The incredible story of Sir, Alfred Mehran and the story behind the comma……
There is always some bright chap who would say, man, this guy has forgot his grammar, he put a comma after the Sir. The comma is at the right place and - but naturally, Maddy is going to tell you a story, which perhaps many of you would recognize, but would have no idea, that it is in reality based on reality, reality being an ‘unreal’ person called Sir, Alfred Mehran.
First I will break the initial suspense, for it is needless in this case. Remember the movie ‘Terminal’ played by Tom Hanks? Well, the character Viktor Navorski from the movie was loosely based on Sir, Alfred. But then who is Sir, Alfred? There lies the real story, and of course there is yet another story behind the story and possibly another behind that. A sad and interesting story, a story telling you what mankind has become and how some stuffy people sitting behind the desks of bureaucracy, people who have lost the feel of real life, dictate the lives of the ordinary, while loftily delivering complicated words of legalese.
Even after so many decades of travelling and living in a number of countries, I feel a twinge of anxiety when I have to stand in an immigration officer’s line, waiting for his questions and deliberations. Not that there is anything to worry, but it is the inane feeling that he has no right to decide what I should be doing, that this world belongs to everybody. But let us get to the story of Sir, Alfred. For that we first go to the oilfields of Persia, and just around the turn of the 20th century, 1908 to be precise when oil was discovered in the Masjid Sulieman area by a bloke called William Knox Darcy. Thus was formed the Anglo Persian Oil company (which later on became the AIOC and finally formed what we know as BP these days) and this was where Abdul Karim worked as a physician. After many years of working there, Karim retired and moved to Tehran. He died in 1967 when his son Mehran Karimi nasseri was just 22 years old, a sensitive young lad.
And now we go to Paris to meet our man. Charles De Gaulle was the first French president, the general who fought the Germans and took France to its modern path. Well, the grateful French named their ultra modern Roissy airport in Paris after him, one that occupied all of 12.5 square miles, a city by itself. Paul Andreu built the Terminal 1 on an avant garde circular design, but it was certainly not for the stay of one eccentric gentleman, who chose to make it his home for all of 18 years. A sthey explain, the first terminal, designed by Paul Andreu, was built in the image of an octopus. It consists of a circular central part dedicated to the home for travelers, placed in the middle of tarmac, with eight satellites. It is in terminal one that our man lived. Here he became somebody, famous, a celebrity…and eventually a man lost…the man by the Bye-Bye bar, on the red bench with the five Lufthansa boxes….
Sir Alfred sits in the basement shopping mall area of the circular terminal One Charles De gaulle airport on a red bench with a white Formica table in front of him. Beside him are the 5 Lufthansa boxes filled with odds and ends (my news papers and Time magazines – says Mehran) and his briefcases. Mehran is worried about security and leaves his seat only briefly, he does not want to lose his belongings. He wakes up early at 5AM, showers and uses the bathrooms before they fill up. For food he usually has French fries from MacDonald’s, he likes them better than the ones from the Burger king, which used to be the first fast food restaurant nearby, the place where the French fry machine broke down often. Sometimes he has fish filet or the Mc Chicken, but he likes the fish. That is all he can afford and he has eaten the same kind of food for the last 16 years. Yes, my friend, believe it or not, Alfred has been at the same seat and same location in the airport for the last 16 years.
Many would feel I am fibbing, it is not practically possible, and the airport should have thrown him out into the street or sent him back to Iran. But then there would be no story right? Many would shudder, yuck eating fries and burgers for 16 years and drinking espresso? Well, that is also true and Mehran says that he is perhaps the best long standing and paying customer that McDonalds ever had. So what did he do at the airport? Just sit there? Where did he sleep? On the red bench? Yes,that is precisely what he did if not reading or talking to media. Come on, there must be a story to all this…what is it?
So let us follow the vein of the story as narrated by Mehran. Life is fine in Tehran till the day Mehran discovers that his father is terminally afflicted by cancer. Soon he dies and immediately thereafter, his mother and uncle call him to give him the worst news of his life. His mother says “You are not my son, your father is your father, but I am not your mother. Your mother was a Scottish Nurse where Karim worked and you are a result of their affair. To avoid disgrace and the repercussions of Sharia law, such as stoning an adulteress, the girl left back for Britain after delivering you and you are thus with us”.
Mehran is devastated. His mother and family have virtually disowned him after this event and he threatens to go to court. The family comes up with a compromise. Mehran has to go to Bradford in UK for studies and they would pay his bills. Mehran should not come back to Iran. Mehran leaves for Bradford, and takes up Yugoslav economic studies in Bradford. During this time, revolution is brewing in Tehran and people are disillusioned with the Shah. One day there is some kind of an anti Shah demonstration which Mehran strays into, but that day is quickly gone. In the meantime, the payments from home cease and Mehran has no money to continue his studies. He decides to go back to Tehran and find out what is choking the supply line. Soon after he lands in the airport, he is arrested by the dreaded secret police Savak and imprisoned for a long time and frequently tortured because the Savak has seen him and photographed his participation in the anti Shah demonstration.
