April 4, 2022

Sidi Habibi | Salim Halali

By Laura Elkeslassy

Salim Halali’s life testifies to the entwinement of Jewish and Muslim communities in Algeria and Morocco before World War II. Born in 1920 in Bône (Annaba), Algeria, to an Algerian father and a Judeo-Berber mother, Halali straddled various traditions and cultures in his popular songs.

I like to think of him as he appears on the cover of his album En Public: reclining in a robe of red and gold, against a backdrop of painted birds, looking fabulous and bored. He was, without question, a queer decolonial superstar. Among the greatest singers of Chaabi from the 1940s on, he performed some of the genre’s most famous songs. One of them was “Sidi Habibi,” an old love song given new force and meaning by Halali’s voice.

Late at night, during my cousins’ hennas, after my grandma sang “Abiadi Ana,” the DJ would bring the party to a fever pitch by playing “Sidi Habibi.” “Mister Love?” Halali’s voice would wail, bursting from the speakers as everyone danced, “Ai ai ai, where is my Mister Love?”

Halali was not only a performer, but an all-around showman: he owned the Ismaïlia Folies cabaret in Paris, which he founded in a hotel on the Avenue Montaigne in 1947, as well as Le Sérail, a cabaret he opened in 1948 on the Rue du Colisée.

When World War II broke out, and the Nazis began deporting Jews in France, Halali found himself in danger. He sought help from the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, Si Kaddour Benghabrit, who signed a statement declaring that Halali was a Muslim. When it seemed that wouldn’t be enough, Benghabrit had the name of Halali’s father carved onto a gravestone in a local Muslim cemetery as proof. Benghabrit would save other Jews during the war, too, but maybe this case was special for him; like so many others, he appreciated Halali’s music.

After the war, Halali moved to Morocco and, in 1949, founded the most vibrant cabaret of North Africa: Casablanca’s famous Le Coq d’Or. Le Coq attracted the great names of Arabic music, from Warda Al-Jazairia to Line Monty to Samy El Maghribi.

Like the other divas in this folio, Salim Halali had his own relationship to nationalism and its expression. He lived out his politics. During a performance in Israel in the 1970s, he yelled from the stage: “Long live the Arab nation.” He was not invited back.

He spent his old age in Cannes with his long-time companion, Pierre. I can just imagine Halali wearing a red and gold robe in the kitchen, calling out to his partner in the living room, “Where is my Mister Love?”