This is section TMM007 of THE MALONGO MEMOIRS Series.
You’ve probably never heard of the real guy, but I'm sure you’ve seen or heard of the movie his story inspired a few years later...In "The Terminal", the Tom Hanks character lives in the JFK International Airport, N.Y. In real, it was the CDG International Airport in Paris (also known as Roissy CDG), and the real guy was an Iranian political refugee, Mehran Karimi Nasseri, whereas in the movie he was from an Eastern Bloc country. I knew this curious and fascinating man and used to see him just about every month at Charles De Gaulle Airport, Terminal 1, whenever I connected in Paris every month, for a 4 year period during 1989 to 1993. This section describes my experiences and encounters with him during that period.
Here is the 2004 movie trailer to refresh your memory --
I first noticed the odd man as I went through the exit doors to leave the maze of people-mover walkways, following the international gate areas in Terminal 1, just before making my way outside to the transport and pickup area so I can catch a shuttle to our usual layover hotel, the Sofitel. The comfortable hotel was in the airport vicinity, just minutes from CDG. It was around 6:30 AM and I had just gotten off the night flight from Luanda to Paris, and the 6 ½ hour ordeal, although non-eventful, made for a groggy morning. This was only my 3rd trip out of Angola for my duly deserved break, which meant I had already completed three 28-day rotations at CABGOC and was looking forward to my 3rd 28 days off - so 28 days at work, and 28 days home (or wherever I chose to go). Really, it was 25 days off, after you minus the 3 days of travel time every month. Not a bad deal, and although I was fast getting accustomed, I can’t say I was used to the routine yet.
The man was pushing an airport luggage cart – they were free for usage all over airports in Europe, although for some reason, even now, you have to pay at least a buck-fifty to use them at U.S. airports – filled with an assortment of belongings. What caught my eye was the stuff he had didn’t seem like the normal travel gear one drags around the airport in transit. It struck me strange that he was wheeling around what looked to be things he was using now or in the immediate future. Sort of like a bag lady or homeless person with a shopping cart full of every possession they own. There were food bags, soda cans, packs of candy, and some fruit, like he just went grocery shopping. But there was also a shaving kit, a couple sports jackets, some magazines, a few smaller bags of other miscellaneous items, and oddly enough – loose silverware.
The man looked slightly odd - balding but with thin spaghetti-like streaks of hair, which reminded me of a cancer patient undergoing chemo and starting to lose their hair. He had thick eye-brows, rather big ears, and big hands to match. He looked sort of like a Vulcan. Other than that, I guess he looked sort of normal. He appeared to be Middle-Eastern. But what really seemed strange was that the man was fairly well-dressed, even by normal standards - sports jacket, dress shirt, tie, dark slacks, and dress shoes, and he had on his wrist what looked to be a gold watch. My guess was either this man had just damaged or lost part of his luggage, and he was making do with what he could wheel around, or he was the best dressed homeless man I’d ever seen. I walked behind him, as he made his way around the outer circular corridor of the terminal.
CDG - My regular monthly pit-stop. Terminal 1 is the structure at left, where I was likely to run into Mr. Nasseri.
First, I followed him because we were heading in the same direction. But now, I was following him because I was curious as hell. He went for the automatic exit door leading to the outside, where the taxi cabs pull up. He struggled with the cart as if trying to push it through the glass doors when they didn’t open. I instinctively pulled one side of the cart towards the center of the doors as I knew he wasn’t catching the door sensors because of the clumsy angle his cart was at. Straightening the cart now caused the doors to open. He smiled at me, and mumbled something, in what sounded like Farsi if I wasn’t mistaken, and I nodded no problem. He pulled a hamburger out, wrapped in Burger King paper, and began chomping. I knew that was probably a burger from prior night (the Burger King located in the terminal was still closed at this early hour). But I still assumed he was there then to catch a taxi, and having fulfilled my curiosity, I proceeded to the other end of the pick-up area in order to find my Sofitel shuttle van.
The Real Terminal Man, Mehran Karimi Nasseri - Here, sitting at his "base camp" in a lounge on the restaurant floor of CDG Terminal 1. Little did I know, I was to have many more encounters with this strainge man.
