Behind 'The Terminal,' a true story

As far as Steven Spielberg's new blockbuster, "The Terminal," is concerned, the experience of being trapped inside an airport for a year can lead to friendship, comic high jinks, and even romance.

But it's hard to see the life of Mehran Karimi Nasseri through Spielberg-colored glasses. Mr. Nasseri is the inspiration for the movie - a real-life Iranian refugee who arrived at Paris's Charles de Gaulle Airport in 1988 without a passport and without papers to enter another country. He's been stuck in Terminal One ever since. Like a lost and battered suitcase, he has been claimed by no one.

"The Terminal," which opened Friday in the United States, recounts the hardships of Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks), a fictitious Balkan traveler stranded at New York's JFK Airport. His homeland erupts into civil war and his passport becomes void. He can't officially enter the US, but neither can he return to Eastern Europe. So he lives for months in the hermetically sealed microcosm of an airport concourse.

Some of Navorski's survival tactics are similar to Nasseri's, like bathing in the washroom, setting up a living area on a bench, and accepting food vouchers from airport workers. But where the movie has embellished the story with madcap adventures and a fling with a flight attendant played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Nasseri's life consists mostly of reading. His most recent book is Hillary Clinton's autobiography. "Maybe I don't do it like Tom Hanks does it," he says. "My day is just like inside a library. Silence."

Lately, though, he's had more visitors than usual. This urban legend is already the subject of three other films, two of them documentaries. Reporters and tourists visit and talk with him all day at his makeshift press lounge. "Is this public entertainment?" Nasseri asks with a pained grimace. Yet, at the same time, "Alfred," as he is also known, seems to relish his celebrity.

"He is known throughout the world and people come to see him," says Valérie Chevillot, who can see Nasseri's encampment of assorted boxes, bags, and suitcases through the window of her Phénix clothing boutique. "But no one really knows him."

The original crisis began when Nasseri tried to travel to England from Belgium via France. But he lost papers declaring his status as an Iranian refugee. It's been confirmed that he was expelled from Iran in the 1970s, but the famous squatter has since rejected his heritage - even denied he can speak Farsi - under the belief that his Iranian background is the cause of cause of his troubles. No family members have ever contacted him. "Police say they don't live," he says cryptically.

Summarizing the details of Alfred's bureaucratic nightmare since then isn't easy. Nasseri waited at Charles de Gaulle while Britain, France, and Belgium played a shell game with his case for years. At one point, in a classic Catch-22, Belgian authorities said they had proof of his original refugee papers, but insisted he pick them up in person - yet wouldn't let him into the country. He has been jailed several times, and technically could be removed from the airport at any time.

After a lengthy legal battle waged by his lawyer, the French government finally gave him the necessary documents to reside in France and legally travel.

But he refuses to use them.

Nasseri is convinced he has no official identity. If he leaves France, he says, "There are soldiers there who shoot you dead." So he won't venture further than the first floor of the terminal. "I stay until I obtain my origin identity," he often repeats.

Airport shopkeepers don't seem bothered by the fuss over their famous neighbor. The cleaning staff warn that he'll charge a few euros if you take his picture. But otherwise, "he never asks anything of anyone," says Mossaoid Ben, who runs the Coccimarket next door.

Mr. Ben hypothesizes why Nasseri has remained in the dreary cocoon of the Charles de Gaulle building, a kind of doughnut-shaped, concrete UFO stranded out on the tarmac. "He'll have to pay rent elsewhere. Maybe that's why he's here."

Other theories abound as to why Nasseri persists with his self-imposed exile. "In my opinion, Alfred needs professional help to get him adapted to the outside world," says Alexis Kouros, an Iranian documentary filmmaker and doctor, who tried to help him leave for Brussels while making his film, "Waiting for Godot at de Gaulle," in 2000. "He used to be a normal person. By spending 15 years in that place, he has become institutionalized," says Mr. Kouros, who worries Alfred's mental health is worsening.

Nasseri, a pale and listless man, spends much of his day writing on sheets of blank white paper that have become a journal of his self-imposed captivity. "I write about what I hear on the news," he says. "Ray Charles dead; the elections in France." His reams of papers and books fill some dozen Lufthansa cargo boxes. "The only problem is I need a portable TV," he says.

In theory, he has plenty of money to buy one. DreamWorks, the company that made "The Terminal," paid Nasseri for the use of his story. But he doesn't have a bank account, so he can't access checks reportedly sent to his lawyer.

Nevertheless, he's enjoying the renewed burst of attention. "Gives me something more to read. It's better to read than about war, Iraq, terrorism," he says.

There's also a hint of optimism in Nasseri's voice. He talks wistfully of how he hopes to move to the United States or Canada. "I expect some change by October," he says. "In the end I will be happy."

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