an airport terminal refugee. Click to see a larger image

“We have to arrange it with our film company, and DreamWorks.” Dreamworks?

I didn’t understand what DreamWorks had to do with any of this; had I mangled the question? I asked whether he had the money he would need to travel one day thanks to DreamWorks and The Terminal -- he was rumored to have been paid anywhere between $275,000 and $1 million for his life story as protection from a future lawsuit, and then there were royalties from his memoirs. “Yes, I have credit from the film -- recently, and in the past.”

So where will you go when you’re finally free?

“Yes, we have reserved for Hollywood, Europe and Scandinavia…”

Later, I laughed picturing him, passport in hand, showing up at DreamWorks’ offices demanding to know why there hadn’t been a sequel, or where his share of the DVD gross was. And when Spielberg refused to see him, he would simply resign himself to waiting in the lobby. And waiting. And waiting…

Other airport refugees
In real life, there have been sequels. A Kenyan man camped out in Nairobi’s airport for more than a year before finally being granted his wish this past July for British citizenship. A Palestinian refugee spent seven months sleeping on the floor of Prague’s airport until the Czech government granted him asylum. When I was at LAX, the airport’s director of public relations told me the stories of three Vietnamese men who had recently spent months there searching for a way to re-enter their home country. Two found flights to Cambodia, crossed the border, and were immediately arrested. The third set up shop in LAX for another month, accepting handouts and continually praying, before he too, caught a flight to Asia and was never heard from again. There is also a woman at LAX, I was told, who in the wake of 9/11 arrived from San Francisco and spends her nights in Terminal 1, sleeping standing up and with her eyes open. When airport police asked why, she said she was afraid -- she wanted to be in a place filled with people and security. I looked, but I never found her.

We are fascinated by them, by Nasseri, and by The Terminal, because in each case they stand in opposition to Airworld’s basic condition -- that everyone within it is in transit to somewhere else. Their

refusal to cooperate illuminates the otherwise invisible processes that govern how airports operate, how we are absorbed through the membrane of security, how we consume in an effort to make ourselves comfortable, how we are continually on the clock for an on-time departure. Unlike The Terminal, where Tom Hanks’ character finds a job, makes a home and has a brush with love (all in nine months, before his victorious arrival on U.S. soil), Nasseri has survived here by becoming a silent part of the terminal, ignored, and thus unmolested.

Visits from journalists
I ask if he still receives visits from journalists like me. His memoir implies that one of us is always plopping themselves down, but “no,” he says. “Not anymore. I’m afraid because I should leave.”

When, Alfred? When will you leave?

“Very soon … or later.”

I’m out of questions. My heart is beating fast; I’m sweating for the first time in a week of climate-controlled environments. I thank him and ask to take his picture. He refuses. “No pictures. No video cameras.” He asks my name, and where I’m from. “You write in America? In London?” I write down my name and Advertising Age’s on a page of notebook paper, along with my e-mail address if, by some absurd chance, Terminal 1’s renovations include a WiFi network and one of his future possessions happens to be a laptop. From the look on his face, it’s the first time he’s seen one -- he’s been here since 1988, after all.

As a consolation prize, I ask if he’ll sign my copy of his book. Yes, I want it as a souvenir of this pilgrimage, but part of me wonders if he can really still write his own name. To my shame, I underestimate him -- he signs it “For Greg, Sir Alfred Mehran,” and dates it correctly without a moment’s hesitation. My hero worships also pays off -- he agrees to a portrait, and wriggles a bit in his seat to show his good side. I’m pressing my luck at this point -- I have everything I could have asked for from this trip, and it’s only my first night in Charles de Gaulle. I thank him, and back away slowly. I’ll be back, I think. After all, I’ve only just got here.

Sleeping with Sir Alfred
Two nights later, I’m in Terminal 1 again, this time with my luggage. My flight to Singapore isn’t until the next afternoon, but I had checked out of the Sheraton that morning. If I’d stayed another night, I would have gone to ground in my room, just as I had Sunday, while Sir Alfred had another dreamless night’s sleep on his red bench. I could either hide in Airworld’s lap, or sack out on my air mattress halfway around the ring from him. In between us, a homeless man (a non-permanent resident) slept on one row of benches, while a pair of Asian boys who might have been on my flight amused themselves with a Sony P2P. I speak no French and knew no one. I already knew how we’d pass the night -- the cleaning staff would buff the floors, the submachine gun-toting troops in full camo and berets would patrol, smoke, then patrol some more -- and we would sleep. For one night, Nasseri and I would share a sliver of his existence.

I have questions prepared this time. I’d run his name again through Nexis during the interval between my visits, and it seemed he’d given his last interview only a few weeks before. At the end of the interview, when the Paris correspondent for The Jakarta Post had asked if he had anything to say to the people of Indonesia, he answered: “I’m not mad.” Word had finally gotten back to him that he was a case study now, a living, breathing icon of post-modern confusion. So was he? Didn’t he have to be? It didn’t seem to be a subject up for debate. The Hamlet question -- is he crazy or pretending? -- wouldn’t seem to apply when the argument for sanity is that he’d be better off living out his days here, in CDG’s cellar.

Morning guards roust us
When morning comes, the guards roust us all for our flights, but Nasseri just sits on his bench, his hair wet, washing his face carefully with McDonald’s napkins. From somewhere within the piles of bags and boxes he has produced a tiny radio he is listening to when I approach to ask if he’d like anything for breakfast. I sit down at his table again a few minutes later with a croissant and espresso for each of us. He’s still chewing when I start in with questions again -- I’m some demented fanboy who can’t restrain them. The first one is technical: has he mastered the art of sleeping in terminals? “Naaaah,” he says. “This is good,” patting the bench, “but there is always too much noise.” The announcements here are prefaced with a few notes that sound like a chorus of angels, then give way to a musical tone. I laid awake for an hour last night being lectured on the smoking ban.

“Alfred, you told your last interviewer, ‘I’m not mad.’ Has anyone ever accused you of being mad?”

His eyes go wide, and he leans back on the bench. “Maybe medical services. … He become dead; he become mad –- medical services …”

When was the last time you stepped outside?

Years spent inside
He shakes his head. “Years and years ago.”

Do strangers ever visit with you? He shakes his head.

Do you ever call out to anyone? He shakes his head.

Do you want company? He shakes his head.

“They identified American parents, the gendarmes did,” he offers. This is new, if true. “The gendarmes identified me.” Wait, did they find your parents, or did your parents find you? “I don’t you,” and the veil of incomprehension comes down.

Are you a practicing Muslim? Do you believe in God?

“God?” He laughs.

Do you know why you’re here? Do you know why I’m here to see you? Do you know why you’re famous? Why you matter? I’m trying to talk metaphysics, but either he doesn’t think that way or I can’t get the nuance across.

'I hear from filmmakers'
“To be identified,” he says. “Identification. A year ago, in June, I hear from filmmakers. They call by telephone, and we talk for 5-10 minutes. Then if I have papers, I leave.”

This is DreamWorks?

“Yes, Dreamworks.”

And then our conversations seem to rewind and repeat. “They made a movie, The Terminal… I had trouble by air. In France, they de-Anglicize me. By boat, by air ... that’s why I came here …”

I pick up my tray, thank him, and go to leave.

“Good luck, Sir Alfred. I hope you can leave soon.” He nods, and after that, I don’t look back.

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