The Iranian who inspired The Terminal dies at Paris airport

PARIS– An Iranian man who lived for 18 years at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, whose saga loosely inspired the Steven Spielberg film The Terminal, died Saturday at the airport he has long called home, officials said.

Mehran Karimi Nasseri died around noon after suffering a heart attack in Terminal 2F of the airport, an official with the Paris Airport Authority said. Police and a medical team treated him but were unable to save him, the officer said. The official was not authorized to be named publicly.

Nasseri lived in Terminal 1 of the airport from 1988 to 2006, initially in a state of legal limbo because he lacked residence papers, and later apparently voluntarily.

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 passers-by.

The staff nicknamed him Lord Alfred, and he became a mini-celebrity among the passengers.

“Eventually I’m going to leave the airport,” he told The Associated Press in 1999 while smoking a pipe on his bench and looking frail with long, thin hair, sunken eyes and sunken cheeks. “But I’m still waiting for a passport or transit visa.”

Nasseri was born in 1945 in Soleiman, part of Iran then under British jurisdiction, to an Iranian father and British mother. In 1974 he left Iran to study in England. When he returned, he was arrested for protesting against the Shah and expelled without a passport.

He applied for political asylum in several European countries. The UNHCR in Belgium issued him a refugee card, but he said his briefcase containing the refugee card was stolen in a Paris train station.

The French police later arrested him but could not deport him anywhere because he had no official documents. He ended up with Charles de Gaulle in August 1988 and stayed.

More bureaucratic bungling and ever-tightening European immigration laws kept him in a legal no man’s land for years.

When he finally received refugee papers, he described his surprise and uncertainty at leaving the airport. He reportedly refused to sign them and ended up staying there for several years until being hospitalized in 2006 and later living in a Parisian home.

Those who befriended him at the airport said years of living in the windowless room affected his mental health. Concerned about his physical and mental health in the 1990s, the airport doctor described him as “petrified here”. A ticket seller friend likened him to a prisoner who was unable to “live outside”.

In the weeks leading up to his death, Nasseri lived back in Charles de Gaulle, the airport official said.

Nasseri’s amazing story easily inspired 2004’s The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks, as well as a French film, Lost in Transit, and an opera called Flight.

In The Terminal, Hanks stars as Viktor Navorski, a man who arrives at New York’s JFK Airport from the fictional Eastern European country of Krakozhia and discovers that a political revolution has overnight invalidated all of his travel documents. Viktor is thrown into the airport’s international lounge and told that he must remain there until his status is resolved, which drags on while the unrest in Krakozhia continues.

No information was initially available about survivors.


Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this.


This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Nasseri’s first name as Mehran and not Merhan.


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