Mark Thomas is an intensely energetic and charismatic performer (and human in general), both utterly shameless and deeply compassionate. His thirty year career, which he gleefully declaimed on in his recent performance/book tour stop at the Palestinian National Theater in Jerusalem, has consisted of tireless work as a comedian, activist, and “professional irritant” which culminated several years ago in a walk along the entire length of the Separation Wall and his subsequent book Extreme Rambling: Walking Israel’s Separation Barrier. For Fun.
Shameless Comedian; Fearless Activist
He comes across as immediately two things: appealingly likable and very British. An experienced and hyperactive storyteller, Thomas spent the first half of his show telling tales that ranged from antics on his “telly” show bringing a tank, a clown car, and a herd of cows through a McDonalds drive-thru to ingenious semi-improvised protests at arms dealer conventions which included locking himself to the axel of a bus with a bike lock around his neck.
He’s done a lot to bother arms dealers. He recounted how he and some mates (it’s impossible not to start sounding a little British writing about him) set up a front company claiming to offer media training for arms dealers. The booth they set up at the entrance to an arms fair in Greece had a giant banner reading “Will You Be Ready When Amnesty International Comes Knocking?” They then proceeded to tape an Indonesian general admitting to torture as part of their ‘free media training session’ and were subsequent witnesses at his trial. Bear in mind that this training session included plastic action figures being given and taken away for good behavior.
Though I was immediately won over by his charm and passion for justice I remained slightly on edge, still unsure what this extreme ramble actually was and a little nervous that I was about to listen to another diatribe by a foreigner who has decided the Palestinian cause needs him. To my surprise I found myself getting a bit preemptively defensive of Israel, which was personally illuminating.
Nuanced and Compassionate
However, when he finally came around to his travels on the wall what emerged was a nuanced and compassionate understanding of the tragedy and absurdity that is the wall. Partly because he is so funny, his depictions of the devastation the barrier has wreaked cut straight to your heart. The pain of land stolen, of random checkpoint harassment, of walking through a tunnel of human waste from a settlement to get to school.
He’s not blind either; his vision is clear and incisive. At one point he remarked that many of the settlers he encountered were disarmingly charming, lovely people. “Politically wrong, on land they have no right to, but incredibly charming”. This humanity business is so problematic.
The brilliance of his comedy comes from his understanding and embrace of human absurdity. His satire is never malicious and therefore he can make fun of anyone. The depth of his empathy and his ability to share the pain of others is always very clear and close-by. He told stories about a certain Professor Sofer who strides around blaming the settlers for their stupidity—apparently they are on the way to creating a single Arab majority state because Palestinians are going to out-breed them—and peace-loving Tel Aviv-ians for their dogs, their pastries, and their lack of children. As he sees it, Israelis just don’t know how to breed. (Has he ever met an ultra-orthodox family?)
Thomas also, with great gusto, talked about the ubiquitous Palestinian reaction to learning his nationality. “British!? Do you know Lord Balfour? He gave away our land...!” After a few days of this Thomas finally responded with “Yes, I know Lord Balfour! I’m his grandson and I’ve come to see how things are getting along!”
He talked lovingly of Palestinian hospitality which he learned meant budgeting an extra two hours into every day. He and his companion came to call tea “the Palestinian roadblock”. It also became clear very quickly that rambling is quite the foreign concept. When he learned the idea of the journey one boy asked Thomas, “Don’t you have a car?” He wasn’t the only one.
There is a lot one can see as an outsider. One of the most striking observations of the evening came back to the essence of rambling which, in its quintessentially British form, is always an expedition for the sake of the land and for the sake of beauty. Thomas was starkly confronted by how completely the Wall has scarred those beautiful hills. When he remarked on the beauty of the land he was traipsing through, people he encountered on both sides explained to him that they couldn’t see it, they saw only loss, and danger, and pain.
The organizer and host of the evening from The Educational Bookshop remarked at the end of the question and answer period that there are two things Palestinians don’t do: ramble and laugh.
Well, what a gift to laugh about all of this for a change.
Watch a clip of Mark reading from his book here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bp_QTCNWHD8
The Next Step?
I did wonder throughout much of the performance why he has not ever moved to perform in Israel (and also noticed how large a majority of the audience was European). Storytelling and laughter are incredible tools for communication and for opening minds. Hillel (the PIJ Co-Editor) asked Thomas the question after the show and it seemed clear that he had never really considered it at all. It’s interesting because he has consciously taken on a missionary role in his tours of this show but so far he has never thought to extend his mission to Israel. It seems an unfortunate gap to me and I hope he considers it in the future.
In the end what I came away with was a renewed clarity of the awful absurdity of the Wall and immense respect for Mark Thomas. He is on a mission for justice and I think he has a better chance than most—the power of humor, of stories and storytelling, and of empathy should never be underestimated.