LONDON: After years of never quite succeeding in finding her niche, Esther Manito is now making a name for herself as a stand-up comedian.
Manito was born to an English mother (a ‘Geordie’ — from the North-East of England) and Lebanese father in the small town of Saffron Walden in Essex, where, she says, she felt like a fish out of water — “I was desperate to escape.”
She found it liberating to move to London — where “no one cares where you are from” — to study for a BSc in Politics at London Metropolitan University, followed by a Masters in Communications with a special focus on Middle East media.
As she sips a cranberry juice before her gig in Soho, she reflects that today, as a mother of two young children, she can see the attraction of her quiet hometown. But that’s a big change in perspective.
“That’s always the way isn’t it? You never realize how good you’ve got it at the time,” she says.
Right now, though, Manito’s got it pretty good. She’s being noticed for all the right reasons: her funny, fresh and original comedy, which confronts issues that are often brushed under the carpet. Namely, what is means to be an Arab Muslim in the UK and how, for many women, motherhood is — to put it mildly — ‘challenging.’
She was a regional finalist in 2017’s Funny Women Awards, a finalist in the “Individuals” category of this year’s Arab British Center’s Award for Culture, and is the first female comedian to be invited to perform at Dubai Opera House (as part of Arts Canteen’s ‘Arabs Are Not Funny’ night). When we meet, she’s just returned to London after a month performing her solo show at the Edinburgh Festival. Not bad for someone who only began her comedy career three years ago.
Manito’s turning point came at a point when she was struggling with being a young mother and felt “I had lost a lot of my sense of self.” When she was expecting, and immediately after giving birth, she says she felt “really great,” even enjoying the physical challenges of pregnancy and giving birth. But that longed-for sense of ‘being complete’ did not come. And she admits to feeling a sense of disappointment, despite loving her children.
She believes that many women are pressured into holding unrealistic views about motherhood, pointing out that, in today’s fragmented communities, it can be a lonely and isolating experience.
“There’s too much pressure on women to be at home with their children and feel fulfilled by it,” she says. “I don’t think that can work in nuclear-family setups with no wider family — aunts or uncles — around you, no support. The dad goes out to work and you’re at home with the kids and you’re fulfilled? I don’t think that works.”
Manito believes that motherhood doesn’t get the respect it deserves. “If it was recognized as a job, then I think women would feel a lot more validated by it,” she says. “But it’s so dismissed. It’s such a big undertaking that you feel you don’t need a career on top of that, because then it’s such an incredibly stressful position to be in.”
She says she is lucky to have a supportive family and husband, but she still has to juggle child care with her comedy career. “During the Edinburgh Fringe I was doing my show every day,” she says. “My kids were with my in laws and then my husband for part of that time, but for almost two weeks they were with me (alone). It was full on.”
It was one of her friend’s who suggested Manito might like to join her on a six-week writing course at London’s Camden Comedy School. She took to it immediately, and within weeks she found herself doing her first stand-up gig. Three years later, she’s rising fast on comedy’s ‘ones-to-watch’ lists.
Mostly, that’s because her comedy is topical and fearless. She’s willing to tackle prejudice through humor and dialogue, putting forward her perspective on being an Arab Muslim woman in Britain.
“If you rant at people about your views they switch off, but if you can do it in a conversational and observational way then you are much more likely to get your message across,” she says.
She finds if offensive that Muslim women are often stereotyped as being submissive and oppressed. She points to women in her own family — especially her Lebanese grandmother.
“My grandmother never experienced oppression,” she says. “She was respected. It’s such an insult to these women to depict them as faceless figures. It’s really important that we don’t make sweeping statements such as, ‘The Middle East is oppressive.’ Because it’s not.”
She says it is particularly frustrating when people take a “one-size-fits-all’ view of Arab culture. But she also recognizes that there has been “a massive increase in extremist Islam which wasn’t there years back.”
But if people — especially young people — are wrongly labeled, it can make them adopt extreme behaviors out of frustration, she suggests. “If you feel you are being ostracized, you are going to come back more aggressively. It’s a phenomenon that seems to be seeping into large areas.”
Manito believes that political and economic factors can influence how religion is presented and interpreted, and says it is important to understand these underlying reasons. She adds that it is also important to support women who are suffering under “oppressive laws which need to be challenged.”
Asked to describe the message she wants to put across, she says, “I’m trying to show we are not a culturally subservient race of women and our men are not aggressive and dominant. The culture is misrepresented.”
Stand-up has made Manito embrace her identity as a British Arab. She says she spent many years obsessed with finding her Lebanese roots, and that even though she was warmly embraced by her father’s family in Beirut, she could never feel fully Lebanese because she grew up in England. Now, she treasures both the rich culture of Lebanon and her British side.
“We hear it all the time — the insults about what it means to be British, and British culture — but in fact we are really lucky; it’s a great country to be born in,” she says.
Manito is learning to adapt to the emotional swings of stand-up. Some people can be resistant to hearing a woman talking so freely about topics that make them uncomfortable, but she says she also gets a lot of support from both men and women — particularly mothers.
“I have felt quite vulnerable — you are giving so much of yourself,” she says. “It’s constant highs and lows. Initially, every time I had a bad gig I wanted to curl up and cry, and I would ask myself, ‘Why do I put myself through this?’ But then you learn to take the rough with the smooth.”