Written By: Naomi
A/N: Special thank you to the Youtuber Atrocity Guide who does deep dives into unique topics and inspired this episode!
You are leaving your holiday in Paris and you head toward the gate to take you home. As you pass through terminal 1 of the Charles de Gaulle Airport it is full of restaurants, stores, and the steady hum of people coming and going. Airports are not a location that comes to mind when we think of stability and consistency but for 18 years there was one man who could be found on the same red bench in a corner or terminal 1 and he had the same McDonald's Fillet-o-Fish meal for lunch everyday. A man who had no ticket, no destination, and nowhere to call home.
Sir Alfred was considered a fixture in the Charles de Gaulle Airport after a series of unfortunate events that left him with no other place to turn. He was expelled from Iran in 1977 after he protested against the Shah ( King Mohammad Reza Pahlavi ). Sir Alfred was now stateless and battled against this decision which resulted in him being granted refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees in Belgium. With this he was allowed residence in many other European countries. Since his mother was British he decided he would go there in 1986 when he was in his early 40’s. When he was on his way there 2 years later the briefcase that contained his passport and refugee paperwork was stolen in a train station while he was in transit. He would be arrested and returned to Paris for attempting to unlawfully enter the country since he no longer had these papers. Determined to not let this stop him he boarded a flight for London instead but was quickly returned to France when he failed to present his passport to British immigration. When he arrived back in France he was arrested and held for four months before being released since he was legally allowed to be in the airport and did not have any country of origin to be returned to. With his only belongings in his suitcase he claimed a red bench as his home.
This is something that would not go noticed by most as they only passed through, more focused on rushing to their flight and next destination. As much as Sir Alfred wished to be like them, he was now trapped in Charles de Gaulle Airport. He would speak to anyone who would listen about his story and how he had become stateless, eventually being able to build up a savings account from the kindness of strangers with enough money to purchase another ticket to London. Despite still not having any of his paperwork and having made no attempts to obtain them, he attempted to fly into London again. Just as before he was caught by immigration and sent back to France where he was arrested and detained before being released back into the airport.
4 Years passed until a French Human Rights lawyer named Christian Bourget took Sir Alfred’s case, Alfred had entered the country legally so he could not be kicked out of the airport but he was not allowed to legally enter France so Christian Bourget worked hard with Sir Alfred to help him locate or replace his refugee documents that would allow him to travel freely again. This proved difficult as Sir Alfred would be required to be there in person to speak to these agencies and receive his documents. He survived the years thanks to the kindness of strangers and airport staff who were fond of him and would buy him meals. He kept personal hygiene in the public bathrooms and took his clothing to the airport’s laundry service.
In 1995 Belgian authorities granted Sir Alfred permission to travel to Belgium and live there but he must do so under the supervision of a social worker. He declined this as he had his sights set on living in the United Kingdom. It seemed that despite the great number of people trying to help him, Sir Alfred declined it all, including when both France and Belgium offered him residency. He refused this help because they listed him as Iranian and did not list his name as Sir Alfred Mehran - a man who did not ever actually exist.
Our actual story begins in 1946 when Mehran Karimi Nasseri was born in Masjed Soleiman, Iran. His story is hard to piece together as Nasseri will not discuss his past, but what we do know is that his father was an Iranian doctor who worked for the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Nasseri always stated that his mother was a Scottish or Swedish nurse who was also working at the company and he had been born of an affair between his father and this woman making him an outcast in the family and was kept a secret. His father being a doctor for such a successful company allowed for him to live comfortably but under Iranian law adultery was a capital offence so it was kept secret and it also did not allow Nasseri to claim any of his fathers inheritance, an issue that arose when his father died in 1972 from cancer and was supposedly when Alfred had been told by his family that he was illegitimate. Nasseri traveled to the United Kingdom in September 1973 to study for three years at the university of Bradford and in hopes of locating the woman he thought was his mother - the greatly saddening part was that his mother in Iran, the woman who had birthed him, raised him and been there his entire life, did not understand why he was saying these things as she had never told him he was from an affair and continued to send him money for years to help him survive.
