A man in limbo

September 13, 2004

Publicity material from the film did not mention Nasseri.
Picture:AFP

Merhan Nasseri's life as a lost soul in Charles de Gaulle airport has inspired a Hollywood movie. Paul Berczeller relates how the real life story has no happy ending.

I first saw him, many years ago now, staring out with an uncanny gaze of blank intensity from the pages of a newspaper. Seated alone on a bench, immune to the endless motion of the airport around him, there was a curious inscrutability to his slight, balding yet dignified countenance. He looked like some unlikely cross between a Zen master and Chaplin's Tramp. He had these amazing long brows, as dark as his hooded eyes, and a small, perfectly groomed moustache on his upper lip. It was like a caricature of a face, five charcoal marks on a canvas. But strangely noble, too.

His name was Merhan Karimi Nasseri, although he called himself "Sir Alfred". He lived in a lost dimension of absurd bureaucratic entanglement. That is to say, on a bench in Terminal One of the Charles de Gaulle International Airport, and he had lived there since 1988. For a series of insanely complicated reasons, the Iranian-born refugee was now a man without a country or any other documented, internationally accepted identity status. Alfred couldn't leave or enter France because he did not have papers. The authorities told him to wait in the airport lounge while they sorted the paradox out. That he did for years and years.

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Then one day, I heard that Alfred had finally been given his papers. He was free to go anywhere in the world he wished. Except now he didn't want to leave the airport after all. It was the only home the only past he had left.

I woke up that night burning with an idea for a movie about Alfred costarring Alfred himself. To me, his unlikely nightmare was nothing less than one of the quintessential tales of our lonely, displaced, increasingly unreal age.

I soon found that I was not the only one inspired by Alfred's true story. Every screenwriter in London seemed to have a version of his life in the drawer somewhere. None of the others had been made, nor would they ever be. Because word was out that over at DreamWorks, Steven Spielberg the Steven Spielberg was interested in the story. Meanwhile, down at the other end of the world-cinematic digestive system, I grabbed a DV camera and went to the airport. Fittingly, days turned into months and we ended up spending close to a year with Alfred, shooting a low-budget, arthouse feature, Here to Where (2001). If you've seen it, I probably know you.

Recently, Alfred has been back in the news, again. Spielberg's latest, The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones, is screening around the world. The media everywhere is asking the same old question. Who is Alfred? No one has a clue. Alfred least of all, it seems. He has now been in the airport for 16 years. I suppose my fantasy upon first meeting Alfred back in the summer of 2000 was that I would be the one to save him. Where friendly lawyers, concerned doctors, crusading refugee groups and assorted praying Christians had failed, I would succeed.

Tom Hanks plays a man stranded at an airport in Steven Spielberg's film.

Alfred's red bench in the shopping mall of Terminal One was the only anchor in his life. It was his bed, living room and corporate headquarters. It was actually two benches pushed together, just about wide enough to sleep on if he kept his hands tucked under the pillow. He never slept during the day, although his eyes would often droop out of boredom; you could always find Alfred sitting in the middle of his bench, in front of a rickety, white Formica table.

From this perch, Alfred would survey his world. The display windows of an electronics store were across a corridor to his left; he could see the back of a newsagent's to the right. He could gaze across to a McDonald's on the outer ring of the level.

Stacked around the back of the bench were boxes, suitcases and plastic bags containing everything Alfred owned in the world.

Sitting next to him, I tried to get into the rhythm of his airport life. It was punctuated every other minute by three chimes heralding the flight announcements, that exotic mantra of foreign destinations that practically drove me mad by the end of my first day. Waves of passengers came and went, the same patterns of humanity every hour, every day the tide would bring in the Japanese in the early morning, the Africans would wash past the bench late at night.

During Alfred's first years in the airport people bought him food, gave him money and listened with sympathy to his tale. But, by the time I met him, Alfred preferred to engage with the media. In return for a few exclusive hours of his tale, Alfred would graciously accept a small gratuity.

He was not the homeless guy on the tube singing for a drink. Everything in Alfred's life was conducted on his own terms. In some sense, he was a freer man than most.

Despite outward appearances, Alfred lived a life of total self-sufficiency and order. He kept himself meticulously clean, using an airport bathroom. He always ate a McDonald's egg and bacon croissant for breakfast and a McDonald's fish sandwich for dinner. He always left a tip. Alfred was not, to put it bluntly, a bum.

