PARIS — Few people know the story of the hundreds of Jews saved from the Holocaust by the Muslim director of the Mosque of Paris. “Hommes Libres” (Free Men), currently showing in the UK, is a remarkable film by Moroccan director Ismaël Ferroukhi, based on historical events, that focuses on the survival of one of them, the charismatic Jewish Algerian crooner Salim Halali, and on the official, Khaddour Benghabrit, who saved him.
The story is told through the eyes of an attractive Algerian black marketer (Younes, played by Tahar Rahim), blackmailed by the French Vichy government to spy on the mosque. After befriending Halali, he actively assists in hiding Parisian Jews from their would-be butchers.
Halali came to Paris in 1934 to make his fortune and sang with the dazzling passion of a flamenco flame-thrower. In the film, the rector of the mosque describes his voice as one of the most beautiful in the Arab World. After the war, that voice would enable Halali to open two of the most prestigious oriental night clubs in Paris and Casablanca.
Halali’s stage technique was a little unusual. His head would roll in all directions, as emotion shook his body. He would step off the stage into the audience, and, while singing, peer into the eyes of a woman, then her husband, then swear at whoever had made the slightest noise. His voice, at its best, was incomparably beautiful, but does not appear in the film. He died alone in 2005 on the French Riviera. It is said that he died in poverty, having given away a fortune to an Algerian orphanage.
When Hitler’s troops marched in, Halali’s salvation arose from a most unexpected quarter – the mosque
When Hitler’s troops marched in, kismet saved Halali from the Shoah, the mass killing of some six million other Jews. His salvation arose from a most unexpected quarter – the mosque that was founded by Benghabrit, an Algerian of Andalusian origins (though funded by the French State).
Benghabrit (played magnificently in the film by Michael Lonsdale), was a brilliant diplomat. He represented Moroccan Sultan Mohammed V in France. The sovereign himself courageously refused to hand over any Jews to the Vichy authorities, who controlled much of the French Protectorate of Morocco. He is loved by Moroccan Jews worldwide more than any gentile sovereign since Cyrus the Great helped build the Second Temple.
Apart from in France, at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and in Holocaust Studies departments, few Jews know of the Mosque of Paris, or its righteous and courageous stand for its fellow sons of Abraham/Ibrahim. Historians differ in their estimates of those saved by it at between 500 to 1600 souls, by no means a negligible number.
Director Ismaël Ferroukhi (who has won an Arab film festival award as best Arab film director for this film) says he came across the idea for this film while he was reading about Algerians living in Paris before Algerian independence (his late father was born in Algiers). An assistant and friend related how his Jewish grandmother had been saved by Benghabrit, and the director got hooked on the story.
At great personal risk, Benghabrit saved Jews and others by hiding them at the mosque, apparently giving some of them Muslim identity certificates as mosque staffers.
The film is not cheerful viewing for Jews. With the single exception of Halali, Jews are all depicted only as victims. We see no other aspects of any Jewish characters, and no Jewish heroism of any kind.
Nonetheless the film makes fascinating viewing. In its message, it is a Sephardi equivalent of Polanski’s “The Pianist,” which depicts the true-life survival of the gifted Wladyslaw Szpilman, by dint of the decency of a cultured German officer.
In “Hommes Libres,” Halali’s singing and the theme music of the film are both by Jewish artists Pinchas Cohen and Armand Amar, and the film’s historical consultant is Benjamin Stora, the Jewish Algerian-born leading scholar of twentieth century North African history. Halali is played by Mahmoud Shalaby, from Acre.