Alfred Merhan gets up around eight in the morning, has a wash and a shave then strolls to the nearest bar for a coffee. More often than not he will pick up an English language newspaper such as the Herald Tribune or the New York Times then, when he has finished his coffee, take the paper back to his table and read it carefully, puffing on his pipe and jotting notes in his journal. At lunchtime Alfred will walk over to Burger King for some frites and an Ocean Burger, which will cost him just under 30 Francs. Since he doesn’t take supper, he will spend the rest of the day writing, studying books from his library, listening to his radio or talking with people who drop by. At about three in the morning he will settle down for the night.
Alfred Merhan spends the night in a torn nylon sleeping bag on a plastic covered bench. He has been sleeping in the same place for ten years and has conducted his daily life in the same pattern several thousand times. His bench and table are part of the furniture of the Boutiquaire – the Boutique Level, a ring of shops and restaurants arranged around a fountain below the Departure Lounge in Terminal One of Charles de Gaulle airport, a few kilometres north of Paris. He keeps his books in five grey Lufthansa transit boxes and his newspapers in a white plastic sack. Alfred is not a tramp – they don’t allow tramps in airports. Alfred is a man without papers.
When asked the whereabouts of ‘the Iranian who has lived here for ten years’, staff at Charles de Gaulle invariably suppress an ambiguous smile before giving directions. Alfred’s story is so bizarre that it seems to evoke both awe and puzzlement in those who constitute his neighbours. He is readily identifiable from a distance, not because of his appearance, or even the unlikely mound of boxes stacked on the trolley beside him. It is his air of absorption that gives him away – a patient, studious and ensconced manner that distinguishes him from the flustered travellers who mill around him.
Alfred has found stillness where others see only transit. Working spills of twisted paper into the barrel of his pipe, he tells his tale evenly and with little emotion. “In 1988 I came by train from Belgique and lost all my documents in the railway station. I could not return to Belgique. My identity papers were British but the embassy would not replace them. I don’t know why.” Alfred speaks English, softly and haltingly. He has black wavy hair down to his shirt collar, a bald head, long pork chop sideburns, hollow cheeks and dark, mournful eyes. That he is not gibbering dementedly or pacing like a caged beast is remarkable. A moment of carelessness in the Gare du Nord has stripped him not just of the pieces of paper that tell others who he is but has delivered him into a space where there is absolutely nothing to support his own sense of identity.
“I went to London but I was deported immediately,” Alfred continues. “I appealed to them but it was three years before the appeal was heard. In 1992 there was also an interdiction from France: I could not stay in this country. Already I had been in the airport for four years and now I must live here – it is an International Zone.” Without a passport, without the papers once issued to him in Brussels by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Alfred is a non-person. What better to settle in, therefore,than a non-place?
Born in Denmark, Alfred studied Psychology as an undergraduate in Tehran. After graduating in 1974 he lived in London for a short time before taking an M.A. in Yugoslavian Studies at the University of Bradford. It seems in rather poor taste to ask him if he sees any fatal parallels between the fate of benighted Yugoslavia and his own situation.
While waiting for his French appeal to be heard, Alfred established the patterns that now totally define his existence. Francless, he was dependent on the kindness of strangers. Airport staff would give him food vouchers, curious travellers would buy him drinks and he had first refusal on a steady stream of abandoned international newspapers. When kindly passengers actually gave him money he would buy batteries for his radio and his cassette player. “I like very much techno music. Also American Country and Western and 50s rock’n’roll. Also 60s music: Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones. The Beatles.” He pauses then nods thoughtfully, “Yes, and Bee Gees.”
One of his few regular acquaintances is the airport chaplain, Jean Bessett. Alfred is not religious but the Chaplaincy is only a few yards from his favourite table and makes a change from the numbingly familiar view of the boutique that sells fussy designer baggage and Hermes scarves. Monsieur Bessett has talked with Alfred for about half an hour a week for the last three years. He quickly dispels any notion that his goal is simply to harvest another vagrant soul. ‘Monsieur Merhan does not want to go out of Charles de Gaulle airport,’ Bessett declares. It is comfortable. Everybody knows him. He has food. He can sit. There are certain advantages. ‘He has no other choices, does he? He considers that he is one who is not allowed to go somewhere else. It is in his mind but it is not the truth.’
The truth, where Alfred is concerned, turns out to be a fickle and elastic quantity. Some of its fundamental aspects are not as immutable as convention demands. The matter of Denmark, for example, Alfred’s place of birth. One would imagine that an appeal for replacement papers would not be problematic for such a liberal country. Bessett dismisses the suggestion out of hand. ‘His mother is British. He has an Iranian father. Nobody knows if the idea of Denmark is true.’
Whatever the confusions, not to say outright contradictions, introduced by the Chaplain, Alfred is exquisitely trapped. Like the submarine bacteria that live next to outpourings of molten lava, he has found an ecological niche in the most stifling milieu. Does he not dream of freedom? ‘Freedom is not a dream. Freedom is freedom.’ He smiles wanly and sips at a lager the reporter has purchased for him. ‘When I lost my papers I asked for duplicates. She said no. That is not a dream – it’s a challenge. I have never heard of a person with a situation like mine.’
Reaching over to his trolley for a sheaf of lined foolscap and a ballpoint pen, Alfred starts making notes. A discreet craning of the neck establishes he is writing in English. The first word he has written is ‘Freedom…’ While he is clearly engaged by philosophical matters, the more Alfred talks of them the less animated he becomes. His plans for the future, on the other hand, are delivered with enthusiasm. “This year, maybe, I will go to America,” he declares. “My lawyer is trying to get papers. I would like to study there – computers for business or maybe a diplomatic job.”
