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Tuesday, June 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Man behind "Terminal" still living in airport

By Ethan Gilsdorf
The Christian Science Monitor

AP, 1999
Iranian-born Merhan Karimi Nasseri has been living in a makeshift camp inside Paris' Charles de Gaulle International Airport since 1988.
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PARIS — As far as Steven Spielberg's "The Terminal" is concerned, the experience of being trapped inside an airport for a year can lead to friendship, comic high jinks, and even romance.

But it's hard to see the life of Merhan Karimi Nasseri through Spielberg-colored glasses. Nasseri is the inspiration for the movie — a real-life Iranian refugee who arrived at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport in 1988 without a passport and without papers to enter another country. He's been stuck in Terminal One ever since. Like a lost suitcase, he has been claimed by no one.

"The Terminal," which opened Friday, recounts the hardships of Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), a fictitious Balkan traveler stranded at New York's JFK Airport. His homeland erupts into civil war and his passport becomes void. He can't officially enter the U.S., but neither can he return to Eastern Europe. So he lives for months in the hermetically sealed microcosm of an airport concourse.

Some of Navorski's survival tactics are similar to Nasseri's, like bathing in the restroom, setting up a living area on a bench, and accepting food vouchers from airport workers. But where the movie has embellished the story with madcap adventures and a fling with a flight attendant played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Nasseri's life consists mostly of reading. His most recent book is Hillary Clinton's autobiography.

"Maybe I don't do it like Tom Hanks does it," he says. "My day is just like inside a library. Silence." Lately, though, he's had more visitors than usual. He's already the subject of three other films, two of them documentaries. Reporters and tourists visit and talk with him all day at his makeshift press lounge.

"Is this public entertainment?" Nasseri asks with a pained grimace. Yet, at the same time, "Alfred," as he is also known, seems to relish his celebrity.

"He is known throughout the world, and people come to see him," says Valerie Chevillot, who can see Nasseri's encampment of assorted boxes, bags, and suitcases through the window of her Phenix clothing boutique. "But no one really knows him."

The original crisis began when Nasseri tried to travel to England from Belgium via France. He lost papers declaring his status as an Iranian refugee. It's been confirmed that he was expelled from Iran in the 1970s, but Nasseri has since rejected his heritage under the belief that his Iranian background is the cause of his troubles. No family members have ever contacted him.

Summarizing the details of Alfred's bureaucratic nightmare since then isn't easy. Nasseri waited at Charles de Gaulle while Britain, France, and Belgium played a shell game with his case for years. At one point, in a classic Catch-22, Belgian authorities said they had proof of his original refugee papers, but insisted he pick them up in person — yet wouldn't let him into the country. He has been jailed several times, and technically could be removed from the airport at any time.
After a lengthy legal battle waged by his lawyer, the French government finally gave him the necessary documents to reside in France and legally travel.

But he refuses to use them.

Nasseri is convinced he has no official identity. If he leaves France, he says, "There are soldiers there who shoot you dead." So he won't venture further than the first floor of the terminal. "I stay until I obtain my origin identity," he often repeats.

Airport shopkeepers don't seem bothered by the fuss over their famous neighbor. The cleaning staff warn that he'll charge a few euros if you take his picture. But otherwise, "he never asks anything of anyone," says Mossaoid Ben, who runs the Coccimarket next door.

Ben hypothesizes why Nasseri has remained in the dreary Charles de Gaulle building, a kind of doughnut-shaped, concrete UFO stranded out on the tarmac. "He'll have to pay rent elsewhere. Maybe that's why he's here."

Nasseri spends much of his day writing a journal of his self-imposed captivity. "I write about what I hear on the news," he says. "The only problem is I need a portable TV."

In theory, he has plenty of money to buy one. DreamWorks, the company that made "The Terminal," paid Nasseri for the use of his story. But he doesn't have a bank account, so he can't access checks reportedly sent to his lawyer.

Nevertheless, he's enjoying the renewed burst of attention. He talks wistfully of how he hopes to move to the United States or Canada.

"I expect some change by October," he says. "In the end I will be happy."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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