Unpublished text, Philadelphia, 2004.
“The airport is a strange place.”
- Dixon, airport manager in the film “The Terminal.”
“Unhomely” is a term urban sociologists, and literary and architectural theorists sometimes use to describe the alien and unsettling nature of certain aspects of contemporary life. The architectural historian Anthony Vidler, who has written about the modern unhomely in his book The Architectural Uncanny, notes that such a phenomenon did not exist prior to the nineteenth century. Instances of the unhomely or uncanny, the terrifying and anxiety-filled are now quite routine and are often actually designed for experience. Something as ordinary as being stuck inside an airport terminal could become the closest experience of the unhomely or the uncanny.
Viktor Navorski was stuck at JFK international airport for a year. Mehran Karimi Nasseri was trapped at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport for 11 years. Navorski, from an unknown Eastern European country of Krakozhia, arrives at JFK to find that his country has erupted in a civil war and incredibly does not exist anymore, and neither does the validity of his passport. Nasseri flees Iran in 1988 with the intention of seeking asylum in London, but on his way, in Paris, has his documents stolen. A man without papers is a man without a country. Immigration officers at London airport send him back to Paris, and officers in Paris will not let him enter the “official” soil of France, and since Nasseri has no papers and therefore no valid country to send him back to, he is stuck at the airport. For over 11 years.
Navorksi, played by Tom Hanks, is from the fictitious country of Krakozhia in Steven Spielberg’s recently released film The Terminal. Mehran Karimi Nasseri is a real life refuge seeker from Iran whose strange plight has inspired a number of documentary and feature films (Sir Alfred of CDG Airport by Hamid Rahmanian and Melissa Hibbard, Waiting for Godot at de Gaulle by Alexis Couros, and the French film Tombés du Ciel by Philippe Lioret), and in the latest rash, into a Hollywood film. The difference is that the new terminal citizen is east European, his terminal duration is for one year, and he gets to fall in love with the lovely Catherine Zeta-Jones. Clearly, Nasseri’s terminal life is a tad bit more tragic than what Spielberg can make of Tom Hanks’ latest cast away.
Spielberg falls short with his movie not because of the comedic and actually rapturous turns of Navorski’s experience (one was almost expecting he and his terminal pals bursting out in an uproarious musical), but the fictionalization he resorts to. The poignancy of a terminal existence increases against the nuanced context of a real homeland that one is bound for, abandons, or pines for. Stranded at JFK because of an imaginary Krakozhia that no longer exists only heightens the fairy-tale like predicament complete with monsters at the gate and a jazz finale in Manhattan. JFK airport, in its internationalized makeover as a three-storey steel and glass structure with 65,000 square feet of granite floor (all built in a hangar in Palmdale, California) seemed quite incredulous considering its typical disarray.
And how real did Krakozhia seem? Although nations in Eastern Europe have been torn asunder in civil strife, inventing a country that vanishes into thin air makes Navorski’s predicament quite concocted. Tom Hanks’ contrived accent and mannerism, no matter how endearing, only added to the business of enactment.
Nasseri, on the other hand, has an actual past, and an authentic reason to flee from a real place. Turned away by immigration, Nasseri soon becomes a figure of media attention. Newspaper stories, magazine articles, academic essays, documentaries, feature films trail the man without a country, a homeless celebrity who gives lounging a profundity never seen before. One newspaper report describes him in the terminal “sitting at a table, perhaps smoking a pipe, taking a stroll, stopping to pick his mail at the post office or lunch at the McDonalds’s… he will be looking very much at home.” The fact of being very much at home in the enigmatic space of an airport terminal that wants us to figure out the puzzle of a man’s home.
Nasseri was a mathematics student in Iran when he left for London in 1988 to seek asylum. This was precipitated after the fall of the Shah and Nasseri’s continued requests for political asylum that was finally granted in 1981 by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Belgium. Since one of his parents was British, England was his choice for residence. When he loses his documents during the short stopover at the Charles de Gaulle airport, Nasseri decides to fly on to London, but immigration officials there finding no paper on him sends him back to Paris. He is however not allowed to enter France even as a refugee, or even given a transit visa. Neither can he be returned to his original homeland because it appears that he has no proof of where that is. Thus begins Nasseri’s entry into a phantom zone.
