22/05/2024
Norwich, GB 15 C
Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

MEHRAN KARIMI NASSERI, aged 77

TERMINAL MAN

Born in Soleiman, Iran in 1945 to an Iranian father and a British mother. He was born in a settlement belonging to the Anglo Persian Oil Company, and his family were comfortably off. He had 5 siblings. The area was at the time under British jurisdiction.

His father was a doctor working for the company and his mother a Scottish nurse. Sometimes he claimed he was the result of his father’s affair and his mother was Swedish. Iran claims his mother was actually one of their citizens. It was the beginning of a range of stories that could never be accurately substantiated.

Then his father died of cancer, so Mehran decided to come to Britain to further his education, taking a Yugoslav Studies course at Bradford University. There, he took part in an anti-Shah demonstration.

When he returned to Iran he was immediately arrested and thrown in prison for criticising the Shah. Then he was expelled from the country, without a passport. However, Iran has always claimed he was not expelled and left the country of his own volition.

Iran flag under the Shah (courtesy Quora)

Mehran applied for political asylum to various countries but was always rejected. Eventually, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Belgium, granted him refugee status.

Shortly afterwards, his briefcase, with all the relevant documentation inside, was stolen in a Parisian train station.

He caught a ferry to Britain but with no papers the British border force turned him back. He protested, claiming he was only trying to search for his mother.

Again, there are questions about his story. Belgian authorities said he had posted his papers back to them stating he didn’t want to live in Belgium and preferred Britain. The Netherlands and Germany refused to take him without the necessary documentation.

The French police promptly arrested him and took him to Charles de Gaulle airport, expecting him to be deported. But as he had no passport, he could not board a plane – and there was nowhere for him to go.

So, he lived in Terminal One in the airport…for 18 years – in a “diplomatic No Man’s Land”. He was unable to, or refused to, leave, trapped in a legal nightmare. He slept on a red bench and smoked his gold pipe, meditated, wrote his diary (over 20 pages a day), studying economics, read newspapers and magazines and chatted to travellers. He used the airport facilities to shower each day.

He also learned French and German, doing a correspondence course in both languages from his bench.

He spent a lot of time in the ‘Paris Bye Bye Bar’, with drinks bought by passers- by, and his food came from MacDonalds with meals bought for him by strangers. The alternative was airline staff providing him with their unused meal vouchers.

The airport staff became extremely fond of him. They nicknamed him ‘Sir Alfred’. This was because he had written a letter to the British Embassy asking for political asylum and the response was headed ‘Dear Sir Alfred’ – a typing error.

A doctor examined him in the 1990s and expressed his concerns about Mehran’s physical condition. He was very frail, with hollow cheeks, sunken eyes and long, lank hair. But the doctor was also concerned about his mental state. He had become paranoid about leaving the airport. He never got any fresh air. The doctor said he had become almost ‘fossilised’.

It was the same doctor who constantly provided him with paper for him to write his journal / diary.

A friend said Mehran was, “incapable of living on the outside.”

His case was taken up by human rights lawyer Christian Bourget, who negotiated with the United Nations in Belgium. They said they would give him naturalisation papers if he presented himself in person. He refused.

They also said he could come to live in Belgium but he would need a social worker to help him acclimatise. He said he would rather go to Britain.

He finally got his refugee papers, but fearing having to leave the airport, he refused to sign them – and stayed for a few more years. He said, in 1999, “Eventually I will leave the airport but I am still waiting for a passport or a transit visa.”

He had a ghost-written autobiography published in 2004 called ‘The Terminal Man’. The ghost writer slept on the next bench for a week, so as to get a feeling for what life was like living in the airport. He commented it was never quiet, it was never dark.

In 2004, the film ‘The Terminal’ came out, starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta Jones. It was very loosely based on Mehran’s experience. Reports said Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks had paid Mehran $250,000 for the rights. However, Spielberg denied this. Other than it being about a man living in an airport terminal, there are few similarities.

However, Mehran pinned a poster from the film to his bench. He said, “I am famous now.”

There was also a French film, ‘Lost in Transit’ and an award-winning opera by Jonathan Dove called ‘Flight’, made about him. It was performed at Glyndebourne.

In 2006 he was finally forced to leave the airport when he was hospitalised. He had been living there for 18 years. As soon as he went, the airport authorities demolished his red bench.

He was looked after by the French Red Cross once he left hospital. After that he went to live in a Paris refuge, but never settled there.

French Red Cross (courtesy crunchbase0

He lived the next few years in a variety of places, claiming he was paying for them with the royalties from the film.

Everybody who knew him said he was a kind, gentle and clever man.

A few weeks before his death, he went back to live in the airport, this time in Terminal 2F. But two weeks before his death he transferred back to Terminal 1. It was as if he knew. Shortly afterwards he died of a heart attack.

When he died, the authorities found his briefcase was stuffed with thousands of euros.

His ghost writer, commenting on the various versions of his life said, “He was a lot of different things at a lot of different times.”

RIP – Refugee In Paris

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