“The man was an enigma. A homosexual surrounded by women, an outright anti-Zionist who came to appear in Israel. Musically he was diverse as well, and was blessed with lots of color and richness. On the one hand, his singing was essentially Arab. On the other hand, he corresponds with styles that also spoke to Western ears. At heart he was a pop singer, the sort who performed in coffee shops and at weddings.”
— Tom Cohen
The life story of Salim Halali is one with countless branches. His experiences as a gay Jewish man in Paris in the 1930’s are as eventful as one would imagine, and his music career is not only well known but well remembered, what with being crowned the “King of Shaabi” at the height of his popularity. He lived just as extravagantly behind closed doors, often throwing lavish parties with his two pet tigers. There's much to be said of his storied life.
Born in July of 1920 in Annaba, Algeria, he was given no formal vocal training. Regardless, he began to pursue music professionally at the age of seventeen, stowing away on a boat bound for Marseille, and eventually ending up in Paris in 1937. He performed in Flamenco clubs performing the songs Mohamed el Kamel, another Algerian man, wrote for him. Halali soon rose to fame as a well-known Arabic singer in North Africa and gained recognition in Paris.
It is in part due to his fame that he found himself in his most well-known story. As Nazi Germany invaded shortly after Halali arrived in Paris, authorities harassed him for being gay and Jewish. The founder of the Great Mosque of Paris, Si Kaddour Benghabrit, had encountered Halali before and admired his music. When he saw what was happening not only to Halali but many other Jewish people in Paris, he stepped in. He procured fake papers and hid Jewish people in the mosque when necessary. Because Halali was so well-known, this wouldn't do. Instead, he placed a fake grace for Halali's grandfather in the mosque's cemetery to prove Halali was Muslim, thus defending him from the officers.
Benghabrit would go on to assist many other Jewish people in Paris; historians estimate around 100 were helped, but some of the first reports claimed thousands were assisted by the mosque throughout the war.
It is largely because of this that Halali made it through the war, continuing with his music career. Halali created a Middle Eastern Paris cabaret Folies Ismailia and later The Serail.
The end of the war did not bring an end to the antisemitism he or other Jewish people faced. When he left Paris for Morocco in 1949 to turn an old cafe into the cabaret Le Coq d'Or, his club was burned down. Before it was destroyed, Le Coq d'Or was frequented by wealthy Moroccans and dignitaries, including King Farouk of Egypt.
Though his career continued to grow, Halali decided to retire to Cannes. His lavish lifestyle continued, large parties and decor filling taking the place of his cabarets. He eventually sold his Villa in 1993 and moved into a retirement home where he was able to live a quiet, relatively anonymous life until his death in 2005.
Many have tried to find the words to describe this man. Whether it's through a musical about his life or a film about his time with the mosque in Paris, we continue to try. It is often not a question of what to tell, but what to exclude; a life as full as his is hard to contain in only a thousand words.
Even here, we've yet to touch on his time in Israel—time that was limited, as he was anti-zionist. During a performance in Jerusalem in the 1960s, he yelled in Arabic "Long live the Arab nation." He had things thrown at him, and never returned to Israel.
To tell a life story is to edit a human being. A monstrous task.
What to include? What to exclude? What section is important enough to replace another? Do you mention every success? Every failure? Finding a balance is a near impossible task because for every piece removed there must be some justification.
Why didn’t we discuss Oscar Wilde’s antisemitism? Magnus Hirschfeld’s anti-blackness and eugenics?
Some take our discussion as approval, such as when we mentioned the Spinster movement was anti-sex work. So what must our silence mean?
It would be a lie to say it never meant anything, to say any choice was made with a dispassionate eye or that we leave anything out because we believe it to be unimportant. When our articles are written, they are written upon a narrative. It is the nature of stories.
The way we have chosen to write is the way that we believe is most easily understood. We pick up a thread and do our best to show where it leads, acknowledging when we can that a thread is not a tapestry, and a thousand words cannot tell a life story.
The most we can give is a likeness, a feeling for who a person was and what their life was like. We can offer resources to search out more. We can offer an idea of how they lived. We can never capture an entire story, an entire life, in a thousand words.
Tom Cohen said this of Salim Halali’s life:
“The man was an enigma. A homosexual surrounded by women, an outright anti-Zionist who came to appear in Israel. Musically he was diverse as well and was blessed with lots of color and richness. On the one hand, his singing was essentially Arab. On the other hand, he corresponds with styles that also spoke to Western ears. At heart, he was a pop singer, the sort who performed in coffee shops and at weddings.”
He was not a man who could be summed up, though the above quote is an impressive attempt. One would be hard pressed to find a person who could be summarized at all, much less well. Any attempt to do so will end in failure. All that is possible is to try one’s best, and invite larger discussion when possible.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Aderet, Ofer. (2012, March 23). The Great Mosque of Paris That Saved Jews During the Holocaust. Retrieved from https://www.haaretz.com/1.5207782
Ameskane, M. (2010). Casablanca, les années music-hall. VH Magazine.
Barlet, Olivier. (2016) Contemporary African Cinema. East Lansing, MI: MSU Press.
Cahill, Susan. (2017, May 31). Benghabrit: The Muslim Rector who saved Jews from the Gestapo. Retrieved from http://www.thehistoryreader.com/contemporary-history/benghabrit/
European Institute of Jewish Music. Halali, Salim (1920-2005). Retrieved from https://www.iemj.org/en/onlinecontent/biographies/halali-salim-1920-2005.html