Saturday, October 09, 2004

Terminals, Borders, Goodbyes.

saw the Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg film 'The Terminal' yesterday; based on the real story of ....

The Man Who Lost His Past
Monday September 6, 2004
The Guardian

I first saw him, many years ago now, staring out with an uncanny gaze of blank intensity from the pages of a newspaper. Seated alone on a bench, immune to the endless motion of the airport around him, there was a curious inscrutability to his slight, balding yet dignified countenance. He looked like some unlikely cross between a Zen master and Chaplin's Tramp. He had these amazing long brows, as dark as his hooded eyes, and a small, perfectly groomed moustache perched on top of his upper lip. It was like a caricature of a face, five charcoal marks on a canvas. But strangely noble, too.

His name was Merhan Karimi Nasseri though he called himself "Sir Alfred". He lived in a lost dimension of absurd bureaucratic entanglement. That is to say, on a bench in Terminal One of the Charles de Gaulle International Airport, and he had lived there since 1988. For a series of insanely complicated reasons, the Iranian-born refugee was now a man without a country - or any other documented, internationally accepted identity status. Alfred couldn't leave France because he did not have papers; he couldn't enter France because he did not have papers. The authorities told him to wait in the airport lounge while they sorted the paradox out. That he did - for years and years.

Then one day, I heard that Alfred had finally been given his papers. He was free to go anywhere in the world he wished. Except now it seemed he didn't want to leave the airport after all. It was the only home - the only past - he had left....

Paul Berczeller calls Steven Spielberg's 'The Terminal' puerile, and at one level that's easy to agree with.

'Sir Alfred' Merhan Karimi Nasseri's life, suspended in Charles de Gaulle Airport is a knife edged absurdist comment on our times, Toba Tek Singh for the twenty first century. And like Sadat Hasan Manto's unforgettable character, Merhan refuses to make a 'sane' choice - instead he prefers being stuck in limbo, a man without a country.
To take such a character and put him into a Hollywood film with a schmaltzy, happy ending would of course immediately attract the 'puerile' label...

I found the film aware of borders, aware of the constant gaze of the surveillance camera, aware of the inherent cruelty of 'Homeland Security' and bureacratic red tape, aware that the 'border' isn't just the arbitrary line that divides nations on maps, but everywhere that you have to 'Prove your Identity' - and yet full of hope. Saadat Hasan Manto may have been a greater story writer than God, but the creed of the storyteller is (I hope and wish and pray) not just to lay bare with economical scapel strokes the heart of human darkness, but to enlighten it.

Hope cannot rhyme with history if there is no hope.
And how else would you challenge the Panopticon of the surveillance state, unless you did it the Victor Navorski way?
By talking back to the Surveillance Cameras, like the New York Surveillance Camera Players.
How else do you challenge Power than with unformal alliances and subversive friendships, the Weapons of the Weak?

And how else do you lose a love? A man without a country, in love with a woman who crosses seas... Tristan und Isolde. ummm... Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta Jones? Who meet often in the International Transit Lounge at a bookshop called "Borders". Where she voraciously devours History books, perhaps to have some sense of rootedness in an itinerant flight schedule?

. . . Ah, said Tridib. That's the trick, you see. It happened everywhere, wherever you wish it. It was an old story, the best story in Europe, Snipe said, told when Europe was a better place, a place without borders, and countries -- it was a German story in what we call Germany, Nordic in the north, French in France, Welsh in Wales, Cornish in Cornwall it was the story of a hero called Tristan, a very sad story, about a man without a country, who fell in love with a woman across-the-seas....

- Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines

And in the end of the Terminal, Victor and Amelie, the stranded passenger and the airhostess cannot be together - defeated by the border.

Shuddha has written eloquently about borders, a piece that I circulated last year among friends across many borders, and which seemed poignantly true when Eric and Suzanne and I went to Indira Gandhi Intenational Airport to see Suzanne off...
To cut a long story short, machine gun toting policemen wouldn't let us beyond the entrance to the Terminal. There wasn't even a chance to say goodbye properly. We we worried becuase Suzanne had way too much luggage and could possibly have customs snafus. There was nothing we could do, except standing, milling around, looking past the geats if we could maybe get a glimpse of her, lost in the cavernous Terminal. We were't the only ones. A thousand bobbing necks craned to catch glimpses of those now irrevocably on the other side of the border. We couldn't even get through to her on her mobile phone becuase there was mobile jamming for security reasons. finally, after an interminable hour's wait, while we sat in the vistor's lounge, she managed to call Eric and say that she was through. It was, I think, two in the morning. Nothing out of the oridanry, of course, but extraordinarily soul destroying.

The next morning, Eric left for Hyderabad, after a short two hours of sleep. The message he sent, at five eighteen in the morning, is still preserved on my cellphone.
'Fully through the borders at hand...'

I want this line in the sand they call the border, and all lines in the sand that they call borders, anywhere, to be wiped away by the trespasses of the multitudes for whom the lines are only so much wasted electricity, and scrap metal, and piled up energy doing nothing but making the world a place that belongs to no one at all.

I think Victor Navorski would have approved...

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