As Mehran wallows in the cold Tehran jails, the revolution of the late 70’s is peaking. Late sometime in 1975, Mehran is bundled into a plane with exit papers (no passport) and sent off to Britain by the Iranians with a clear warning, never return to Iran. It appears that his family finally paid for his release. Obviously the British did not give him leave to remain and the next few years were spent wandering around Britain & Germany, stateless, document less, without friends and acquaintances and with no money. His trips took him to railway stations and bus stops and shelters in Berlin, Netherlands and Yugoslavia. All of them refuse asylum to the wandering nomad and finally in 1981, Brussels agrees to provide him a refugee status. There he lives for six years
The memory of his Scottish mother troubles him and he recalls that the area of Masjid Soleiman was actually British territory. So he was born in British soil and to a British parent. Why should he be a stateless refugee? Then Nasseri met a man who knew his real mother. He couldn't remember if her name was Simon or Simone, but he said she was a British nurse who lived in Glasgow'.” Nasseri decided to track her down. When he passed through customs at Ostende, he had his travel documents stamped. He thought he was on British soil and posted all his papers back to Belgium. It was an act of folly he was to regret for the rest of his life.
And there he remained for the next 16 years….eating French fries, fish o filet and drinking coffee. First it was the burger king, they moved to terminal two and their position was taken by the McDonalds. Mehran liked that, for their fries were better and he could get fish. In the meantime, he made little money as a Farsi translator in the airport, as a staff of the French secret service translating Farsi telephone interceptions during the gulf war. He also got food coupons from airport workers and aircraft staff. He was a simple man, leading a simple life and remaining a harmless fixture of the airport. His one friend was Dr Bargain, the airport doctor. People started noticing him, so also journalists and TV persona. In between he was arrested thrice and imprisoned, and each time he got back to Terminal one. A prominent human rights lawyer Mr. Christian Bourguet represented Mehran and got him free each time. The courts did not know what to do, France wanted a resolution, Belgium said that Mehran had to come and pick up his refugee papers (which he had mailed them so many years ago). France could not let him go because he had no papers. The stalemate continued for eight years. TV programs and articles were written, the fame of Mehran was growing and both Belgium and France resented the bad press.
As the bureaucracies of the French, British and Belgian governments argued the case back and forth, the fragile mental state of the person leading his life in the noisy and bright airport, which was his home for the last 10 years, was becoming even more precarious. Barrister Bourguet continued the fight for his client. Finally good news was at hand. The exasperated Belgian authorities decided to deliver the old refugee papers to Alfred at Paris. With that Alfred could seek to stay in France and finally find a home.
It was during this time (1999-2004) that Steven Spielberg decided to make a movie based on this story. Tom Hanks was chosen and they filmed the story in JFK in a gigantic set. Spielberg also brought the rights of the Mehran story and paid Mehran an undisclosed amount, amounting to many hundreds of thousands of dollars Some said that they just remained un-encashed checks while other stated that these were deposited in the airport bank.
As Richard Johnson states - By refusing to sign, he was passing up his right to find a flat, find a job, and make a new life for himself in France. Bourguet does not understand Nasseri's reasoning. “Maybe he doesn't possess any reasoning. Maybe he really is going mad. I don't know.” But the money is starting to filter through from the Dreamworks option on Nasseri's story. The irony is that Nasseri, the man with no identity, has no bank account. So the rights cheques just sit in Bourguet's drawer.
Mr Bourguet and Dr Bargain continued to ask Mehran why he would not accept that he was from Iran even though everybody knew it. Mehran’s answer was even more astounding. He now said he was originally born in Sweden (the nurse delivered the baby surreptitiously outside the country?) and taken by submarine to Iran.
In the meanwhile, Terminal had been released; many people including myself enjoyed watching it though we had no clue that it was based on Sir, Alfred. Tom Hanks had by then got into the skin of his next character, Steven Spielberg had started his next research, the movie was well received, but Alfred Mehran was still in limbo. The Bye Bye bar outside which Alfred was parked had closed down and some other shop took its place. In the end, everybody left Sir Alfred to his plight, lost in his various theories. He continued to live in the airport until 2006, all of 18 years. He had a large amount of money but apparently used none of it. He kept hoping that Tom Hanks or Steven Spielberg would send him a US green card so he could go and settle in USA. Britain ceased to interest him, but the fact that the legal system toyed with him or vice versa was the focal point of his fight with life.