The zone is made complex by an intractable bureaucratic paradox and Nasseri’s own enigmatic attitudes. When Nasseri and his French lawyer wrote to Belgium for the refugee documents, the Belgian authorities refused to mail them as Nasseri had to be present in person to receive the papers. At the same time, Belgium did not allow Nasseri to come there pointing out a law that a refugee who voluntarily leaves a country that has accepted him cannot return. But when in 1995, Belgium offered Nasseri his documents and a residence in Belgium, Nasseri refused saying that he wished to go only to England. While his status is reviewed by Belgian and French authorities, Nasseri remains confined within the passenger lounge of the terminal.
He makes himself at home, if we can say that, in Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle airport. He sleeps on the red plastic chairs of the terminal, wakes up at 5:30 in the morning so that he could use the men’s room before passengers arrive. He keeps himself clean and dignified. He eats at the restaurants where he receives food offered by people at the airport. He befriends the shopkeepers, the airport workers, the airline people and passersby. It would seem that there is no real need for money in the phantom zone. He hangs his blazer wrapped in plastic in an airport cart next to his old suitcase. All day long, he listens to the radio, writes in his diary, and frequently talks to journalists and visitors. He reads regularly; he is seen reading Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village. Sometimes, he will stand at a certain spot from where he can catch a stealthy whiff of fresh air when a nearby door opens and closes to the outside.
Homeless? Stateless? Placeless? Identityless? Nasseri’s predicament compounds as every regularized spatial attestation as we have come to know is denied. Nasseri soon no longer responds to the name Mehran, he wishes to be called by the adopted name of Alfred or Sir Alfred. Hamid Naficy, professor at Rice University and scholar on exilic and diasporic experiences, feels that Nasseri may actually resent his own Iranian background, and was using every ploy – “engaging in various games of ethnic camouflage, denial, and passing” – to present a European origin. When Hamid Rahmanian and his wife were making the documentary Sir Alfred, Nasseri refused to speak to Rahmanian in Farsi, preferring to talk to his English-speaking wife. When his French residency permit finally arrived in 1999, Nasseri actually hesitated leaving the terminal of Charles de Gaulle airport. He would rather make the limbo his home than go out to a space of normality. A Boston Globe report quotes Danielle Yzerman, spokeswoman for the Charles de Gaulle airport, “An airport is kind of a place between heaven and earth. He has found a home here.”
Why is Nasseri’s story that I have described at length so engrossing and disturbing at the same time when people have lived life in exile and abandonment in far less congenial conditions? Is it because of the terror that we think he experiences that is quite alien to us, something that we can only imagine? Is it because of the political and ethical question placed on the rigorous nature of the modern state, on the construction of its steadfast boundaries and their simultaneous fluidities? Is it because we are unaware of the interstitial zones that are created in unimaginable places? We can think of the strange nature of certain modern spaces that require new requisites on what we do. Is Nasseri, to put it in academic terms, a case of modern human’s experiential limit, politically, ethically, legalistically, and spatially?
Eleven years at an airport terminal, even if it be Paris, is an astonishing epic. We develop genuine anguish even when we are stuck for a day or so with a delayed or missed flight at an international terminal. After the aura of the swanky space and twinkle of the duty-free shops and bars fade out, the only landmarks of meaning are to be found in the panorama of anonymous chairs, the coming and going of people through a tiny portal, the digital bulletin board, the bank of telephones, and the occasional trip to the restrooms. Things take on a different orientation in the enclosure of the terminal.
Studs Terkel, the radio personality, once trying to get to Cleveland from Detroit rushed to the counter to board his plane only to receive the answer: “But, sir, you are in Cleveland!” I had a similar terminal experience once on one of my regular flights between Philadelphia and Dhaka. At Dubai airport, on the bus taking the passengers to the terminal from the just landed plane, for a brief second, I wasn’t sure whether I was going to Philadelphia or Dhaka. It was, even for an angstrom moment, strangely unnerving.
