In today’s climate, to be ‘Transnational’ is to be provocative: not least because this cheekily challenges the concept of any cultural label. Up- and-coming Comedienne, Esther, perfectly embodies this. Straight-talking, she successfully delivers what is promised in the title of her latest comedy show, ‘Crusade’: a triumphant tirade against “identity politics.” Coming from both an Arabic and English background, Esther told us: “Simply going on stage as a multidimensional human being is enough to make people think. Society always wants to squeeze you into a convenient box. I’m expected to behave either traditionally English, or Lebanese, but life’s more complicated”.
Covering this conundrum through the course of her show, Esther is performing at the renowned Edinburgh Fringe Festival, 2019. She candidly talks on the universal topics of body image, fear of old age, the relationship between parent and child, and even the commonality of the second generation immigrant experience: “The show will appeal to everyone, but perhaps especially to those who have to negotiate cross-cultural barriers: whether you are Indian, Caribbean or basically anyone with a minority identity, you’ll recognise a lot of my insights. For example, the children of immigrants tend to feel the parental paranoia that they will lose the connection to their international heritage, but then they will never feel English ‘enough’ in the UK. You are essentially English with other cultural influences, but you always feel yourself as if an “outsider”.
Also bringing her aloof yet casual style to observational comedy, Esther has previously qualified as a finalist for Nat West’s Asian Woman of Achievement and So You Think You're Funny (2017), among many other noteworthy awards. She has also performed at Desi Central Entertainment nights. Esther went on to talk about the assumptions within cultural circles as well. In the same way one might be taken aback that a British person could be Hindu, Esther talked of the disbelief she faces as an Arab woman who is not Muslim: “religion and nationality are completely conflated. People can’t get their head around it! I talk on being presumed to be Muslim, but never on Islam itself: it would be insincere – I don’t practice. I wouldn’t want to talk on somebody else’s belief.”
Esther then rightly embraces the idea that we are the sum of own our experiences, and not the premeditated products of a one-dimensional physical geography. Indeed, as she herself highlighted, it was common to explore and settle in other countries before the construction of national boundaries as we know them today: entrenched firmly during imperialism. “Minority communities can internalise colonial or nationalist narratives. For example, the fact that I’m not religious can be seen as a betrayal. Separately, my father will always stress the importance of my Lebanese background, but after doing an Ancestry DNA test, my genetic lineage was confirmed to be from another, ultimately inconclusive, part of the Middle East. If you look back, people hail from so many different backgrounds globally: it’s tricky to trace yourself back to a single ethnicity: why do we have to justify the degree to which we are British,” or, in fact, prove traits that show loyalty to any particular past?
Esther then at once highlights the silliness of becoming obsessed with identification. If the basics of the process are tenuous, one must surely question the overall, righteous point? Here, Esther told us of an unforgettable performance with a group of EDL supporters, who were heckling her in the crowd: “they were calling me ‘Jihadi Jane’: they couldn’t understand how someone with Arab ancestry could look and be speaking ‘normally’ like me. The term “Arab” has such a horrible historical connotation: mythical, ugly, demonic, and there I was talking innocuously on being a parent, the strain of it and motherly difficulty: they weren’t expecting that.” With impressive voluminous hair which looks like “the hair of thirteen women,” Esther would certainly have reached peak political contention here: an accolade in itself.
However, the comic made sure to emphasise her love of cultural colour too: “I am proud of being Lebanese, and I love so many aspects of London culture: the relaxed exchanges, the strange chaos. I just want to be able to be both! In fact, as horrible as it was to be in the same room as racist Tommy Robinson supporters at least I exposed them to a different a point of view. One guy even stayed back, and was laughing.” So, rather than chastising society’s customs, Esther simply promotes a more fluid understanding of the self. Her show isn’t so much a crusade against rigid labels as the brand of cynical thinking that engendered them to begin with. An archaic colonial remnant, this attitude is perhaps even what has undermined a multicultural nation from thriving: “the show is definitely cathartic. I get to speak out on what people don’t usually consider. There’s a part of it where I relay angry tweets directed at me. I’m really vocal.” Unlike the Crusades of old, Esther flies the kaleidoscopic flag in favour of plurality, championing an inner luminous light. And she doesn’t take herself too seriously while she does it. Her show, Crusade, isn’t so much a war as a chilled social riot.
Even with acknowledgement of a dual heritage, the public seeing one as whole can remain frustrating. Do you feel that?
Yes, definitely. People just have trouble reconciling different ways of life. As well as culturally, I’ve also faced ajudgmental double standard as a woman: as a mother. A lot of the time, the parental label of responsibility is heavily applied to mums but not so much to dads. People have asked me whether I have “time for the kids?” assuming a stand-up career will be bad for family life. But I spend time with the children during the day, while my husband takes over at night.
Men aren’t held to the same high moral standard. If they are away, there are no questions. A guy will also get credit for what you’re doing. People will say to me: oh, your husband must be a very tolerant man to support you!
You say, you were “really torn between being seen as Arab or English.” That you now feel “you have every right to be proud of an Arab background and no need to dress it up with a hijab to prove this.” Tell us more?
I battled with identity for a long time: initially, I just went with what was immediately expected of me: getting married, moving back to the Middle East. I lived in the UAE for a while. But I just missed England so much. I’m proud of both my nationalities and I’m not spending anymore time pitting them against each other. Being able to be open to other cultures is definitely beneficial.
Is Delivery half the talent in stand-up?
People are sensitive to different aspects of the stand-up, and your style definitely has an impact: is it slap-stick, heavy on word play? I’ve been called aggressive! But the content needs to be good. I’ll spend time gauging what’s getting the most laughs and honing that particular bit. I’ll make that punchier.
What’s a highlight anecdote in your upcoming show?
Taking my English husband to the Middle East...
Finally, what’s the best way to practice stand-up?
Just do it! It’s the best way to build resilience and test out your content.
Come see Esther at Edinburgh Fringe Festival: 3rd – 25th August (except 12TH) at the Gilded Balloon.