CHARLES DE GAULLE AIRPORT, France - Passengers at Paris's main airport who wander into the basement shopping section of Terminal One may spot a gaunt, moustachioed figure sitting amid a pile of boxes and scribbling fervently on a note pad. In the strange and timeless atmosphere of an international departure area, he pays little heed to the hordes who pass before him every day. He rises with the arrival of the first cleaner, washes and shaves in the public bathroom and eats takeaways from McDonald's.
If there is an air of permanence about him, that is not surprising. For Merhan Karimi Nasseri has been in the same spot for no less than 16 years. Caught originally in an immigration trap -- unable to enter France, nowhere to go - he has long since become psychologically dependent on his unusual choice of abode. He calls himself Sir Alfred, and this small section of airport parquet and plastic bench is his domain.
It is a peculiar story, and one which came several years ago to the ears of the Hollywood director Steven Spielberg. He saw its potential, and the result is "The Terminal," which opens in Europe and Asia next week after getting its European premiere Wednesday at the Venice film festival.
For Nasseri the film has meant tens of thousands of dollars (euros) reportedly -- but unverifiably -- paid over in royalties as well as a constant stream of gawking visitors and interested journalists. But life goes on unchanged, a movie poster above his arrangement of boxes and bags the sole concession to his new status as "the man who inspired The Terminal."
According to airport doctor Philippe Bargain, who visits him every week, Nasseri's physical health is fine, but his mental condition is another story. "He is on the same record as everyone else, just on a different track," he said. Thus details of his past life are hard to establish. It is known that he was born 59 years ago in Iran, and that he briefly attended Bradford University in Britain where he claims to have studied Slav languages. Returning to Iran he was imprisoned as a suspected dissident by the Shah's police and deported.
After that he was shunted between France, Italy and Belgium, trying unsuccessfully the while to reach Britain where he said his mother -- a British nurse -- was living. However today he denies this story. After periods of imprisonment for illegal entry, he parked himself at Charles de Gaulle airport in 1988. Though he says he dislikes his life at the terminal, he had the chance to leave in 1999 when he was granted refugee status. However seeing his name on the papers as Merhan Karimi Nasseri -- and not Sir Alfred -- he said they were forged and refused to sign.
Sir Alfred says he intends to live in New York -- indeed he claims the US visa is on its way -- but the truth is more banal. The man who inspired The Terminal is staying there.