Designed to run for 18 months, TABUROPA is an international research and theatre project on the topic of taboos that will be conducted in four selected countries: Portugal, Poland, Belgium and Germany. Based on their respective historical and cultural traditions, these four countries each stand for a different set of experiences in dealing with taboos and thus exemplify the diversity of Europe.

Artist Diary – Written by André Erlen during Research Phase Lisbon

Participants: Futur3 (D) and Association of artists practitioners (PL)
Dominika Blonska (PL), André Erlen, Sean Palmer (PL), Joanna Wichovska (PL), Dawid Zakowski (PL)
Host: Teatro Praga (P)

We all came to Portugal with no founded knowledge about the country. We all had just a very fragmented idea about the history of Portugal, the social and cultural structure of society, or the political status quo. Why did we all never focus on Portugal? The answer seems simple. It is far away, at the edge of Europe. And there we might hit an important point of Portugal’s identity, that is heading away from the continent, to the sea.

We spend the ten days in Lisbon wandering around, meeting people from different fields of science and institutions, going on expeditions to wealthy or illegal neighbourhoods, visiting exhibitions about the colonial times, and talking to people on the streets. The information, impressions, thoughts, and emotions we gathered stay as fragmented as before the research, but much more detailed and profound. Without deciding for we realised, that we were guided unconsciously by the question: who are they, these Portuguese people? Following the thesis, that one function of taboos is to define identity of groups or societies, we were searching for hints of identity – based on rules, behaviour, and taboos.

Did we find a conclusion, a red line, or Leitmotiv during our research? Our “result” is a mind map of Portugal, created by subjective and intuitive observations and impressions of everyone in the group. A patchwork of motives lead by the image of Portugal as a “dying mother(land)”. Dying, because historical anchors of identity are descending without clear substitutes and missing an idea of the future – simply spoken.

Bildschirmfoto 2014-03-08 um 19.49.24

The mind map – some examples:

Angola as a symbol of an untreated trauma of colonial history. As colony Angola was part of Portugal for many centuries. After WW2 the dictatorial president Salazar changed the terms of

definition. The colonies became “provinces”, an attempted to get rid of the legitimate demands of the independence movements of many colonies in the 20th c. But it did’t work out that way. In 1961 a long colonial war started with the “motherland” Portugal, that led to independence parallel to the breakdown of Salazars power in mid 70th. The political relation of the two countries never got rid of tensions and frictions. And, because of the ongoing financial crises in Portugal on one hand, and the economical prosperity in Angola on the other hand, it seems, that the roles have changed. Today, young Portuguese are looking for jobs in Angola, and Angolan corporations are investing and buying Portuguese companies. This situation was unthinkable just a decade ago: The former colony buys out the former colonial power. “Today we are financially colonised by our former colonies.” Did we find a source of serious crises of national identity?

SECRET (of Fatima):

Fatima is one of the five world wide renown catholic places of pilgrimage. We visited Fatima in low saison. Most visitors come around the dates Holy Mary appeared the young shepherds during summer time. All three children were given a secret by Mary. Two secrets had been passed on straight away. The third secret was written down in 1944 by the last witness (the other two died young), but first opened in 2000. All secrets were interpreted as prophecies linked to political or social events, such as the “coming fall of communism” in Russia.
We experienced the place as a system of supernal power, education and manipulation. The miracle of Fatima stands as the earthy evidence of gods power, and the power of catholicism in Portugal. You cannot touch the church. The ideas of the catholic church rules in many families, and the institutions of the church were always connected to the political power.
Fatima symbolises also one of the “three Fs”, that people connect to the Salazar time: Fatima, Fado, Football. These three things were promoted in order to depoliticise the people. “The people of Portugal are not very intelligent” said Salazar about his fellow countrymen.

