September 23, 2003
John -- Waiting for Spielberg
Unlike most urban legends, the one about the Iranian exile stuck at the Paris airport for 15 years is true. Surrounded by a mountain of his possessions near the Paris Bye Bye lounge at Terminal 1 in Charles de Gaulle International Airport, Merhan Karimi Nasseri is still there after all these years -- a celebrity homeless person.
Planted on the 1970's red plastic bench he calls home, and surrounded by stacks of newspapers and magazines, Nasseri, also known as Alfred or ''Sir, Alfred'' (title and comma appropriated from a mistake in a letter from British immigration), has organized his life's belongings into a half-dozen Lufthansa cargo boxes, various suitcases and unused carry-on luggage. On a nearby coffee table spotted with aluminum ashtrays, Nasseri's universe includes a pair of alarm clocks, an electric shaver, a hand mirror and a collection of press clippings and photographs to establish his present and his recent past. He seems both settled -- and ready to go.
To the pilots, airport staff, fast-food merchants and millions who have passed through the terminal on their way to somewhere else, the 58-year-old Nasseri has become a postmodern icon -- a traveler whom no one will claim. Little do they know that he is on his way to becoming a Hollywood icon, too. Inspired by Nasseri's intriguing tale of lost identity, bureaucratic limbo and persistence, Steven Spielberg has bought the rights to his life story as the basis for the new Tom Hanks vehicle, ''The Terminal.''
''I realize I am famous,'' Nasseri says in his soft, almost giggly voice, a gravelly mix of his native Persian, the airport French he's picked up from the loudspeakers and the cigarettes he's always smoking. As if to prove his fame, he pats a briefcase stuffed with his press clippings. ''I wasn't interesting until I came here.''
Nasseri's story is difficult to piece together. Over the years, he has claimed many things about his origins. At one time his mother was Swedish, another time English. Nasseri's effectively reinvented himself in the Charles de Gaulle airport and denies these days that he's Iranian, deflecting any conversation about his childhood in Tehran. (''He pretends he doesn't speak Persian,'' his longtime lawyer, Christian Bourguet, says. ''He was interviewed by Iranian journalists and made believe he didn't understand.'') When we first met two years ago, he insisted that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was attempting to locate his parents in order to establish his identity. But a spokeswoman for the agency dismissed the assertion as ''pure folly.''
Early on in his saga, Nasseri maintained that he was expelled from his homeland for antigovernment activity in 1977. According to a number of reports, Nasseri protested against the regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi while a student in England, and when he returned to Iran, found himself imprisoned, and shortly thereafter exiled.
He bounced around Europe for a few years with temporary refugee papers, alighting finally in Belgium, where he was awarded official refugee status in 1981. He traveled to Britain and France without difficulty until 1988, when he landed at Charles de Gaulle airport after being denied entry into Britain, because, he contends, his passport and refugee certificate were stolen in a mugging on a Paris subway. Nasseri could not prove who he was, nor offer proof of his refugee status. So he moved into the Zone d'attente, a holding area for travelers without papers.
He stayed for days, then weeks -- then months, then years. As his bizarre odyssey stretched on, Bourguet, the noted French human rights lawyer, took on the case, and the news media piled on. Articles appeared around the world, and Nasseri became the subject of three documentary films. (Oddly, apparently none of his friends or relatives have attempted to contact him.)
Like any number of Samuel Beckett characters, Nasseri has redefined the concept of waiting. But he remains busy, and during office hours when he's not meeting filmmakers or members of the press, he collects McDonald's soda tops and endlessly considers his situation in a sprawling, 1,000-plus-page diary that chronicles his journey to nowhere. These rambling handwritten notes recount his encounters with just about everyone he's met, reporting faithfully everything from the details of his paper chase to some of the witty things he's said (''I'm not Henry Kissinger''). Nasseri also asks most visitors to sign his journal.
