After fleeing his native Syria in 2011, actor Jay Abdo took refuge in the United States. In the space of three years, he found success in Hollywood and is soon to co-star in a new film alongside Nicole Kidman.
In November 2015, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation devoted a television report to a Syrian actor who had settled in America three years prior. Unknown in America, his name was Jay Abdo. Through the first moments of the short documentary, available on YouTube (see below), the viewer discovers a jovial man, fiftyish, with a winning smile, star-struck on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “Johnny Depp! He’s awesome. Love the guy.” Suddenly, a young Algerian man bounds up before the camera.
“So you know [Abdo]?” the journalist asks, amused by the interloper admiring his interviewee. “A big fan! Of course, of course!,” the Algerian replies, awestruck, snapping a selfie with the Syrian star. What do you know him from? “Bab al-Hara, the most famous TV show [in the Arab world],” he replies.
And that’s an understatement. The Syrian series Bab al-Hara isn’t just any old sitcom. It’s a classic that, in the Arab World, attracts no fewer than 50 million viewers per episode. And so Abdo, with one of the show’s leading roles, is a superstar in the Arab World. Less than a decade ago, he couldn’t walk the streets in Syria without being assailed by a crowd of fans.
In the United States, where he lives today, all that has changed. The glory of fame has given way to a brutal, surprising anonymity. Like thousands of his compatriots, the actor fled Syria suddenly at the start of the conflict, in 2011, to escape a regime that had taken umbrage with him. Abdo, solicited by Damascus, had refused to support Bashar al-Assad publicly and promote the regime. “I was harassed. I was followed…,” he told FRANCE 24, without going into detail.
It was in August 2011, unbeknownst to him, that Abdo sealed his fate. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, which he gave during a visit to Lebanon, Abdo implied disagreement with the regime’s activities. “I told the journalists that the army and the police were the cause of what was happening in Syria.” He said nothing of extortion or torture, but he had nevertheless said too much. “I didn’t expect to have to leave my country,” he says. “I hadn’t ever thought about planning my escape.”
To flee, Abdo had to be cunning. He bought a ticket for Cairo, Egypt, intending to travel on to the US, to Minneapolis, where his wife, Fadia Afashe, who had worked at the Syrian ministry of culture, was living. She had also fled the regime after meeting members of Syria’s political opposition in France. “At the airport in Damascus, the police asked me several questions about the reasons for my trip. I told them I was going to shoot a film in Egypt.” The ruse worked, but Abdo isn’t naïve. He believes Damascus has pushed several well-known opponents to leave the country – to better accuse them of treachery.
Boarding the plane for Cairo, Abdo left behind a comfortable life and great celebrity – he had appeared in more than 40 feature-length films and many television series. “I had a good life. People loved me,” he recounts. In a 2016 documentary by Marcelle Aleid, a Syrian refugee in Canada, Abdo discusses his painful departure. “When I left Syria, I didn’t know I was leaving forever, or for a long term… The only thing, the thing that I took with me is my violin.”
In the US, where his talent wasn’t recognised, he grew short on funds. “I left in a hurry. I left behind two homes in Damascus, a car and a bank account. I only managed to take a bit of money with me, but not much,” he explains. After eight months in Minneapolis, Abdo and his wife decided to move to Los Angeles.
The actor dreamed of getting back on the set. “I’d always had the ambition of taking up my profession of acting again,” he says. Biding his time, Abdo strung together a series of odd jobs. “I was a translator, I sold flowers, I was a pizza deliverer, a waiter in an Italian restaurant,” he said. “I also worked as a taxi driver for two years. All of those jobs helped me improve my English.”
From Jihad to Jay
To westernise his identity, Abdo decided to change his name. Initially, the actor was called Jihad Abdo. “I met an enormous number of people who were shocked by my first name,” he says, justifying the change to Jay. Yet in Syria, Jihad is a common first name, given to children of every community; Abdo’s parents named him after a Christian friend in Damascus. But even with a more ordinary first name, Abdo’s big break took time. In Los Angeles, he attended more than a hundred auditions, without success.
Then came the summer of 2013. Thanks to a video-CV he’d posted on the Internet, Abdo drew the attention of famed German director Werner Herzog. He offered the Syrian star a key role in his film “Queen of the Desert”, due out this spring. Abdo suddenly found himself starring alongside Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Damian Lewis and Robert Pattinson.
Herzog recognised the extent of his actor’s celebrity during filming in Morocco. “Everyone wanted a photo with him,” Herzog told The Wall Street Journal. “The merchants in the souk gave us everything for half price.”
“I still don’t believe it,” Abdo says. “It’s extremely difficult to get noticed by a director, keeping in mind that I have no agent and no one to represent me, to sell me. At that moment, I told myself that destiny had granted me this incredible opportunity.”
Abdo’s career was revived, and so was his bank account. “My financial situation is much better than before,” he tells FRANCE 24, simply. His network has grown and opened doors. The Syrian actor appears in the American television series “The Patriot” and in Swiss director Marc Raymond Wilkins’ short film “Bon Voyage”, which has been shortlisted ahead of Oscar nominations next Tuesday. He also played a doctor alongside Tom Hanks in 2016’s “A Hologram for the King”, based on the Dave Eggers novel of the same name.
Staying humble, Abdo knows how lucky he is to be where he is today. Every day, Abdo says, he thinks about his country. “For the moment, I won’t go back. The situation is too unstable,” he says. He will return when his country has been rebuilt upon ideals of “peace, democracy and liberty”. In that future awaits his family, his identity and his real name: Jihad Abdo.
20 January 2017