A month later, I was back at CDG going the other direction, and back to work. After my usual daytime lay-over at the Sofitel – the routine was to lay-over after early morning arrival, grab breakfast, get some Z’s, then a nice dinner at one of the restaurants in the hotel, American burger type cuisine, café type cuisine, or the more posh high-end French cuisine (I always chose the posh high-end cuisine and I ate and drank like it was my last gourmet meal, and it was, for awhile anyway) – I was freshly recharged and ready for the late night flight to Luanda, the capital of Angola, where I was still to connect to the more hectic and final segments of my trip (as described in earlier sections).
Always touch-and-go at the Hotel Sofitel - Here, getting ready to head for CDG Terminal 1 again.
I went into the Air France club lounge (we flew Business Class on a normal basis so this was part of the perks), said hello to some of the Chevron and other contractor guys that we were now starting to hookup with, heading into work as part of the same crew change, did the customary small talk, but more importantly, got my dose of nuts and cocktails – this was almost guaranteed to numb me for the long flight and let me get at least a few hours sleep. No matter how much you laid-over and rested at the hotel, and how much sleep you got on the plane, you were always fatigued and groggy by the time you got to the Malongo Base compound. I looked at my watch, it was now 10:45 PM, and assuming the flight was on time, boarding would begin in about 20 minutes. I decided to head to the gate area which was not far from the club lounge. I liked to get there a little early because although the Air France lounge was nice with the complimentary snacks, drinks (soda, juice, alcohol, coffee, tea, etc.), newspapers, magazines, TV’s, comfy chairs, telephones, and pretty hostesses, I always enjoyed people-watching as the other travelers made their way to or from the gate areas. There were many interesting people traversing Terminal 1.
"Au Revoir, Monsieur!", the hostess yelled to me from the receiving desk as I made my way to the one-way exit door, almost in a singing tone. "Ah, French women", I thought. Just as the club door shut behind me, I noticed a man approaching in my direction that I instantly recognized as the same man I ran into at this airport on my way home a month ago. He didn’t make eye contact with me, but I knew it was him. He was even wheeling the same luggage cart, and although I still thought he might be in transit like me, this time there was no mistaking – he was lugging around his belongings for daily use. Again, he was well dressed, jacket and tie, gold watch and all. At first I thought he was headed for the lounge, and I thought "No Way", but then he turned the corridor just past me, leading to the men’s room/shower facilities. What was the deal with this guy? I looked at my watch again, and seeing I had ample time, I decided to make a pit stop myself.
Aerial View of CDG Terminal 1 - No other airport like it.
Contact with the Vulcan
When I walked into the men's room, I noticed his cart was by the sinks, and a bag of belongings was strewn on a bench, but I didn't see him. I thought he might be getting ready to shower and I waited but I heard no water coming on. I started looking under the stalls and at this point I felt silly because I found myself doing something totally out of my character - for some reason unknown even to myself, I was searching the bathroom and showers at Charles De Gaulle airport for a strange man I didn't even know, and I felt compelled to find him. What exactly I would do or say when I did, I wasn't sure. I hadn't planned it but at that moment, I was becoming obsessed with finding this guy and satisfying my short term curiosity - which had built up in the last 2 trips to Paris.
Just as I glanced at myself in the mirror and mentally telling myself "you are going mad over a phantom man you have created - what the hell is wrong with you?" - or something to that effect - there he appeared, coming around the end of a row of lockers. He muttered something to himself that I didn't quite catch, then he saw me. "Ca-Va?", he semi-politely said my way. I instinctively responded "Ca-Va bien" as I have a million times in and around Paris when casually greeting a stranger, local, traveler, ticket agent, security, or waiter. Except for the phrase being automatic to me now, I otherwise froze and was almost speechless which was ironic because I had a hundred questions for this guy and now I didn't know what or how to ask them, let alone couldn't say anything. It's as if the stone-glaze in his eyes locking onto mine somehow froze me with some kind of Vulcan grip. That's what it was, this guy was in fact a strange Vulcan, with Vulcan characteristics that drew me to him, and now that he had me in his Vulcan stare, I was Vulcan paralyzed.
