The following is an excerpt from my second book, Lindbergh’s Artificial Heart: More Stories From The Flip Side of History.
My students always tell me that I seem to have a story for just about everything. So, when several of them told me that they were headed to France for spring break, I just couldn’t let them down. I just had to tell them the strange story of a guy known as Sir Alfred, a man that has been stuck in a bureaucratic quagmire for more than a decade.
Now, Alfred isn’t his real name. His parents gave him the less noble title of Merhan Karimi Nasseri right after his birth in Iran in 1945. His father was an Iranian doctor and his mother a British nurse. In 1974, he left Iran to go to England. While he was there, his father died and, since his parents had never married, Nasseri’s funding was cut off. Forced to return to Iran in 1977, Nasseri was arrested for participating in protests against the Shah and was expelled from Iran without a passport. He traveled around Europe for nearly four years until he was granted refugee status in Belgium in 1981.
And he lived happily ever after… Well, obviously not.
Nasseri decided to leave Belgium for Great Britain to search for relatives there. While on his way there, he was mugged in a Paris train station. All of his papers proving that he was a refugee living in Belgium were stolen.
When Nasseri arrived at Heathrow Airport in 1988, he was immediately sent back to France. Without a passport, the British authorities would not let him into the country. Upon his return, the French police tried to have him arrested for illegal entry, but without any papers, there was no evidence of what country to deport Nasseri to.
So, there he sat. Nasseri took up residence on one of those red plastic chairs at Terminal One of the Charles de Gaulle airport. In 1992, the French courts ruled that he had entered the airport legally as a political refugee and they could not toss him out of the country. Yet, the French denied Nasseri any type of visa, so he was not free to walk outside of the terminal at any time.
Oddly, when the Belgian authorities first heard of his plight, they said Nasseri could get his documents back, but he had to come to get them in person. Yet, without those documents in his hands, he was unable to travel to go get them. Talk about a catch-22 situation.
Then the Belgian government made a complete about-face. They outright refused to let him return under any circumstance. They argued that under Belgian law, those with refugee status that choose to leave the country automatically forfeit their rights.
In 1995, the Belgian authorities finally told Nasseri that he could return to Belgium and get his papers. The catch was that he had to live there under the supervision of a social worker. Nasseri refused and insisted that he would only leave if he could go to Great Britain.
It was this desire to go to England that got Nasseri his nickname. He had repeatedly applied for admittance to Great Britain but had no luck. Since the UK’s immigration forms have a space for an adopted name, Nasseri started writing in Alfred. He chose that pseudonym simply because he liked the name. The name stuck and people have been calling him Sir Alfred or just plain Alfred ever since.
Life may seem harsh being stuck in an airport for years, but Nasseri makes good use of the little that is offered to him. He sleeps on an airport bench at night. During the day, he patiently reads books and magazines, writes in his diary, and converses with travelers. He is very tidy, clean-cut, and washes in the men’s room early in the morning before the passengers arrive. He refuses to accept charity, although airport staff and stewardesses provide him with meal vouchers and complimentary travel kits. He never begs and has politely returned lost wallets to their rightful owners.
Finally, in July 1999, the Belgian government agreed to send Sir Alfred his refugee papers. He was now free to leave. But, eleven years of sitting in an airport can wreak havoc on a man’s mind. It seems that Alfred no longer wants to leave. The airport has become his home and he feels safe there. People treat him as a celebrity, and he enjoys the cards and letters that he receives from all over the world.
And this is where my students enter the picture. Since they were traveling to France, I asked them to check to see if he was still there and to politely ask Sir Alfred if he would allow them to snap a picture of him. They asked around and confirmed that he was indeed still there, but he was in a different terminal. Upon their return, my students seemed disappointed that they were unable to meet the man whose plane seems to be permanently delayed. Hopefully, by the time you read this, Sir Alfred will have reached his final destination.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.
Update: Since this story was written in 2003, Sir Alfred is no longer in the airport.
His case was later taken on by French human rights lawyer Christian Bourget. In 1992, a French court ruled that, having entered the country legally, he could not be expelled from the airport, but it could not grant him permission to enter France.
Attempts were then made to have new documents issued from Belgium, but the authorities there would do so only if Nasseri presented himself in person. In 1995, the Belgian authorities granted permission for him to travel to Belgium, but only if he agreed to live there under supervision of a social worker. Nasseri refused this on the grounds of wanting to enter the UK as originally intended.
Both France and Belgium offered Nasseri residency, but Nasseri refused to sign the papers as they listed him as being Iranian (rather than British) and did not show his preferred name, “Sir Alfred Mehran”. His refusal to sign the documents was much to the frustration of his lawyer, Bourget. When contacted about Nasseri’s situation, his family stated that they believed he was living the life he wanted.
In 2003, Spielberg’s DreamWorks production company paid US$250,000 to Nasseri for the rights to his story, but ultimately did not use his story in the subsequent film, The Terminal.
Nasseri’s stay at the airport ended in July 2006 when he was hospitalized and his sitting place dismantled. Towards the end of January 2007, he left the hospital and was looked after by the airport’s branch of the French Red Cross; he was lodged for a few weeks in a hotel close to the airport. On 6 March 2007, he was transferred to an Emmaus charity reception-centre in Paris’s 20th arrondissement. Since 2008, he has continued to live in a Paris shelter.
During his 18-year-long stay at Terminal 1 in the Charles de Gaulle Airport, Nasseri had his luggage at his side and spent his time reading, writing in his diary or studying economics. He received food and newspapers from employees of the airport, visits from journalists eager to hear his story and letters of support.