Walking the wall: Comedian Mark Thomas interviewed

Mark Thomas walked all 732 kilometers of Israel’s wall in the occupied West Bank. (Image courtesy of Mark Thomas)

Last month, Mark Thomas, the English “activist-comedian,” was in Dublin performing his new live show Extreme Rambling: Walking Israel’s Barrier. For Fun. The show (and accompanying book and film) has its sights trained on Israel’s wall in the occupied West Bank. Thomas recounts his experiences of walking its full 723 kilometer route — from detentions by the Israeli military, to encounters with Palestinians from all walks of life, to conversations with settlers and officials.

For Thomas, comedy is not merely a passive medium. “I think it’s pointless for me to do this stuff unless it’s part of some process of change,” he says. “There has to be a purpose to art.” Indeed, his record speaks to this. Over the past two decades he has confronted power, exposed corruption and fought oppression — from Britain, to Western Sahara, to Kurdistan, to Indonesia — and on several occasions has won victories. “I love the fact that when people go, ‘Well, what good has come from your work?’ I’ve got a small list I like to look at,” he laughs.

He is also eager to point out that “What I do isn’t stand up. It has a foot in theatre and a foot in comedy. But it’s not stand up. It’s about getting out, telling the stories and taking people on a journey, somewhere they didn’t necessarily expect to go.”

It’s not the first time Thomas has taken on the Palestinian issue, previously having campaigned against Britain’s arms trade with Israel, and “a successful embarrassment of the Israeli embassy” after they had agreed to pay the family of Tom Hurndall — the International Solidarity Movement activist shot in the head by the Israeli military in Gaza in April 2003, who died after nine months in a coma — some of the cost of transporting him back to England. “The check bounced! So we organized a bring-and-buy sale to save Israel from going bust,” Thomas explains.

However, the tactics of the second intifada made Thomas reluctant to engage fully with the issue. “It made me switch off,” he says. “I did carry on with the arms trade stuff, but the second intifada was this huge bloody mess. I mean the suicide bombs were horrendous, of course there is disproportionate [Israeli] abuse of human rights, but that doesn’t excuse it on any count.”

So what shook him out of his relative complacency? “Operation Cast Lead,” Israel’s winter invasion of Gaza in 2008-09 that left more than 1,400 dead. Thomas describes the invasion as Israel “dropping banned weapons on a captive civilian population, just hugely cruel.” This reawakened interest, coupled with his love of rambling and natural trouble-making instinct, saw Thomas and his cameraman Phil embark on a nine week trek along Israel’s wall.

With regard to the book (of which the live show is a condensed version), the journey chronicles the grim reality of Israel’s wall that strangles the life from Palestinians living in its shadow. While this could be just another tale of woe, Thomas’ clever and sardonic wit, righteous anger and frequent self-depreciation make the book an enjoyable read — funny and tragic in equal measure.

He tells me that the journey was “very much about the people I met.” True to this, traveling from the northern West Bank to the south, Thomas interviews a wide range of individuals. From nonviolent resistance activists like Jamal Juma’a to Palestinian workers who “illegally” cross into Israel. He meets Palestinian children who have to share their route to school with human excrement while also interviewing Israeli settlers like Arieh King who believes the wall is “apartheid against Jews” because it prevents him from buying property in the occupied West Bank. Thomas also encounters Israeli anti-occupation activists and meets Colonel Danny Tirza, the man who plotted the wall’s route and remains immensely proud of this ignoble achievement. He also has frequent run-ins with the Israeli military, and explains “why do you think it took nearly nine weeks? Because we kept getting detained!”

Extreme Rambling is also cautiously optimistic. While Thomas feels that “everyone is a bit shattered, just keeping their heads above water,” he is convinced that Israel’s wall is an unsustainable venture and will eventually be brought down. He also found himself inspired by the nonviolent resistance in Palestinian villages like Bilin and Budrus. “It’s really exciting, incredible! The national leadership is fucked, on both sides, but the grassroots stuff, that’s what’s really interesting. The community leadership and action coming out is just superb,” he exclaims. On the Israeli side he has praise for the organizations Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, Anarchists Against the Wall and Breaking the Silence.

Thomas adds that “I love that people are quite honest about their approach to nonviolence. Lots of people were saying ‘it’s the way to change things,’ others would say ‘I was in jail, we started discussing Gandhi, we’re not winning militarily, we need to change tack’ and others would say ‘we’re giving it a go because violence hasn’t worked.’ People were very honest about it, and I was fascinated by the fact that there was discussion all along the walk about nonviolent resistance and what it meant. Whether it was talking about ‘unarmed’ versus ‘nonviolent’ resistance, or campaigning work, or attacking Zionism’s theological underpinnings through the Kairos Palestine document or what have you.”

One of Extreme Rambling’s major triumphs is its portrayal of ordinary Palestinians. They are not faceless statistics, nor meek and passive victims. Rather, the Palestinians that Thomas encounters are real people with aspirations and everyday problems who form part of a vibrant society and culture of resistance. Of course their lives are infinitely complicated by Israel’s occupation — of which the wall is merely a concrete manifestation — but their struggle continues. In this respect it is reminiscent of Joe Sacco’s excellent works of comic book journalism, Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza.

Similarly, to someone whose knowledge of Israel’s occupation is limited to news headlines, it illustrates the depressing, mundane reality for Palestinians of the “everyday occupation.” Thomas recounts the nightmarish task of simply going to school, work, or the hospital as well as the realities of state-support for the settler movement. He also describes the daily humiliation Palestinians experience at Israeli checkpoints and the arbitrary but commonplace beatings and detentions.

Thomas is justifiably proud of this work. He explains that “Fifty-thousand people [will] see the show over the next year. The programs for the show will probably sell something like 10,000 to 15,000 copies, part of the proceeds going to [the nonprofit organization] Zaytoun. They have articles by Stop The Wall, Combatants For Peace, Zaytoun and War On Want on boycotts and divestment. We’ve published the Palestinian [boycott, divestment and sanctions] call on the back of the program [and in the book] and there’s maps showing the reduction of Palestinian land since 1917.”

He adds that “This stuff is quite exciting for people to take away, but it’s also intellectual ammunition so you can come out fighting at the end of it. It’s also going to go to Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds festivals, places where it’s not just the ‘usual suspects,’ and that’s exciting. For example, I was in Cardiff the other night and the best moment of the night was finishing the show, packing up to go, and the bouncer just came up and said to me ‘that was fucking great, I’ve never seen anything like that. That’s marvelous!’ Well, my job is done, you know what I mean! Also, the book will reach maybe 100,000 people. And who knows what will happen with the film, which we hope to get into cinemas. I’m really pleased with this work.”

When asked if he learned anything new from the experience, Thomas replies “Somebody said to me on the first day that what they were most proud of was the fact that ‘my people are still here.’ I think by the time I got to the end I kind of understood a little bit about that. It’s actually stunning that people have withstood the onslaught that’s going on. That is quite amazing.”

Extreme Rambling is published by Ebury Press on 14 April. The live show is touring Britain until 25 September 2011.

Kevin Squires is a Palestine solidarity and political activist based in Ireland. A frequent contributor to various Irish leftist publications, he blogs about music, comedy, comics and politics at Citizen Partridge, where a full transcript of this interview will be posted.