Spielberg’s ‘Terminal’ man departs CDG forever

The man who lived in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport for 18 years and was the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s film The Terminal died yesterday in his “beloved” airport.

Merhan Karimi Nasseri suffered a heart attack at the airport around midday. Police and a medical team were quickly on the scene but could do nothing to save him.

Karimi Nasseri was believed to have been born in Iran in 1945. He lived in terminal 1 at Charles de Gaulle from 1988 until 2006. At first, he was no different from many lost souls who find themselves in legal limbo at the gateway to a new country. Without residency papers, he found himself trapped airside claiming he had no means of leaving the airport the way he arrived.

Spielberg's 'Terminal' man departs CDG forever | News by Thaiger

The “refugee” was described by the Guardians’ Paul Berczeller as “some unlikely cross between a Zen master and Chaplin’s Tramp. He had these amazing long brows, as dark as his hooded eyes, and a small, perfectly groomed moustache perched on top of his upper lip. It was like a caricature of a face, five charcoal marks on a canvas. But strangely noble, too.”

For complicated reasons that no one except Karimi Nasseri had any real reason to sort out, he was a man without a country – or any other legal identity status. He couldn’t leave France because he did not have papers to go anywhere else. He couldn’t enter France for the same reason. He was told to wait in the airport lounge while authorities sorted things out. But they didn’t. And he remained sleeping on the same bench for years and years.

He lived in a run-down shopping mall in the terminal basement. His bench was actually two benches pushed together, about eight feet long, just wide enough to sleep on. He became a fixture in the mall, eternally perched in the middle of his bench with a rickety scavenged table, which was his desk where he meticulously kept his diary which recorded every day of his tedious-yet-bizarre existence which would later form the basis of the Spielberg movie.

In his first years, he was essentially a beggar dependent on passers-by and the kindness of airport staff. Later, he made some money from the media, trading anecdotes and opinions for small amounts.

When he was finally given papers, he found himself free to go anywhere he wished. But now he didn’t want to go anywhere. The airport was his home.

Karimi Nasseri is said to have received several hundred thousand dollars for his life story, deposited in the airport’s Post Office bank. But he didn’t care about money and believed that DreamWorks was going to get him a passport and take him to the Oscars. Spielberg to the rescue. Tom Hanks would come and take him away.

His stay at the airport came to an end in 2006 when he was hospitalised and his bench was taken away. At the end of January 2007, he left the hospital and was living in a Paris shelter, though had returned to living in the airport again in recent weeks.

Berczeller eventually pieced together Karimi Nasseri’s story, and it turns out to be both more bizarre and more prosaic than you will expect.

Spielberg's 'Terminal' man departs CDG forever | News by Thaiger


Jon Whitman

Jon Whitman is a seasoned journalist and author who has been living and working in Asia for more than two decades. Born and raised in Glasgow, Scotland, Jon has been at the forefront of some of the most important stories coming out of China in the past decade. After a long and successful career in East sia, Jon is now semi-retired and living in the Outer Hebrides. He continues to write and is an avid traveller and photographer, documenting his experiences across the world.

Related Articles