Living in Limbo
Meet the real-life man who inspired Steven Speilberg's The Terminal
In 1988, Iranian refugee Merhan Karimi Nasseri deplaned at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport with a ticket to London and no passport. No country would accept him, so he camped out in the terminal. He is still living there, even though he has proved his status as a political refugee and could leave. Holding court in the Paris Bye Bye departure lounge near the red plastic bench he calls home, surrounded by his life’s belongings, Alfred, as he is known, chats with premiere about his Kafkaesque limbo.
PREMIERE: Has your life changed since DreamWorks paid you a rumored $250,000 for the rights to your story?
I can buy anything I want now, but if I buy something expensive I worry it could be lost or stolen. I eat better now, although the quality of food here is not so good. I can buy plane tickets, but I have no passport, no visa. I have a better image, now that the film is coming out. But my lifestyle is the same.
Do you have a favorite Spielberg film? E.T.? Jaws?
I don’t know those films. I have read about Tom Hanks. He didn’t come here to have lunch with me, or to do research. I think I saw Catherine Zeta-Jones here in the airport.
What’s a typical Alfred day like?
I wake up about 8 a.m., shave and brush my teeth in the men’s washroom. Then I take my McMorning breakfast and get some hot water to make my own coffee. I read the newspapers, listen to the news on the radio, and write in my journal until noon. I send my clothes out to be dry-cleaned, but it takes a week. For lunch, I eat a Filet-O-Fish. I would buy a TV but there’s no electricity near my bench. I have dinner at McDonald’s or I buy ham at the little convenience store. I go to sleep on my bench around nine. It’s very quiet at night.
Have people given you gifts?
Someone gave me a Concorde calendar with a Paris pen in 1995 and a bottle of champagne. Someone from NBC gave me a tie. I’ve gotten four bottles of aftershave. People stopped giving me money a long time ago.
What are your most precious possessions?
My documents and my books, money, and journal are my most important possessions. I’d like to take this bench when I leave—I’m very attached to it!
What do you miss most about the outside world?
I miss driving. I’m a very good driver. I also miss the eclipse, like the one on 11 August 1999. I miss walking in Hyde Park. I miss British magazines.
Do you ever get bored
No. After 15 years, with financial success, I’m happy. This is my dream world. I don’t have any worries. [He picks up his clock.] I think time goes fast. This is one of my favorite possessions. Keeping time is very important.
Will you make it to the premiere of The Terminal in Los Angeles?
I will try to see it, but [at press time] I haven’t been invited to the premiere in L.A.