Travel, they say, broadens the mind. I’m sure it does – and I’ve nothing against it in principle, but the joy of discovering new lands and new places is so drastically outweighed by the soul-shrivelling hassle of getting there that I mostly can’t be bothered.
As modern technology promises an ever-faster and ever more frictionless passage between where we are and where we want to be, the real world can seem like nothing more than an impediment.
There’s a Buddhist walking meditation that is designed to rid you of that illusion altogether. Instead of endlessly rushing towards a point (ever receding) which is your destination, with each step you take, and each breath, you say to yourself: ‘I have arrived, I am home.’ Even on your way to the airport, even halfway up the steps leading to the plane, Thich Nhat Hanh says, you have already arrived: Life is not a rehearsal, the airport not an antechamber. You are here, it is now – there is nothing else.
But imagine for a moment if it was your daily reality. That an airport – the one place on earth specifically designed as a place to leave – is your home. That you have no choice in the matter.
In 1988, a respectable looking, middle-aged Iranian gentleman landed at Charles de Gaulle international airport in Paris. Mehran Karimi Nasseri had been on his way to the UK to settle there, claiming citizenship as his mother was Scottish. His identity papers, supposedly including a document from the UNHCR awarding him refugee status after his protests against the Shah, had been stolen. When the British immigration officials sent him back to France, the French had no idea what to do with him: he had every right to stay in the airport, but no country of origin to be returned to. The impasse lasted for eighteen years until Nasseri fell ill in 2006 and had to be hospitalized. On a diet of McDonalds fries and filet-o-fish, and sleeping on a plastic bench, it’s amazing that he lasted that long.
You may be familiar with the tale from the film The Terminal starring Tom Hanks as the hapless, stateless, hero Viktor Navorski. In the movie, Navorski woos and wins the heart of a beautiful flight attendant played by Catherine Zeta Jones. The true story on which it was (very loosely) based has no such happy ending.
Nasseri’s tale is told by Andrew Donkin in The Terminal Man, published in 2004, the same year as Speilberg’s film was released. Nasseri changed his name to ‘Sir, Alfred Mehran’ – a phrase lifted from a letter from a British diplomat which began: ‘Dear Sir, Alfred’. Nasseri decided to adopt it, intact, comma and all. This, perhaps, is not the action of an entirely balanced mind. Nasseri comes across in the book as a curious mixture of naïf, an innocent abroad, but also someone who clearly has a complex, perhaps compromised relationship to reality. He has mental health issues – but then, who wouldn’t, trapped in a departure lounge for years?
The tagline for the movie – for which Spielberg apparently paid Nasseri $300,000 – reads “Life is waiting.” Much like As Good As it Gets – another film about a quirky misfit who, against all odds, gets the girl – the phrase can be read both ways: either that the full richness of true experience is just around the corner, or that the wait is endless and you are condemned to a life sentence in limbo.
Sitting on his bench, surrounded by cartons and papers, Nasseri looks out from under the dark sweep of his eyebrows, his dignity strangely untouched by his tragi-comic circumstances. He cuts an allegorical figure: a man whose only land is no-man’s land.
Like Bishan Singh in Manto’s classic short story ‘Toba Tek Singh’, the world has moved on, leaving him high and dry. Manto’s story, set a few years after Partition, revolves around the exchange of lunatics between the newly created countries of India and Pakistan. The Sikh inmate of an asylum in Lahore, Bishan Singh finds that his village – Toba Tek Singh – exists neither in Pakistan nor India: it is as though the line drawn by Sir Cyril Radcliffe is a crack through which his very sense of belonging has fallen. “There, behind barbed wire, was Hindustan. Here, behind the same kind of barbed wire, was Pakistan. In between, on that piece of ground that had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.”
Manto’s story is a biting satire about Partition – we are left wondering who the lunatics are when the world has gone mad. Nasseri’s plight raises a similar question in today’s world where 25.4 million people have had to leave their own countries as refugees.
After becoming something of a celebrity as ‘Terminal Man’, Nasseri slipped back into anonymity once he had left the building. From what I can glean, he is still alive, living out his days in a care home in France. He would be 75 or 76 now. I wonder if he feels that his waiting is over, and that the curious journey of his life has led him finally to a place of peace and rest, a home where there is genuine care, and he can say as he walks around the grounds: I am home. I have arrived.