A French actor, a convert from Islam

Interview with Mehdi-Emmanuel Djaadi, a 35-year-old French actor. In 2016 nominated for the Cesar Award as most promising actor for his role in “Je suis a vous tout de suite”, by Baya Kasmi, following his conversion from Islam, aims to be a bridge between people, between his audiences and God.

David Fernández Alonso·20 de enero de 2022·Tiempo de lectura: 5 minutos
actor francés converso


Original Text of the article in Spanish here
Translation: Martyn Drakard

It is a cold December night in the café “Le café qui parle”, in the artistic quarter of Paris, Montmartre, near the Basilica of the Sacre-Coeur. Mehdi-Emmanuel Djaadi, a 35 year-old French actor has just ended his performance in the Galabru Theatre a few metres away. The café is packed with people and there is a very lively atmosphere. Almost all the people there were at the performance. They are among the 150 people who for several months have been filling the theatre every Thursday and Friday to see Mehdi. So there is good reason why, from next January, the performance will be in a bigger locale, the Theatre du Petit Montparnasse.

 The actor strolls from table to table to chat, joke and share impressions. He is like a bridegroom who smiles as he greets his guests at the wedding breakfast. But his interest goes beyond just meeting these people; he is above all seeing if his work is helping those present understand his faith. After a while, the actor manages to sit down and quietly chat with me for dinner. His wife Anne joins in our conversation, but our meal is constantly interrupted by people coming to ask him something, say Goodbye and thank him.

 There is an air of great enthusiasm; his charism makes it easy to open up with him and people realise how authentic he is. A Protestant couple invite him to give witness in their community; a girl asks him to go with them on a visit her group organizes to the famous La Sante prison, the only jail located within the old walls of the city; a young homosexual asks him something about his condition and the singer Ekoue, who lives in this part of the city greets him. Mehdi-Emmanuel, nominated for the Cesar Award in 2016 for most promising actor in his role in “Je suis a vous tout de suite” of Baya Kasmi aims to be a bridge between people, between his audiences and God. “Coming Out”, his own show in which, by means of a comic monologue of over one hour, he relates his conversion to Catholicism from Islam, is causing quite a stir. Le Figaro praised him in an article in October with the title “The laugh of a convert”, and according to the New York Times his work is breaking all the stereotypes.

 In the show you tell your astonishing journey towards the faith, your conversion to Catholicism from Islam. Can you tell us more about yourself?

 I was born in 1986 in St Etienne, in south-eastern France in an immigrant quarter of the city where lived people from different origins but, beginning around the year 2000, exclusively Muslim, strict Muslim. From childhood I took Islam seriously; at the same time, I did some bad things with other kids of the neighbourhood. Being able to pretend to be someone else in order to steal showed me I could imitate other people and so I realized my artistic vocation as an actor. I did my theatrical studies in Valence in 2007, and then in 2010 entered the Ecole superieure de l’art dramatique in Lausanne.

 My parents are Algerian, my father a worker and my mother a nanny. They enrolled me in a Christian school which I attended during the week. Whereas at the weekend I attended the madrasa to study Islam. When I was 18, together with some friends we went inside a Protestant church, out of curiosity. The pastor welcomed us warmly and told us what is important: Jesus loves us, and gave each of us a Bible. I started reading it seriously; it caught my interest and started me thinking. Catholics are used to being told about fraternity and love for one another and for us. To me this was something altogether new, a revolutionary message that wouldn’t go away.

 Three years later I was baptized as a Protestant and chose the name Emmanuel. I have not heard any more about that pastor who had such an influence in my life. In 2011 during a retreat I made in an abbey I had a very deep personal experience with Jesus Christ, and became aware that I just had to enter the Catholic Church. I am always very moved when I remember that moment.

 It needs courage to take the step for the son of Algerian immigrants to convert to Catholicism. How did your family and friends react?

 I lost many friends, and my siblings still don’t speak to me. The lack of understanding and the opposition have been strong. Thanks be to God I have been reconciled to my parents, although they feel deeply offended by my choice. In spite of everything, I think there is no need to be afraid; often people don’t act simply out of fear. We have to put more trust in God’s Providence.

 In France the topic of French identity, Islam and immigration has been a central point of public debate for many years now. With this in mind, what is the objective of your work as an actor?

 As the son of Algerian immigrants I feel completely French, without forgetting my roots across the Mediterranean. My Algerian grandfather fought for France during World War II. Today the topic of immigration is in fact a major topic in politics, and Islam in particular. At this political and social crossroads we Catholics have to be better, more fervent, know our faith better as well as the Christian roots of our country. I came to love France by travelling around the country, seeing its great monuments, churches and monasteries that can be found in every corner of our country.

 Thus I see my work as an opportunity for many very different people to meet our faith. My objective is to bring about such meetings, opportunities to be able to share what I carry with me inside. In short, I try to be a bridge between two very different worlds, Islam and Christianity; for me meeting comes before dialogue.

 Besides “Coming Out” what other projects do you have?

On one hand I am involved in the “Ismerie” mission, an initiative of laymen and women who welcome and accompany converts from Islam into the Church. Islam does not tolerate change of religion and converts are often seen as traitors wherever they are. In France, approximately 300 Muslims are baptized every year (10% of catachumens). The French government has published a “charter of principles” declaring that renouncing Islam cannot be considered a crime or apostasy. It has been rejected by three Islamic federations. At the same time, we have to improve the way in which converts from Islam are welcomed into the Church. Often they are looked upon with distrust by the Catholic community. This is why in my show I gently make fun of some Catholic groups.

 On the other hand, I want to have a greater impact in the world of theatre where Catholicism is not popular. I would like “Coming Out” to be appreciated for its technical and artistic qualities and would be very happy if film producers and directors would attend. We Catholics are challenged to be good professionals in the world of artists and reach a wider audience beyond just Catholic circles. I want to keep encouraging meetings with all kinds of people.

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