Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Sir Alfred, the Iranian Zelig

Zelig The Iranian Zelig

Yesterday Christian Science Monitor published an article about Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the person whose bizarre story of being trapped in an airport for 15 years was the inspiration for the character of the protagonist in the movie The Terminal.

In this article like many others, Mahran karimi Nasseri (mostly known in Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport as "Sir Alfred") is presented as a victim of bureaucracy. The real story, however, is completely different. Sir Alfred has stayed there not because of a delay in processing his documents, but because those documents identify him as an "Iranian". What he insists the authorities to accept is recognizing him as a European,. He doesn't want them to know him an Iranian immigrant or political asylem-seeker. What he wants is documents to show the world that he is not from that loser third world country. He wants documents that officially announce him European with European "blood" in his veins.

The mental illness of Mehran Karimi Nasseri is not a personal issue of an individual. It is very much related to a post-colonial mental decease of "third world" nations like Iran who view themselves as degenerated creatures of a damned part of the world that they always need to escape from.

Dreaming about "khaarej" (in Persian meaning "the foreign lands", but basically a word being used just describing Europe and North America,) as dreamland of order, beauty, and happiness is something I have mentioned before in two other posts (1, 2). Dreaming about "khaarej" is our national mental decease. (Yes! if we have such a thing as "National car" why shouldn't we have a national mental disease!?) The case of Sir Alfred is not that special. It is the same decease the whole nation is suffering from, but in this case it has reached its ultimate level, a level of crisis.
When you think about Reza Shah period (the 1930s) when Iranian nation -the entire nation- was banned to wear its regular Iranian costumes, and was forced to wear Western style suit and a stupid hat imitated from the French police's uniforms, you can see were the story of Sir Alfred has began.

In the the movie, Zelig (1983), Woody Allen narrates the life-story of a character from the '20s and '30s, Leonard Zelig, who has a very strange personality: he can't be himself. He psychologically and physically reflects whatever surrounds him and whoever he is with. He transforms all the time, jumping from one personality to another. The only thing doesn't change in him is his eagerness to escape from being himself.

"I wanna be liked"... It's a statement by Leonard Zelig under a hypnosis session in the movie. I can hear the same thing from Sir Alfred Mehran talking about his dreams for his "future life" in "khaarej." I can hear the same thing from many other Iranians whose souls are trapped in an airport which is supposed to be their gate to the utopian heaven "the West" promises to be.

For more on Mehran Karimi Nasseri see the documentary Sir Alfred of Charles de Gaulle Airport.


  1. A fascinating insight into the Iranian 'national' psyche, and an equally fascinating comparison between Zelig and Sir Alfred. I remember reading about Sir Alfred a while ago, but the article I read focused on the 'red tape' issue also. The other side of the story is just as bizarre.

  2. i'm so glad you posted on this. i had been meaning to say something but had been too busy. Beyne khodemoon, i totally agree with what you say about the national disease. but the thing that worries me about saying so, is that that articulation comes close to discourses of "national character", which, as you know, have been used in colonial contexts as well. i'm not sure if i am making my point very clear, maybe i'll just call you on the phone.

  3. Nice web site, good writing. We added you to out list of blogs in English.


  4. Don't forget that Nasseri's mother was (is?) British so he is entitled to be European.

    Parisa Dadkhah-Jazi

  5. Don't forget that Nasseri's mother was British so does have European blood and is entitled to a European passport.

  6. No. His mother is Iranian, from the city of Masjed Soleyman. He has two brothers and one sister who is the only member of the family -other than him- who living outside the coutry (Iran). She lives in Luxamburg.

    Watch the documentary "Sir Alfred", you will know everything about his stories.

  7. This link also can be a good sourse of information on the subject.

  8. Wow, this has been the most insightful document concerning Turkey's application to be a member of the European Union (EU).
    What? it's not about Turkey?!!
    Ok, just a slip of tongue, nevermind....

    (Some info: 1. Tukey is also waiting for the same amount of time: The Turkish application for membership was in 1988, same year Sir Alfred started waiting in Charles de Gaulle.
    2. Turkey has also been entangled in a massive red tape, refusing secondary solutions such as a 'special agreement'. Nothing less than being accepted as 'Europen' will satify Turkey)

    I thing Sir Alfred has a better chance for entry....

  9. Just to say that late in 2004 Sir Alfred Mehran published his autobiography called THE TERMINAL MAN. It's availble from amazon.co.uk and has been published in the UK, Germany, Poland, China, and Japan. The Sunday Times was kind enough to describe it as "a profoundly disturbing and brilliant book."

  10. Nice way to plug the book Donkin.
    It is great by the way.

  11. I know a girl with the same disease as Zelig. In retrorespect if you've seen the movie "The Run away Bride"
    in one scene, you find out that
    All three men who wanted to marry the bride said, "she likes her egg just like me".
    Mental diseases like these are extremely hard to diagnos, but these people cause enormous problems for others. Especially people who take them for real. Is there any name for this mental disease in Psycho-Analyst's books?

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  13. Actually, his mum was Scottish. His father had an affair with a Scotish nurse, and it was all hushed up. He mentions it in his book, though.

  14. Thanks for sharing this very interesting post with us. I didn't have heard about this person, but your article make me feel very interested in it. I will look for more information about it.