Mehran Karimi Nasseri arrived without papers at Charles de Gaulle airport in 1988 and didn’t leave until 2006. We shared its metal benches, a bomb scare and many, many Filets-O-Fish, the Guardian newspaper writes.
“He’s been living in an airport for nearly 20 years,” said my agent.
My morning’s writing had been blissfully interrupted by an unexpected request that I catch a Eurostar to Paris and get to Charles de Gaulle airport “by 3pm if possible”. This is the sort of request that authors live for, but that rarely ever happens in real life. At the airport, I was to meet Sir Alfred Mehran, a stateless political refugee who had (at that point, in 2004) been living on a bench in the departure lounge of Terminal 1 for 16 years. If we liked each other then we were to co-write his autobiography, to be called The Terminal Man.
Sir Alfred’s full name was Mehran Karimi Nasseri. He had arrived at the airport without proper documentation and was now trapped. He couldn’t get on a plane without a passport, and if he left the airport to go into France, he would be arrested for not having ID papers. The airport was a no man’s land, an endless limbo he could never leave.
I was introduced to Sir Alfred, who died earlier this month, by Barbara Laugwitz, the German editor who had summoned me from London. Film director Steven Spielberg had bought the movie rights to fictionalise Sir Alfred’s story as the Tom Hanks vehicle The Terminal, but Sir Alfred was keen to tell his real story in the medium he loved best: print.
I sat talking to Sir Alfred for hours as transient airport life went on around us. He was in his mid-50s, tall, with thinning black hair and bright, intelligent eyes. His bench was surrounded by several luggage trolleys and many boxes and bags containing his growing hoard of belongings that were becoming a nest around him.
The most precious were the many boxes of A4 paper that contained his journal. Sir Alfred explained that he had been keeping a daily diary for more than a decade on paper donated to him by the kindly airport doctor. I did a quick calculation based on the number of boxes. “There must be 10,000 pages there,” I ventured. “More because I write on both sides to save paper,” he said.