Terminal Error: What Snowden Comparisons Are Missing

Many commentators forget how the true story of a man stuck in an airport ended

  • Share
  • Read Later
Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

Alfred Merhan stands next to a movie poster in his home of 16 years, a corner of Terminal 1 at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport, on August 12, 2004 in Paris

It’s a pretty easy comparison to make: right now it looks like NSA leaker Edward Snowden is starring in the sequel to The Terminal. The 2004 Spielberg-directed dramedy starred Tom Hanks as an immigrant stranded in JFK airport, unable to leave because he had neither the correct papers to enter the U.S. nor the papers to go elsewhere. In real life, Snowden is stuck in the Moscow airport transit zone, having requested asylum from nearly two dozen nations, none of which responded with an enthusiastic yes. (Answers are still coming in, but right now he still hasn’t found one.) The U.S. has revoked Snowden’s passport, and as TIME reports, he is currently calling himself “stateless,” which also creates confusion over whether he’s a refugee or an asylum-seeker.

So the comparisons keep coming. “Snowden: The Terminal, Two” says Bloomberg‘s headline. “A burlesque of Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal is being staged in Terminal E of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport,” says Moscow News. At NBC, the comparison is more drawn out:

While Snowden’s whereabouts remain unknown– he wouldn’t be the first person to log in some serious time in an airport terminal. Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee, spent 17 years living in Charles de Gaulle airport when he was denied entry to France, but couldn’t go back to Iran. His story made the big screen when it was dramatized in the 2004 Steven Spielberg movie The Terminal starring Tom Hanks.

It remains to be seen whether Snowden’s story ends the way The Terminal did (spoiler: pretty much happily; he gets to leave). But comparisons to the real-life story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri gloss over one of the facts of Nasseri’s time in the airport, a fact lost in translation to the big screen: for much of his time in Charles de Gaulle, Nasseri could have walked away.

(MOREHero or Bad Boyfriend? Edward Snowden and the Personalization of Public Debate)

Dr. Philippe Bargain, the resident doctor at Charles de Gaulle, who got to know Nasseri—also known as “Sir Alfred”—during that period, tells TIME that he believes Nasseri’s story has little to say about world politics, since it is just one man’s individual story. He had no desire to leave the airport, Bargain said in an email, in French, so there was no conflict in the story.

Here’s a refresher on Nasseri’s tale: He was born in Iran but studied abroad. Upon returning home, he was jailed for political reasons and had his passport confiscated. He applied for asylum in a few European nations and was eventually granted refugee status by Belgium, a status that would also allow him to try to become a citizen in another European country. However, on his way to his chosen homeland of England, the papers were stolen; passing through British immigration in 1988, he was sent back to France because of his lack of documentation. With nowhere to go, he stayed in the airport. In 1992, a court ruled that he couldn’t be kicked out, even though France would not grant him the papers necessary for him to go elsewhere. In 1995, Belgium offered him a chance to go there—his first big opportunity to leave the airport—but he refused, still hoping for England.

In September of 1999, the story changed: Nasseri was given travel papers and the permits necessary to remain in France. Again, he could leave. But, although he would sometimes go out for brief periods, he returned again and again to the airport.

Though he said at the time of The Terminal‘s release that he was given hundreds of thousands of dollars for his life story, it did not change his life. Nasseri left the airport in July of 2006; he now lives in the Parisian suburbs, in a shelter. He was “fossilized” by his experiences, Bargain says, and the heartwarming story of The Terminal has little to do with reality.

But despite Bargain’s point about Nasseri’s story’s individuality, there is one lesson Snowden can take away from this tale: first chance you get to leave the airport, take it.