British-Arab comedienne Esther Manito returns to the Edinburgh Fringe with #NotAllMen show

Manito's show is a biographical walk through an Arab Essex girl's adolescence in the '90s

After an enforced year off, the world’s largest arts festival is back. This month the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland will be gracing the city with performances and shows from all over the world.

From Friday, until August 30, more than 1,100 shows and events are due to be staged across 100 venues, though the famous festival will continue to incorporate digital performances, as it did last year.

British-Lebanese comedienne Esther Manito, 39, will also be returning to the Fringe, appearing for the second time, with her new show #NotAllMen. She’s one of only two Arabs, both women – the other being Isabelle Farah – performing at the illustrious event. Speaking to The National ahead of her show, Manito, who has only performed her new material live four times before, admits to having some nerves.

‘The Fringe is a lot of fun … but as performers we do sit there comparing ourselves to each other. You sort of treat it as if you’re going to war, but without the war,’ she says, with a laugh.

Judging by the reception she has already received for her set – including top prize for Best Show at the Leicester Comedy Festival earlier in the year – she has little to worry about.

Manito made her debut at the Fringe in 2019, with her solo show Crusade, a comedic diatribe against the intolerant and degrading attitudes she’d faced embodying several identities.

"Crusade was about not meeting the expectations of being Arab, being a mother, a woman," says Manito, whose father is Lebanese and mother from Gateshead in the north of England.

"But then I realised that people don’t understand nuance when it comes to people from the Middle East and tend to paint the region with one big broad stroke."

Identity, from an early age, was something Manito was conscious of. She grew up in "a really, really, English town" – Saffron Walden, in Essex – but her experiences of racism made her, she says, even "more proudly vocal" of her Arab roots.

It’s very much a calling card of her shows and persona to destigmatise and reclaim the word ‘Arab’ from its largely negative connotations in the western mainstream.

"'Arab’ feels like a terrifying word and as soon as I started comedy I wanted to write about all the relatable things – husbands, homes, children, homework – then bring in that I am Arab to normalise the word," she says.

She’s recently returned from performing at Latitude Festival in Suffolk, in the UK, with the collective Arabs Are Not Funny, who she’ll be performing with again at the Royal Albert Hall in London in October.

Manito’s new material is a biographical walkthrough of her adolescence as an ‘Arab Essex girl’ growing up in the 1990s during the pinnacle of what has come increasingly to be known as "toxic masculinity".

"I was perpetually shown images of Arab men that didn’t correlate with my own experience with my Arab father and uncles, but I grew up in '90s Essex during the peak of ‘lad’ culture where there was a lot of objectification of women," she says.

Arising in the early 1990s, "lad culture" was heavily associated with the Britpop movement and involved young men shunning sensitivity in favour of drinking, violence and sexism.

Researching her material led Manito to discover that this peak period of postured male machismo correlated with the highest rates of male suicide in the UK.

Toxic masculinity was not only bad for women, she realised. "The more oppression put on women the higher the effects on men’s mental health," says Manito, whose feminist gags have been an eye-opener for men in the audience.

"I’ve see a few women who have dragged their boyfriends against their will to the show but then the guys have come up to me and said, ‘I’ve never thought about how feminism would affect male mental health’, which is very nice to hear, instead of them thinking they’re going to hear women moan for an hour."

Manito’s material promises some of the hilarious accounts of her experiences going through puberty and relationships at school, then trying to explain them to her Lebanese father.

The only Arab in town, Manito says she became quite protective of her father from a young age and that's perhaps where her "loud and proud" attitude developed from.

As a schoolgirl, she decided to get back at her religious studies teacher for calling her a "lazy Arab", she says, by giving a presentation to the whole class about a fake religious festival of fruits in Lebanon. "I got into trouble when he realised I was making it up and he was humiliated."

Despite winning the "clown of the school" award, Manito’s foray into comedy was entirely accidental. A school teacher for many years, she was on maternity leave with her second child when she took a comedy writing course that completely changed the trajectory of her career.

"I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would be doing stand-up. Everyone around me was shocked and it took some getting used to. I had been living this conventional, normal life and then suddenly I was out three nights a week telling jokes at the pubs and clubs," she says.

In the five years since, Manito has made the rounds of the notoriously competitive comedy circuit with great success. Not even the pandemic slowed her down, with the move to online increasing her bookings.

"It took some getting used to. At first it felt like we were just shouting into the abyss, then we started to develop a relationship with the audience online and I really enjoyed it." She says she was sometimes doing seven to eight performances a night.

"If they’re paying me I’ll do it," Manito jokes. Her bookings have included Zoom birthday parties, romantic dates and corporate events.

For a profession intrinsically linked to the audience’s live feedback, she’s taken to the digital realm quite happily.

"I can close my laptop after and be with my kids. And I can perform without trousers," she says.

Now that the real world has opened up, Manito is back on the physical stage, clothes on, ready to give a sorely deprived audience some much-needed laughter.

Click for more details on the Edinburgh Fringe Festival or Esther Manito’s performance.

Updated: August 6th 2021, 7:00 AM
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