Extreme Rambling by Mark Thomas

Book review by Steve Bennett

There is probably no shortage of powerful people who have wished professional irritant Mark Thomas would just take a hike. Well, last year he did just that, and organised himself a 750km walk… right along the barrier separating the West Bank from Israel.

The comedian rambled on both sides of the divide, but the resulting book is a revealing depiction of the hardships endured by the Palestinians the wall was supposed to isolate. Ostensibly erected by the Jerusalem government to stop the terrorist attacks of the second intifada, its actual effect on ordinary people is depressingly bleak, however much Thomas tries to soften the inevitable conclusions with jaunty ‘Englishman abroad’ travelogue.

True, the atrocities did indeed dry up with the erection of the formidable militarised barrier, although one school of thought is that the terror campaign was naturally running out of steam anyway. Indeed, Thomas proves that if you’re determined enough – and ‘determination’ is one quality suicide bombers have in spades – the defences can be breached with relative ease. People do it every day just to earn a buck.

On reading Extreme Rambling, you are left in little doubt that the real consequence of the wall is a blatant land-grab by Israel from a likely Palestinian state; and to make lives on the ‘wrong’ side as miserable as possible. It may, indeed, strike you as the sort of policy likely to foment extremism, rather than eradicate it.

As Thomas points out, for those in the West Bank, the grass is literally greener on the other side – as the Israelis control the water supplies. And rather than sticking to the internationally recognised 1948 Green Line marking the boundaries of the West Bank, strategic chunks of real estate have been requisitioned, then filled with settlers to make them de facto Israeli areas.

In many ways, though, this is not a book about the big picture – there are plenty of other tracts on that – but countless smaller ones which cumulatively build up a more realistic impression of life on the ground than newspaper headlines could ever do.

Some of the tales Thomas hears en route defy belief – such as the day the Palestinian villagers of Al Aqaba saw an Israeli Jeep tumble down a hill. They rushed to the stricken vehicle, took the soldier from it and saved his life. The next day, the Israeli Army returned – not to thank the villagers, but to say their Clinic was an illegal building, and serve a demolition order.

Such an anecdote might defy belief were it not typical of the attitude Thomas finds. The design of the wall at one point means Palestinian children are made to share a Tunnel with sewerage to get to school – the engineer responsible priding himself on the fact he provided a step for them; rather than be ashamed of what he had created. A father is refused permission to cross the barrier to see his critically ill newborn daughter in hospital. Thousands of people are denied the right to work – or pay gang masters heavily for precious permits to cross the divide – creating a huge economic divide. Largely, this is a stifling death by bureaucracy of which Kafka would have thought excessive. The insidious oppression of planning laws and permits are what makes life so insufferable on the West Bank, more than tanks and guns.

Lest this get too bleak – although the drip-drip-drip of stories ultimately makes this almost unavoidable – Thomas has a few diversionary adventures, such as visiting a down-at-heel zoo and walking with the British Ambassador, a delightfully old-fashioned gung-ho public servant who does the diplomatic corps proud. He’s one of many jolly and generous souls the comedian encounters, perhaps sounding a note of hope for the region – if only he didn’t meet the appalling racists as well.

Thomas finds some humour in this, and indeed in himself as an ill-prepared hiker placing undue faith in his supply of Kendal Mint Cake to see him through, and stumbling into the occasional run-in with the well-armed border patrols. But ultimately the seriousness of the situation can’t help dent his usually irrepressible devil-may-care attitude.

If he relentless stories of oppression can grind the reader down, that’s the harsh reality of life along the wall. For the most part, though, Thomas injects the text with enough personality and mordant wit to avoid it becoming too depressing a read, even if you’ll emerge from Extreme Rambling none the more hopeful for the plight of the Palestinians whose largely hospitable nature is tested to the limit by such oppressive neighbours.

  • Extreme Rambling: Walking Israel’s Separation Barrier. For Fun, by Mark Thomas has been published by Ebury priced £11.99. Click here to buy it from Amazon at £5.99.

Published: 26 Apr 2011

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