We meet one cold December evening at the café "Le café qui parle", in the very artistic Parisian district of Montmartre, near the Sacre-Coeur Basilica. Mehdi-Emmanuel Djaadi, a 35-year-old French actor, has just finished his show at the Galabru theater, located a few meters away. The café is full and the air is very cheerful. Almost everyone present was at the show. They are part of the 150 people who fill this theater on Thursdays and Fridays to see Mehdi since a few months. It is not for nothing that, starting in January, the show will be performed in a larger venue, at the Petit Montparnasse Theater.
The actor walks from table to table to chat, joke, share impressions. He is like a smiling groom greeting his guests at the wedding dinner. His interest goes beyond getting to know these people, he seeks above all that his work helps the attendees to understand his faith. After a while, the actor manages to sit down quietly with me for dinner and conversation. His wife, Anne, joins our conversation. Our dinner is constantly interrupted by his audience who come to ask him questions, to say goodbye, to thank him.
There is a great enthusiasm, his charisma facilitates the contact, the authenticity of the relationship: a Protestant couple invites him to witness in their community, a young girl proposes him to join sometime the visits he organizes in the famous prison of La Santé (the only prison located in Paris within walls), a homosexual boy raises an existential concern, the singer Ekoué, who lives in this neighborhood, greets him. Mehdi-Emmanuel, nominated in 2016 at the César for the most promising actor for his role in "Je suis à vous tout de suite" by Baya Kasmi, wants to be a bridge between people, between his audience and God. "Coming Out", his show in which he recounts, through a comic monologue of more than an hour, his conversion to Catholicism from Islam, is making waves. Le Figaro dedicated a laudatory note to him in October under the title "La risa del converso" (The Laughter of the Convert). New York Timesthe work "breaks stereotypes".
- In your show you recount your amazing journey to faith, your conversion to Catholicism from Islam. What else can you tell us about your personal story?
I was born in 1986 in Saint-Etienne (south-eastern France) in a suburb of immigrants of different origins dominated since the 2000s by the presence of a strict and communitarian Islam. Since I was a child, I practiced the Muslim religion with great conviction and, at the same time, with my friends in my neighborhood, we committed some crimes. Impersonating other people to steal was how I discovered my ability to imitate other people, my artistic and theatrical vocation. I studied theater in Valence (France) in 2007 and then, in 2010, I entered the Higher School of Dramatic Art in Lausanne (Switzerland).
My parents are Algerian, my father is a laborer and my mother is a nanny. They enrolled me in a Christian school which I attended during the week. On weekends I attended Koranic school to study Islam. At the age of 18, when I was with friends, we entered a Protestant temple out of curiosity. The pastor welcomed us very warmly and told us the essential: that Jesus loves us. And he gave us a Bible. I began to read it secretly, I was very interested and it made me reflect. Catholics are used to being told about fraternity, about love for one another. For me it was something totally new, a radical message that did not leave me indifferent.
Three years after that encounter I was baptized as a Protestant, and I chose the name Emmanuel. I never heard again of this pastor who had such an important influence on my life. During a retreat I made in 2011, in an abbey, I had a very deep and personal experience with Christ. I became aware that I had to enter the Catholic Church. I get emotional when I remember that moment.
- It takes courage to take the step to convert to Catholicism as a child of Algerian immigrants. How did your friends and family react to your conversion?
I lost many friends and my siblings no longer speak to me. The misunderstanding and rejection have been very strong. Thank God, I have reconciled with my parents, although they are deeply hurt by the path I have taken. In spite of all that, I think that we should not be afraid; many times people stop acting, paralyzed by fear. We have to trust more in Providence.
- In France, the issue of French identity, Islam and immigration has been at the center of public debate for many years. In this context, what is the aim of your work?
Being the son of Algerian immigrants, I feel completely French without forgetting my roots on the other side of the Mediterranean. I love France. My Algerian grandfather fought for France during the Second World War. Today the immigration issue is indeed a major political issue, and in particular Islam. Faced with this crossroads, we Catholics have to be better, more fervent, more aware of our faith and the Christian roots of our country. I learned to love France by walking through it, seeing its great monuments, its churches and monasteries that are in every corner of our country.
So I see my work as an opportunity for very diverse people to come into contact with the faith. My objective is to generate these encounters, these occasions to be able to share what I carry inside. In short, I try to be like a "bridge" between two very different worlds, Islam and Christianity, because for me the encounter precedes the dialogue.
- Besides "Coming Out", what other projects do you have in mind?
On the one hand, I am involved in the "Ismérie" mission, a lay initiative that seeks to welcome and accompany converts from Islam within the Church. In Islam, a change of religion is not tolerated, and converts are often seen as traitors in their environments. In France, approximately 300 Muslims are baptized each year (10% of catechumens). The French government has published a "charter of principles of Islam" in which it was demanded not to criminalize the renunciation of Islam, nor to qualify it as apostasy. This request was rejected by three Muslim federations. At the same time, we must improve the quality of welcome in the Church for people coming from Islam. They are often viewed with distrust in the Catholic community. Not for nothing in my show do I make fun, in a sympathetic way, of certain Catholic groups.
On the other hand, I want to continue to develop in the theatrical environment where Catholicism is not fashionable. I would like "Coming Out" to be recognized also for its technical and artistic quality, and I wish great film directors or producers could attend. We Catholics have the challenge of being good professionals in the artistic field to reach a wider audience, beyond Catholic environments. I want to continue to provoke encounters with all kinds of people.