Mon 9 August, 2004 02:42
By Kerstin Gehmlich
PARIS (Reuters) - Alfred Merhan has lived quietly on a bench inside Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport for 16 years, his few belongings stuffed into bags and boxes beside him.
Merhan's surreal existence under the neon lights of the airport's grim food hall has inspired Steven Spielberg's new blockbuster "The Terminal", starring Tom Hanks in the role of an East European who is stranded at New York's airport for months.
Merhan, who was born in Iran and whose real name is Merhan Karimi Nasseri, says he has not seen the film -- or any Spielberg movie -- as there is no cinema at the airport.
Since "The Terminal" opened in the United States in June, reporters have been lining up to meet him at his makeshift airport home, passengers stop to take his photo and fans send him letters -- addressed to "Alfred, Terminal 1".
"I might be famous. But my life hasn't changed at all. I'm still sitting here, and not in some fancy flat," Merhan said.
The soft-spoken, balding man says he received more than $300,000 from Spielberg's production company DreamWorks for the rights to his life story, but he hasn't touched most of it. He lives on a few euros each day, buying papers, food and coffee.
Merhan, who says he is 59, does not look like a tramp. His moustache is impeccably trimmed, his black hair carefully combed. Although 16 years at the airport have not made him physically ill, his doctor says he has lost his grip on reality.
"Alfred might be on the same record as us. But he's not on the same groove," said Philippe Bargain, head of the airport's medical centre, who has treated Merhan since he arrived in 1988.
"What astonishes me most in this affair is that in all the years I've known Alfred, I haven't had a word from a single person who said he knew Alfred before he came here. So I rely on him alone to know his life story."
And that story changes. Within just a few hours, Merhan can give an entirely different account of what brought him to Paris.
What seems known is that he was born in Iran. As a young man, he moved to Britain to study at Bradford University in the 1970s, where he took part in demonstrations against the Shah.
On returning home in 1976, he was detained and questioned about his militant activities. Banned from Iran, he went back to Britain where he was refused political asylum.
Merhan then bounced across Europe on a homeless odyssey for several years and spent several months in prison for illegal immigration. In 1999, the French authorities finally agreed to grant him refugee status but he had changed his mind.
"When we arrived at the prefecture to sign the papers, it said Merhan Karimi Nasseri on the document -- his real name," Bargain recalls. "Alfred said: 'I refuse to sign these papers because that's not my name. My name is Sir Alfred Merhan'."
Merhan, who denies he was born in Iran and says he does not speak any Farsi, is still without papers but the authorities turn a blind eye to the quiet man in the corner.
"He doesn't disturb public order," said a police officer. "He's not bothering us, so we're not bothering him. We've never had any problems with the guy. He's a bit of the airport mascot."
DREAMING OF HOLLYWOOD
Bargain says Merhan could leave his self-imposed airport arrest if he wanted to -- he would just have to sign the papers. But Merhan seems uncertain about his future plans.
He says he does not feel at home in the concrete building, whose unusual design adds to the Kafkaesque setting. Passengers get easily lost in the doughnut-shaped structure, where transparent tubes carry people to departure satellites.
"I don't want to stay forever, but I'm happy with it as a short-term solution. I don't feel like I'm in prison. I'm not bored. I read. I write," he said.
Merhan washes in the airport's bathrooms in the evenings when most tourists have gone. "I miss going shopping sometimes, being in a city, going to the cinema."
Merhan, who has been the subject of several documentaries and now wants to publish a book on his life, sometimes steps outside the airports' doors to get some fresh air but he never walks further than some 100 yards from his camp.
"I would like to go to Hollywood for more film projects," he says, smilingly. "But I'd charge more then, that's for sure."
He could be disappointed once he finds out Spielberg's film barely resembles his own life. Hanks' character falls in love with a stewardess played by Catherine Zeta-Jones -- Merhan says he does not have a single friend.
"Mr Nasseri's story was an inspiration for the early treatment of the film, but the film is not his story," DreamWorks said in a statement.
Although Merhan seems unsure about leaving his terminal, he has not given up dreaming. Glancing from the window behind his bench, he said: "There are many flights leaving to the United States from here every day. It should be easy to get there."