“Perhaps you are reading this book on a train? Perhaps you are sitting in a park? Perhaps you are in a library? I do not know where you are reading it. But wherever you are, you can know that right now, at this very moment, as your eyes are reading these words across the page – as you read this word, that word, this word – you can know that I am here sitting on my red bench from the Bye Bye Bar, in the middle of Charles de Gaulle airport, waiting to leave.”
This is the extraordinary true story of Mehran Karimi Nasseria, better known as ‘Sir Alfred’- a man with no official identity or country.
Sir Alfred has been living in the departure lounge of Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris for 16 years. He sleeps on a red bench borrowed from an old bar, dines at McDonalds every day, and is surrounded by piles of magazines stored in cargo boxes and his extensive diary.
He arrived at Charles de Gaulle on 8th August 1988 intending to take a plane to London – amazingly 20 years later he is still there waiting for his flight. Without the proper documentation he quickly found himself trapped in a bureaucratic catch-22 nightmare. Fearing arrest as an illegal immigrant if he left the terminal building, he has spent the last two decades waiting “for my identity” while lawyers and government officials argued about his case.
Political refugee, prisoner, exile, rebel, gentleman, citizen of the world, media magnet and, most of all, delayed passenger, The Terminal Man tells Sir Alfred’s incredible and unique life story…
“The lady journalist begins to argue with the policemen which only makes him more upset. He says that I have to go with him to the police centre in the airport.
I go with him.
Instead of making a television interview about my situation of not having the correct documentation, I am arrested for not having the correct documentation. For me this is not a good result.”
SUNDAY TIMES REVIEW
“A profoundly disturbing and brilliant book”
by Stuart Wavell in the Culture section
THE TERMINAL MAN
by Andrew Donkin
Sir Alfred Mehran is sitting on his red bench in the middle of Charles de Gaulle airport, where he has been marooned for 16 years, waiting to leave. Sir Alfred is not his real name, of course: it was something he adopted from a British bureaucrat’s letter which began, “Dear Sir, Alfred”.
He was born Mehman Karimi Nasseria in Iran. But that’s not right, either. He swears he is not Iranian but was born in Sweden, the son of a British nurse. Such is the Kafkaesque world he inhabits, you suspect it might all be true, except the bit about travelling by submarine from Sweden to Iran as a child.
When Sir Alfred discovers his point of origin, perhaps he will depart. He is waiting for a green card so that he can go to America. He is also waiting for a British passport so that he can go to England. One day he will know. Meanwhile, he sits surrounded by his cartons, newspapers and plastic bags, mindful of the warning that comes at 10-minute intervals: “Passengers are reminded to keep their personal luggage with them at all times.”
His plight inspired Steven Spielberg to build an airport terminal as the set of his movie Terminal, starring Tom Hanks as a Balkan tourist stranded at an American airport when a political coup occurs in his homeland. Sir Alfred was reportedly paid £300,000 for the movie rights, but his needs are modest. Every lunchtime he has a Filet-o-fish from McDonald’s and perhaps an order of French fries.
There is something particularly obscene about Spielberg’s latest appropriation, for this is a profoundly disturbing and brilliant book. The naive simplicity of Sir Alfred’s narrative is reminiscent of Mark Haddon’s bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, in which a mildly autistic teenager is incapable of interpreting the perplexing world of adults except in the most literal way.
You wonder if Sir Alfred, too, has a touch of Asperger’s syndrome as he doggedly records events and jokes that he fails to grasp. He focuses obsessively on such minutiae as the Tintin button worn by an interlocutor or the nasal hair of his friend Dr Bargain, the airport doctor. Yet, as the truth is revealed in fragments and flashbacks, you suspect that, in reality, he is a master of mordant humour.
Here is Groundhog Day writ large, the endless repetition of airport life and bureaucratic Catch-22s. Each day brings a new journalist eager to write his story. This sounds plausible: “I am here because I do not have the correct documentation to leave. I cannot get on a plane because I do not have a passport, and I cannot leave the airport and go into France because I could be arrested by the French police for being an illegal immigrant and put in jail.” What he omits to mention is that Belgium, and then France, were so embarrassed by all the publicity that they offered him citizenship but he pedantically refused to admit that he was Iranian or sign his name other than as Sir Alfred Mehran. He tells interviewers that his documents were stolen when he was mugged – too ashamed to confess that he posted them to Brussels while aboard a ferry bound for Britain.
Beneath all the onion layers is Sir Alfred’s search for identity. After his father’s death in Iran, his mother informed him that he was not her son, but the offspring of an affair between his father and a British nurse. Denied his inheritance, he was shipped off to university in Britain, where his participation in a demonstration against the Shah lost him his Iranian passport. It was the start of his stateless odyssey.
People write letters of support from all over the world. His lawyer, Dr Bourguet, works tirelessly on his behalf for 10 years, until his patience comes close to snapping. He tells his client: “In all that time I have not received one single franc. And now we’re here, you have documents in your hands that will allow you to go free. If you sign them, you can go anywhere you want.” No, Sir Alfred tells him.
His friend Dr Bargain also urges him to sign so that he can go home. “I nod, but really it is Dr Bargain who does not understand that I am already home.”
This is just an aside, but offers the best answer to the mystery of Sir Alfred. He never plans to leave his red bench in Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle airport.
AFTERWORD (by Andrew Donkin)
Sir Alfred is one of a kind and it was a great pleasure and an honour to get to know him well during the writing of the book. I’ve a lovely memory of going to the airport to deliver finished copies of the book to him, only to find that he’d already bought one from the airport bookshop. The joy on his face was a delight to see as he spoke about his happiness as he read the finished book. “A triumph!”
If you have any comments on Sir Alfred’s story please feel free to add them below.
Or even better, if you’ve meet him at his red bench in the airport at any point during his long long stay then please tell us about it.
Sir Alfred sadly passed away on Saturday 12th November 2022. He had returned to Terminal 1 at Charles de Gaulle Airport for what were to be the last two weeks of his life. He had a heart attack around lunchtime on that Saturday and despite medical attention, he could not be revived. He finally left the airport on his last journey. I’m happy that he made it back to Terminal 1 which – I suspect – he always considered his real home.
The Terminal Man is also published in Germany, France, Poland, and Japan and several other countries. Special thanks to Barbara Laugwitz.