In this long fight he lost his moorings, save the red seat of Terminal one, outside the Bye Bye bar. After all these years, that was the only constant, only reliable part of life for him and so he remained there, not understanding the vagaries of the cruel world outside any longer. He did not want freedom, he needed security and so he remained a fixture of terminal one till 2006. In the meantime his autobiography and many other books were published. One of those was ‘The terminal Man’ which I read in one sitting.
His life after 2006 is not too clear, for he fell ill in 2006 and was hospitalized. After his departure to the hospital, the authorities dismantled his sitting place, and he became a ward of the French Red Cross. Later he moved to a Paris shelter and he continues to live there. His bank account at the airport post office perhaps still has the money that Spielberg or DreamWorks paid him. Perhaps he never cashed the checks.
As BBC puts it - Eleven years after his journey began, Nasseri was showing all the signs of having become institutionalized like a long-term prisoner. Nasseri obviously felt secure in Terminal One and built up a unique relationship with staff. He was visited regularly by the onsite doctor and relied on the good wishes of staff and fellow travelers for food and drink. He did not, however, like to accept 'charity' and returned donated clothing to its source with a 'thanks, but no thanks'.
And so what is this? A story? A fable? A legend? A travesty to justice? A case of an institutionalized person? Whatever said, it is a remarkable story set in our times, unknown to many. I myself had transited Terminal One at De Gaulle a few times, but did not chance on the person.
But this was the story from the horse’s mouth. This is the oft stated legend of Mehran. What could be the cold reality behind the story that you read above? All the events that happened in the 18 years and thence are true, but what about the reasons that Alfred attributed to his sorry state? What happened in Iran? What about his Scottish mother? What about his studies in England and the torture by Savak? How come nobody from his past including his Scottish mother, contacted him during his stay in De Gaulle? To figure it all out, you have to read a marvelous article by Paul Berzceller in The Guardian. He spent a long time with Alfred filming another movie on him and many days tracking down the real story, behind the story. And this friends, is perhaps a gist of the real story of the man who lost his past.
He lived the present as Berzceller states - Despite outward appearances, Alfred lived a life of total self-sufficiency and order. He kept himself meticulously clean and groomed, using a nearby airport bathroom. He hung his freshly dry-cleaned clothes from the handle of a suitcase next to his bench. He always ate a MacDonald's egg and bacon croissant for breakfast and a McDonald's fish sandwich for dinner. (Perhaps one day McDonald's will have the wit to sign Alfred up for a celebrity endorsement.) He always left a tip. Alfred was not, to put it bluntly, a bum………..but what about his past?
It appears that he did have a real Iranian family and they knew about his travails. But they let him be..Ah, why? Was he always a bit of a crank? Perhaps…In fact his brother Cyrus was the one who took him to Bradford and paid for his studies, but Alfred dropped out one fine day. It also seems that Alfred’s encounter with the Savak was actually when he was a student in Tehran where he was simply questioned. All the stuff about jailing, the trip to Tehran from UK, the loss of his Iranian passport and the torture was imaginary. But the Savak incident perhaps tripped his mind, for he refers to this imaginary Savak imprisonment incident often. Later he took to wandering around Europe and finally landed up at De Gaulle, according to Cyrus. Why did he take this route? His mother confirmed that she was his mother and so the Scottish mother story was perhaps not quite right. So what is all this? Did he consider himself a failure and concoct a special form of protest with his remaining life? Why did an intelligent man decide to become homeless? Perhaps there is yet another story behind the story which was behind yet another story of Sir, Alfred Mehran…..one we will hear about another day…
Christian Bourguet continues to represent asylum cases. Dr Philippe Bargain continues as doctor at the De Gaulle airport. Before he left Alfred answered thus to a question. "Many things have changed." "But you're still here, Alfred, right? You're still at the airport." "Yes," he replied, carefully grooming his moustache. "One of the airport's passengers, I'm always a passenger. If I go, I come back again. I'm not wandering. I don't wander adding "I am famous now". Others opine thus - Sir Alfred, you understand, is ashamed to be Iranian. All Iranian refugees, on some level, share this guilt. Sir Alfred wants to be someone else, and of any other nationality, never an Iranian refugee. Why did Alfred always think that the British were responsible for his plight? He states that since the British conferred statelessness on him (the immigration department called him apatride in official correspondence), it is their responsibility to correct it. This is the reason why he never accepted Belgian or French residence during his stay in the airport. But the British as you can see never bought the argument.
How about the comma? Well, the coma after the sir is not a typo, but is part of the title adopted by Nassiri from a letter received from British immigration. I guess the comma after the sir also keeps it legal for he was never knighted.
The terminal man – Sir Alfred Mehran
Man in a suitcase – Richard Johnson
The man who lost his past – Paul Berczeller
Waiting for an identity – John Menick
Sleeping with the terminal man – Greg Lindsay
For those who want to see a video of the real Sir, Alfred Mehran and his place of stay, click play or this