Nasseri studied psychology and economics leading to him participating in a protest against the Shah but this would not be the reason why he was expelled from Iran, he had attended Tehran University in Iran years before and protested a new university regulation, it had heated up until Iranian secret police known as Savak rounded up the protesters ringleader which included Nassaeri and questioned them in a classroom but it never became more than that and did not end in his expulsion from Iran. There is no official documentation stating that Nasseri was expelled from Iran which caused conflicts in regards to his refugee papers and if he should have been granted them at all. Some think that Nasseri actually fled Iran to avoid being conscripted into the 1980-1988 Iran- Iraq war. Additionally when he had supposedly had his briefcase stolen on his way to London it was found that he had instead mailed his passport and refugee papers to Belgian officials. Something he vehemently denies, but sometimes admits that he had done so as a mistake. When he had received some mail that was incorrectly addressing Nasseri as “Sir Aflred” from British immigration the transformation into the non-Iranian man he wanted to be was complete. If asked about his Iranian heritage he will deflect and will pretend he does not speak Persian even with his lawyer. Nasseri became so enveloped in this narrative that he had sent those helping him on a wild goose chase to track down papers for a “Sir Alfred” that they would never find and insisted that the United Nations High Commissioner was attempting to locate his parents to establish his true identity which the agency dismissed as untrue. He would tell his lawyer and those close to him that through all of this his family never attempted to reach out to him despite him becoming rather famous and having multiple documentaries made about him and even a film with Tom Hanks being inspired by his life story.
In 1999 Sir Alfred’s doctor and lawyer had a major victory when the Belgian government finally agreed to send the refugee papers Alfred had lost to them through the mail and the French authorities gave him a residence permit as well as a travel card meaning he could finally go wherever he pleased again. The doctor and lawyer rejoiced and had a small celebration for Alfred but he was less than enthusiastic and instead said the papers were fake as they listed him under his birth name and not his chosen name. After 10 years of hard work to retrieve these papers, the lawyer was crushed to hear this.
From this point on Dr. Bargain, the doctor from the airports pharmacy that had been taking care of Alfred's health for years, urges Alfred every day that it is time for him to leave the airport but he continues to find reasons to stay despite his complaints of how busy the terminal had become and that he must shower and shave every morning in the public restrooms. Alfred is convinced that he will once again be arrested if he attempts to leave the airport, it is unclear now if this is paranoia or if it stems from how he had repeatedly been treated in the past. There is also the possibility that Alfred simply was very adamant about no longer wanting to claim his Iranian nationality. In the documentary on Sir Alfred by Hamid Rahmanian he mentions that he himself is an Iranian immigrant and felt that it would allow Alfred to speak to him more candidly but he was surprised to find that Alfred did not want to speak to him at all and was more excited to be interviewed by Hamid’s wife who was American. Staff who interact with him often in terminal 1 feel he is completely lucid and functional but that the issue is pathological, that he has the means to live a life but he prefers to live within the confines of terminal 1 and would probably die there one day.
