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I met Iranian refugee Mehran Karimi Nasseri, whose ‘Terminal’ life Spielberg adapted

Mehran Karimi Nasseri spent 18 years at Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, France. In 2004, I met him for a story, missed my flight, and was left stranded.

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Call it my passion for journalism or my immense love of cinema that in order to cover a news story, I missed my flight in an unfamiliar country. This incident dates back to September 2004. After finishing my Chevening Scholarship program in Cardiff city of the UK, I ventured out to visit France along with my newly wedded wife. I had heard a lot about Paris. It is rightly said that this city is a ‘City of Loving Couples’ and the love itself resides in its soul. Anyway, we reached Paris from London.

After spending three days in Paris, we left for Nice. My destination was quite close. We had to leave from Terminal 3 of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris and ‘the Hero of my story’ was at Terminal 1. I handed my luggage to my wife at Terminal 3 and grabbed my camera-gun mic to rush to Terminal 1. The attempt was to capture the reality of the ‘protagonist’ of Renowned Hollywood director Steven Spielberg’s hit film The Terminal before catching my flight. The story had not received wide coverage except for being published somewhere on the Internet and in The Guardian newspaper.

The search for Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who was put under house arrest at the Charles de Gaulle airport in 1988, began at Terminal 1. Due to a massive movement in Iran, Nasseri had to leave Tehran and he fled to Paris. From there he was sent to London. He was turned away from Heathrow Airport as well and returned to Charles de Gaulle airport. During all this, his passport was confiscated.

Nasseri also stood his ground and refused to leave the airport. Spielberg’s retelling of Naseeri’s story starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones became a smash hit after releasing worldwide in June 2004.

After spending 18 long and lonely years, this Iranian man, who used to live at Charles de Gaulle airport, passed away this Saturday after a massive heart attack.


Also read: Long before Mahsa Amini, Iranian cinema has fought hijab in small rebellions


Search for Nasseri and missing my flight

As soon as I arrived at Terminal 1, I started looking for Nasseri. Finding an unknown person at such a vast airport seemed like finding a needle in a haystack. Well, after a little bit of struggle, I found Nasseri confined in a corner. That place had become his personal place.

Seeing the man who lived for years among the books and small luggage stored in 3-4 trolleys, everything stopped for a moment. After indulging in some small talk with Nasseri, I tried to get an interview; but he was angry with the Indian and Chinese media and was averse to talking to them.

Losing no more time I rolled the camera and started capturing all the pages of Nasseri’s strange and stranded life. Public toilets, McDonald’s, drug stores, airport staff and officials – I covered all these places, talked to the people there and completed my story. I also did a PTC (piece to camera). My heart was filled with joy that I was successful in my mission. I quickly took a few more shots and rushed back to Terminal 3.

When I reached Terminal 3, I found that the flight to Nice was gone and my wife was waiting for me sitting in a corner with the luggage. Now it was me stranded in Terminal 3 in an alien land, that too for my passion to file a story. Yet, she was happy about the fact that Nasseri’s story will soon reach millions of people on Indian TV channels through her husband’s story.

Our story was that we not only had to quibble hard with the airport staff but had to travel for two hours at our own expense to another airport named Orly, from where we could finally take another flight to Nice.

I don’t know how big or small this story is, but one thing is certain: the same ‘passionate journalist’ inside me is alive even today and becomes desperate to file a story after seeing each of them. While trying to find a new ‘base’ in Mumbai, I also think that if I could ever meet Spielberg or Tom Hanks, I would definitely tell them this anecdote.

According to The Guardian, Nasseri was born into a super-rich family in Iran and his father died of cancer when he was just 23 years old. At that time, his mother told him that she was not his real mother and that he was the outcome of a ‘secret’ relationship between his father and a Scottish nurse.

In 2003, when a journalist asked Nasseri about his experience of spending 15 years at the airport, he retorted, “No angry. I just want to know who my parents are,” as reported by The Guardian.

The author is a former journalist and current Advisor to the Chhattisgarh government. He tweets @meGauravDwivedi. Views are personal.

This article has been translated from Hindi by Ram Lal Khanna and edited by Prashant. Read the original here.

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