An effete, balding man, Nasseri is well groomed (he washes daily in the men's room and sends his donated Marks & Spencer clothes to the dry cleaners) with finely manicured fingernails. He smokes compulsively and is forever reaching for his pouch of Pall Mall rolling tobacco. At one point during our interview he coughs, adding with his characteristic sly humor, ''Maybe I caught SARS here in the airport.''
In an eerily Warholian relationship, Nasseri's closest neighbors at the airport are a photo booth and a photocopy machine. Unlike most movie types, Nasseri does not have a cell phone, and he eats regularly at the McDonald's in the food court 100 feet away. (''I like the fish,'' he says.) The only green in his immediate environment is, ironically, the Sortie (Exit) sign.
In the Spielberg film, which begins shooting this month, Hanks is transformed into a refugee whose country disappears in a diplomatic wink of an eye. As chaos ravages his homeland, Hanks is rendered stateless, his passport turned into an eBay collectible. He's grounded: a stranger in a strange New York airport. But Hanks is cured of his airport disease and soars to new heights (and, who knows, perhaps another Oscar), thanks to the Hollywood bombshell Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Hanks's love interest, a flight attendant. Nasseri has had no such luck with the ladies and complains that there are no nightclubs in his airport. ''There's no pleasure,'' he says.
While Bourguet confirms that Spielberg's company, DreamWorks, has in fact bought the rights to his client's life story, Spielberg himself would not discuss ''The Terminal,'' its plot nor Nasseri's contract. Marvin Levy, a DreamWorks spokesman, confirms that a financial agreement was signed. However, he cautions, ''Mr. Nasseri's story was an inspiration for the original treatment for 'The Terminal.' The film is not his story.''
Rumors of a $275,000 fee for the rights to Nasseri's life story and certain consulting duties have circulated. ''It's less than $1 million,'' Bourguet says, adding that the money hasn't changed the predicament of his client. ''While he became a bit richer, Alfred is extremely paranoid and confused.''
Certainly, Nasseri may well be one of the only people on the planet not to have seen a Spielberg production. Asked what he thinks of Hanks, Nasseri replies straight-faced, ''Is he Japanese?''
Regardless of whether Hanks manages to capture the refugee's deadpan delivery, the Hollywood retelling of Nasseri's odyssey will undoubtedly include a first-class ticket to the American dream.
Nasseri's real-life ending, however, is still up in the air.
''Alfred himself will have trouble leaving the airport,'' says Glen Luchford, a fashion photographer cum director whose 2001 mockumentary, ''Here to Where,'' attempted just such a scenario, with the director, played by Paul Berczeller, failing to tempt Nasseri beyond the concrete gardens of Charles de Gaulle.
''Alfred has to accept that he's free,'' Luchford says sadly. ''But with freedom comes responsibility. He represents people's worst fears -- the idea they might be procrastinating all their lives and end up being rooted to the spot.''
Nasseri cannot be forcibly moved or repatriated. He is protected by a number of international refugee statutes. According to Bourguet, he is legally free to leave the airport. All Nasseri has to do is sign the identity papers the French provided him in 1999. But the papers identify him as Iranian and don't recognize his adopted name of Sir, Alfred. And so he can't -- or won't- sign them: a testament to either patience, or madness.
Nasseri is doubtful about attending the premiere of ''The Terminal,'' although his face lights up at the prospect. ''I would probably have technical problems with my papers in Los Angeles,'' he says, before adding that he'll likely leave the airport ''in September or October.''
If he does decide to finally exit the departure lounge, Nasseri could go to any number of places in the world. He says Florida has invited him, and, yes, why not New York, when ''I take over DreamWorks''? (The company is based in California.) And what of the plastic red bench, which has served as his de facto home for the last 15 years and must by now be a collector's item?
''I'll take it to DreamWorks,'' he says with a smile. ''And send it by FedEx.''
Matthew Rose is a writer and artist living in Paris.