As many times as I've flown in one - An Air France 747-400 was always something to behold.
I quickly snapped out of it. Somehow I knew French wasn't his native tongue, so in English..."Your cart", - I fumbled for words - "Is your cart...uh..." "Oui?", - he was polite but still had a Vulcan stare - and as if to say "Come on, man, spit it out! I haven't got all day. I've got bags of crap to collect!" As it turns out, I really didn't know what to say or ask. And like a Vulcan, he seemed to know what was on my mind, "Ah yes, my cart is my all-purpose traveling companion". I remembered detecting the Farsi accent in our first encounter. "In long-term transit, one must - how you say - improvise, to the best!" He seemed jovial now. Okay, I guess he wasn't a Vulcan. "So you travel through CDG a lot?" Maybe it was his strange demeanor, or maybe it was seeing the collection of different daily newspapers he carried, or the variety of meal tickets and coupons sticking out of his bag on the bench, or maybe I knew all along from that darn airport baggage cart, but at that moment I knew what he was going to say next. "Ah, but you see...I am a resident of Charles De Gaulle airport". Yow! I knew it was something like that, but I was still taken aback. And little did I know at the time, but the man had been a 'resident" of Charles De Gaulle airport since the prior year. Specifically, he lived in Terminal 1. "For the time being, anyway" he added. "So when you say resident, you mean you stay here sometimes?" "When I say resident, I say I am living here always...that is until the bloody bureaucrats get their head out of the asses and fix my papers- ah but is more complicated than that!" Now I was in a glazed stare. I thought I was puzzled before. "So you mean..."
Beginning To Make Sense Now
So he proceeded to tell me his story - He kept saying "to make long story short...". But the story kept getting longer. His name was Mehran Karimi Nasseri. As it turned out, he had actually been living in the airport, in Terminal 1, to be exact, for quite some time - over a year now. Exactly where he slept varied, but for the most part, he made his quarters in some makeshift area in one of the restaurant area lounges. I didn't know it yet, but I was to see him quite regularly, roughly every month or two, for the next 3 1/2 plus years. As we talked, we took the elevator down, and headed towards the gate where I was to catch my flight. As we walked past several duty-free shops, he greeted or was greeted by sales vendors and a janitor cleaning up nearby - It seems Mr. Nasseri was well know in this airport, at least in this part. "You know all these people?", I asked. "I guess more like they know me. You get to be pretty popular when you spend the first few weeks being escorted around by security everywhere you go." I learned that once his current status was pretty much accepted by the airport officials, security around him became relaxed as long as he agreed to stay within the bounds of the airport that he was allowed to roam, and that he didn't leave the Terminal 1 grounds. This was relaxed even further when he was allowed to wander the area that generally required a visa or exit stamp. Mr. Nasseri, or Mehran as he liked to be called, was some kind of political refugee.
From what I gathered, he had been expelled from his country, Iran, years ago while the Shah of Iran was in power. He had wandered around Europe, seeking political asylum, and had been allowed to live in Belgium for some years. He later decided he wanted to live in the UK - he supposedly had a British mother- and so set off to try and find her. His troubles began when he was travelling through Paris and he somehow lost his refugee papers. I was never clear on what type of passport he had, or if he had one, because he alluded to something about his documentation taking the place of a passport. But because he had lost them, he couldn't get the proper exit permission to leave the airport. He also couldn't board a plane to return to Belgium or to travel to any country for that matter, because due to some political technicality that affected his passport or visa status, he couldn't leave the country. As a matter of fact, it was when he first tried to enter England, that his "paperless" refugee status was discovered, and shortly after his arrival at London Heathrow Airport, he was stopped prior to passing immigration and promptly sent back to France. That was over a year ago. It was complicated, and I know he was now some kind of homeless, country-less refugee - A well dressed one. But suffice it to say...he was trapped in this airport, between countries, between visa statuses, and as far as he was concerned, between time.
The Real Terminal Man, Mehran Karimi Nasseri - He often wandered around in CDG Terminal 1, looking for good conversation and...killing time.
