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Mark Thomas: “Stop seeing refugees as victims. They’re humans showing remarkable courage and imagination.”

| Comedy, Theatre | 12/04/2018

MARK THOMAS 3 - Please credit Lesley Martin

Ian Cater, Chief Features Writer

When picturing the West Bank, many think of people blighted by shortages, air raid sirens and fear – the result of decades of fighting and Israeli occupation.  Accordingly, most attempts to improve the lives of over half a million refugees sandwiched between Israel and Jordan focus on better access to food, water and jobs.  

But Mark Thomas – the leading campaigning comedian – saw people needing creative outlets and, vitally, laughter.  He set up a series of comedy courses in the Jenin Refugee Camp – among the most radicalised and allegedly responsible for 28 suicide bombings during the Second Intifada – with the aim of putting on shows for locals to enjoy.  

This week and next, Thomas tells the story of this incredible initiative in Showtime From The Frontline at Theatre Royal Stratford East, alongside Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shehada – two talented Palestinian performers who graduated from the course.

The region has been close to Thomas’ heart since 2009 when he trekked the length of the Israeli-erected West Bank barrier to write a book, Extreme Rambling, and subsequent show, Walking The Wall.  “When I got to Jenin, someone said I should see the Freedom Theatre set up in the refugee camp by a guy called Juliano Mer-Khamis,” Thomas explains.  “I spent the day with him and was hugely impressed with what he’d achieved.  It was the first place over there that felt like home.  People were full of hope and creative energy to challenge their situation.”

209612_10150154776904011_544574010_6713031_1904891_oTwo years later, the controversial Mer-Khamis (right) was assassinated outside the theatre.  Although the gunman was never caught, many suspect the killing was ordered by conservatives within the refugee camp who had long been suspicious of Mer-Khamis’ motives and methods – such as pointedly choosing Animal Farm as his first production to protest the corruption within the Palestinian Authority.  But despite this tragedy, when Thomas returned to Jenin in 2014 it was clear that Mer-Khamis’ spirit lived on.

“Going back immediately reiterated what a wonderful place the Freedom Theatre is,” he says.  “It totally defies your expectations of who refugees are and what they want from life.  Like many of us, you can see they want to express themselves creatively and comedically.  That got me thinking about setting up a comedy club there that would engender that sort of free expression.”

Par for the course

Thomas and Sam Beale, who teaches stand-up at Middlesex University, devised some workshops that they put on last January and April with the help of contacts at the Freedom Theatre.  The plan was to train the performers up and help them put on shows for others in the camp, but there were plenty of hurdles to overcome.

“There were loads of challenges, although not really the ones we expected.  For example, I made clear at the start that I wanted men and women to take part.  I expected some push back on that, but people were fine with it.  There were some sensitivity around wearing the hijab and different genders rehearsing together, but the Freedom Theatre had always managed to work around that and we did too.  The courses attracted loads of young women.  In fact, when it came to putting on the shows, the vast majority of people in the audiences were female, which was fantastic.”

MARK THOMAS 2 - Please credit Lesley MartinThe biggest issue Thomas and Beale faced was overcoming their students’ natural reserve.  “It became clear that you have this clash between an art form that’s about thinking something and getting it into the audience’s ears before you’ve had time to assess it, and a culture that’s extremely suspicious of that.  And it’s very difficult to overcome when the obstacles are in people’s minds.   We worked hard on that in the workshops, but we didn’t know whether it’d translate to an actual show when people they knew were sat in the audience.

“And those concerns were very real.  They stemmed from the same place that led to Juliano being killed and people trying to burn the Freedom Theatre down – that uneasy relationship with conservatives in the refugee camp and on the Freedom Theatre board.

“I haven’t even mentioned the issues caused by the Israeli occupation yet!  That obviously created logistical problems and there were major reservations about us putting on a comedy show during a Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike.  As the performer who works with me, Faisal, says: ‘We’ve got many occupations.’

