“He’s been living in an airport for nearly 20 years,” said my agent.
My morning’s writing had been blissfully interrupted by an unexpected request that I catch a Eurostar to Paris and get to Charles de Gaulle airport “by 3pm if possible”. This is the sort of request that authors live for, but that rarely ever happens in real life. At the airport, I was to meet Sir Alfred Mehran, a stateless political refugee who had (at that point, in 2004) been living on a bench in the departure lounge of Terminal 1 for 16 years. If we liked each other then we were to co-write his autobiography, to be called The Terminal Man.
Sir Alfred’s full name was Mehran Karimi Nasseri. He had arrived at the airport without proper documentation and was now trapped. He couldn’t get on a plane without a passport, and if he left the airport to go in France, he would be arrested for not having ID papers. The airport was a no man’s land, an endless limbo he could never leave.
I was introduced to Sir Alfred, who died earlier this month, by Barbara Laugwitz, the German editor who had summoned me from London. Film director Steven Spielberg had bought the movie rights to fictionalize Sir Alfred’s story as the Tom Hanks vehicle The Terminal, but Sir Alfred was keen to tell his real story in the medium he loved best: print.
I sat talking to Sir Alfred for hours as transient airport life went on around us. He was in his mid-50s, tall, with thinning black hair and bright, intelligent eyes. His bench was surrounded by several luggage trolleys and many boxes and bags containing his growing hoard of belongings that were becoming a nest around him.
The most precious were the many boxes of A4 paper that contained his journal. Sir Alfred explained that he had been keeping a daily diary for more than a decade on paper donated to him by the kindly airport doctor. I did a quick calculation based on the number of boxes. “There must be 10,000 pages there,” I ventured. “More because I write on both sides to save paper,” he said.
How did he come to have a knighthood? With a toothy grin he explained how he had written to the British embassy in Brussels asking for help. When they replied, their letter began “Dear Sir, Alfred …” It was on headed notepaper from the British embassy – how could it not be a knighthood, he asked with a grin. I always called him Sir Alfred. It suited him.
The selling point of most autobiographies is that they tell the truth. It quickly became clear that the exact truth behind Sir Alfred’s background and lost paperwork was as much of a mystery to him as to the rest of us. Many rumors and myths had attached themselves to his extraordinary story over the years. That he had been expelled from Iran. That he had been tortured. That he had lost his own documents. And, most mysteriously of all, that his mother had been an English nurse. I suggested another approach to my new editor.
“Instead of our book just laying out the facts,” I said, “how about we explore the story of Sir Alfred as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma sitting on a red bench in an airport terminal?”
Laugwitz considered this unusual pitch.
“I trust you,” she said.
I stayed with Sir Alfred for three weeks to learn his life story. We talked a lot.
Being trapped in an airport terminal meant Sir Alfred’s life lacked any kind of structure, and so he had created one. Every morning, before the airport became busy, he would leave his bench and go to a bathroom where he would shave and wash to “ensure best presentation of self”. Sir Alfred was always extremely dignified.
Next, he’d buy breakfast from the McDonald’s menu, before visiting the terminal’s newsagent to buy (or be given) a newspaper or three. He would then return to his bench and eat breakfast as the airport burst into life around him. Passengers passed his bench, ignoring him, apart from a few who would do a double-take at the amount of hand luggage he seemed to have.
Sir Alfred would then begin the activity that took up much of his day: writing his journal. He filled page after page with his spidery black handwriting racing across the unlined paper. He wrote up everything. If I ever left him to get food, I’d return to find him frantically transcribing our conversations, trying to get down as many words as he could before I came back.
Even as we were writing the book, Sir Alfred was recording us writing the book. It was all very meta. In many ways he was the first reality TV star: he was permanently on the show; his own life was part real, part performance; and he expertly recapped events that had just happened. All his airport situation lacked were cameras, a host, a show and an adoring audience.
After updating his journal (which he would do throughout the day as events unfolded), he would settle down and start the newspapers. Sir Alfred loved reading and discussing world politics. During his airport stay he had taught himself to read French and German using translation dictionaries and the appropriate papers. He was a man of great learning and he didn’t like to waste time.
Lunch would almost always be a Filet-O-Fish from McDonald’s. There had been a brief flirtation one year with Burger King, but their french fries machine had broken for a few days and now Sir Alfred thought them too unreliable. In those days, pilots and cabin crew were given vouchers to spend on airport food. Many would bring packed lunches from home, giving their airline vouchers to Sir Alfred as they walked by his bench. Thanks to that, he had an almost infinite supply of a very limited menu.
