Reflecting on conversion, freedom, family, and living with people of different beliefs, Mehdi Djaadi finds the light of Christ makes one free.
Actor Mehdi Djaadi, whose life is a story of conversion, was born in 1986 in Saint-Étienne (capital of the Loire department in France), in the Crêt-de-Roc neighborhood. He’s the second of four children in a family originally from Algeria; his father is a laborer and his mother is a kindergarten teacher.
Medhi told Pierre Jova of La Vie that he had been a child of a solitary disposition, with few friends at school. However, he had a particular talent: imitating others. To amuse his classmates he imitated accents and dressed himself up as imaginary characters.
At 14, he took his first important misstep: Mehdi stole a few euros from the mosque’s offering box to buy himself a kebab. Word of the petty theft circulated quickly, and in the best tradition of the game “broken telephone” the facts ended up being distorted and magnified beyond measure. Mehdi thus became for everyone the kid who “ran off with the collection box.” It was an absolute disgrace for his family of pious and practicing Muslims. It also put an end overnight to his reputation as a model Muslim, earned through years of attending Koranic school.
He also ended up in the crosshairs of the kaid — Muslims who acted as policemen in the neighborhood trying to make their laws prevail over those of the state. Given this situation, he abandoned religious practice, ceasing to do the five canonical daily prayers of a good Muslim. Still, he recounts, he “remained thirsty for the absolute.”
A painful conversion
It was this unquenchable thirst that one day led him to notice an evangelical Protestant church in the neighborhood, which he eventually attended. Initially, he did so to provoke the local pastor, who made what Mehdi saw as a strange claim: that Jesus is the Son of God (“inadmissible from a Muslim point of view!” Mehdi says). But he kept attending, and it wasn’t long before the pastor offered him the Gospels. Mehdi was 16 years old: reading those texts shook him to the core. “When I read them, Jesus turned my world on its head. I began to pray to him, to experience a very strong friendship with him.”
The years that followed, however, were by no means easy: Mehdi, who had dropped out of school in 2002, hung out in bad circles. He ended up in an organized crime ring of thugs and gangs that stole from banks. He kept turning to Jesus, asking him to change his life. At 21, he left Saint-Étienne and went to Valence (in the French department of Drôme), the guest of a Protestant friend who was a publisher. It is he who baptized him one morning on the bank of a river.
Needless to say, the baptism also marked a rift with his family. “My conversion was painful for my family, who had always been there for me,” he said.
When he became a Protestant, his father – the one who used to travel miles each time it was necessary to fetch him from the various institutions where he was incarcerated, who regularly tried to appease the juvenile judge – at first believed that he had fallen victim to some cult. He would have been happier to find out that he had been brainwashed than that he was truly convinced of his choice, a fact that for a Muslim family means only two things: dishonor and danger.
Snatched from the street by the theater
In 2008, in Valence, things began to take a different turn. Mehdi began attending evening classes at the National Drama Center, then made the leap to Manufacture, a prestigious drama school in Lausanne, Switzerland. It was a real shock for him, who had left school at 16 and now had to try his hand at a university-level course. What’s more, he was the only person of North African origin among the students from the school, as well as the only one from a working-class background with completely different artistic references than those of his classmates. While they raved about radical chic directors such as Pedro Almodóvar, he was fascinated by Denzel Washington and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
But the shock was also spiritual. Upon arrival in Switzerland, Mehdi was pleased to be in the homeland of Protestantism, to be able to finally discover Calvin. Instead, he discovered an ambience that claimed to be tolerant but was fiercely anticlerical.
In Lausanne he then suffered the temptations of student life. He didn’t reach the point of abandoning the word of God, on which he continued to nourish himself, but it was very difficult for him to identify with the sermons of evangelical pastors, which he says seemed more like shows than anything else.
Caught up by the Eucharist
He arrived exhausted at the end of his freshman year. It is just then that Jonathan, a Catholic childhood friend, invited him to a spiritual retreat at an ancient Trappist abbey. Mehdi accepted the invitation and for the first time experienced the liturgy of the hours, which affected him like a “slap in the face.”
“As a Protestant,” he says, “I loved the psalms. The whole mystery of Revelation is contained there: consolation, expectation, joy, the heavenly Jerusalem … There, with those monks, I heard God singing in me. Then I went to adoration. Nothing had ever been as profound as that period of exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. I experienced the certainty that the Jesus whom I loved, to whom I was praying, was really present. As if I could speak to him: right there and then! I was enveloped by his presence.”
When he came out, he found Jonathan again and told him point blank, “Now I understand.”
Adoration of the Eucharist, Mehdi Djaadi recalls, “opened up an incredible world for me.” He went to the friar who was the porter and asked him, “Is it always like this?” He replied, “At every Mass and every adoration.”
Upon leaving the abbey, the young Franco-Algerian felt tears running down his cheeks: tears of joy, on one cheek, for having met Christ; tears of sadness, on the other cheek, for not yet being able to join him in the Eucharist.
Surrounded by the love of Jesus and the saints
The next two years would be only for God. Every day after classes, at 6 p.m., he rushed to the basilica of Notre-Dame du Valentin to attend evening Mass and to take part in catechism. Mehdi’s big day came in 2013 when he received Holy Communion and the sacrament of confirmation. “All the confirmed were with their families, their friends … Me, I was just in the pew. But when they called me and I answered, ‘Here I am,’ deep inside I felt, ‘Here we are.’ I felt surrounded by Jesus and the saints.”
A few years later – in 2019 – Mehdi met Pope Francis in Rome. “And taking him in my arms I felt my filial relationship with Jesus even more.” Not infrequently, converts denigrate their former co-religionists, feeling the need for a clean break with their past. Not so for Mehdi, who indeed shows a feeling of gratitude for all the stages and people who providentially accompanied him toward his encounter with Jesus Eucharist.
“In retrospect, I give thanks for what I received from the Protestants. For that pastor in Saint-Étienne who offered me the Gospel, for that publisher in Valence who took me under his wing… The Spirit was blowing through them. And I dare say: the evangelicals bring us the zeal and love of the Word; it’s up to us, Catholics, to share with them the beauty of the Eucharist.”
Actor by vocation
He admits that he hesitated to become an actor for fear of being targeted by the dominant ideology, until he came to feel that being an actor is a vocation, a calling, a mission for him. His craft has made him a bridge between different universes, giving him the opportunity to deal and discuss in depth even with LGBT activists. “They understand that I am not the caricatured Catholic they imagine. Once you get past the clichés, you can appreciate and even love each other.”
He was nominated for the César Award – the French Oscar – in 2016 for his performance in the dramatic comedy I’m All Yours. In 2019, Mehdi married his wife Anne, and that same year he launched his own show at the theater: the monologue Coming Out, in which with finesse and humor he tells (among other things) the story of his conversion.
But above all he reflects deeply on freedom, family heritage, and living alongside other people of different beliefs, proving that the light of Christ does not oppress, but nurtures creativity and makes one truly free.