PARIS — An Iranian who lived 18 years at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport and whose saga vaguely inspired Steven Spielberg’s movie “The Terminal” died Saturday at the airport he long called home, officials said.
Merhan Karimi Nasseri died of a heart attack in the airport’s terminal 2F around noon, according to a Paris airport official. Police and a medical team treated him but could not save him, the official said. The official was not authorized to be publicly named.
Nasseri lived in Terminal 1 at the airport from 1988 to 2006, first in legal limbo because he lacked residency papers and later by apparent choice.
Year after year, he slept on a red plastic bench, befriended airport workers, showered in staff facilities, wrote in his diary, read magazines and surveyed passing travelers.
The staff nicknamed him Lord Alfred and he became a mini-celebrity among the passengers.
“Eventually I will leave the airport,” he told The Associated Press in 1999, smoking a pipe on his bench, looking frail with long fine hair, sunken eyes and sunken cheeks. “But I’m still waiting for a passport or a transit visa.”
Immigration laws and bureaucracy left him in a legal limbo
Nasseri was born in 1945 in Soleiman, a part of Iran then under British jurisdiction, to an Iranian father and a British mother. He left Iran to study in England in 1974. Upon his return, he said, he was imprisoned for protesting against the shah and deported without a passport.
He requested political asylum in several European countries. UNHCR in Belgium issued him a refugee certificate, but he said his briefcase containing the refugee certificate was stolen from a Paris train station.
The French police arrested him later, but could not deport him anywhere because he had no official documents. He found himself at Charles de Gaulle in August 1988 and stayed there.
Further bureaucratic blunders and increasingly strict European immigration laws kept him in a legal no-man’s land for years.
When he finally received the refugee papers, he described his surprise and insecurity about leaving the airport. He reportedly refused to sign them and ended up staying there for several more years until he was hospitalized in 2006, then lived in a Parisian refuge.
Those who befriended him at the airport said the years spent in that windowless space took a toll on his mental state. The 1990s airport doctor worried about his physical and mental health and described him as “fossilized here”. A ticket agent friend compares him to a prisoner unable to “live outside”.
In the weeks leading up to his death, Nasseri had again been living at Charles de Gaulle, the airport official said.
Nasseri’s mind-blowing tale loosely inspired 2004’s “The Terminal” starring Tom Hanks, as well as a French film, “Lost in Transit,” and an opera titled “Flight.”
In “The Terminal,” Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a man who arrives at JFK airport in New York from the fictional Eastern European country of Krakozhia and finds that an overnight political revolution has invalidated all his travel documents. Viktor is thrown into the airport’s international lounge and told he must stay there until his status is sorted out, which drags on as the unrest in Krakozhia continues.
No information was immediately available on the survivors.