Aym not eeraaniyan
A man's refusal to acknowledge his Iranianness
July 18, 2001
Amongst the pile of bills and advertising in
the mail today I got a small package from an address in Brooklyn. Eager
to see what it was I opened it and was delighted to see that it was a video
cassette with a note from Hamid Rahmanian. He had emailed promising that
he would send me a copy of a documentary he had made with his wife Melissa
I was very eager to see "Sir Alfred of Charles de Gaulle Airport"
(Prometheus Cinema, 2001).
I loved the name and any story about someone stuck in an airport for the
past twelve years is an interesting one -- far more, for me, if it is about
Being an Iranian exile or emigre (never really sure which?), who has
spent too much time in airports and had her share of frustration with various
immigration and customs bureaucrats, I felt like I would somehow understand
this man. I hadn't really heard much about the case and did not know any
I was under the impression that this man was an Iranian who had no papers,
was trying not to get deported to Iran, and was therefore stuck there at
a French airport waiting indefinately for his papers. What shocked and moved
me about the subject of Rahmanian and Hibbard's poignant film was that I
learned that he did not wish to leave the airport -- at least not as an
He had been, finally, given his French residency, which is sought after
by many Iranians. He was free to go, but refused to leave! He could go and
live almost anywhere in Europe -- he was no longer forced to stay in the
airport -- but he refused to accept the papers that bore his Iranian name!
He wanted to be Sir Alfred Mehran of England rather than Mehran Karimi Nasseri
born in Massjed Soleiman, Iran. He would not leave the airport until he
had his invented name and nationality recognized. He denied knowing any
Persian while talking in a thickly Iranian/French accented English.
This man who calls himself Sir Alfred simply does want to be Iranian
and had no wish to talk to the Iranian film maker. He was interviewed for
the film by Melissa Hibbard, Rahmanian's American wife. This very Iranian
looking airport resident refused to talk to a fellow Iranian; only the American
wife was acceptable -- the one completely "other" to him.
The documentary begins and ends with the who and the why? The viewer's
inability to find answers mirrors that of the directors, and in some way
Sir Alfred Mehran's. The film has a powerful impact because of the way it
uses what is not uttered by the protagonist as its main message.
The man's refusal to acknowledge his true identity and the resulting
silent tension between him and the filmmaker is the undrlying chorus of
this tragedy. The Farsi language that we know he shares with the filmmaker
and his refusal to speak it, become the muted backdrop of the film. This
Iranian's refusal to admit his roots, his total and utter loneliness, and
his permanent yet transitory status as an inhabitant of the transparent,
borderless and boundary-less space which is Charles de Gaulle Airport, make
Sir Alfred an Iranian symbol.
This Iranian who does not want to be one, is the living symbol of the
modern and global epidemic of displacement -- of not being where you belong
and not belonging to where you are. Whatever may have led Mehran to inhabit
and cling on to this nowhere world of the airport, in his refusal to accept
his name and nationality, he embodies, also, a very Iranian problem with
identity which has a long history. Was it Ahmad Shah who said he would rather
be a street vendor in the West than the Shah of Persia?
The filmmakers voice over, in a soft spoken Farsi filled with empathy,
speaks of how he remembers, back home, knowing people who wanted to be and/or
pretended to be from somewhere else -- like how he himself had often thought
of how it would haven been better if he had been born in Switzerland.
All of us have known someone who would rather be called Alfred than Mehran
or Dariush instead of Asghar or Joe instead of Javad or Maggie instead of
Mahin. I remember the ghomashdeh who worked for my uncle changing his name
from Mamad to Houshang because his wife thought it was more upscale and
Many switched to Islamic names from old Persian names and back again
with the ups and downs of the revolution. Going from Manouchehr to Ali Gholi
and back to Manoo again. The Sir Alfred of this powerful documentary is
an exaggerated version of that. An olive skinned and dark haired man who
speaks English with a thick accent but pretends/believes he is really from
England and born in Sweden. Lies, if repeated long enough, have a way of
permeating reality in the mind of the liar.
While Hibbard asks Sir Alfred questions of a more and more personal nature,
Rahmanian provides Farsi (subtitled in English) commentary sharing his thoughts
on the man and himself. An intensley awkward moment arises when Hibbard
asks Sir Alfred whether he likes tahdig or koukou or baghali polo and he
puts on his most nutral face and utters what any Iranian knows to be a lie:
Information about this "strangest case in immgration history"
is woven into the film by a colorful cast of Frenchmen connected to the
case. The French have a way of weaving theory and fact which is light and
conversational and great for purposes of this film. The comment that has
stuck in my head is from the airport's doctor that he was amazed at the
lack of interest shown this man from any charitable or humanitarian organization
in these twelve years.
I thought of how shameful it was that we, Iranians abroad, had not taken
care of Sir Alfred. I thought of the many times I had gone through the transparent,
suspended corridors of Charles de Gaulle airport, too worried about getting
to the next gate, the next flight that would take me to the next destination,
to see Sir Alfred even if I had bumped into him. I wonder at what point
this compatriot decided that he did not want to be who he was.
Rahmanian's interaction, or lack of it, with Sir Alfred is the tensely
poetic, invisible, subtitle of the film: a man's refusal to acknowledge
his brother, his compatriot, his country, his name. A man wishing to remain
forever in an airport-- never really arriving at his destination.