As I waited to board my plane, Mehran continued to tell me his story. It seems like he was eager to fill me in now. I was hearing more than I can absorb, partly because I couldn't tell if he was on the level or maybe just playing me for whatever reason. And partly because the jet lag from the previous trans-Saharan flight was creeping back up on me and I was already thinking about the snooze I would take as soon as I could order a glass of wine on board the TWA flight I was about to catch. I was getting the feeling he was being truthful - something about his facial expressions and passion in describing his plight and getting his point across. I did see right off that many people in the airport knew him. And now, I noticed a security commando staring at us off and on like he was keeping an eye on him. So although he had some freedom within the airport, it seemed he was still on a tight leash, as they were watching him, no doubt. Also, there were countless cameras visible through the airport, and probably countless more not visible. While Mehran went on and on, the boarding announcement came on for my flight. Just then, I noticed the same security commando give another glance our way, seemingly to signal for Mehran that it was time to take a walk. As we parted and he started to walk away I realized I hardly told him anything about me and my travel routine. I blurted out to him "I come through here every month. Maybe I'll see you next time!" "I know!", he shouted back.
So the Encounters Become Routine
As usual, my 28 days off went by like a whirlwind. Before I knew it, it was time to leave again for the journey back to work. It was early 1990 and during this period I was flying TWA between the U.S. and France. And then Air France (formerly UTA French Airlines before being acquired) between France and Angola. The nice thing about TWA was I racked up enough mileage that I was automatically being upgraded to First Class pretty much all the time. The drawback was having to connect at JFK, one of the busiest airports, and worst places to connect for an overseas traveler. Mainly because of the crowds, and the inconvenient routine of having to go outside to catch a shuttle to get between the domestic and international terminals. This was not fun in frigid weather. It was around March now, so it was still pretty cold outside at JFK.
After my day layover at the Sofitel by CDG in Paris, I took the hotel shuttle as usual and arrived at Terminal 1. I wasn't thinking about the possibility of running into Mehran yet, but as soon as the automatic doors swung open and I entered the terminal, there he was. Standing by a kiosk with a paper in one hand, and a cup of coffee (or was it tea?) in the other, and his cart right beside him. He immediately recognized me and held his cup up in a greeting fashion. I nodded to him. It was almost like he knew precisely when I was coming into the terminal and was waiting for me. Although I knew it was just a coincidence. CDG is a HUGE airport, and so that was a hell of a coincidence that I would encounter him now, this second.
CDG Terminal 1 - 1st security gate.
As I headed towards the Air France counter by the 1st security gate to get my boarding pass, he came my way. There was something amusingly strange about this guy all right. He had a very scholarly look, but trotted around almost in a playful way. I guess he was getting real comfortable here. I still could not relate to everything he told me thus far, and I suppose I could not really learn his story during the one conversation we had the previous month. "How are you, my friend?", he asked. It seems he was pleased and eager to reconnect with me. He asked if I wanted to join him for supper (in Europe, dinner is referred to as supper). "Tonight is good night for supper! I have extra tickets, see?" He waived a few airline meal vouchers - I recognized these as I obtained them regularly as well, especially during flight delays. It turned out people he knew or met, travelers and airport workers, gave him various meal and snack vouchers, probably extra or that they weren't going to use. This was his primary way of eating for free. Not that he was broke. Not sure what his financial situation was, but just because he was country-less didn't mean he didn't have access to an ATM. But I suppose living in an airport for so long, you would have to get resourceful, else deplete your funds rapidly. And resourceful he was, as I was to learn. Hence, the neatly stacked luggage cart he toted around, and the meal vouchers he obtained regularly. I offered him a few dollars out of politeness, but he refused it. He told me he wasn't broke yet. "I do accept your mil vawchers (as he pronounced it), if you like to give me for next time", he said. I obliged as I happened to have a couple extra that would go to waste, anyway. As we headed towards to the cafe area, he pointed to a spot in one of the seating lounges nearby, across from some duty-free shops. "That's my place...for time-being." It was one of the many red padded, half-circular cusioned benches, with a black, round bistro table. He definitely made it look occupied, as he had belongings strewn about - blankets, clothing, newspapers, plastic bags, and I could have sworn I also noticed an alarm clock - like he lived there...Well, I guess he did.
