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The stateless state the terminal man

July 28, 2004

A lonely man continues to live a life apart at one of the world's busiest airports, Amelia Gentleman reports.

Merhan Karimi Nasseri is not sure whether he will manage to attend the Paris premiere of Steven Spielberg's latest film, The Terminal, which was inspired by his life. If he abandons the corner of Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport where he has lived for the past 16 years for long enough to travel into the capital, airport security will blow up his belongings.

Instead, he has the consolation of about $A422,000, recently paid by Spielberg's Dreamworks company into the account he holds in the airport post office, a few steps from the red plastic bench that has served as his home since 1988.

He will earn further royalties for allowing his extraordinary life as a stateless refugee to be reworked as fiction, if the film, opening in Australia on September 9, is a success.

Of his windfall, Mr Nasseri says: "I don't spend more than few euros a day. I eat breakfast in McDonald's and buy a few newspapers. I'm saving the rest for when I leave here."

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Mr Nasseri, who insists on being called Sir Alfred Merhan, hopes that the movie will draw attention to his plight, but he may have trouble recognising his story in the Hollywood version, which stars Tom Hanks and has Catherine Zeta-Jones as the air hostess love interest.

Mr Nasseri first made his home at the airport in August 1988. Still paperless and very muddled, he refuses to leave, even though his lawyers have a solution to the legal and bureaucratic tangle.

"It's a sort of marginal life I lead," he says. "Not many people speak to me. Sometimes I go for a month without talking to anyone."

The precise details of his life remain unclear: even his age, believed to be 59, is not confirmed and, as he becomes more mentally frail, his version of the facts has shifted dramatically. Probably born in 1945 in Iran, Mr Nasseri was educated at Britain's Bradford University and participated in protests against the shah in the 1970s, which led to his expulsion from Iran when he returned in 1976.

It seems Britain refused him political asylum; that his mother was Scottish made no difference. He was jailed in Belgium for four months in 1988 as an illegal immigrant after his papers were stolen, before being taken to the Paris airport for expulsion to Iran. Fearing persecution, he declared himself stateless and has remained in the terminal ever since.

Two airport trolleys mark out his patch of space. He is constantly tired because to sleep he has to curve his body at an uncomfortable angle in line with the crescent shape of his bench. He gets up at 5am to wash in the public toilets and spends the day listening to the radio, reading books and writing his diary.

It is not clear if he ever will leave. In 1999, the French authorities granted him a temporary residency permit and a refugee's passport. But he refused to sign the necessary papers.

"This was when I realised he had lost his grip on reality," Christian Bourguet, the lawyer who championed his case, said. "He can't do anything until he signs the papers, and he won't."