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Ticket to limbo

Anita Roy | | Updated on: Oct 05, 2018
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When an airport is no longer a point of departure to new lands or discoveries but a place of unending wait

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.

There’s a Buddhist walking meditation that is designed to rid you of the illusion that there is an ‘away’ to be ‘going’ to. 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, Vietnamese monk 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 the airport — the one place on earth specifically designed as a place to leave — was your home. That you had 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 18 years until Nasseri fell ill in 2006. On a diet of McDonald’s fries and filet-o-fish, and sleeping on a plastic bench, it’s amazing that he lasted that long without being hospitalised.

You may be familiar with the tale from Steven Spielberg’s film The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks as the hapless, stateless hero, Viktor Navorski. Spielberg apparently paid Nasseri £300,000 for his story — though not much of his real life was left by the time it made it to the screen. Navorski wins the heart of a beautiful flight attendant played by Catherine Zeta Jones; no such luck for Nasseri.

Nasseri’s tale is told by Andrew Donkin in The Terminal Man , published in 2004, the same year as Spielberg’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 is “Life is waiting”. Much like As Good As it Gets — another film about a quirky misfit who, against all odds, gets the girl — the film’s title 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 tragicomic 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 the 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 Radcliffe line 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.

BLINKANITA
 

Anita Roy is a writer, editor and publisher; www.anitaroy.net

Published on October 05, 2018

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