February 10, 2009By Nick WoodsArchive

Outcast in Austria

Florian Carove plays the Iraqi immigrant Sad. Photo: © Michal Batory
Florian Carove plays the Iraqi immigrant Sad. Photo: © Michal Batory

At a time when the issue of illegal immigrants is at the top of the political agenda, Saleté, a theatrical adaptation of the novel Dreck by Austrian writer Robert Schneider, offers an interesting perspective: the situation as seen by one sans-papiers, a 30-year-old Iraqi called Sad, who lives a clandestine life in Vienna and earns his living by selling roses in restaurants.

The “saleté” being referred to here is, of course, Sad himself, a young man who took a long route to Austria after the first Gulf War, and who is aware that he is considered a “piece of shit” by the society he now lives in.

This is a painful discovery for Sad, who, during the course of an intense 90-minute monologue, reveals that he studied philosophy and German literature and has great respect for Austria and its scenery, philosophical heritage and people. But he is unable to live the life he imagined in Vienna, since the law says he has no right to be there. Given that he has no real history of persecution in his home country, his chances of a successful application for asylum are minimal. Innocently respecting the law, he refuses to sit on Vienna’s pretty public benches or use the public toilets unless he is desperate, feeling that he has no right to do so.

Sad comes across as a well-bred young man. Although he lives in makeshift conditions in a disused industrial building with a stainless-steel cabinet for a sleeping berth, cardboard boxes for kitchen cupboards and a leather sports bag for a wardrobe, he hangs up his ill-fitting suit carefully on a mangled wire coat hanger when he returns from work with the leftover roses. Pictures of his family, an Arabic-German dictionary and a bottle of gin are his only company at “home.”

Sad tries to convince himself that he is happy and is living well, but he knows he is an outcast, and the signs of rejection, isolation and disconnection are beginning to show through the mental armor. They come through in short, maniacal outbursts of emotion, when he hammers the palm of his hand against his forehead and talks to himself animatedly, like a man on the verge of losing his identity and his mind. Later on, when he sits looking at the pictures of his mother, the sad truth comes out: “Je veux mourir.”

The many contrasts in the play successfully add to the tension: the color contrast between the red roses he sells and the bleakness of his living conditions, for example, and the difference between the loose Arabic rhythms and the more rigid Austrian background music.

Florian Cove’s portrayal of Sad adds to the tension. The heavy sweat on his brow at the end of the performance is indicative of the character’s mental strain, and the audience feels it. Cove’s performance is competent and consistent throughout, but it is more the link between his character and the real world that is moving. Sad is only a representative figure, after all. We see someone like him on the streets and in restaurants selling roses every day.

Saleté adds to the debate about racism and xenophobia from the victim’s angle, while philosophizing about the right to follow your heart beyond national limits, but the issue is given added texture by the play’s emotional charge. Sad’s closing words are particularly poignant. Talking to the people of Austria, he says: “I love you, but I don’t have the right to say it.”

This play had a slow-burn effect on me: I left the theater with a head full of political philosophy, but I woke up the next morning feeling guilty.

Nick Woods

Théâtres des Mathurins: 36, rue des Mathurins, 75008 Paris. Métro: Havre-Caumartin or Madeleine. Tel.: 01 42 65 90 00. Through March 22. Tickets: up to €28.

© 2009 Paris Update


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