The curious story of Nasseri, the man who lived in an airport for 18 years
For nearly two decades, Nasseri, also known as Sir Alfred (a name he gave himself), lived in Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris. His story became a matter of international attention and was even the basis for the Tom Hanks film 'The Terminal.'
Precisely how Nasseri wound up in this situation has been a matter of debate over the years, especially given that he himself has changed specific details whenever he tells his story.
However, the general consensus is that it all began with an attempt to gain political asylum after a bit of trouble in his home country, Iran.
In the early 1970s, Nasseri studied at the University of Bradford in the UK, and while he was there, he participated in student protests against the last Shah of Iran. When he returned home in 1977, he was promptly thrown in jail and later exiled for conspiring against the government.
Nasseri received status as a refugee in 1981, issued by Belgium. As such, he was able to apply for citizenship in European countries, and he planned to head back to England, as he knew the country from his student days.
However, while traveling from France to England, Nasseri lost the briefcase containing his refugee papers. Without them, the UK refused his entry and put him on the next train to France.
Image: Clem Onojeghuo / Unsplash
Though he was arrested by French police when he returned to the country, he was released as he hadn't done anything illegal. They left him at the Paris airport.
Nasseri chose to stay in the airport, because it constitutes an international space. The loss of his papers, however, meant he was unable to leave the airport and enter France properly, or any other country for that matter. His refugee status also meant he was no longer an Iranian citizen.
And so began what turned out to be an 18-year stay in an airport. During that time, Nasseri used the airport bathrooms to wash himself, he usually ate at the McDonald's in the terminal, and he spent most of his time reading and people-watching, according to airport employees.
People began to recognize him and sometimes passengers would give him money. Other times he did cleaning jobs inside the airport.
Eventually, Nasseri’s situation came to the attention of a French human rights lawyer named Christian Bourguet. He took up Nasseri’s cause and quickly discovered a big problem...
Belgium (the country that initially issued Nasseri’s refugee papers) could only issue replacement papers if Nasseri appeared in person. But he couldn't travel to Belgium without those same papers.
After more than ten years of pursuing the matter, Bourguet finally convinced Belgium to mail Nasseri replacement papers in 1999. Unbelievably, Nasseri rejected the paperwork because he thought it was fake and chose to remain in the airport. This prompted suspicions that he had gone crazy.
Adding to this suspicion is that he gave himself the name Sir Alfred, as he was no longer an Iranian citizen and considered himself British. Legend has it that he rejected the paperwork because it had his Iranian name instead of 'Alfred.'
In 2006, Nasseri had to be hospitalized due to an unknown illness. It was the first time he left the airport since 1988. Nasseri was released from the hospital in 2007 and then last reported as living in a homeless shelter in Paris in 2008.
In 2004, Nasseri's autobiography, 'The Terminal Man' was published. It was co-written by Nasseri with British author Andrew Donkin and was reviewed in The Sunday Times as being "profoundly disturbing and brilliant."
Nasseri’s remarkable story provided inspiration for the 1994 French film ‘Tombés du ciel’, known internationally as ‘Lost in Transit’. The short story ‘The Fifteen-Year Layover’, written by Michael Paterniti, also chronicles Nasseri's life.
'Waiting for Godot at De Gaulle'(2000) and ‘Sir Alfred at Charles de Gaulle Airport’ (2001) are both documentaries about his life.
Nasseri was reportedly the inspiration for the character Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) in the 2004 Steven Spielberg film 'The Terminal.' However, neither its publicity materials, nor the film's website mentions Nasseri's situation as an inspiration for the film.
And yet, the New York Times noted that Spielberg had bought the rights to Nasseri’s life story as the basis for the movie and said that DreamWorks paid him $250,000. They also reported that, as of 2004, he carried a poster advertising Spielberg's film while still living in the airport at that time.
He was last known to be living in a homeless shelter in Paris in 2008, but nothing has been reported about his whereabouts since. Speculation online has it that he finally made it to England like he always wanted to.