Trapped in Sheremetyevo

July 4, 2013
Edward Snowden

By now, almost everyone has made jokes about Edward Snowden’s story being a sequel to The Terminal, the Tom Hanks movie. On their Facebook and Twitter pages, people are sharing the picture of The Terminal 2, starring Snowden and directed by Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama. Putin seems to have done even more for this sequel—he acts as the executive producer as well. It’s a 2014 Russian-American dramedy.

While there was a worldwide search for the ex-NSA contractor after his departure from Hong Kong, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov never dared to clearly answer the question about Snowden’s whereabouts. The role of the person who really rubbed it in America’s face went to Vladimir Putin: “Mr. Snowden is in Moscow, in Sheremetyevo airport’s transit zone.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry could go on calling Moscow to comply with the law, all in vain. When Putin says something, he does it.

Snowden has already rejected Putin’s clever follow-up offer, that he can remain in Russia as long as he stops leaking U.S. intelligence. And while he’s applied for asylum in other countries, the American is trapped indefinitely in Sheremetyevo, in a secret terminal, with only his WikiLeaks lawyer and the FSB for company.

Of course, no Russian journalist has found him yet.

In 2005, when the film with Tom Hanks came out in Russia, I Iearned that the director of The Terminal was inspired by the 17-year stay of Mehran Karimi Nasseri at Charles de Gaulle International airport in Paris. Not thinking about it for too long, I booked a Moscow-to-Paris ticket in order to find the guy whom Steven Spielberg had in mind.

I found him easily. Mehran Karimi Nasseri was still there, in the CDG Terminal # 1. He was sitting in front of luxury shops, his back to the windows. He had an old black T-shirt, dozens of bags surrounding him. Everyone called him Sir Alfred at the airport. In all his time in Paris, Sir Alfred had not learned to speak French. He told me his story in English: in Iran he was against the Shah and he was forced to flee, becoming stateless. He received refugee status in Europe from the UN High Commission and wanted to go to the UK. But it happened that his documents were stolen on the way to London. The UK sent Sir Alfred back to Paris, where he hung out for 17 years.

Sir Alfred had a coffee with me on an iron bench, after he showed me around Terminal # 1. He shared  many things with me which helped him survive in the transit zone and look like a human being: he washed himself during the night in restrooms, he shaved during the day on the bench, he smoked by to the exit near the coffee machine. He became a celebrity there. He had the poster of Spielberg’s blockbuster with him.

I don’t know whether we can consider it a happy ending, but a year after our encounter Sir Alfred was admitted to a Paris hospital and later transferred to a refugee center in Paris.

Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the prisoner of Terminal # 1, had a rather vague idea about how the world has changed in the meantime. His thoughts were confused, he looked exhausted, his skin was thin and almost grey because of the lack of oxygen and sun. He was not truly interested in anything. How many presidents had changed during this 17 years at the airport, he could not even imagine, and he was completely removed from the real world. He had not heard about the World Trade Center being attacked, for example.

Today, if I were in Sheremetyevo to meet Snowden, I could share a lot of Sir Alfred’s secrets: how to sleep on iron benches, how to take a shower with a plastic bottle, and why you should never throw your coffee cups away.

Soon, Edward Snowden may become the new Gérard Depardieu. If the French actor is now working off his Russian passport by starring in the movie about the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, the former NSA contractor could promote Skolkovo. He could then be invited as a guest star with Anna Chapman (who’s already proposed marriage to him on Twitter) on a talk show for housewives on the main state TV channel, and a new life could begin for “Edik Snoudonov”: without wiretaps, spies and a bad American president. From Russia with love.

Of course, the stories of Sir Alfred and Snowden do not have much in common. One is a poor Iranian; the other, a clever American. Mehran Karimi Nasseri was alone in the whole world, while Snowden seems to be supported by Putin. The Russian authorities have already called the former NSA contractor a “dissident,” and Putin has compared him to Andrei Sakharov. The pride is Russia’s now: its leaders can finally talk about human rights abuses committed by the United States.

Merham Karimi Nasseri, Sir Alfred, lost his mind because he was the prisoner of the Terminal. As for Edward Snowden, it’s guaranteed that he’ll become a crackpot if he is released and made “free” in Russia.