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Interview: Mark Thomas

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Ruby Lawrence talks to writer, comedian, political activist and theatre practitioner Mark Thomas about Cuckooed, politics, good music and Russell Brand.

You have a very exciting upcoming benefit event at the Bloomsbury Theatre (London) which you’re holding to raise money for The Kurdish Red Crescent, who organise aid for refugees around the border of Syria and Turkey.For those who aren’t familiar with the stories of these people, can you tell me more about the Kurdish refugees and their political context?

This is really a response to the ISIS attack upon Kobane, which is situated in North Syria on the border with Turkey. What we have in Kobane, and what is under attack by ISIS, is an extraordinary, radical democracy in which many truly democratic grassroots organisations operate within the Kurdish community – always co-chaired between a man and a woman. These are secular Kurds. They are an example of flourishing democracy – it’s quite amazing.

ISIS, on the other hand, embodies reactionary fascism – ISIS are not terrorists; we must remember that they want to create an extremely exclusive state under which people who believe in rationalist identity would be, and are being, destroyed. ISIS use widespread rape as a systematic weapon against communities, they massacre, they sexually enslave women and children. What we have here is progress as seen in the Kurdish community Vs reactionary Fascism. For me it’s reminiscent of what was going on in Spain in the 30s, where we saw a highly reactionary movement with an aim of building states. I’ve turned into a bit of a zealot about the current situation involving the Kurdish people because the left over here simply have to support this. The Kurdish refugees fleeing the border of Syria and Turkey are not objects of pity. Support is an act of solidarity on our part, and donating to the Kurdish Red Crescent in their work to bring supplies to the refugees is the absolute least we can do.

It’s a great bill of performers and an invaluable cause; I’ll definitely be attending the show. I’d also like to talk a bit about your award winning show Cuckooed. How have you found the transition into the medium of theatre? Has it challenged you?

I think a lot of my work has flirted with theatre for ages. I once walked the route of the Israeli West Bank barrier, literally tracing the path of violence – it was very theatrical, it was a performance.

I actually don’t describe myself as a stand-up anymore as I’m more hybrid than that – I do stand-up, theatre, journalism. Theatre-wise, I love how we can play with audience expectations. I also like the discipline of theatre. Cuckooed is the story of an old friend who turned out to be spying on a lot of people close to him; many of these people I have interviewed for the show, which includes these interviews on screen. I engage with them live on stage to re-create conversations, which in itself brings a big challenge toeach night in a different place – the technical aspects, sight lines, timing, these are all very tricky.

You completed the major challenge of carrying out 100 Minor Acts of Dissent earlier this year. Which was your favourite, and why?

My favourite Minor Act of Dissent was when I gave some electronic Barbie cars to some women I knew and they set them racing outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy. The reaction was so interesting - we had a Saudi Arabian Diplomat shouting through the gates of the Embassy: “if you let them drive they will kill their children.” I thought, but there’s women driving everywhere, every day, just outside the embassy. It was bizarre, and the response it provoked was incredible.

You said in an interview with The Works earlier this year that you think “the worst crime that we commit as human beings is not realizing the power that we have.” Do you think that a protest is worthwhile, even if it’s a failure? And by failure I mean that it doesn’t manage to achieve its stated aims.

Protests do not often have an obvious cause and effect result. A group of people do not go on a march and then the war stops – it doesn’t work like that. I think we do these things because we believe it’s right to do them. You can have all sorts of fun at a protest and that’s the aim; it’s about building up a community of dissent, and to show that we can bring about aggressive change. I’ve does vigils for victims of miscarriages of justice outside the home office before, and there have been ten people, a few candles and a dog. But what matters is that those victims know that there is a vigil being held for them.

When debating these kinds of issues I like to bring up Kerim Yildiz. He was the first Kurdish Amnesty Prisoner of Conscience, and was finally released from prison as a result of their letter writing campaign. As a student Kerim wrote his dissertation on human rights and the Kurdish community; his incredible work actually evolved into the London-based Kurdish Human Rights Project. The KHRP took the Turkish military to court over the atrocities they committed during the conflict with the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which resulted in 30,000 deaths. Incredibly, he started to get redress for the victims of horrific violence, for example he fought (successfully) for victims of military rape to receive some form of justice against their attackers. Now, when I tell this story, people say ‘well we can’t all be like that’. No, we can’t. But we can all bloody well write one of the letters that helped to get Kerim out of prison.

What do you think Russel Brand is achieving with his current political mission, if anything?

Firstly, I haven’t read his book so I can’t comment in that respect. Also, I like Russell. He’s funny, interesting, smarter and more moral than people think.

I think he’s wrong in saying that there is nobody worth voting for. It’s wrong to think that by voting you are colluding with the establishment. Voting is not collusion. I believe that if you don’t challenge the status quo, then you are doing its work. If you decide not to vote then the establishment loves you. If you think that within the current parties radical change is not an option then you’re wrong – we have the Greens, who are committed to a £10 minimum wage, regulating banks and bankers’ wages, scrapping nukes. Brand is pushing for active engagement, which is a good thing. But you can achieve active engagement by voting. If you can’t be bothered to even put an X in a box, then I think you need to question your raison d’être for doing everything else you do.

I like to think that everyone has a motivating, rallying cultural object, it could be a film, or a piece of music, that gets them riled up and in the spirit to take action, be that in the form of protest, or just to do something that scares them. A universal one would be, of course, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart speech. Do you have one, and what is it?

I do. Anything by God Speed You! Black Emperor, particularly the album “Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennae to Heaven.” Also the Clash, and there’s some Northern Soul tracks that really motivate me to get up and going. And Charlie Mingus, the jazz musician.

I might listen to ‘Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennae to Heaven’ whilst I write this interview up.

Do. It will transport you to another place.

Mark is performing along with lots of other fantastic comedians including Tim Key and Josie Long at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London, on Sunday the 23rd of November to raise money for the Kurdish Red Crescent. Student tickets are almost half full ticket price at just £8. Buy yours here.

Amnesty International define prisoners of conscience as:

‘…people who have been jailed because of their political, religious or other conscientiously-held beliefs, ethnic origin, sex, color, language, national or social origin, economic status, birth, sexual orientation or other status, provided that they have neither used nor advocated violence.’

Kerim Yildiz’s recent books include The Kurds in Iraq: The Past, Present, and Future and The Kurds in Syria: A Forgotten People.

You can read his article ‘Turkey’s Kurdish Conflict: Pathways to Progress’, here.

You can buy Mark’s book, Extreme Rambling: Walking Israel’s Separation Barrier. For Fun. here.

Everything else you might want to know about him can be found at www.markthomasinfo.co.uk

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Do. It will transport you to another place.

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