Nyla Levy was born in Tooting, south London. As an actor, she has appeared in ITV’s Next of Kin and the film Finding Fatima, as well as the one-woman show The Diary of a Hounslow Girl. Her first play, Different Is Dangerous, was longlisted for an Amnesty International Freedom of Expression award. Levy will perform in her new play, Does My Bomb Look Big in This?, at Tara-Arts, London, 30 April to 4 May, and at the Soho theatre, London, 21 May to 8 June.
What was the impetus for telling the story of a young British Muslim girl who joins Isis?
I’m an actor, and I found myself being cast as jihadi brides or playing the role of the terrorist’s girlfriend. The characters were always supporting the male story, and the dialogue just didn’t feel very real. I tried to think what would it be like for young girls, with social media, and also being in a post 9/11 era. I notice strikingly Islamophobic comments: every time there’s a terror-related incident, the backlash against the community is huge. I am mixed race, my mum is Pakistani, my dad is Canadian; my mum’s side is Muslim, my dad’s is Jewish. Growing up I experienced a lot of racism; nobody noticed my Canadian side but everyone knew I was Pakistani…
So I was interested in piecing together my own experience and what I know of girls who have gone [to Syria], and using theatre as a tool to bring people together to understand. It’s about giving the story behind the headlines, I guess.
Did it feel important to try to understand why Isis could appeal?
Yeah, definitely. I did a lot of research. The fact is, it’s a grooming issue – the impact of social media, and how it can be used as a tool to drag people in. The line they’re fed is “come here, you can drive a car, get a job, have a family, it’s a community…” They are sold this completely idealistic world which, of course, when they get there, is not what they thought it would be.
It’s become a very topical play now…
The play I’ve written is set in 2015, before anything that’s happening now. It’s not about Shamima Begum, but it is crazy how this whole issue is being thrown into the spotlight.
What research did you do?
As an actor I’d worked with a lot of Muslim girls for a project I did at the Lyric [Hammersmith theatre], which all feeds in. I did a lot of online research about jihadi brides. I did workshops with schools in Peckham, and went to Luton and spoke to members of the community there. And I managed to speak to Tasnime Akunjee, who is actually now representing Shamima [as the Begum family’s defence lawyer]. He helped explain how young women can be groomed online.
The title of the play comes from a moment when a shop assistant is rude to a young woman because she’s wearing a hijab. How much prejudice do you think young women face for making such choices?
On all spectrums, women are judged for how they dress. If you’re fully covered, you’re judged, and if you’re not, it’s the same. It’s a massive issue that women just continue to face.
The characters are funny and very teenage, and they speak in multicultural London English [a social dialect associated with young Londoners, incorporating slang terms and phrases from multiple ethnicities]. That’s still pretty unusual to hear on stage, isn’t it?
Yeah – you don’t really see it. Reflecting real London in the theatre is something I wanted to be doing. They are these bright girls who are funny and totally London, who have that banter and energy.
Do you think British theatre has a class problem?
I think there are a lot of theatres that feel inaccessible – you don’t feel like you could walk in without being a certain type of person. But it’s changing. There’s a shift now – obviously we need to do more – but it is happening.
Have you experienced Islamophobia?
I’m not religious, but I connect with my Muslim culture through my mum’s side, and have family who are religious. They wear hijabs and you do fear for them. For me personally, I’ve got brown skin so you do feel nervous – but you can’t live your life in fear.