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Man who inspired Spielberg’s ‘The Terminal’ dies, at airport where he lived 18 years

Iranian asylum seeker Merhan Karimi Nasseri, who stayed at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle in 1988-2006 while in legal limbo, dies of heart attack after returning to the same airport

Merhan Karimi Nasseri sits among his belongings at Terminal 1 of Roissy Charles De Gaulle Airport, north of Paris, August 11, 2004. (AP/Michel Euler, File)
Merhan Karimi Nasseri sits among his belongings at Terminal 1 of Roissy Charles De Gaulle Airport, north of Paris, August 11, 2004. (AP/Michel Euler, File)

PARIS, France (AP) — An Iranian man who lived for 18 years in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport and whose saga loosely inspired the Steven Spielberg film “The Terminal” died Saturday in the airport that he long called home, officials said.

Merhan Karimi Nasseri died after a heart attack in the airport’s Terminal 2F around midday, according to an official with the Paris airport authority. Police and a medical team treated him but were not able to save him, the official said. The official was not authorized to be publicly named.

Nasseri lived in the airport’s Terminal 1 from 1988 until 2006, first in legal limbo because he lacked residency papers and later by apparent choice.

Year in and year out, he slept on a red plastic bench, made friends with airport workers, showered in staff facilities, wrote in his diary, read magazines, and surveyed passing travelers.

Staff nicknamed him Lord Alfred, and he became a mini-celebrity among passengers.

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

Illustrative: Transit passengers wait in line upon their arrival at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport on December 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

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. When he returned, he said, he was imprisoned for protesting against the Shah and expelled without a passport.

He applied for political asylum in several countries in Europe. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Belgium gave him refugee credentials, but he said his briefcase containing the refugee certificate was stolen at a Paris train station.

French police later arrested him, but couldn’t deport him anywhere because he had no official documents. He ended up at Charles de Gaulle in August 1988 and stayed.

Further bureaucratic bungling and increasingly strict 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 his insecurity, about leaving the airport. He reportedly refused to sign them and ended up staying there several more years until he was hospitalized in 2006, and later lived in a Paris shelter.

Those who befriended him in the airport said the years of living in the windowless space took a toll on his mental state. The airport doctor in the 1990s worried about his physical and mental health, and described him as “fossilized here.” A ticket agent friend compared him to a prisoner incapable of “living on the outside.”

In the weeks before his death, Nasseri had been again living at Charles de Gaulle, the airport official said.

Nasseri’s mind-boggling tale loosely inspired 2004’s “The Terminal” produced and directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks, as well as a 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 discovers that an overnight political revolution has invalidated all his traveling papers. Viktor is dumped into the airport’s international lounge and is told he must stay there until his status is sorted out, which drags on as unrest in Krakozhia continues.

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