Friday, August 13, 2004
Roissy, France He has no address, but his mail arrives just the same. The pharmacy takes his phone calls, and the cluster of fast food restaurants assures a steady flow of food, handouts included.
Mehran Karimi Nasseri, for years a stateless person, inhabits a Kafka-esque world. A perpetual passenger stuck in transit, he has lived in Terminal 1 of Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport for the past 16 years.
But change is afoot. His quirky story inspired Steven Spielberg's movie "The Terminal" starring Tom Hanks. It put money in Mehran's pocket and could be the ticket to a new life -- if he chooses.
"Here, it's not life. It's just staying like a passenger and waiting for departure," said Mehran, who goes by the name Alfred Mehran.
"To be here is just like being in transit."
Gaunt and mustachioed, Mehran, 59, of British and Iranian parents, has ceded the rights to his story to Spielberg, according to the office of Mehran's lawyer, Christian Bourguet.
The price of the deal was confidential, the lawyer's office said.
Mehran claimed the deal with Spielberg's DreamWorks SKG was worth $450,000 and said it covered eventual books, television shows and movies over a 10-year period. Despite several calls to DreamWorks, the information could not immediately be confirmed.
"They have access to my life story," Mehran said.
Mehran's twisted personal history, which differs vastly from the Spielberg movie, is stranger than fiction.
The victim of an illicit love affair, Iranian politics, bureaucratic bungling and plain bad luck, Mehran becomes confused by his own confusing history. He has taken to saying that he hails from Florida and never had parents at all.
Life is clearly simpler on the curved red bench that has become Mehran's headquarters in Terminal 1's underground boutique level. Here, he is surrounded by cartons, packages and plastic bags of all shapes and sizes. Used paper cups are scattered about. Despite the makeshift lifestyle, he manages to maintain a slightly aristocratic air.
He prefers speaking English and says he reads and writes profusely.
"I sleep here, I eat here, I read and study here," Mehran said.
He has no real friends, he says, but everyone at the airport seems to know him.
"He's at home here," said Michel Timotjevic, duty officer for South African Airways. "He's agreeable. He doesn't bother anyone."
Born in Soleiman, Iran, to an Iranian father and a British nurse, Mehran ended up adrift. Accounts vary, but Mehran is known to have attended a British university in 1974. He eventually was imprisoned in Iran for demonstrating against now-deposed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, then expelled without a passport.
He went to Europe, applying for political asylum in several countries. In 1981, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees in Belgium gave him refugee credentials, but his briefcase containing the precious papers was stolen in a Paris train station.
French police later arrested him. He did at least one stint in a French jail. In August 1988, he turned up at the airport hoping to fly to Britain -- without a passport. With no country to which he could be deported, he has been at the airport ever since.
This isn't the first chance Mehran has had to escape his Terminal 1 bunker. In 1999, the UNHCR in Belgium granted him refugee status again. He hedged, saying that he was waiting for a passport.
Today, Mehran reiterates his need for a passport, and says he wants to go to the United States or Canada.
"The money ... is not the point," he said, referring to DreamWorks deal.
Besides, he added, "Tom Hanks stayed one year in the airport, but I stayed 16 years. Amazing."
Some doubt Mehran will ever go.
"He has made a place for himself here," said Karima Dubois, who works at the pharmacy that takes his phone calls. "His world is here."