Last December, I was at Taipei Airport to catch an onward flight to Bangkok. Being in a foreign airport for the first time can present a bewildering landscape of signs and symbols. Most often, we take some of those things for granted as we applya familiar and cultural logic to how they are placed, structured, and to be read. I thought the television monitors at Taipei are in odd places, to begin with. Next, I discovered that the signs for the restrooms do not necessarily take you to your destination. You see it finally, behind some columns, the door with the ubiquitous sign of the rounded off Vitruvian man ready for a pee. Going from one terminal to another can be an anxious journey of its own. I go from Terminal A to Terminal B to catch my flight to Bangkok by traversing corridors of infinite perspective that only aggravates my anxiety about how long the walk will take. The walk is interrupted only by undulating floor planes, ubiquitous construction sites, and surrealistic advertising graphics. I arrive at B3 but I clearly see that the lounge to the plane is two-story below the corridor where passengers are already mulling around. I am with two bags and look for an elevator. I go into one and push the button “1.” The door opens and I find myself in a desolate lounge with one old cleaning woman. Clearly “1” is not the lounge I saw from above. I speak and gesticulate to the woman, how do I go up. No comprehension. I climb back into the elevator, and hey, I didn’t notice, there is no button for “2” or “3.” How do I go up? Mild panic. A security guard suddenly materializes. Before I can explain or ask, he demands my boarding pass. He then opens a door and takes me to another elevator and up to the floor I am looking for. I walk in but it is the departure corridor. A China Airlines staff tells me I am in the wrong space and that I should go all the way back to security, back to where I started from. Another panic. I give a semiological argument, insisting on variable interpretations of the sign system. He finally lets me in. My own little Nasserian moment.
Nasseri’s experience is a heightened emblem of the space that he unwittingly inhabits for eleven years: the terminal of an international airport. All of a sudden the space of the airport presents itself as a new paradigm of human experience. The airport is no longer just a functionally charged communication node but a space opened up in the juridical fissure of the laws of nations and states. Like a parking garage, the terminal is certainly not a destination, but a point of perpetual departure, and when that is made ambiguous, a Nasserian moment inevitably ensues. But it is also a space of its own with its own physiognomy where one can fully survey the topography of placelessness. I am assuming that Fredric Jameson, the Marxist philosopher of postmodern life, would have no problem in designating this as a postmodern space, one kind of spatial experience in our multitude of experiences that characterize the modern existence, and something over which we do not, yet, have a full intellectual and perceptual grasp.
I mentioned placelessness in designating the space of the terminal, but not in any kind of pejorative way, that is, as a space that stands hopelessly in contrast to the familiar spaces of unequivocal meanings that affirm what we do normally and prosaically. Placelessness is a new modern configuration.
If placelessness has acquired a new status, it is not surprising in a postmodern cosmos. The notion of “place” in the twenty-first century has come under increasing questions, especially when it is seen as romanticism about landscape, chauvinism around regional or territorial affiliation, or as something stable and perennial in a world of perpetual flux and denuded fixities. Placelessness as a possibility has proliferated in the context of new globalization and mediatization with the unencumbered transfer of capital and information, or in the spaces “discovered” or “invented” in new urban and architectural conditions. Placelessness is no longer the condition of vapid wandering or the residue of assuring spaces. One now confronts placelessness as another kind of existent space. Placelessness is now a place.
The philosopher Michel Foucault labeled those spaces as “heterotopias” that are located in the midst of our normative life but that neutralize or invert the meaning of that normativity; he was thinking of cemeteries and hospitals for example. But what about the terminal of an airport, the parking garage, the space without a name under a freeway, or the various other spatial debris of the modern city? What do they reflect or mirror? Perhaps the space of the terminal does none of these. In its swanky, squeaky clean air, and antiseptic glamour, the space makes us feel sheer uncanniness, something borne out of an incomprehension of these spaces, of being completely outside of anything we have experienced so far. Like a monad, the terminal space is not umbilically connected to any continuum, either historical or geographical, thus nothing in our collective imagination predisposes us to that experience.
The realm of the terminal is a kind of an extruded space, cleaved open from the multitude of existent spaces. From a large hallway for a new building type that the airport began as, it has become a landscape of infinite and unexpected possibilities. Since this extruded space is now here and can be experienced, it needs to be taken seriously. In his essay “Postmodernism and the Consumer Society” (1988), Jameson presents the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles as the epitome of “hyperspace,” a new kind of space that we can now enter and encounter. It is really a new paradigm of experience, asking from us nothing less than spatial and perceptual re-orientations.
