June 28, 2004 12:00 PM

>The Terminal‘s Inspiration

The greasy food. The stale air. The constant blare of announcements. And the most annoying thing about being stuck in an airport? Says Merhan Karmini Nasseri: “The noise of the wheels on suitcases scraping across the tile floor.”

He would know. Nasseri has spent 15 years living in Terminal 1 of Paris’s Charles de Gaulle International Airport. “I am always waiting,” says the Iranian exile, 58, whose predicament inspired the premise of The Terminal. (The movie’s producers paid Nasseri a reported $275,000 for the rights to his often publicized tale, though the finished film “is in no way his story,” says a DreamWorks studio rep.) Nasseri deplaned in Paris in 1988 with a ticket to London and no passport (he claimed his traveling papers had been stolen). Unable to leave, he took up residence in the airport, filling his days writing in journals. Tolerated by airport officials, he sleeps on a red plastic bench, bathes in the men’s room and sends his clothes to a concourse dry cleaners. Will he see the film? “There aren’t any theaters here,” he shrugs.

In truth, Nasseri could leave and see the movie elsewhere: After a long court battle, his lawyer Christian Bourguet persuaded France to give Nasseri asylum. But since 1999, the eccentric Nasseri has refused to sign papers that would grant him his freedom. “He’s stayed so long that he can’t reach the decision to leave,” says Bourguet. “He’s not crazy. Just mixed up.”

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