Write for The Iranian
Editorial policy

Aym not eeraaniyan
A man's refusal to acknowledge his Iranianness

July 18, 2001
The Iranian

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 Hibbard.

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 an Iranian.

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 details.

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 Iranian.

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 urbane.

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: No.

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.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Setareh Sabety
Comment for the filmmakers Hamid Rahmanian & Melissa Hibbard


Setareh Sabety's features index

Prometheus Cinema


I was once an Iranian
What it means to be American
By Massud Alemi

Don't be boring. Be Iranian
By Linda

Persian spirit
Things that make me who I am
By Mana

I can read!
Wish I had learned Farsi earlier
By Behrouz J. Roohi

Salaam aaghaa
You never know who you'll bump into in America
By Bahar Jaberi

A glass of Iran
The power of a fistful of soil in northern Virginia
By Jahanshah Javid

Just don't do it
If Agassi embraces his Iranian background
By Farid Moghadassi
February 7, 2001

South Pole
Where there's true freedom
By Siavosh J.


Features archive

* Recent

* Cover stories

* Feature writers

* Arts & literature

* All sections

Flower delivery in Iran
Copyright © Iranian.com All Rights Reserved. Legal Terms for more information contact: times@iranian.com
Web design by BTC Consultants
Internet server Global Publishing Group