Iranian who inspired Spielberg film The Terminal dies at Paris airport


An Iranian who inspired Steven Spielberg’s film The Air Terminal has died at Charles de Gaulle airport where he lived for 18 years.

Merhan Karimi Nasseri died of a heart attack at terminal 2F on Saturday, according to a Paris airport official.

Police and a medical team were called but were unable to save him, the official said.

Mr. Nasseri, who is believed to have been born in 1945, lived in Terminal 1 of the airport from 1988 to 2006, first in legal limbo for lack of residence papers, then by choice, according to French media.

He had been living at the airport again for the past few weeks, the airport official said.

His saga inspired The Terminal with Tom Hanks, and a French film.

Tom Hanks at a photocall at Venice Lido to promote his film The Terminal during the 61st Venice International Film Festival in 2004 (Myung Jung Kim/PA)

Year after year, he slept on a red plastic bench, befriended airport workers, showered in the staff facility, wrote in his diary, read magazines, and watched 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.”

Mr. 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 says he was imprisoned for protesting against the shah and deported without a passport.

He requested political asylum in several European countries. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 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 then arrested him 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 admitted to hospital 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 airport doctor in the 1990s worried about his physical and mental health, and called him ‘fossilized here’. A ticket agent friend compares him to an inmate unable to “live outside”.

Mr. Nasseri’s mind-blowing tale loosely inspired 2004’s The Terminal starring Hanks, as well as the French film Lost in Transit and an opera called 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 papers.

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.

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