Monday, April 02, 2001

living in a non-place
I just watched a documentary about a man called Alfred. He had lived on Charled De Gaulle Airport since 1988, making it 11 years when he was granted refuge status by the Belgian Government. In clippings from september 1999 he claims to have decided to stay at the airport, despite having been given french residency. According to the writings about him and his own words in the documentary, he originally wanted to go to Great Britain, claiming he was british. During the documentary he changed his mind several times, wanting to go to Germany, Belgium and the United States of America. At one point in the film he also claimed that he had so many options - he was unable to choose.

I have tried to track him down on the net, but "Charles de gaulle airport alfred" gave me nothing after 1999. Did he meet the millenuim in an airport, endlessly waiting? A search on his real name, Merhan Karimi Nasseri, yielded little more. He seems to have disappeared from the news when he was no longer forced to stay at the airport, but chose to.

It's a fascinating situation. Marc Augé (No, I am not able to put his book non-places from my mind yet) writes of non-places and identity: "Checks on the contract and the user's identity, a priori or a posteriori, stamp the space of contemporary consumption with the sign of non-place: it can be entered only by the innocent. Here words hardly count any longer. There will be no individualization (no right to anonymity) without identity checks."

This is what trapped "Sir Alfred", or Nasseri, on the airport. Robbed of all his papers, he could no longer prove his innocence - but with the same papers gone, the police could not prove his guilt. He could not "retrieve his identity ... at Customs, at the tollbooth, at the check-out counter" (p 103). And after 11 years of this, he refused to leave this life where he had become no longer a stranger, but a celebrity. In the documentaries, those were the words with which he refused having his picture taken by tourists passing by: "I am a celebrity".

The land in which he was familiar was the non-place of transit, with the large brand shops of Charles De Gaulle, and what should have been familiar after 11 years in France was foreign. He was locked in the paradox of the traveller: "A paradox of non-place: a foreigner lost in a country he does not know (a 'passing stranger') can feel at home there only in the anonymity of motorways, service stations, big stores or hotel chains. For him, an oil company logo is a reassuring landmark; among the supermarket shelves he falls with relief on sanitary, household or food products validated by multinational brand names." (p. 106)

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