For eighteen years, Mehran Katrimi Nasseri, who called himself Sir Alfred Mehran, occupied his corner of Terminal One in Charles de Gaulle Airport with a Zen-like resignation to the quiet trappings of routine. It’s been said that if he wasn’t reading from books on politics, he could be seen sitting, staring, on his red bench between a mound of cargo boxes, his mustache impeccably trimmed and his gaze steadied beneath a heavy brow, watching travelers rush to and from their final destinations.
Evidence says Mehran could have left the Paris airport if he wanted to. Several years after he arrived in 1988, a prominent Parisian lawyer argued his case, ultimately awarding him identity documents and the right to travel. But then Mehran refused to leave, although it’s unclear why. Confusing as the bureaucracy of his situation was, evidence points to the fact that Mehran was also becoming more and more comfortable with this life in nowhereland, where he was free to spend his days as he pleased. He accepted meals and occasionally money in exchange for his tale—an increasingly tangled tapestry of details from his past that he was known to string together through the narratives of reporters who’d written about him (he kept the articles in his cargo boxes). By the time Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal was released some sixteen years later, his life in the airport had become more than an identity. His predicament was also his fame.
Mehran’s journey to the red airport bench began around 1972 after the death of his physician father, when it was revealed to him that he was the illegitimate child of a Scottish nurse. Chastised by his family, Mehran left home for a university in England where he soon became involved in political protests, an endeavor that ultimately saw him banned from returning to his home country.
Eventually Mehran was awarded refugee status by the UN yet he claimed he never received the papers. What did happen to the papers became irrelevant the longer Mehran stayed in Charles de Gaulle, which he left in 2006 only due to an unspecified illness. What began in the hands of airport bureaucracy ended in legend—one of a man seemingly at ease with the sterilized, transitory pace of airport life. You could hardly call it a layover.