“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.
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.