MIGRATION – new identity

“We were a country to export people. Since three decades we are importing people.” A Portuguese used to be white and catholic. This identity is challenged by migration of people of different origin. We were often said, that Portugal holds one of Europe’s most liberal laws, also in terms of migration policies. But politics works from the top to the bottom: progressive changes are pushed by an elite of politicians, the people’s mind has slowly to follow.
“You want to know a taboo of our country? Well, you cannot say anything bad about a black migrant. It is a taboo. You will be judge as a racist immediately, even you were right. But they can criticise us without problems.” (a comment of a sells person). Change of identity creates irritation, predictions, and new taboos.
The colonial politics had stimulated in parts mixed marriages between “white” Portuguese and “black” Africans in order to control the people of the colonies, and to incorporate parts of the population. We named that strategy with cynicism: “Don’t kill them, fuck them.” Why with cynicism? Because the public opinion until today is slightly trivialising responsibility of Portuguese history. “Yes, we had colonies, but we didn’t mug them as the Dutch. Yes, we had slavery, but didn’t treat them as bad as the British. Yes, we had a kind of fascist dictatorship, but not as evil as the Italians or the Germans.”
Beside that, we visited an illegal (or irregular, as some NGOs would prefer to say) neighbourhood, that is build since 40 years by mostly Cape Verde migrants. You are not going there, if you don’t know anyone. But, when you finally enter the neighbourhood you feel like being in a parallel society. The impression we got was not one of a ghetto, more like an odd mimicry of an island village in the middle of Lisbon. What is their identity? Where do they belong? A Portuguese anthropologist told us, that f.e. some migrants from Mozambique “send home” belongings of a family member, that has been past away, so the relatives back in Africa can symbolically burry the deceased- without the dead body.
But does an ethnical background serves to find ones identity? “In fact, here in Portugal we are all
half arabic and half jewish. That is a unsaid, but we all know it.”


Here comes a very subjective observation. We got the feeling, that economical and financial crises provoked a feeling of shame about the situation by the society. Portugal somehow still seems to be a very wealthy country, with a glorious past. The properties carry the glamour of former times, but often fall apart and turn into ruins. We named it “shame”, because the emotional state doesn’t seem to lead to an active condition of the people to change the situation they are in. “Our mentality is to wait, not to be active.” You could not describe it with “resignation”, it is more like: let’s not talk about, let’s light a candle, and it will pass. Or, as we heard: “Don’t deal with the problem, try to forget and move on.”


”Saudade” is a known emotional state, an essential attitude of the Portuguese. The Fado music seems to carry this unique emotional state the best. One can compare it with melancholy, longing, or “Weltschmerz”. But to be contrary, it defines an emotional state you want to reach, you want to be in. The soul is “weeping”, the heard opens to the sea. You face away from the continent. The Portuguese turn their back on Europe. The sea promises more. “Life takes place somewhere else”. And behind the sea you reach the other parts of Portugal. Well you did. People said to us, when they had been in school they used maps of the country, that showed the tiny territory of the “motherland” Portugal including their colonies in the world. This is the “real” size of the homeland Portugal: From Europe to Asia. Now, only the descending motherland is left.

Résumé: Attempting to observe and understand another culture we are always reminded of our own one. There is nearly no way of making conclusions without distinguishing from what one has experienced himself. Meaning: Searching for taboos in Portugal, surprisingly seemed to give us a better view on our own cultures, the Polish and the German. I believe it has to do with the difference between “understanding” a taboo and “experiencing” a taboo. When we visited Lisbon we came as outsiders, trying to sneak in a society. But even if people talk to you very intimately about their taboos, they pass “information”. We have not been the receivers of the taboo. As outsider you might be even allowed to break a taboo. But that makes you even more an outsider. Like children are breaking taboos all the time, because they are not yet legitimate members of the adult world. There were two moments we felt more strongly connected: when a social worker said, that the financial crises with all the destroying impact on the social life is caused by the political decisions of the German canceller Angela Merkel, me, as a German, wanted immediately to protest, and pointing on the Portuguese nobel families and politicians, that should be blamed. In fact, I always criticised Merkels influence on the European countries, that are in crises. But, I had the wired feeling I need to defend myself, because a part of my German identity was under attack.

My polish colleagues didn’t got any of this. On the other hand our visit of the pilgrimage place of Fatima had a strong impact on them. The function and power of sins and confessions brought them back to strong emotions of some childhood experience in the catholic country of Poland. This was for me, as protestant German, totally unknown territory. I experienced Fatima as an interesting, but totally folkloristic circus of superstition.
These are two examples that show, how identity, personal emotions, and taboos are strongly related. Our artistic challenge will be now to create a setting, that our performance will not just talk about taboos, but enables to experience them in many different scales. Using Portugal as an example we will discuss the question, if something like a national identity is still a useful concept to understand “the others”, and how it is flanked by specific taboos.