I had already eaten a big meal at the hotel, as I usually do prior to the Angola flight. But I joined him for coffee while he had his supper. We went to one of the many airport cafes, and judging from the greetings and comments he got from the restaurant staff, he was a regular there too. A couple more hours of telling me his story and I had just learned a lot more about the guy. I was a little more refreshed now, unlike our last encounter, because I generally got more sleep prior to the Angola flight - mainly because of the longer layover at the hotel. So I was absorbing what he was telling me a little better and it was beginning to make sense now. I still could not imagine putting everything on hold, not having a country or a home, and freezing your life, because you have to live in the airport until who knows when. And whenever I asked him how long he would be living in CDG, that's exactly what he would say, "Who knows when?"
And Amid The Bomb Scares
By the following month, springtime weather was coming around in Paris. I could tell it was April just by my bones not aching as much waiting for the shuttle to take me to the Sofitel for my brief breakfast and bed session, prior to coming back for my flight back to the U.S. I didn't run into Mehran right away this time - which was a good thing or it would've freaked me out, thinking this is too Twilight Zone. Although, I was expecting to run into him sooner or later. I did my normal routine at the Sofitel, got my power nap and headed back to CDG Terminal 1. No more than 1 minute after I got off the bus, as I walked to one of the entrance doors, I noticed that there were crowds gathering and airport security commandos herding people back. Now I saw red tape sealing off part of the terminal - the part I was headed to. The commandos were directing people to move back while they expanded the sealed perimeter. I asked around, as to what was going on but people were puzzled and didn't know. "Je ne sais pas!" and shaking heads are what I got. I had a feeling I knew, and a few minutes later, while we waited outside, we heard it - "BOOM!" Although it was loud and we felt the vibration, it was a muffled blast - a controlled blast. Within a few more minutes, the red tape was taken down and the crowd allowed to proceed back inside the terminal.
The commandos dispersed as well, and I could see one of them wheeling some kind of equipment away. Probably gear that had to do with bomb detection or detonation. There were also a couple of German Shepherds - police, bomb-sniffing dogs, no doubt. I've been through this more than once before already and it was routine in CDG. You know those announcements you hear over the PA saying not to leave your bags unattended and if you do, they are subject to seizure and destruction? Well, that's what just happened. Whenever suspicious bags were found unattended and depending on whether or not security is able to readily determine if they are safe or unsafe (meaning potential bomb), then the area is sealed off and they are placed in a special container and detonated on site. Since the boom we heard was a muffled blast, that means there were no explosive devices in the bag(s), other than the ones used to blow them up. Had there been explosives planted in the bags, the boom we heard would have been much louder, and the area would have remained sealed off, and the terminal or airport would have gone under a lock-down. Those cause major flight delays. So other than no injuries or loss of lives, the muffled blasts are good. This was just another routine security and threat scenario that I often encountered going through European airports, because even at that time, terrorist threats were generally higher in these parts of the world, than what the U.S. has experienced as of late.
Security was everywhere - These were not your typical TSA-caliber security personnel. Most of them were of military commando grade.
I've had my share of screenings, searches, being taken behind the wall in another room for questioning, being tailed, profiling, and security encounters that I can tell you all the methods used at the time. I've had searches not just of my bag contents, but also of the contents of contents (i.e. squeezing the toothpaste tube to make sure it really is just toothpaste, or shaving cream, or...). I've had where an airline agent has questioned me, while looking at my passport, called his supervisor who then examined the seal on my U.S. passport with a high-powered magnifying glass (the kind the jewelers wear over an eye when examining a big diamond), then a third person coming out - usually a security or military commando with a sub-machine gun on his side, to eyeball me and ask me more questions. Not even interested in my responses, but in my demeanor (studying my reactions and body language). I've also had where I've just boarded my flight and strapped in, the plane's doors were sealed, the plane about to pull away, then approached and asked to de-plane, while the whole flight was held, to enable security to finish with me, and I was then escorted to the plane and allowed to board again. From my experiences, French airport and military security were stern and no-nonsense, but I have to say most of the time they were cordial and nice. In other European countries, pretty much the same. In Germany...well, they were not exactly jolly, but professional. In Frankfurt, I've had where the whole gate was sealed off, because the X-ray machine detected something in my hand-carry bag, that to the screener looked like a small rocket launcher, and I was held for questioning while all my bags were examined and I convinced security and officials that the device that looked like a rocket launcher was a tube shaped speaker system for a Sony Walkman that I got at Radio Shack - ironically not even for me, but for a Portuguese co-worker that had been asking me to bring one in for him!