Still, I felt sorry for him because one thing was never made quite clear in all the reports about Alfred: just how far gone he was. When he got talking about politics or the economy, you could sense the remnants of a fine mind. But when he turned to his past, you were dragged into the labyrinth of Alfred's fragile mental state. All the stories he had ever told over the years were jumbled together to produce a narrative that changed daily.

His most consistent story went like this. After his physician father's death in 1972, his family told him he was illegitimate. His real mother was, in fact, Scottish. (Looking at him, this seemed unlikely.) His family rejected him and Alfred left home to study Yugoslav economics in northern England. He returned to Iran in 1974 and got caught up in anti-Shah demonstrations. Arrested and tortured by Savak, the Iranian ministry of security, Alfred was stripped of his Iranian nationality and expelled. He spent the next years roaming through Europe in a search for asylum. Finally, in 1981, Belgium granted him refugee status and identity documents. That should have been a happy ending, of sorts.

Instead, soon afterwards according to one version Alfred was robbed of his documents. He spent the next years in and out of jail in France on illegal immigration charges. Apparently, he tried to return to England but was turned back at Heathrow.

It was then, in 1988, that he first settled into his limbo waiting for papers in Terminal One. A prominent lawyer took on Alfred's case and fought a 10-year legal battle to win him identity documents. But then Alfred refused to leave the airport.

It seems very naive to me, now, but I hoped that the making of Here to Where would somehow provide the catalyst for Alfred to reclaim a "normal" existence.

It didn't exactly work out like that. For one thing, Alfred wasn't going anywhere, despite all my best efforts.

A few weeks ago, I met Alfred three years after I last saw him. His noble Persian face lit up, but then it always does when he first sees a reporter.

"I am famous now," was the first thing he said.

That was the only thing that mattered to him any more Not his family or friends, not his past or future only the archive of articles about a wasted life and a poster advertising Spielberg's film, which he had proudly hung from a suitcase next to his bench.

I didn't want to shatter his daydreams by telling him what a load of puerile crap Spielberg's movie was.

Apparently Alfred had received a cheque of several hundred thousand dollars for his life story. It had been deposited in the airport's Post Office bank. He believed DreamWorks was going to get him a passport and take him to California. Spielberg was going to come to his rescue.

In fact, publicity material for the film didn't mention Alfred at all. They were distancing themselves from his depressing story. It wasn't exactly a happy Hollywood ending.

One of the strangest things about Alfred's situation is that no one from his past has ever come forward. But his family was surprisingly easy to find.

Alfred had four brothers and two sisters, who lived in Tehran, except for one sister who was a dentist in Luxembourg. Their father, Abdelkarim, was a physician who worked for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in Masjed Suleiman, just like Alfred had always said. After he retired, Abdelkarim moved the family to Tehran. He died in 1967 and Alfred's mother followed four years ago.

It seems the family had known for a long time about Alfred's plight. They were a very well educated family, and read newspapers from abroad. But they apparently always believed that Alfred was living the life he wanted, that he had some kind of master plan.

Alfred's brother Cyrus was a businessman who imported surgical supplies into Iran. He and his wife, Mina, had lived and worked in England for many years. Cyrus was reluctant to talk, at first. The family thought that Alfred's problem was still only one of papers and they worried that speaking to me might cause their lost brother problems with the authorities. The family had no idea of Alfred's fragile mental state.

One of the key parts of Alfred's story was always his arrest and torture by Savak because of his opposition to the Shah not something Cyrus would talk about.

But apparently, Alfred participated in a student strike at Tehran University in 1970 to object to a new university regulation. They gathered up the ringleaders, about 20, including Alfred but the matter was dropped. There was no arrest, no torture, no confiscation of his passport and no deportation. It was not nearly as dramatic a story as Alfred now remembered.

The last time Cyrus and Mina saw Alfred was in 1976. Alfred had abandoned his studies in Bradford, apparently because his money had run out, according to Mina. (Actually, according to fellow students and teachers I spoke to, Alfred failed his course.)

He travelled through Europe. For a while, he kept in touch, but then his letters stopped coming.

Then, in 1991, a family friend greeted Alfred at his airport bench. But Alfred wouldn't acknowledge that he knew him. The same thing happened on other occasions and finally family and friends stopped trying.

"Why did he say in the newspaper that his family rejected him?" asked Mina. "We do not understand that. That was not true. We thought this was the way he wanted to live."

Cyrus is planning to fly to Paris next month to see his long-lost brother. Perhaps Alfred's long journey still has another unlikely twist.

- Guardian

The Terminal opened in Melbourne last week.