Christian Bourguet, Alfred’s lawyer, has been working on his client’s case since 1989. He too is taken aback by the news of Alfred’s country of origin. “Denmark! That is incredible. He was born in 1950 in Maghid Soleiman, a small town in the northwest of Iran. His name is Merhan Karimi Nasseri. His father was a doctor working for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. At that time the country round Maghid was run by a British governor: this is the basis for Merhan’s British citizenship.” Bourguet rattles off Alfred’s case history at tremendous speed, as one would expect of a man who has patiently rehearsed the bizarre details before a succession of highly specialised courts.
The lawyer explains that after the death of Alfred’s father in 1972, his mother presented him with a startling confession. She was, in fact, not his mother at all. That position had been taken by the British nurse, working for the oil company, with whom his father had had an affair. Under Iranian law, a child born in adultery has no rights at all and, in times past, was routinely killed off. Alfred’s mother warned him that if he attempted to claim rights in his father’s estate she would oppose him in court and tell the authorities about the nurse.
Cruel but fair, the mother spelled out a deal: renounce your rights, leave the country and we’ll pay for three years’ study in Britain. In his third year at Bradford University, Alfred stopped receiving money. He phoned home, got no answer, so flew to Tehran where he was immediately arrested by Savak, the Shah of Iran’s notorious secret police. They accused him of taking part in anti-Shah demonstrations in Britain, beat him up and threw him in jail for four months. “Eventually his family bought him out,” says Bourguet. “This time they said he must go away for ever. They got him a special passport for emigration only. He cannot go back. From 1976 he wanders through Europe for five years, asking for asylum. He is refused in every country. In 1981 the High Commission for Refugees in Brussels admitted him as a refugee.”
After five years in Brussels, where he wrote and studied but had no employment, Merhan received some extraordinary news. Were this a fairy tale rather than a Kafkaesque narrative of gloom, the much abused refugee should now have found lifelong happiness. He had found out that his mother was Scottish, lived in Glasgow and was called Simon. Or possibly Simone, if it were her first name.
Alfred determined to go to Glasgow to find his mother. He packed his bags and then made an astounding mistake. “He gets a ferry ticket to Britain,” Bourguet explains. “He thought that he didn’t need his papers anymore.” The pitch of the lawyer’s voice rises in disbelief as he moves to the punchline. “He took his refugee card, his titre de voyage, which is a sort of passport for refugees, and his Belgian permit of residence. On board the boat he put all these in an envelope and sent them back to the High Commission.” Bourguet pauses dramatically, with some justification. “It was crazy, but he did it.”
At Dover, Alfred, without papers, was bounced back to Belgium. In Belgium, without papers, they wouldn’t let him in. Alfred told them he had papers. They said “Not any more. You left of your own free will.”
Alfred went to France. They arrested him for illegal immigration and jailed him for four months. On release he flew to Britain, from Charles de Gaulle airport. He was sent back to France, arrested and given five months in jail. On release he flew to Britain and was refused entry. Returning to France he was arrested and given five months in jail.
Bourguet took up the case. By this time Alfred had been living in Charles de Gaulle for three months. For several years the case was hauled through the French courts. Initially Alfred was found guilty again but Bourguet launched an appeal, got a delay and, in this time, established that the High Commission in Belgium was actually in possession of Alfred’s refugee card. The French court said it would give Alfred the papers he needs if he could produce the original of this card. The Belgians said he could have it but they refused to send it by post: Alfred must go and retrieve it.
Alfred won’t go. He is convinced he will be refused entry and end up in jail again. The Belgians clarified their offer. Alfred can settle in Belgium if he wishes, and they will give him money. Alfred doesn’t believe them. Bourguet has offered to drive Alfred to Belgium and stay with him until everything is sorted out. The airport doctor has made a similar offer. Alfred will not budge.
“Look,” says Bourguet, “if he goes to Brussels he will get a titre de voyage and a permit and he can go to Britain. They cannot refuse him. I will go with him. The TV teams will follow it all. He might even find his mother! If…if he goes to Brussels!”
If Alfred tries the patience of those who would help him this is because his own forbearance has been tested to an extreme. Cast out by his family, then his country, then by most of Europe, he managed to build himself a redoubt against the damning sense of his disposability. The price he seems to have paid is his capacity to remember what freedom is really like.
The chaplain is not sanguine. “He has lost the notion of time. He does not speak his own language anymore. Every time I speak to him I challenge what he is telling me. But it is always the same. There is no evolution.” Does he think Alfred is mad? “He is not mad,” says Bessett. “The fact that he is in the same place means everything is getting narrower. He moves from his seat to the bathroom and back. I’ve never seen him anywhere else – he behaves like a man in prison. His world is getting smaller and smaller and so is his mind. He is becoming like a shadow which is less and less visible. What can you say? Il s’efface. (He is effacing himself.)”
Alfred, who was never in Denmark, finishes his lager. “Last week an ex-student from Bradford came through here.” His voice grows even softer. “I had everything then. Many books. My bed in the student residence. I had TV. I played table tennis, swimming and football.” He gazes across the bustling Boutiquaire, lost in thought. Just one last question then: is there anything you have gained from all this? The answer comes without hesitation. “Yes. The lack of a life.”