The rest of the day might be given over to any combination of reading the news, writing his never-ending diary, or being interviewed by any curious members of the world’s press who might happen to be passing through. Sir Alfred had no mobile phone so there was no way anyone, including me, could make an appointment with him. You simply turned up. It was a kind of isolation almost unimaginable today.
Dinner would almost certainly be a second Filet-O-Fish. When I was there I tried to tempt Sir Alfred into trying the Italian franchise, or the Burger King with their once more fully functioning french fries machine. He would consider this request in the style of a parent who knows ice-cream at midnight is not a good idea, but is pretending to mull it over. Then he would pronounce: “We could, but I think today I’ll take the fish.”
The airport becomes quieter around midnight, although it only ever really stops for a few hours. While we were working on the book, I was staying in a nearby airport hotel, but to really understand Sir Alfred’s life I decided to spend a few nights on the hard metal bench next to him. The lights were on all night and the loudspeaker announcements only stopped between about 1am and 4.30am. The benches were uncomfortable and narrow, placing the sleeper at constant risk of falling off. It was hard work. After the third night, I stopped our work at lunchtime due to an “urgent editorial phone call” and headed off for some shuteye.
On the sixth morning, the airport announcements in French suddenly changed their tone and I saw passengers leaving the terminal at great speed.
“They say there is a bomb,” announced Sir Alfred casually, waving a hand towards our general area. I looked behind us and sure enough, there in the now-deserted walkway was a lone suitcase. About 50 meters behind the suitcase were half a dozen airport security police. One gave me a little wave over his blast shield. Sir Alfred had no intention of evacuating the area. He didn’t want to leave his many boxes of precious A4 diary pages.
“It’s never actually a bomb,” he said, with the confidence of a man who has seen many suitcases cut open by a small saw-wielding robot. “It happens a lot. A tourist forgets their bag.” He shrugged.
Clearly, I had a decision to make. I didn’t want my career as Sir Alfred’s official biographer to end before it had begun, but at the same time I didn’t want to fracture our growing bond by running away at the first sight of trouble. So I returned to asking Sir Alfred about his time in West Berlin in the winter of 1977. Over his shoulder, reflected in the floor-to-ceiling window, I could see the spinning blade of the little robot’s miniature chainsaw beginning to cut through the suitcase. Under the table, out of Sir Alfred’s sight, I crossed my fingers. He finished describing his train journey into a snowy West Berlin as a pair of pajamas fell out of the open case.
“Does this happen often?” I inquired. “Maybe once a week,” he replied.
It was 2004, after all. Just a few years after the twin towers. Perhaps, I thought, pollution wasn’t the biggest danger he faced in the airport after all.
Sir Alfred had many moments of Zen-like wisdom. I enjoyed watching his interactions with international journalists who would appear, sometimes with holidaying children in tow, desperate for a 20-minute interview. I delighted in seeing how he would respond to the different personalities and identical questions.
At the end of one such interview, a journalist said he envied Sir Alfred’s freedom: “I wish I was living free like you, with no worries.” Sir Alfred pointed around him and said: “There are many benches.” Surprisingly, the journalist did not take up his invitation of a new life in the airport, but instead caught his flight to the Caribbean.
Months later, I went back to give Sir Alfred his author copies of our book, The Terminal Man. As ever, I couldn’t ring ahead. I was slightly nervous, because I desperately wanted him to like it. As I approached his bench, he saw me and his face lit up with a wide, toothy smile. I needn’t have worried. “It is a triumph!” he proclaimed modestly.
The enterprising manager of Terminal 1’s newsagent had ordered many copies, and had been doing a roaring trade selling them for Sir Alfred to sign – something he had been doing with great delight for all who asked.
Sir Alfred stayed in the airport for two more years after the book came out. A combination of heightened airport security and health issues meant he was finally – after 18 long years – moved on. Living in that polluted air had not been good for him and he suffered from bad chest infections.
He lived for the next few years in a homeless shelter in a suburb of Paris. I wondered what it was like for him: his identity had been entirely based on being That Guy in the Airport, but now he was That Guy Who Used to Be in the Airport. Given the disorienting life he had led, Sir Alfred was an incredible survivor.
Knowing him left a lasting impression on me. Especially the importance of those tiny pieces of paper, such as passports, that make international movement legal. More than a decade later, that seed of an idea resurfaced and I worked with the writer Eoin Colfer and the artist Giovanni Rigano on a graphic novel, Illegal, that followed two brothers trying to cross the Mediterranean sea with no documentation.
I liked Sir Alfred very much indeed. He was a true gentleman. I was very sad when I heard he had died, but it was heartening to learn that he had returned to the airport to spend his last two weeks on Earth there. Over the years, the airport had become his real home and I hope it gave him much comfort to be back there, sitting on his old bench, ready for his final journey.