Anyone who hails from Lebanon will know that a trip to the grocery store isn't complete without at least a handful of lemons. Lebanese nationals love lemons. Then there's the topic of hair, be it the hair on your head or body hair in general. Fact is there's a lot of it, according to British-Lebanese comedienne Esther Manito.
As a woman of Arab descent and as someone who loves to tell funny and real stories, these are just some of the stereotypes she tackles when she’s on stage, performing around the world. From wife to daughter, mother to teacher, the funny woman has played many roles in her life, but the one that seemingly came out of nowhere is that of being a comedienne.
"Eight years ago, I worked in Dubai Knowledge Village teaching English as a foreign language," she says, talking to The National from her London home. "When my son was around seven months old, I decided it would be really cool to go and do a comedy course. I had no idea that I would end up working as a stand-up comic. I completely fell into it, but I absolutely love it."
Now two years on, the award-winner is about to make history by becoming the first comedienne to perform at Dubai Opera this weekend. Manito, together with Omar Hamdi, Prince Abdi, Karim Duval, will play at the venue as part of Comedy Night, in association with “Arabs Are Not Funny” tomorrow.
There are a few other firsts attached to this gig. It will be her first time back to the city since she and her husband left, and some of her family members from Lebanon, whom she will meet for the first time will also be in the audience. So her excitement levels are palpable. “I’m incredibly excited and cannot wait to play to an audience in the UAE. It’s an absolute honour. It’s the type of thing that’s going to go on my headstone.”
A comedian’s mandate is simple: Make people laugh. For Esther, there are a few more aspects she considers before she performs. “Men walk onto the stage, and the audience is already on their side. I walk on stage as a woman and straight away I know I need to prove that I can make you laugh. There’s a barrier that you have to overcome, so it’s incredibly tough at times. And then there’s being an Arab, and a mother and all of these things. You really have to fight lots of stereotypes before you get them on your side.”
To challenge those, Esther mentions going in strong, and bold. Many young comediennes will go up on stage and talk about being single and looking for love. Manito has done that; she’s got the T-shirt, the family and the experiences that come with it. “I make jokes about being hairy because I walk on stage and I say yeah I’m Lebanese and you can tell that by looking at my eyebrows and my hair. Straight away I set up what I am. I get a lot of women, whether they’re Indian, African or Arab, coming up to me afterwards and saying that’s exactly how I felt.”
Some comedians choose to go down the path of being crude, politically incorrect to make a point. Manito likes to keep it real. From talking about being a mother or how her partner drives her mad at times, this is something many women can relate to, and what many men can agree with too.
“If I’m honest about my own experiences, people see that, and they see the humour in that. The reason why they find it funny is that they recognise it. My shows are not about insulting anyone or with malice. It’s all said in jest.”
With the increase of content consumption online, video on demand services like Netflix are commissioning more stand-up. Browse its catalogue today, and you will see comedy giants like Chris Rock, Trevor Noah, Steve Martin and Amy Schumer. With her career flourishing, Manito is looking to such platforms too. “I love Amy Schumer. What she is doing for body image is brilliant,” she says. “I’m trying to work towards creating something for TV showing women who come from a Muslim background, who are getting into stand-up comedy. I think that would be really interesting, whether they’re religious or coming from a family that is more westernised and finding their path in doing stand-up.”
While readers will have to wait for that, this gig will be unapologetic and packed with loads of observational humour and personal anecdotes.
Esther Manito is set to perform at Dubai Opera tomorrow. For more, go to www.dubaiopera.com
The 28-year-old Egyptian-British comedian is already well established, having performed at some of the biggest venues in comedy, including London’s Royal Albert Hall and New York’s Gotham Comedy Club. He has also enjoyed a number of successful runs at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Hamdi regularly supported Russell Kane and the pair share that same infectious high-octane delivery and relentless energy. But there is a depth to Hamdi’s material, too. He tackles class, race, politics and everything in between, challenging stereotypes and pushing audiences to confront their prejudices. Oh, and there are also plenty of laughs along the way.
The Somali-born British comedian, who nearly became a professional footballer, has performed in countries around the world, including the United States, Turkey, Holland and Kenya, as well as the UAE. Highly regarded by some of the best comedians in the business, Prince Abdi has supported everyone from Reginald D Hunter to Dave Chappelle.
There is an impressive ease about the way the 35-year-old shifts gears, one moment interacting casually with the audience, the next drawing on more poignant memories from his early childhood spent in Somalia. Prince Abdi’s set is sure to be one of the highlights of the night.
How many of us have thought about quitting a big corporate company to try something more interesting? Come on, hands up. The difference is that this exciting 36-year-old comic actually went through with it. And it’s a good thing for comedy fans that he did.
Taking inspiration from his cultural diversity – Duval’s father is French-Moroccan; his mother is Chinese – Duval skilfully weaves together myriad strands to create a satisfyingly dark, complex show. Expect a bit of history, a host of hilarious accents, and possibly even some music as well.
* Rupert Hawksley