The term “stuck” at the airport took on new meaning for me recently.
Mehran Karimi Nasseri, or “Sir Alfred” as he’s more commonly known as was stuck inside Charles de Gaulle International Airport in Paris from 1988 to 2006.
A total of 18 years. Three-fourths of my entire lifespan. Wow.
For two decades Sir Alfred never so much as took a step outside the airport terminal.
He used airport bathrooms to brush his teeth, ate at fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s, and spent most of his time reading and people watching. This story was so crazy that Steven Speilberg even directed a film loosely inspired by Alfred aptly titled The Terminal.
The question is, how, and more importantly, why did all this happen?
Two decades in purgatory
Let’s dial the clock back to 1979.
Sir Alfred is a 27-year-old Iranian citizen who came from wealthy parents.
Like most rich kids who feel embittered by the system, Alfred protested against the Iranian monarchy in a movement called the last Shah of Iran. This was a bad idea. Alfred was exiled and his citizenship revoked.
As you might imagine, the life of an exiled citizen is not fun. His pool of countries to move to was small and returning to Iran meant certain death.
Still, Sir Alfred made the best of it. He wandered around Europe until 1981 when he finally found a country that would give him political asylum: England.
However, on his trip to Britain Sir Alfred lost his paperwork and identity documents. This was another bad idea. The British denied his entry sending him back to CDG airport in France.
With no paperwork and no citizenship, the French had no choice. They couldn’t admit Sir Alfred into their country nor let him travel anywhere else.
He was stranded.
How the airport drove him mad
Sir Alfred made the best of a very, very bad situation.
If it were me, I’d probably just lay down in the airport and cry as people stepped over my limp body.
Not Sir Alfred. He set up shop almost immediately at the CDG airport.
Alfred lived by doing small jobs for money. He received occasional donations through the mail and even begged for change.
Without knowing a single word of French he got by for ten years.
It was around this time that a French human rights lawyer caught onto Alfred’s situation.
After years of court battles and legalities, that lawyer actually won. Alfred had his freedom. He was mailed replacement papers in 1999 and the French provided him a permit to stay in the country.
Then something crazier happened. Sir Alfred rejected the paperwork because he thought it was fake and elected instead to remain in the airport.
You can’t make this up.
So, this is a good time to point out that many people were beginning to think Alfred was mentally insane (if staying in an airport for 18 years didn’t give that away). Some postulate he even lost that initial paperwork purposefully.
I doubt it — but who knows with this guy? Certainly, some made the argument he lost his marbles.
“The truth was that no one knew the whole truth about Alfred, not even Alfred himself. He was born in either 1945 or 1947 or 1953 and claimed to be Iranian, British or Swedish,” wrote Michael Paterniti in GQ in 2003.
He’s told multiple versions of his story and continues to do so with revisionist history. God bless him.
Where is he today?
In 2006 Alfred was hospitalized due to illness making it the first time he had ever left the airport since 1988. I’m sure the fresh air probably felt like a drug.
Just imagine it.
Alfred was later released in 2007 and now lives in a homeless shelter in Paris.
While he was living in the airport he even released a book detailing his experiences titled The Terminal Man. I haven’t picked it up yet because it’s crazy expensive for what it is. And according to reviews, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. It’s more of an artifact if anything.
Alfred did something that no human being will ever do again. I’m not sure if that’s to be lauded or criticized — but it will be remembered.
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