When it comes to humor, Arabs don’t shy away from joking about themselves. But Arab women comedians still face barriers to a film or stage career.
This year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe again welcomed women of Arab heritage hoping to make waves on the stand-up comedy scene. The program in August included one-woman shows by the British-Lebanese performers Esther Manito and Isabelle Farah.
Manito’s one-hour comedy sketch “#NotAllMen” recalls her teenage years in Essex, a county northeast of London which is known for being glamorous in a brash way and where a stereotypical masculinity pervades the youth scene.
What is it that makes Arabs so funny to British audiences? Manito, with a Lebanese father and a mother from northeastern England, says it’s simply down to differences in culture.
“Arabs are so loud and British people are reserved. The two cultures are so opposite,” she said. “The inability to keep your opinions to yourself versus the need to vocalise everything is a brilliant comedy juxtaposition, which both sides find funny.”
Two years ago, Manito performed her show “Crusade,” a funny take on bigotry in the West and the misogyny in some Middle Eastern cultures, at the Fringe. The festival has also previously hosted the award-winning comedy actor Janine Harouni.
Pulling Apart Stereotypes
Farah agrees that Arab stereotypes are fun to pull apart in front of an audience. “So much culture and media portray us as this or that, and I hate it. I think they’re often delighted when their stereotypes are challenged through laughter.”
Farah has worked in theater, commercials and stand-up. “Ellipsis” is her show about grief and grieving, and she describes it as both sad and funny.
“So much culture and media portray us as this or that, and I hate it. I think (audiences) are often delighted when their stereotypes are challenged through laughter“Isabelle Farah
A British-Lebanese performer at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Farah has performed in front of many Arab audiences at various gigs in London and says the difference with the Scottish crowd is “that people come to Edinburgh on holiday and attend the Fringe to have a good laugh.”
She and Manito are both keen to encourage the younger generation of Arabs to do stand-up, as it makes people aware of the humour and amusement that can come out of the region.
Growth in digital technology and the use of social media, especially among the younger generation, have created more opportunities for people to build an audience and pursue a career onstage.
Manito’s advice is, “Remember when your Aunty goes to bash you with her shoe for talking back? She’s the reason you’re hilarious!”
Farah advises youngsters to “work hard, be polite. Rework your material so that it’s flawless. Keep knocking on doors. Approach everything with the confidence of a mediocre white man.”
Difficulties for Arab Women
The rise of women from all cultures taking up comedy as a career is nothing new, as they have shown they have what it takes to be funny in front of a crowd. However, Arab women find it difficult to break through the many barriers to get onstage or in film.
Manito explains that many people feel uncomfortable with Arab women comedians. “I am sometimes shocked by how low the threshold is for women causing offense onstage, and this comes from a discomfort with women being vocal,” she explained.
“Being honest onstage and vocalizing all the things that really get on my nerves and seeing my sisters laughing is my way of breaking down barriers.”
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She also said that Arab culture is still under-represented in comedy and the world is unaware how much Arab family dynamics could resonate with so many people internationally.
In contrast, Farah says her shows are not pushing an agenda on gender matters. She may say something politically funny but her main aim is to entertain the audience.
This school of thought may be what is pushing more women to do stand-up comedy in the Middle East. Rawsan Hallak, from Jordan, for example, was featured in a Netflix series that spotlighted comedians from around the globe, and this has the potential to pave the way for more women from the region to come forward and do stand-up.
“Being honest onstage and vocalizing all the things that really get on my nerves and seeing my sisters laughing is my way of breaking down barriers“
Representation and diversity are exactly what Arts Council England is pushing for. “Workforce diversity remains a key concern,” its 2016 report analyzing theater in England said. “It has improved in recent years, but the literature and data analysis suggest further steps need to be taken.”
In Scotland, the Covid-19 pandemic made it difficult for comedians to tour and venues had to close. The Fringe faced “enormous challenges, from changing restrictions to sourcing support to create work,” said Rebecca Monks, communications manager of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, the nonprofit organization that supports the Fringe.
“It’s due to the commitment, resilience and adaptability of the festival community that over 800 shows are now available to book,” Monks said. “As we look to the future, we’ll be using our voice to call for structured support for artists and creatives, to make sure they can keep producing vital work.”
The Fringe society’s principle is “to be an open-access arts event that welcomes anyone with a story to tell and a venue to host them.” This openness is the access Arabs need to laugh all the way to the top.