Mark Thomas on comedy in Palestine & Bob Geldof

Mark Thomas on setting up a comedy night in a Palestinian refugee camp, white savourism, and uh, Bob Geldof

Feature by Amy Taylor | 16 Mar 2018
  • Mark Thomas

"It’s great, it’s like being in a sort of punk rock gang that’s got really good culinary skills," says Mark Thomas. His latest show, Showtime From the Frontline, charts his attempts to set up and run a comedy club in the Jenin Refugee Camp, Palestine. He is not alone in his latest endeavour though, with the show a co-production with Jenin Freedom Theatre, and Thomas joined onstage by comedians Alaa Shedada and Faisal Abu Alhayjaa from the company. 

Founded in 2006, Jenin Freedom Theatre is based in the refugee camp. The camp was formed in 1953 after the displacement of Palestinian civilians from the Carmel region of Haifa. The theatre began as a way to help children work through the fallout from the first intifada, or uprising, in the late 80s and early 90s. Thomas encountered the theatre while taking part in the Walking the Wall project, which saw him walk the length of the West Bank border in 2011. He was so enthralled by the idea of a theatre in a refugee camp, and got on so well with its founder (the late Juliano Mer-Khamis) that he stayed there most nights.

"It’s thrilling to me, because it speaks to who we are as human beings and it also challenges people’s visions of refugees as perpetual victims with their fucking hands held out,” explains Thomas. “People start to see them as human beings."

Thomas is angry about how Westerners think and speak about Palestine. From the people who’ve gone over and believe that they "...will bring them something by our presence," as he calls it, to those with a white saviour complex. Of these, he saves most of his ire for Bob 'Feed the World' Geldof.

"I fucking loathe him," he growls, before listing, articulately and forcefully, Geldof’s many past mistakes and transgressions, including but not limited to, the song, I Don’t Like Mondays to "The Boomtown Rats and their fucking punk pop shit, the use of a bloke who wore pyjamas and played piano as if it was some kind of radical gesture, like a student prank in a fucking medical student review."

But Thomas's rage blisters white hot when he gets to the subject of Geldof’s charity work.

"He has fostered this attitude that we fix the world’s problems by singing, putting money in a pot and then going, why are the problems still there? We’ve paid for this to be sorted! And actually, what he’s done is foster this instant debit card attitude that you can fix poverty and the world’s problems of institutional racism with a donation to a charity single. Words cannot describe my fucking contempt. I think it’s despicable the attitude it’s created."

This attitude is part of the reason why he decided the best way to help the people of Jenin was in giving skills and new ways to explore performance.

"I’m really conscious of the fact that I’m not a white saviour, I’m not going to ride in, and suddenly everything’s sorted out, I’m not. I’m a bloke that’s got a few tricks that might be useful to other people to help them express themselves."

These 'tricks' include a three-and-a-half-week comedy course at the theatre, which culminated in two nights of comedy by ten participants. When the workshops were organised, Thomas made the theatre commit to two things; that there would be women on the course, and that the teachers at the theatre took part as well. This ensured that the skills and the knowledge stayed with them long after Thomas and his team had left.

"You have to have a tangible skill you can teach others and it has to stay there, they can’t be dependent on you coming back," he explains.

One of the most surprising things to come out of the project was the inspiring feeling that the experience and show gives Thomas, Shedada and Abu Alhayjaa, who ensure that the performance is different every night.

"I didn’t think it was going to be this uplifting, that you would leave with this feeling. So, I’m delighted that people come to a comedy show about Palestine and it’s funny."

Mark Thomas: Showtime from the Frontline, Tron Theatre, 21-24 Mar, 2.30pm & 7.45pm, £15-18 – tickets here