'A refugee of time' is een hoofdstuk uit mijn MA thesis 'Staging Nominal Participants
- a theatrical investigation into public characters and sideline figures' geschreven in 2000
- waarvoor veel dank aan Femke Snelting en Andrew May

 

a refugee of time

"Merham Karimi Nasseri could be any passenger waiting for a flight, sitting patiently on a red plastic bench in Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, luggage piled neatly by his side. He sips a cup of hot chocolate and scans the crowd, occasionally cocking his head to listen to the airport announcements. He peruses a book: Hillary Clinton’s ‘It Takes a Village.’ But Merham Karimi Nasseri is going nowhere. He has been waiting for a flight out of France for 10 years."

This description is taken from an article entitled The man without a country, published in the Boston Globe newspaper in 1997. It is the story of an Iranian refugee who, due to a series of personal and bureaucratic mishaps, ended up living at Terminal One at the Parisian Charles de Gaulle Airport for eleven years.
The residence of Merham Karimi Nasseri seems to sneer at all the regulating tasks of a contemporary airport, or in a wider sense: it flies in the face of the definition of so-called 'non-places', the generic term for places such as shopping malls, service stations or supermarkets. These are places found everywhere, completely independent of localities.
Marc Augé contrasts several conflicting notions in his book Non-Places, An Introduction into the Anthropology of Supermodernity. The opposing arguments he discusses are the result of a theoretical distinction between the definitions of place and non-place. He writes, for instance, about contrasts between transit and dwelling, identity and anonymity, passenger and traveler, and communication and language.

Non-places, and airports in particular, are prime examples of a physical expression of a global identity, and of a conformity which Rem Koolhaas approaches as the 'Generic City': "In the completeness of their facilities, airports are like quarters of the Generic City, sometimes even its very reason for existence, with the added attraction of being hermetic systems from which there is no escape — except to another airport."1
The contemporary airport does have characteristics of an urban city, which Rem Koolhaas finds in the completeness of its facilities: from leisure areas such as shopping malls to the full employment the airport creates, from the expanding sprawl threatening the surrounding landscape to its role as the engine of a nation’s economy. But the most striking contradiction between a contemporary airport and the urban city is the fact that the airport does not accommodate any residents. An airport is occupied by people who are already resident elsewhere.
The contrast between a residential place and transit space is one example that characterises the regulation of non-places. These contradicting notions are slightly subverted by Merham Karimi Nasseri, who found himself stuck in an awkward situation which turned around many contradicting notions that characterise the alienating condition of the place called non-place.

The ambiguity of the term non-place presumes that it lacks the characteristics that hold for the definition of a place. Marc Augé refers to a place as an anthropological place. From his point of view an anthropological place is characterized as a place with identity, relationships and history. "Anthropological place is formed by individual identities, through complicities of language, local references, the unformulated rules of living know-how."2 He emphasises the notion that social relations arise organically. The anthropological place does not wipe out the footprints of its residents, rather it is a place that evolves through its relation to its residents and users, as an organic result of the cultural context that surrounds a particular place.
According to the literal meaning of the ambiguous term ‘non-place’, characterisations of an anthropological place would be absent in the world of non-places. Comparing these characterisations of place and non-place with each other provides an opportunity to clarify the missing condition of a non-place. But Augé’s sharp contrasts often create an image which implies that the always idyllic little French village squares, with scenes of elderly men playing jeu-de-boules, are being replaced by the chilly and anonymous space of another giant airport. Instead of gradual transformations, or subtle overlaps, the theoretical definition of a non-place contributes to a negative expectation of loss.
Another confusion arising from the definition of the term non-place is the definition of space. A French village square is a place, but the scenery of the men playing jeu-de-boules transforms the village square into a space. Michel de Certeau makes a clear distinction between space (an intersection of moving bodies) and place (geometrically defined by town planners).3 But within the non-place this distinction hardly holds: the planning of a non-place derives from its use, from the intersection of moving bodies. The strict regulation of movements and time are the most complex factors, and therefore the most important task in the design of space in order to fulfil the role of a non-place, i.e. to guarantee safety, to stimulate consumerism and to create the ideal logistics for movement.

Let us return to the man waiting at the airport. Merham Karimi Nasseri’s desperate story began in Iran in 1977 when, fresh from studying in England, he was expelled for protesting against the shah. His expulsion left him without a passport. Merham came to Europe, where he bounced from capital to capital in order to apply for a refugee status. Finally Belgium offered him political asylum in 1981, which allowed him to seek citizenship in a European country. In 1986 he wanted to travel to England to find relatives there. But Merham never got any further than Paris, where his briefcase with documents was stolen. Nonetheless he boarded a plane to Heathrow, but the authorities immediately sent him back to Charles de Gaulle. There he was arrested for entering France illegally, but since Merham had no documents there was no country of origin to which he could be deported. Merham decided to take up residence in Terminal One.
The trail of bureaucratic red tape continues in a French court, which ruled that Merham had entered the airport as a refugee and therefore could not be expelled. At the same time, the court could not force the French government to allow him to leave the airport and enter French territory. The Belgium government, in turn, refused to release Merham’s official refugee documents, which he received in 1981. They argued that Merham had to present himself in person to be sure that he was the same man to whom they had granted asylum years earlier.