And each time, I was entered and re-entered into the computer - to be in the system, that was no doubt networked with airports and security-related agencies all over the world - CDG and other airport police, Interpol, FBI, DEA, U.S. Customs, you name it. You see, part of the reason I got stopped so much was also the fact that during that period I fit the profile of a terrorist (and sometimes a drug smuggler). More than one security person and/or airport official had told me this. Mainly because 1) I traveled light (due to our rapid connections in Angola, especially between airplanes and helicopters, we generally did not check in baggage. So hand-carry was the norm). 2) The more stamps I got on my passport, and the more trips I made in and out of a Communist country, the more my profile got flagged (I've had to obtain "extension pages" for my passport from the U.S. passport office more than once, because it would run out of pages to place the country entry and exit stamps. My passport back then was like a flip-out accordion). The fact that I also varied my trips and pit-stops, and even airlines to some extent every couple of months made trying to keep a low profile even more impossible. And 3) You normally couldn't tell my nationality by my appearance. Although my name is of Hispanic origin, I could pass for several different nationalities. I have also been stopped numerous times in Angola, because of my last name. This has caused me to be delayed and likewise, to be able to speed through a security line, depending on the situation and who it is that was questioning me. You see, it turns out Che Guevara is considered a National Hero in Angola, as well as other Communist countries, like Cuba that was a longtime supporter of the Angolan government. I describe this further in another section. Che spent much time with the Angolans during pre-independence days, and Cuba, along with the Russians, continued to support Angola for quite some time until the end of the Cold War. It was only now that the Cuban and Russian military were pulling out. This was a result of the Berlin Wall going down, and thus the beginning of the end for most Communist regimes. So in short, my name has both potentially gotten me in trouble and gotten me out of trouble - at least in Angola.
It was not uncommon to have a security commando suddenly appear by your side, while traversing through Terminal 1. Although not as conspicuous, the guy at right is also a commando and fully armed.
So not just any one of the travel characteristics I mentioned would necessarily cause a red flag: Traveling light, traveling often – even to and from a Communist country, or not being able to tell if I’m Hispanic or Turkish. But those coupled together and with other circumstances and things going on at the time. Suffice it to say also, that profiling is used much more widely in European airports, just as it is at Israeli airports. And understandably so. I quickly learned that profiling wasn't necessarily racial profiling, but more personality, behavior, and circumstance profiling.
How Are You, My Friend?
As I made my way into Terminal 1, I shuffled in along with the crowd that had bottled up by the doorways. I passed by a duty free shop and saw a bunch of debris, broken perfume bottles and a brightly colored gooey stuff all over the counters and floor that janitors were now cleaning up. This was obviously the site where the baggage was detonated. They usually blew them up in place, rather than risk an untimely explosion while trying to move them. Better to blow them where they stood, and be able to control the instance of the blast, should there really be explosives packed in them. At first, I didn't know what to think of the brightly colored goo all over the place. Could it be from body parts? I hope not. But then, this was a controlled blast, and I know there was no bomb found, therefore no casualties, otherwise the place would still be sealed off and we wouldn't be allowed to see this much. And I know a suitcase full of C-4 or Centex would have just about leveled the whole corridor I was walking through. I later figured out that the gooey stuff is something that is part of the component in the controlled detonation process, that is used for some kind of marking - I don't know the specifics about it or why it's used, but that was what I gathered later.
Just as I passed the bomb scene, I felt a large hand on my shoulder. "How are you, my friend?"...
Mehran Karimi Nasseri - This photo was taken at least 10 years after my last encounter with him. Here, he looks relatively the same as I remembered, except more ragged and not as well-dressed. Note the luggage cart with his possessions.