What is true for the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Jameson’s observation is quite relevant for the airport terminal. Both are instances of “postmodern hyperspace,” a new kind of spatial concatenation, arrived at partly consciously, cumulatively, and serendipitously, but are now upon us when we are still floundering in an older and familiar space frame and have no clue yet how to orient ourselves in those spaces. There is a space lag.
Jameson describes these spaces as a mutation in built space, and that we, as the human subject, who happen to be in that space, have not kept pace with that evolution, that is, we have not acquired an equal degree of (perceptual) mutation or orientation, and as such “do not yet possess the perceptual equipment to match this new hyperspace.” This is in part because our spatial orientation and perceptual habits were formed in an older kind of space over a long period of time. Jameson thinks that something extraordinarily surprising is happening with these new spaces and architecture. The Westin Bonaventure Hotel, as an example of this new architecture, “stands as something like an imperative to grow new organs to expand our sensorial and our bodies to some new, as yet unimaginable, perhaps ultimately impossible, dimensions.” While such lessons of a spatial recoding and sensorial reconfiguration will come rather smoothly or innocuously for visitors breezing through the atrium of the Bonaventure, for others, like Nasseri, it will arrive with a nearly indecipherable trauma. The matter is broader than we care to think. Such an experience, Jameson argues, is “a symbol and analogue of a larger decentering in which we find ourselves caught” in which the individual is no longer capable of organizing itself in a “mappable external world.” Anthony Vidler, in cataloging the varieties of unsettling spaces in his book Warped Space (2000), regards this as an emblem of “the conditions of a less than settled everyday life” that characterize contemporary production of art and architecture.
The first striking thing about the Bonaventure is that it is a totally disjunctive space; it lays no claim to making any meaningful link with the continuum it otherwise is in – Los Angeles. Unlike Foucault’s “heterotopia,” those spaces have no conversation with spaces outside them; they do not invert, neutralize, mirror or do any such thing the world outside it. Those new spaces are a complete world by themselves, as Jameson characterizes, being categorically disjunctive from the surrounding environment, and being neither the shadow nor microcosm of it. I would describe those spaces as monadic, completely oblivious to anything beyond itself, like the self-centrism of a mercury globule. What is visible in the far distance, the vistas of LA from the hotel, and the surreal landscape of the tarmac in the terminal with the goings in and out of the lumbering planes and the fleeting service cars, seems strangely inaccessible.
A new typology of enclosure characterizes the space inside, as at lobbies at the Bonaventure and atriums in airport terminals. The point of contact or porosity between these spaces and the space outside them is hopelessly asymptotic. In the case of the hotel, they are curiously unmarked, and in the case of the terminal they are deceptively controlled. And once inside the terminal, you are in a complete befuddlement about where you are, where the plane of the earth is, where the geographical north is, and where the building opens to the outside. The array of escalators, elevators and people movers further confound any proper sense of orientation to the earth or outside. Movement seems to be the enduring phenomenon here. As with the motion outside, there is an endless movement within this hermetic zone; it’s not however a stroll down a promenade.
The airport terminal is neither city nor country in its characterization; it is an empty volume – pure emptiness – suffused with the flicker of monitors, signs and signage. More properly, it is a semiologically charged space where meanings and bearings are found only by reading and interpreting signs in a milieu of endless arriving and departing. The additional element is aural, of the crisp announcement of flights delayed, passengers recalled, with the hum and drone of those incredible flying machines lumbering to and fro from the thin pane of glass that seems to separate here and there.
The massing of people is only spectacular; it is a congregation without community, a proximity without intimacy. The density is only reminiscent of a village fair or the quasi-urban shopping mall with its increasingly stunning and equally increasing sameness of retail units. Perhaps, at best, it is a pseudo-community in a propped-up plaza where everything is public with its particular social codes and etiquettes about how people should move around in its surveilled environment to do the only thing allowed: wait. Vidler has noted the photographic documentation of the spaces of airport terminals by Martha Rosler (1997) that seems to give evidence to “the combined discomfort of demoralized waiting and anonymous passage” associated with these spaces.
With the airport “community” forever changing, for whom no second day is animated with the same constituency, the anonymity of passage and waiting is exacerbated. The change is precipitated by passages – a double bind that is the leitmotif of the airport.
