First Published: 2017-01-06

Syrian star turned pizza boy dreams of Hollywood ending
Acting star Jihad Abdo is finally finding his feet after career is uprooted by Syrian conflict, causing him to flee ‘beautiful life’ for fresh start in Hollywood.
Middle East Online

Abdo repeatedly refuses to back Syria's Assad

LOS ANGELES - It's an all-too-familiar Hollywood story: the out-of-work actor eking out an existence in cheap housing, earning minimum wage delivering pizzas, desperate for his big break.

But for Jay Abdo -- one of the Arab world's biggest stars before the conflict in Syria made him just another anonymous refugee on the mean streets of Los Angeles -- it has been particularly tough.

Just a few years ago, the 54-year-old actor could not walk the streets in any Middle Eastern country without being mobbed by fans or dine out without being offered free meals.

A household name and a veteran of 43 movies and more than 1,000 TV episodes, Abdo was admired not just for his acting skills but his willingness to speak his mind in public.

"I had a pretty beautiful life," he said. "People loved me, on screen and on talk shows when I spoke to people and expressed my culture and points of view."

Known in Syria by his real first name, Jihad, Abdo is best known for his role in "Bab al-Hara" ("The Neighborhood Gate"), one of the biggest soap operas in history, with up to 50 million viewers per episode.

His path to Hollywood started in 2011 as tensions in Syria were escalating in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

His wife, painter and human rights lawyer Fadia Afashe, was a senior official in Syria's department of culture, and found herself having to flee Bashar al-Assad's brutal regime after being caught meeting opposition activists during a trip to France.

- Torture -

She went to study public policy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, intending to return to Syria after graduating.

But Abdo himself was beginning to become a major annoyance to Assad's crumbling regime after turning down numerous invitations to back the president at rallies and TV talk shows.

Matters came to a head when he gave an interview to the Los Angeles Times during a trip to Beirut in which he accused Syria's secret service of torture and corruption.

Strangers threatened him on his return to Syria, his car windows were smashed and he faced repeated demands to apologize to Assad on television.

Having seen friends arrested or disappear -- some are still missing -- he uprooted in October 2011, leaving behind almost all his wealth and property, to join his wife in Minneapolis.

The couple applied for asylum and drove for three days to Los Angeles with everything they owned so Abdo could find work.

"I met so many people who were shocked that my name was Jihad," he says, explaining why he became Jay.

"They didn't know it was Christian and I was named after a Christian lawyer in Damascus -- a very good friend to my family."

Even with a more palatable name, more than 100 failed auditions followed as the couple lived a desperate existence on just $3 a day.

It took more than a year to find work with a florist and delivering pizzas for Domino's, earning up to $300 a week.

- 'Destiny brought me' -

Abdo's break finally came when he landed a part alongside Nicole Kidman and James Franco in "Queen of the Desert," Werner Herzog's biopic of the British archeologist Gertrude Bell, due for release in spring.

"All my scenes were with Nicole," Abdo says. "I can't praise her enough. She's very sweet, extremely professional, a very good hearted woman -- very smart and sharp. Above all, she supported me from the first minute."

Herzog has since described in interviews finally grasping how famous his Syrian hire was when they visited a souk in Marrakesh during filming in Morocco.

"Everyone wanted a photo with him. The merchants in the souk gave us everything for half price," the filmmaker told The Wall Street Journal.

In a sign that Tinseltown really does like its happy endings, the actor's career is finally back on track.

He has a part in the Amazon television series "The Patriot" and "Bon Voyage," a short film he made with Swiss director Marc Raymond Wilkins, has just been shortlisted for an Oscar.

Last year, he appeared alongside Tom Hanks in "A Hologram for the King," a comedy about a failed corporate salesman trying to do business in Saudi Arabia.

Devastated by the worsening plight of the Syrian people in the five years since he escaped the Assad regime, Abdo is unsure whether he'll ever return. But he believes he couldn't be in a better place.

"From the beginning, Hollywood wasn't my objective," he said. "I didn't plan to come here. It's destiny that brought me."

 

Assad in Russia for talks with Putin

Islamic republic declares end of Islamic State

Revolt in US State Department over child soldier law

Anti-IS coalition strikes drop to lowest number

Rare moments of joy at Arabs’ unprecedented World Cup qualifications

Brain drain means Syria can’t recover for a generation

Palestinians close communication lines with Americans

German police arrest six Syrians ‘planning terror attack’

Palestinian factions in Cairo for reconciliation talks

Turkish opposition daily web editor sentenced to 3 years in jail

Egypt’s Sisi to meet Lebanon’s Hariri

Israeli police arrest 33 in ultra-Orthodox draft riots

Turkish lira at new low against US dollar

UN chief horrified by Libya slave auctions

Qatar 2022 chief has no regrets over hosting World Cup

Gheit says Lebanon should be 'spared' from regional tensions

Saudi Arabia, Arab allies push for unity against Iran, Hezbollah meddling

Syria ‘de-escalation zone’ does nothing to stop civilian deaths

Is a demilitarised Palestinian state a viable option?

S&P affirms good Saudi credit ratings

Israel president faces big backlash over Palestinian scarf

Sudan leader to visit Russia Thursday

Seven years into Libya’s civil war, the chaos continues

Iraq top court declares Kurd referendum unconstitutional

Libya to investigate 'slave auction' footage

15 women killed in food aid crush in Morocco

Lebanon FM will not attend Arab League Iran summit

Syrian forces liberate Albu Kamal from IS

Israel votes to shut migrant centre, deport Africans

Diplomats from Iran, Russia, Turkey discuss Syria

Libya to investigate ‘slave auction’ footage

Piece by piece, Iran moves towards a ‘new empire’

Netanyahu faces new questioning over corruption case

Syria troops, allies retake most of Albu Kamal from IS

EU cuts funding to Turkey in 2018 budget

Lebanon's Hariri arrives in Paris

Egypt opens Gaza border for first time since unity deal

US-Russia rift threatens fragile prospects for Syria peace

'Caliphate' in tatters but IS still a threat

Saudi Arabia recalls ambassador to Berlin over Gabriel Lebanon comments

Russia again vetoes renewal of Syria gas attacks probe

UN weighs bid to save Syria gas attacks probe

IS attack kills 26 displaced people in Syria

Saudi FM says Lebanon 'held hostage by Hezbollah'

Egypt to open Rafah crossing for 3 days