What raises some questions is why he changes his story frequently and feels the need to lie about his family of origin. In the same documentary by Hamid, Alfred is asked if he has any siblings or if he knows who his family is. He states that he is an only child and that his paperwork does not list his parents or that they are unknown. Alfred is part of a large family of six siblings that have reached out to him on multiple occasions to help him and even located him in the airport and attempted to help him home. Alfred declined them all or even ignored them. Dr. Bargain notes that the moment Alfred is asked anything about himself or his past that might be too revealing he becomes guarded and clams up which is very visible in Hamid’s documentary where Alfred speaks in short bursts and immediately hides behind his newspaper when he is asked about his past and family but when asked about his life in the airport or his existence as Sir Alfred he is prideful and will speak more. There is a level of denial here that is fascinating, he denies his Iranian roots and even tells his lawyer that he was not even born in Iran but rather in Sweden, something his lawyer already knew not to be true but Alfred insisted anyway since he is attempting to convince everyone that he is English. He insists he has no Iranian accent and has no Iranian blood in him despite that being his fathers nationality that he recognizes. Hamid explains that this is something that is not unusual for Iranian children when he was growing up, they all wished to be anything else and that he himself wished he had come from Switzerland growing up, they wanted a better life than what they had. Hamid feels that his documentary highlights that there is a space to become lost between cultures especially as an immigrant who is trying to find a place where you belong and what your identity is. The last time that Alfred had been outside the airport had been in 1999 to witness an eclipse. He is protected by a number or refugee statutes that make it so that he can not be forcibly removed from Charles de Gaulle.
The sympathy Dr. Bargain had for Sir Alfred led to him accepting mail for him and acting as his banker when the mail slowly turned into sympathy checks as his story became more well known. He even offered to take Alfred on one of his family trips to help him see the world outside of terminal 1 but Alfred declined. The doctor's sympathy was wearing thin as Alfred continuously changed how he got his honorary title of Sir, stating he had been in Heathrow in 1981 and had received a paper from an inspector with his name and the title sir right before the wedding of Charles and Diana which was the occasion for him receiving the title. When asked why he had the title “Sir” in Hamid's documentary he explains that is one you gain from virtue and your history, claiming he obviously has this virtue but that others around him could not possibly possess the same virtue. Alfred is often portrayed as someone who is in unimaginable circumstances out of his control but the doctor does not see him as a victim. He insists that Alfred is doing all of this of his own volition and that many have offered him resources that he refuses. The doctor describes him with much distaste for his arrogance and how detached he is with a sense of grandiosity that has come with his gained celebrity status. Those who interviewed Alfred found that he had a limited set of answers that he knew to cycle through and would not speak further than those, he knew what locations gave him the best lighting and what angles looked best. He knew how to look good for the camera and how to get them to do what he wanted. Hamid records in his documentary that they had a hard time convincing Alfred to speak to them longer so that they could make a full length documentary on him and that in exchange for the interview Alfred then wanted them to do some digging on his behalf to provide him with more answers, suggesting that they go speak to border agents and others involved in his situation that could get him the documentation he was looking for.
While he was living in terminal 1 he published an autobiography called “Terminal Man” that provided him with some additional income and he received some money for the rights to his story when The Terminal was released that had been loosely inspired by him. The poster for this movie was ironically hung in the terminal and he took photos with the poster of the movie he would likely never be able to see. Those who purchased his book, which is now out of print, would approach him in the airport and ask him to sign their copy. He would tell these individuals and those conducting interviews that he would be leaving soon, just a few more weeks, which he never followed through with.
It was not until 2006 that Sir Alfred's stay was put to an end after 18 years when he was hospitalized for 6 months. He had been taken from the airport by ambulance for something they could not treat at the airport physician's office but for what exactly has never been disclosed. Documentaries and photos show a growth on his head that has slowly gotten bigger over the years and one person who had spoken to Alfred when getting their book signed said that he had disclosed to them that he had a brain tumor, this is something that I do not know for sure is true or something he came up with since he had been in the airport for years where no technology to be able to diagnose that would be available, unless this is something he had knowledge of prior to his entrance to the airport. Many feel it would not be a surprise if this was another of his claims with no evidence to support it. After this he surprisingly did not return back to the airport but instead entered a homeless shelter and has been living there ever since. There are no solid resources that tell about where he is now and what has become of Sir Alfred.
Sources: Wikipedia, Atrocity Guide, New York Times, The Times (1) (2), Sir Alfred of Charles de Gaulle Airport -2000, Here to Where (Film), Gentleman's Quarterly , The Guardian, The Irish Times