The numerous identity checks at an airport contradict Marc Augé’s statement that a non-place does not accommodate individual identities. Identity checks on entering and exiting apparently ensure that people are carefully registered as individuals with proven identities. Personal information such as name, occupation, place of birth, address and marital status are always known by the authorities. This would seem to illustrate the opposite of Marc Augé’s statement: the numerous identity checks at an airport ensures that it primarily accommodates individual identities.

But the contradiction lies in the common identity shared by all the individuals. At an airport all the individuals are classified under one common denominator — there are only passengers, in the same way a shopping mall is only populated by consumers. A notion of a shared identity is established by the singular and efficient use of an airport, reflected by the thousands of other passengers who undergo the same treatment and who are weighed down by similar worries.
The identity check procedure at an airport is embedded in a psychological shift between identity and anonymity. The temporary identity of a passenger creates relative anonymity, which can be experienced as a form of liberation in that one is merely standing in line, going where one is told, or appearing at certain times. After the passenger is freed from the physical burden of his luggage, he is even rewarded by the opportunity to rush into the duty-free spaces. Perhaps it is not the low prices that appeal to the imagination, but rather the moment of experiencing the unique position of being a passenger in the process of departing, the temporary identity in which the individual has been drowned.

The identity checks to enter spaces are actually the embodiment of a contractual agreement between the individual and the powers that govern an airport. At specific moments, the individual is reminded that this contract exists. Contracts like these are ratified frequently, and not only on boarding a plane or on entering the duty-free zone, but also outside the airport: paying at a supermarket demands a similar fulfilment of the contract, even if the contract is ‘signed’ with a bankcard or a personal discount card.
At an airport this procedure obviously goes beyond the benefits of entering a duty-free space or receiving a personal discount: identity cards, passports or visas are required at the immigration desk in order to gain entry to a specific country (the space surrounding the airport). Nevertheless, the procedure is similar. The individual always has to prove the contract has been respected, from having a solvent bank account to possessing a legal citizen status. During the process of proving this the individual is actually required to prove his or her innocence, which might lead you to conclude that non-places are only accessible for innocent individuals. "Here words hardly count any longer. There will be no individualisation (no right to anonymity) without identity checks."4
Augé not only refers to the established criteria for proving one’s innocence, in terms of the solvent bank account or a legal citizen status, but also to the experience of entering the non-place. He recalls the experience of becoming no more than a mere ‘passenger’ or ‘consumer’. "The individual entering the non-place is temporarily distanced from his daily concerns by the environment of the moment. Subjected to a gentle form of possession, to which he surrenders himself with more or less talent or conviction, he tastes for a while — like anyone who is possessed — the passive joys of identity-loss, and the more active pleasure of role playing."5

Two kinds of identity can be obtained at an airport. One is the formal identity — the contractual relation with the governing authority; the second is the shared identity — all the individuals who are ranged under the denominator of passenger. The first identity is necessary to receive the second identity — the passenger who can experience the joy of being identity-less.
The identity of a passenger at an airport is created by time, a transitory condition determined by arriving or departing. The formal identity needed to hold a passport or visa is created by place, a place that is always outside the airport perimeter. The discrepancy between this time and place creates an identity vacuum: without a place outside the airport an individual cannot become a passenger, and without being a passenger an individual cannot claim a place outside the airport.
An airport is a space created by transfers and movements. Notions of time and place at an airport never refer to the place and time of the airport itself, but refer to the relationship the airport has with the place and time somewhere else, usually another airport. The same counts for the individuals: their formal identity is based on the relationship the individual has with a place, which he doesn't attend. If the relationship between that place (the place where the individual is not) is transformed into a formal identity, then the individual can participate in the time warp of transfers and movements at an airport and, because of that, new relationships with other places can be explored. If there is no formal identity, then the individual identifies himself not through relationships with time and place but with the gap between him and the surrounding place and time — a gap that creates fixed identities.

Employees of the Charles de Gaulle Airport identified Merham as being part of the airport. The proudly noted that they gave him food tickets, or that they sometimes opened toilets for him. Maybe Merham signified a sort of relief for the employees: they could transform the transitory nature of the airport into that of a fixed place. Or, to recall the distinction Marc Augé makes between an anthropological place and a non-place: at an anthropological place social relations arise organically, while at a non-place only contractual relations exist. It would presume that the residence of Merham has, momentarily, transformed a non-place into an anthropological place. A spokesman at Charles de Gaulle Airport took this notion one step further: "An airport is like a place between heaven and earth, Mister Merham has found a home here."6

1 Rem Koolhaas, ‘Generic City’ in S,M,L,XL, 010 Publishers, Rotterdam 1997, p.1250
2 Marc Auge Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. John Howe (Translator) Verso, London-New York 1995, p.101
3 Idem, p.79
4 Idem, p.102
5 Idem, p.102
6 http://patriot.net/captkent/manwocountry.htm

 

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