|Wednesday, September 15, 2004, 17:55||Africa's first online newspaper est. 1994|
In the strange and timeless atmosphere of an international departure area, he pays little heed to the hordes who pass before him every day. He rises with the arrival of the first cleaner, washes and shaves in the public bathroom and eats takeaways from McDonald's.
If there is an air of permanence about him, that is not surprising. For Merhan Karimi Nasseri has been in the same spot for no less than 16 years.
Caught originally in an immigration trap -- unable to enter France, nowhere to go -- he has long since become psychologically dependent on his unusual choice of abode. He calls himself Sir Alfred, and this small section of airport parquet and plastic bench is his domain.
It is a peculiar story, and one which came several years ago to the ears of the Hollywood director Steven Spielberg. He saw its potential, and the result is The Terminal, which opens in Europe and Asia next week after getting its European premiere on Wednesday at the Venice film festival.
Starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones, The Terminal is about a visitor to New York from eastern Europe who finds himself stranded at JFK airport after his fictional country erupts into civil war. The airport becomes his home, as he befriends the staff and has a love affair with a hostess.
For Nasseri the film has meant tens of thousands of dollars reportedly -- but unverifiably -- paid over in royalties as well as a constant stream of gawking visitors and interested journalists. But life goes on unchanged, a movie poster above his arrangement of boxes and bags the sole concession to his new status as "the man who inspired The Terminal."
"I have not seen the film," he said in an interview this week.
"Maybe I will if they bring me a video. I have not been able to spend the money because naturally I cannot buy a house here and if I park a car outside they will blow it up. But one day when I get my passport for America..."
According to airport doctor Philippe Bargain, who visits him every week, Nasseri's physical health is fine, but his mental condition is another story. "He is on the same record as everyone else, just on a different track," he said.
Thus details of his past life are hard to establish. It is known that he was born 59 years ago in Iran, and that he briefly attended Bradford University in Britain where he claims to have studied Slav languages.
Returning to Iran he was imprisoned as a suspected dissident by the Shah's police and deported.
After that he was shunted between France, Italy and Belgium, trying unsuccessfully the while to reach Britain where he said his mother -- a British nurse -- was living. However today he denies this story. After periods of imprisonment for illegal entry, he parked himself at Charles de Gaulle airport in 1988.
Though he says he dislikes his life at the terminal, he had the chance to leave in 1999 when he was granted refugee status. However seeing his name on the papers as Merhan Karimi Nasseri -- and not Sir Alfred -- he said they were forged and refused to sign.
He spends his days staring into space or feverishly jotting down passenger announcements. He refuses to move far from his encampment, which includes a hanging rail with a row of laundered clothes, for fear of theft. Occasionally he buys a book.
At the end of the film, Tom Hanks learns that the fighting in his home country is over and succeeds in reaching Manhattan. Sir Alfred says he also intends to live in New York -- indeed he claims the United States visa is on its way -- but the truth is more banal. The man who inspired The Terminal is staying there. – Sapa-AFP
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