Roland Barthes described the train stations in Japan as a big void and, at the same time, the foci of Japanese cities. The stations are voids because they are not a destination for staying but a space where droves of people arrive endlessly only with the intention to depart. Those train stations, as in Shinjuku and Shibuya in Tokyo, where shops after shops line the corridors as in a pilgrimage route going nowhere, create de facto urban intersections that still maintain a certain continuum with the rest of the city.
The terminal of the airport is a void without a continuity; it is unilaterally self-referential like a zone in the ancient Greek sense of the term. As Jean Francois Lyotard explains, the zone means “a belt, neither country nor city, but another site, one not mentioned in the registry of places.” But it is not a wasteland either – such a space is an interim realm between here and there, between departing and arriving (as cryptically coded in the term “transfer”), between nowhere and everywhere, and increasingly between nations. None of the older co-ordinates are meaningful here, east, west, north, south, mountain-side, sea view. Terminal buildings, by their sheer nature, show what Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Daniel Liebeskind and other architects of a similar persuasion are trying: to get rid of all the regular geographical, territorial, and environmental co-ordinates in a building.
Nasseri sits there, motionless and somewhat bewildered, in the haze of interminable movements and motions. For eleven years, when everything is moving, everyone is departing, Nasseri goes nowhere, a stasis in sea of endless movements, a Hestia among the airborne Hermeses.
If placelessness is a new place in the postmodern cosmos, homelessness is a new home. The Greek goddess Hestia was the epitome of home, of things that are stable and immobile. She represented the hearth around which the family and therefore the individual gravitated. Terminus was another character who never moved from the place he occupied. The Romans considered him as the god who presided over boundaries and landmarks, and because of his immobility represented him with just the human head without feet or arms. Nasseri is immobile as those ancient gods and yet perfectly homeless.
Homelessness in the modern world has now reached epic proportion – there are delinquents from home of all sorts, such as the migrant workers, the sophisticated cosmopolite, the anguished exilee, the asylum seekers, the transnational traveler, the multinational employee, and people who unwittingly fall into unpredictable spatial fissures. The terminal – the airport terminal more than other terminals like the train station and bus depot – has become an unwarranted space of asylum providing a new kind of refuge for the international homeless.
One could be homeless by being perfectly immobile as Nasseri, or one could generally acquire homelessness by being mobile as evidenced by Walter Faber in Max Frisch’s existentialist and quasi-ethical novel Homo Faber (1954). There is a long tradition in Japan of a calibrated homelessness in which a man of means would renounce the objects of a socialized life to take up residence in the forest or wilderness. He would build his own little hut from whatever materials are at his disposal in that desolate space and spend the rest of his life with minimal possessions meditating on the transitoriness of life. The classic text of this tradition is The Hojo-ki (The Hut) written by Kamo no Chomei in the thirteenth century. Chomei was an urban courtier, who after realizing the transience and fluctuation of social life, decides to abandon it for the life of a hermit. After leaving the city, Chomei takes up residence in a mountain forest where he builds a simple, elemental hut, evoking the transience of his “dew-like life.” All the joints of the structure are such that if the situation no longer pleased Chomei, he could easily take the whole thing down and transport it elsewhere. Chomei explains that the hut is like a “shelter that some hunter might build for a night’s lodging in the hills, or like the cocoon some old silkworm might spin.” It is not only Chomei who is peripatetic, his home is too.
Could one be at home and territorially rooted, and yet be completely adrift as the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago ponders in his work The Stone Raft (1986)? Saramago questions the inviolable stability of land, and at the same time exposes unforeseen consequences when a destabilization occurs. In the book, the whole Iberian peninsula breaks off from the continent and starts drifting, like a gigantic raft, towards the ocean, taking people, places, mountains, horses and dogs, all with it. The work is fantastical but it points to the possibility that it is not just the human who is subject to the phenomenon of placelessness but place itself. The whole terra firma that is considered an infallible thing of fixity can behave otherwise; motility can also come to what is considered a fixed geography.
Perhaps still sitting impassively in Terminal 1 and reading once more It Takes A Village, the enigmatic Nasseri reminds us that motility, fixity, stability and identity are all undergoing paroxysmic changes. As Nasseri makes the totally unhomely his home, the distance between home and the unhomely seems uncannily narrow. If the homely becomes the unheimlich according to Freud, thus creating modern neuroses and psychoses, now the decidedly unhomely becomes home.