“But watching people trust us and circumvent those challenges was remarkable.  They put on two fabulous shows and many of them are still performing now.  Afterwards, I told Faisal and Alaa they should come to the UK and do a show with me.  They’re amazing comedians and amazing people.  I said, ‘We’ll sort the visas somehow, write something together and go on tour.’  Luckily, they jumped at it and have been absolutely fantastic.  This show is our collective endeavour.”

Truth sayer

That teamwork’s evident from the structure of Showtime, with the Palestinians performing in each storytelling scene before showcasing some of their own stand-up material.  Thomas’ decision to share so much stage time raised eyebrows, but he sees it as part of a logical progression.  “All of my shows since Walking The Wall – from Bravo Figaro! to The Red Shed – have been about trying to get multiple voices onstage, through recordings or audience interaction, so this was an obvious next step.  It’s also vital in conveying the refugees’ story, because we wanted to create a vision that’s true.”

Thomas admits this truth is different to what he expected.  “Those of us on the Left are invariably concerned by Israel’s actions.  But the reality on the ground is that they’re more pissed off with the Palestinian Authority, they’re pissed off with social conservatism and they’re pissed off with the misconception that things are binary.  They’re not binary.  The corruption and political inertia of the Palestinian Authority is humiliating.  The Palestinian people are united but their political mouthpiece is all over the place.  That frustration is certainly voiced in the show.”

MARK THOMAS 1- please credit Lesley MartinHowever, it’d be wrong to think Showtime is solely about politics.  “A big reason people have enjoyed the show is that it’s uplifted them,” he says.  “They don’t expect it to be so positive and so rebellious.  It’s looking at young people, the circumstances they’re born into, what they aspire to and showing they’re no different to us.

“At one stage, we play clips from Jenin where you see women talking about meeting boyfriends without their fathers knowing.  You see people complaining about their bosses.  You even see someone talking about her interest in Korean pop music.

“We thought it was vital to include all that in the show.  Not because it makes it relatable, but because our performers resolutely refuse to take ‘victimhood’ status.  I think people like Bob Geldolf should be fucking horsewhipped for the vision of ‘white saviourism’ they’ve hoisted upon people – where we put our hands in our pocket for a record or red nose, and then walk away without thinking about that part of the world again.

“It’s incredibly patronising, it’s incredibly colonial and it’s incredibly stupid.  Because if you think refugees have nothing to do with arms sales, the invasion of Iraq or the banking crisis then you’re fucking nuts.  We need to stop seeing refugees as victims.  They’re human beings who show remarkable courage, persistence and imagination.”

Rude health

Unsurprisingly, Showtime has received rave reviews across the country for its insight and honesty, and Thomas says he’s already been approached about taking it abroad.  Before then, he’s working on a new show – Check Up – focusing on the future of the NHS.

“I wanted to do something about the NHS, as it’s 70 years old this year and still such an integral part of our national identity.  It’s the one thing that unites us above and beyond anything else.  We all will need it and we all will use it.  It helps us come into this world and will help us leave this world.

“It’s very significant that the act that created it was headed In Place of Fear.  My Gran used to talk to me about putting a penny a week in a cup in case her family needed to see a doctor and that they were only able to pay for one person – the sickest in the house – to get treatment if they all fell ill.  That’s fucking vile.  We’re so lucky that we’ve never had to think like that.  We never have to even consider it.  So the NHS is one of the most civilising, beautiful, wonderful institutions in the world and we’ve got to defend it from attack.

“The idea of the new show is to look at what the NHS is like now, what it could be like in the future and what we’ll need to do to get there.  It’s still at a very early stage and I can’t tell you much more, as next week it’ll probably fucking change.”  Unlike Thomas, who remains passionate, energetic and extremely relevant wherever he turns his gaze.

Mark Thomas, Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shehada are performing ‘Showtime From The Frontline’ at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 21st April 2018.  Get tickets here.  And for more information on Mark’s other projects – including ‘Check Up’ – head to his official website or follow him on Twitter @markthomasinfo.

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