Pride, Judaism and French-Arab Cabaret: The life and Legacy of Salim Halali

“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 colour 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 head conductor and artistic director of the Mediterranean Orchestra of Ashkelon

Tom Cohen’s description of the singer Salim Halali quite accurately summarises the multifaceted and enigmatic life of the singer, who became known for his traditional Arab-Andalusion music and as an iconic figure of French-Arab cabaret music. Halali was a proud, gay individual with Jewish roots, who faced harassment by the Nazis for both his sexuality and his religious identity. Having survived the war by falsifying papers stating he was Muslim, he gained international recognition for his singing abilities and lavish lifestyle, and performed regularly in Paris, Montreal, and Casablanca. He retired for a solitary life in 1993 and passed away in 2005 at the age of 84.

As part of the celebration of Pride Month, this article explores the life and legacy of Salim Halali, and recognises his musical contributions.

Early Life

Salim Halali, who’s given birthname was actually Simon, was born July 30, 1920 in Annaba, Algeria. His father was of Turkish origin and his mother was of Judeo-Berber origin, originally from Souk Ahras. Halali had nine brothers and sisters, though the family were not financially affluent. Though he had no specific vocal or musical training, he began to pursue his passion for singing around aged 14. In 1934, Halali stowed away on a boat heading to Marseille, France, and from there he made his way to Paris in 1937.

Rise to Fame

In Paris, the young singer began to make a name for himself. He performed regularly in Flamenco clubs, performing songs written for him by fellow Algerian Mohammed el Kamel. In 1938, he toured Europe, and his hybrid-cabaret style became increasingly popular. He soon became one of the most well-known Arabic singers in North Africa and France. Halali was one of the first to combine North African rhythms with European styles, such as Spanish Flamenco, French Chansons, and Italian San-Remo.

Before the war, Halali performed at the Maure café of the Great Mosque of Paris, alongside renowned artists such as Ali Sriti and Ibrahim Salah (Si) Kaddour Benghabrit, the founder and first rector of the Mosque, and intellectual and musician (oud and violin), would become a close friend. Halali also became proficient at playing the Derbouka, an oriental musical instrument, and was able to sing in several languages and dialects. He was a fan of the nightlife and festive evenings and, though it is believed that he had romantic relationships with women earlier in life, Halali was openly gay at a time when being homosexual - and Jewish - was to become increasingly dangerous.

Survival and Aid during the Holocaust

Following the Nazi occupation of France in 1940, the Vichy government began persecuting Jews. Halali was just 20 years old, and, despite his fame and popularity, he was still a young immigrant in a foreign city with limited options for finding safety. Authorities were aware of his Jewish heritage, and for this reason regularly harassed him.   

As the danger grew, Halali turned to his friend and founder of the Mosque, Si Kaddour Benghabrit, for help. Initially, Benghabrit provided Halali with false papers identifying him as Muslim. Concerned that the counterfeit documents might be exposed, Benghabrit had the name of Halali’s grandfather engraved on a blank tombstone in the Muslim cemetery nearby, which helped to defend him from officers.

Benghabrit ultimately assisted many Jewish people in Paris; historians estimate that numbers of those helped by the Mosque were in the hundreds, although the exact number will never be known, as no records were made. Yad Vashem’s Righteous Amongst the Nations researchers made efforts to find survivors who had been helped by Benghabrit but were unable to locate any testimonies or relevant documents.

Northern African Jews living in France shared surnames and physical attributes, such as being circumcised, with the Muslim communities, thus making it possible for them to assimilate. As Historian Robert Satloff notes, however, the Mosque did not always accept claims from those with Jewish roots. Evidence records that the German occupiers were suspicious of the Mosque’s activities and threatened them to cease immediately. Ultimately, Benghabrit died in 1954 and was buried at the Mosque.

The Great Mosque of Paris, 1930.

Life and Career After the War

After the liberation of France in 1944, Halali resumed his thriving career. He continued to blend different musical styles, including Moroccan, Arabic, Maghrebi, Berber, French, Spanish and Jewish. He was crowned the “King of Shaabi” (a folk-music style), and his songs became classic hits.

In 1947, Halali opened his own Middle- Eastern cabaret club in Paris, which hosted grand parties for people in high places, and a second club in 1948. In 1949, he left Paris for Morocco – a place he loved deeply – where he turned an old café in the cosmopolitan quarter of Casablanca into a cabaret club named “Le Coq d’Or”. The club was frequented by wealthy dignitaries, and even King Farouk of Egypt. The club was eventually destroyed in a fire, rumoured to have been a deliberate act of antisemitism. It should be noted that Halali continued to be open and proud of his sexuality during this time and lived openly with his partner as early as 1949.

Halali eventually returned to France. In 1960, he performed in Jerusalem, however, due to his political views, was not well received and Halali left the stage and did not return to Israel. While his career continued to be successful, Halali decided to retire to Cannes in the late 1960s, where he threw lavish parties at his villa which had Arabian nights décor, supposedly bringing elephants to his gardens along with his two pet tigers. He continued to perform occasional concerts in Paris, Montreal, and Casablanca, and in the 1970s he released a long-playing record in French which was performed at the Salle Pleyel. He also played numerous private shows during this time.

In 1993, Halali stopped singing and left his villa for a retirement home in Vallauris. His final concert took place for the new year in 1994, at the request of his friend Maurice Wizmam. In contrast to his years of partying and socialising, Halali’s final years were solitary, reportedly refusing to see people other than a few close friends. He died on 25th June 2005 in Alpes-Maritimes, his ashes scattered in Nice in the garden of memories.


Oh, my heart, let the situation continue on its way.
Leave all the words and listen carefully to what they say.
Slow down, don’t hurry, the one who waits wins.
Deliverance comes in its own time, from the lord to his creature.

 – The poem “Ya qalbi khali hal”, which Salim Halali performed in an Arabo-Andalusi style.







Salim Halali’s legacy as an accomplished performer, singer and Derbouka player is well-established, leading him to be considered as a “cultural icon”. His recordings have enjoyed renewed success with the revival of interest in the Judeo-Arabic musical repertoire since the last years of the 20th century. Moreover, his remarkable experiences during the war are testament to the dangers that Jewish artists face in the occupied territories, and the intervention of Benghabrit and the Great Mosque speaks to the lesser-known relations between Jews and Muslims in the interwar period. Similarly, the fact that he made no secret of his sexuality during a time in which you could be persecuted for this fundamental human right is inspiring.

Salim Halali - Les Nuits du Maghreb Cover Art

Halali’s experiences have also been portrayed in cinema, including the 2012 “Les Hommes Libres”, a dramatized French film which tells the story of the Great Mosque’s role in providing sanctuary and rescue to Jews, Halali included. The film’s director, Ismael Ferroukhi stated: “The film pays homage to the people of our history who have been invisible. It shows another reality, that Muslims and Jews existed in peace. We have to remember that – with pride”.

Indeed, pride is something that has featured in both Halali’s career, and personal identity. His blending of musical styles, languages, and cultures has left its mark on French-Arab cabaret, and homages to the singer have been held, including the Jewish Music Institute as performed by the Jerusalem Orchestra East West in 2020. His recordings continue to be shared widely across digital platforms, and his story told as part of Jewish-Arab and LGTBQ+ history.


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European Institute of Jewish Music. Halali, Salim (1920-2005). Retrieved from