Extreme Rambling with Mark Thomas, Tricycle Theatre, London, UK, May 16th – 28th, 2011
Extreme Rambling: Walking Israel’s Barrier for Fun, Mark Thomas, Ebury Press
A Story of Deception, Francis Alÿs, MOMA, New York, May – August, 2011
Orientalists from the North Atlantic community (those of us in Western Europe and North America who have an interest in the East that is filtered through the prism of Judeo-Christian culture), are likely to view events in North Africa and the Middle East with mixed feelings, exacerbated, it has to be said (not-with-standing current “Hooray-USA” euphoria), by the extra-judicial execution of Osama Bin Laden.
On the one hand, the Arab Spring suggests a step towards the end of history (predicted, prematurely, in 1992 by Francis Fukayama after the collapse of the Soviet Union), as the world of Islamic autocracy gives way to the triumph of post-industrial, liberal democracy. On the other hand, there is the growing fear that the precedents set by Tunisia and Egypt might not be followed and, indeed, might themselves prove to be a false dawn, a delusion of neo-con optimists, with disastrous consequences for western cultural tourism — not to mention world peace — with sites such as Palmyra in Syria and Leptis Magna in Libya off-limits to foreign visitors for a generation or more. So let’s all go to Palestine!
Until this week, Palestine had been un-newsworthy for a while, with peace breaking out between Hamas and the PLO, against the familiar and predictable backdrop of continuing violence across the border between Israel and Gaza. If Palestine has been in the news it has been peripheral to politics and political upheaval and more associated with the arts. In February, the British author Ian McEwan attacked both the Israeli government and Hamas, in his speech accepting the Jerusalem prize for literature, saying “a great and self-evident injustice hangs in the air”.
In April, the third Palestinian Festival of Literature — PalFest 2011 — took place, punctuated by riots as local youths threw stones at Israeli security forces whilst poets read and rappers sang through clouds of tear gas. And earlier this month, May 2011, Barenboim took Mozart to Gaza, from Vienna via Egypt and protected by a UN security team that might well have stayed on to organise the first ever Gaza marathon (from top to toe, Gaza measures almost exactly 26 miles and 385 yards).
Currently, it is possible to experience aspects of the Palestinian political drama through complementary events on both sides of the Atlantic; through the work of the British comedian and activist, Mark Thomas, in London and the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs in New York.
Thomas has been described as John Pilger with laughs. He would prefer to be known as the the Hunter S. Thompson of hiking; a gonzo hiker, a hiker with attitude, a point-of-view and a tale to tell through personal experience, anecdote and humour. After a decade or more using his stand-up routine and his activist cunning in defence of civil liberties in the UK, Thomas decided to take his talents abroad.
Curiosity and political instinct, together with an unhealthy interest in the Guinness Book of Records, led him to Palestine and to the 723 km barrier erected by Israel to mark the frontier with the Palestinian West Bank. (The length of the official frontier is barely 300 km but the Israeli’s have lengthened it by infiltrating and pinching bits of West Bank territory.)
Thomas is a keen walker or, in old-fashioned English parlance, a “rambler”. Walls attract him because they are “the admission of the failure of politics”. He walked the wall, crossing from side to side, often with great difficulty, through the many check points, witnessing the daily indignities inflicted on the Palestinians by an occupying force; the theft of valuable real estate; the construction of a cordon sanitaire with the destruction of houses, farms and communities on the Palestinian side.
The walk has spawned a book and a stand-up routine, a bitter-sweet performance that treads a difficult line between anger and laughter or, perhaps, that represents Kurt Vonnegut’s definition of humour as “an almost physiological response to fear”. Thomas falls off mountains; meets an Israeli border guard from north London who supports Arsenal football club; is stoned, arrested and tear gassed; witnesses the burning down of a health clinic the day after Palestinian villagers rescued an Israeli soldier from a crashed jeep.
He spends time with a Jewish-Palestinian actor, running a theatre for young Palestinians in Jenin. Juliano Mer-Khamis seems to offer hope of a way forward. One of his students tells Thomas “Before I came here one of my life options was to be a suicide bomber…. But now I know art is my weapon”. Soon after Thomas returned to the UK he heard news that Mer-Khamis had been murdered in front of his Freedom Theatre by Palestinian militants.
A Story of Deception is an exhibition in New York (but earlier this year in London and Brussels), by Francis Alÿs, the nomadic Belgian artist based in Mexico City. In the exhibition there is a work called The Green Line (Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic). In it the artist walks the Green Line through Jerusalem, a temporary cease-fire boundary created initially by the UN after the Arab-Israeli war of 1947–48 but redrawn by the Israeli authorities in 2004 as a more permanent barrier that incorporates gains made at the expense of Jordan after the Six Day war in 1967.
The line has no legality and offends against Alÿs’ belief in a world without borders. In original UN maps the demarcation line was marked in green ink. In the work, Alÿs carries a tin of green paint, with a hole in the bottom, through the streets of Jerusalem. He dribbles paint along the division between Arab and Jew, a symbolic act, an act of petty vandalism inviting an (over)reaction from the israeli authorities, a gesture, a joke. It is an action painting, both poetic and political, an ephemeral work which, like the boundary it follows, will dissolve with time.
There is more, much more, to Alÿs’ show but walking as a form of aesthetic and socio-political intervention is a large part of it and he shares with Thomas a belief in the use of humour and the theatre of the absurd as a means of focussing attention on issues that might otherwise go unnoticed because of their familiarity, their normality.
“Can you ever get away from it all with a good walk?” Thomas asks. Read the book or see the show and find out for yourself.
Photos (top to bottom):
Mark Thomas (handout photo)
Francis Alÿs — The Green Line (Sometimes doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic)