Interview: Justin Butcher, actor, playwright

21 December 2018

‘Everywhere we went in Palestine, we saw oppression and suffering’

Mark Kensett

Writing is a quest to find the right voice or persona, and to conjure scenes and characters evocatively, to get what’s in my imagination across to your imagination. Acting is becoming the person who would say what the writer was scripted. Both crafts serve that imperative to communicate the truth of this story, this moment, this character. Sounds rather earnest, but it’s really permission to play.
 

I decided to write a one-man play which would be shamelessly self-indulgent; but, if anyone else liked it, so much the better. The play, Scaramouche Jones, became by far the most successful thing I’ve ever written. This was at a low point — no money, and one disappointment too many.
 

I remember praying: “Please, God, take this vocation away now. Can’t manage it any more. It’s too hard. Or, if you want me to stick with it, you have to give me a sign.” The next day, the phone rang, and, 19 years on, Scaramouche Jones has been produced all over the world. His latest avatar is Colin Friels, in Melbourne, and there’s a version premièring in Paris, on New Year’s Eve.
 

Theatre is the ultimate challenge, because it’s so fragile. If it goes wrong, it’s unbearable. With a bad film, you might enjoy the photography, or the music, or something. And television or radio you can just switch off. Being trapped in a bad play is hell.
 

But when it works, it’s absolutely thrilling for performers and audiences alike. You feel your soul enlarged, your life changed, your imagination reborn.
 

My involvement with the anti-war movement in 2003, writing and directing the satires The Madness of George Dubya, and A Weapons Inspector Calls, led me to a closer interest in the history and politics of the Middle East.
 

I stood in a demolished Palestinian home in a village near Bethlehem, in June 2014. Ali Salim and his family welcomed us, pulling chairs out of the rubble to seat us in the shade of their fig tree. Ali Salim gestured to his grandchildren — three little girls and two boys — and asked: “What kind of mistake have these children made against Israel? Going to school in the morning and coming home to find their house destroyed? Please, we request all the nations of the world to put some kind of pressure on Israel’s government to stop this cruelty, this humiliation against us.”
 

As the tenth year of the siege of Gaza approached, the 50th year of the Occupation, and the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, I imagined a new British expedition to Palestine — not as conquerors, crusaders, or colonialists, but as penitents, setting out from the Foreign Office in London where the Balfour Declaration was penned, to Palestine, where its impact is still felt today.
 

I shared the idea with friends at the Amos Trust, who’ve been working in Palestine for 30 years, and we spent two years planning the expedition with our Palestinian partners. We largely followed the Via Francigena, a 1200-year-old pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome, and the Via Egnatia, the 2000-year-old Roman road connecting Rome and Constantinople. More than 100 walkers took part in different stages. Nine walked the whole way: a 2000-mile march of solidarity and hope, taking 147 days, from the green fields of Kent to the desert dust of Jordan. We called it Just Walk to Jerusalem.
 

Garth Hewitt founded Amos Trust as a small, creative, human-rights organisation, committed to challenging injustice and building hope. Its vision is very inclusive: Amos has Jewish, Muslim, and Christian trustees, and works with partners of all faiths and none in Nicaragua, South Africa, Tanzania, India, and Palestine. It’s funded by donations and fund-raising, and an annual grant from Comic Relief. The diocese of London gives St Clement’s, Eastcheap, as office space.
 

The Borough Market terrorist attack happened one week before we departed. A couple of weeks later, there was a counter-attack on the Finsbury Park mosque, near where I live. My wife texted me: “We don’t know how to live together. We need to find, and work in, true common ground, while acknowledging different people, and stop ghettoisation.”
 

Isn’t pilgrimage the best school for this you can imagine? You don’t necessarily choose your companions, but there’s the daily challenge of getting along with them and supporting them. You’re living in each other’s pockets; so you have to find a way to live together with kindness and integrity. You have to agree on mealtimes, room allocations, wake-up calls, loo stops; you go at the pace of the slowest — even share beds, sometimes. What could be more challenging, or enriching?
 

Meanwhile, I was discovering that one pair of socks — not two — is the way to prevent blisters, and learning the extremes of fantastical fears that the mind can conjure, a long way from home. The hardest part was being away from home. And a chafing arse.
 

The impact of our walk was massive in Palestine. In Bedouin villages, schools and refugee camps, at the banquet given in our honour in Ramallah by President Mahmoud Abbas on the day of the Balfour centenary, we were treated like superstars. The impact was felt across the Palestinian diaspora, too — in the refugee camps of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria — and in Arabic media across the Middle East. There were countless TV and radio interviews; some coverage in Haaretz, the left-leaning Israeli broadsheet; and almost nothing in mainstream UK media, which was obsessing over sexual scandals.
 

We presented our New Balfour Declaration to the British Consul-General in East Jerusalem on 2 November 2017, calling for the establishment in Palestine-Israel of a safe and secure home for all who live there. It urged the world’s nations to use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this objective, doing nothing which may prejudice the civil, political, and religious rights of Palestinians or Jews living in Palestine-Israel or any other country.
 

The expansiveness and craziness of our gesture touched the warm, generous hearts of the Palestinian people, who were bewildered and disappointed that Theresa May chose to celebrate the Balfour centenary by attending a dinner in London with Benjamin Netanyahu [the Israeli Prime Minister] and the current Lords Balfour and Rothschild.

Mark KensettJustin Butcher with a 2017 work by Banksy, etched into the Israeli separation wall

I had visited Israel-Palestine for the first time in March 2012. From this small, bitterly contested patch of land in the Middle East, a cosmic narrative radiates across human history; and I’d spent half a lifetime reading, studying, and singing it. Jerusalem, Jericho, Nazareth, Galilee — every name’s a referential trigger for a thousand hymns, paintings, and poems. Like the most innocent of pilgrims, I thought “This is the place. I’m here at last. The land of Bible stories, the land of Christ himself. Will I find him here?”
 

No. What we found was a kind of biblical theme park, staffed by heavily bearded, stressed-out Greek Orthodox monks policing thronging queues of tourists who were pushing and shoving for their holy moment with the Divine. Quick prayer, quick photograph, buy a candle, on to the next miracle.
 

Most Holy Land tourism reinforces narratives supporting exclusivist claims to the land; but Kathleen Kenyon’s archaeology in the 1950s demonstrated that Joshua is not in any way a reliable source of information about the Bronze Age prehistory of Israel. Academics are unanimous in asserting that there was no Israelite conquest of Canaan and subsequent ethnic cleansing of the Promised Land. Ancient Israel emerged out of many cultures in the Fertile Crescent, and always coexisted with the Babylonian, Persian, and Roman empires; so we should stop teaching those horrible texts as if they were historical.
 

Everywhere we went in Palestine, we saw oppression and suffering. But, springing up all around the checkpoints, concrete barriers, and razor-wire fences, we also saw hope. People in the West can’t see it, because they’re always looking at governments and official processes — just as most religious pilgrims, seeking an encounter with God in the Holy Land, look in the wrong places. “By all means visit the holy sites, the dead stones,” said Nidal Abu Zuluf in the East Jerusalem YMCA, “but we’d prefer it if you come and visit us, the living stones, under occupation, behind the Wall.”
 

Dr Zoughbi Al-Zoughbi leads the Wi’am Conflict Resolution Centre, in Bethlehem. He writes: “Every day, we could be angry, legitimately; but as the Israelis are destroying our lives, we are transforming them, turning the garbage of our anger and hate into the flower and tree of compassion.” They work with traumatised Palestinian children through art therapy and sports, run women’s empowerment programmes, and facilitate local conflict resolution.
 

Daoud Nassar has a sustainable eco-farm outside Bethlehem between settlements, and brings Palestinian schoolchildren for summer breaks in green fields. He uses the near-impossible conditions imposed by the Occupation as a springboard for eco-innovation: he irrigates the fields with rainwater and grey water. Because Israelis demolish anything the Palestinians build, they tunnel out caves in the hillside, and they’re planning to build windmills on wheels, because anything that moves isn’t a structure.
 

Daoud’s family has paperwork from the Ottoman era documenting ownership of the land, but still Israeli forces make regular and destructive incursions. The last time I visited Daoud, in 2014, the IDF had just bulldozed his entire fruit crop. Daoud said, “You have to feel sorry for the people who did this. These acts they commit — they will follow them for the rest of their lives.”
 

Jeff Halper, founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, and other Israelis place themselves regularly in front of IDF bulldozers; and they rebuild houses with volunteers from the West. Jeff is short, stout, and voluble, with a Father Christmas beard. He’s been arrested more times than he can remember, written several books, and speaks all over the world.
 

I found God not in the shrines of the pilgrimage trail, but in people like Jeff, Daoud, Zoughbi, and the others. They remind me of the words “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
 

Visit Bethlehem, and what you’ll find is not the little town of Christmas carols nestling among starlit hills, but an eight-metre-high concrete wall, with barbed-wire, watch towers and search-cameras: a symbol and fact of occupation and oppression.
 

On my first visit, in 2012, my immediate, almost flippant reaction was to say: “We should build the Wall in London. Then people would see what it’s like.” Which we did, at St James’s, Piccadilly, at Christmas 2013, as the centrepiece of the Bethlehem Unwrapped festival.
 

What should you do? Well, if you want to support the indigenous Christian community in the Holy Land which has almost disappeared, you should go there, with a tour operator such as Amos Trust or one of the many others, and stay in Bethlehem, and spend your tourist money there. You can and should write regularly to your MP and MEP on matters relating to the Palestinian struggle. And buy my book, Walking to Jerusalem, of course.
 

My earliest memory of God is to do with my mum teaching me how to pray, when I was about five or six, which touched something pretty real. God is the ground of our being.
 

I’ve been incredibly privileged to do the things I like doing — writing, acting, music; so there’s not much that doesn’t count as work in my life. But walking is hard to beat, and tennis, and gardening. I’m happiest with these things. And love, and intimate companionship, friendship, travelling with my children, and good food and drink.
 

I love glorious polyphony — Gibbons, Tallis, Byrd — sung by the Tallis Scholars for choice, but also by my own church choir on a good Sunday, especially if my daughter Eleanor is singing. And birdsong: wrens and skylarks.
 

My father and brother were drowned in a tragic accident 30 years ago, when I was 19 and we were fishing together. My dad was 61, and Matthew was 21. Living with the unremitting awfulness of that tragedy has been a burden. I’m quite a fun, upbeat person with a gift for comedy; but the loss of those beloved men is a dark thread running through everything.
 

My children give me hope — and the extraordinary wisdom, kindness, and curiosity of so many young people.
 

I’d choose Dario Fo as my companion if I was locked in a church. He was the most intoxicating concoction of daft creativity, irrepressible fizz, abstruse erudition, prophetic anger, and irreverence ever to have walked the earth.
 

Justin Butcher was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Walking to Jerusalem is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £16.99 (CT Bookshop £15.30).

www.amostrust.org

Listen to Justin Butcher talk more about the book on the Church Times Podcast. The podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and most other podcast platforms.

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